Sat, 26 Feb 2000

Memorials for Jakarta

Street names, it has been said, tell a lot about a country's social and political psyche. If that is true, it may not be long before a ride through the streets of Jakarta could give visitors the (hopefully false) impression that little has changed in Indonesia, all the talk about reform and democratization notwithstanding. If Jakarta's Governor Sutiyoso has his way, monuments -- or, to put it more precisely, statues -- of this country's national heroes, early and recent, will soon adorn Jakarta's major streets and avenues.

Statues of the native Jakartan pre-independence nationalist politician, Mohammad Husni Thamrin, and General Sudirman, Indonesia's first Army chief, still highly revered by the military, will join the fire-bearing image of "Hotplate Harry" at the beginning of Jalan Sisingamangaraja, which leads into Blok M. The mythical Mahabharata figures of Arjuna and his divine charioteer Kresna will grace the area near the National Monument (Monas) in Medan Merdeka Square, at the other end of the mile- long thoroughfare.

Elsewhere in the center of the city, statues of Army generals Gatot Subroto, Suparman, Sutoyo and others, six of whom met their tragic deaths during the failed communist-led September 1965 coup, will overlook the traffic snarls along the capital's main streets as they stand there braving the smog.

Possibly, and hopefully, some thought will also be given to paying homage to other Indonesian heroes -- either civilians or military, government-sanctioned or otherwise -- who, during their lifetime, gave their very best to the progress of this nation. A few examples: Indonesia's first prime minister Sutan Syahrir, Dr. Setiabudi and other pre-independence nationalists, Kartini, who pioneered the women's emancipation movement in Indonesia, and Ki Hajar Dewantoro, who helped shape Indonesia's national education philosophy.

Although there should be no problem at all for city authorities to find enough heroes to adorn the capital's streets -- more than a hundred are presently listed -- one problem that seems certain to crop up for those entrusted with the selection is whether or not to honor leftists, or even communists in this manner. After all, in the pre-World War Two colonial Netherlands East Indies -- the present Indonesia -- leftist leaders, such as Tan Malaka, played a vital role in fighting the Dutch.

As for the great number of heroes Indonesia honors, there is nothing wrong in principle of a nation honoring its champions. What has for a long time been a subject of debate is the misguided tendency among many Indonesians to relate heroism with force. During the military-dominated New Regime of former president Soeharto especially, Jakarta saw many of its street names changed, to the confusion of residents, to keep alive the memory of their deceased military officers.

In view of all this, the addition of monuments could, if done with taste, help spruce up many of Jakarta's cheerless and disorderly streets. Changing our basic concepts about memorials could help to better keep alive the memory not only of past events which we regard as significant, but of the lofty values which they represent and which we hold high as a nation. To be honest, most, if not all, of this city's present statues and monuments look ludicrous or even ugly to many of Jakarta's residents, expatriates and Indonesians alike.

If Governor Sutiyoso is serious with his plan, he hopefully will have the good sense to involve people with a good background in art, city architecture or esthetics for his project. By doing so, hopefully, he can give not only Jakartans, but Indonesians everywhere, monuments that are true memorials. Surely the capital city of this region's biggest nation deserves to have memorable memorials that are not kitsch, but art in the truest sense of the word.