While politicians in most countries are busy handling the Covid-19 pandemic, Indonesian politicians seem more interested in debating how to regulate ideology. That is why the Indonesian Democratic Party of Struggle (PDI-P) recently proposed a bill on guidelines for interpreting the national ideology, Pancasila (the Pancasila bill).
Pancasila is enshrined in the Preamble of the 1945 Indonesian Constitution and comprises five abstract principles: (1) belief in one Almighty God; (2) just and civilized humanity; (3) the unity of Indonesia; (4) democracy guided by the wisdom of deliberations among representatives; and (5) social justice.
These five principles were set out by Indonesia’s first president, Soekarno, during the formulation of the 1945 Constitution. They were intended to be a compromise between the nationalist and Islamist groups that dominated the constitutional deliberation process. Soekarno was concerned that if Islam were made the state religion, as Islamists were demanding, it could become a serious problem for national unity. For Soekarno, Pancasila provided an alternative weltanschauung, or philosophical basis, for the Indonesian state.
The ‘correct’ interpretation of Pancasila
Over decades, Pancasila was promoted by Soekarno and his successor, Soeharto, to the point that many members of the public came to view Pancasila as a panacea for the many social problems Indonesia faces, including corruption or poverty.
The policy paper (naskah akademik) accompanying the Pancasila bill reflects this, stating that the bill aims to provide guidelines for “national development policies, both at the central and regional levels, based on the values of Pancasila”.
Crucially, the bill positions the government as having primary authority for interpreting Pancasila. It also aims to strengthen the role of the Agency to Reinvigorate Pancasila Ideology (BPIP). This is a body formerly known as UK-PIP that was created in the wake of the protests against former Jakarta Governor Basuki “Ahok” Tjahaja Purnama. It seems to aim to “make Pancasila great again”.
It is significant that PDI-P is behind the bill and PDI-P chair Megawati Soekarnoputri is also head of the BPIP steering committee. There is a clear intention to preserve the legacy of Soekarno, her father.
But one controversial element of the bill has been its inclusion of Soekarno’s ‘trisila’ and ‘ekasila’ concepts in Article 7. Soekarno proposed that the five principles could be merged into three (trisila) – socio-nationalism, socio-democracy and belief in God – and then distilled further into a single (ekasila) principle: mutual cooperation or gotong-royong.
The Pancasila bill immediately prompted backlash, not over Pancasila itself but rather over the drafters’ attempts to impose a particular interpretation of Pancasila.
Islamist organisations rejected the bill because it failed to include a ban on communism and Marxism, two ideologies which Islamists perceive as the main enemies of Pancasila. Islamists also worry that the trisila/ekasila concept weakens the principle of “belief in one Almighty God”. They consider this to be the most important element of Pancasila and it is absent from the ekasila.
Other public figures have also criticised the bill for regulating Pancasila in a statute, which ranks below the Constitution. They argue that although Pancasila is set out in the Constitution, it is the source all laws and so is hierarchically higher than the Constitution. Regulating it by statute, they say, would reduce its sacred character.
The arguments used by both supporters and opponents of the bill demonstrate the almost sacred and untouchable status Pancasila has achieved among members of the public. But these arguments distract from the main problem with the ideology, which is that it can be easily manipulated and used as an authoritarian tool.
An authoritarian tool
Both Soekarno and Soeharto used Pancasila to legitimise their authoritarian regimes. During Soekarno’s Guided Democracy regime (1959-1966), Pancasila was described as the foundation for the president’s five-point political manifesto (Manipol USDEK). The Manipol USDEK concept was used to repress groups considered to conflict with Pancasila, such as Islamist groups.
Soeharto’s New Order regime (1966-1998) regime equated Pancasila with traditional values, especially Javanese conceptions of leadership, which prioritise hierarchy, harmony and order. The New Order regime disseminated its interpretation of Pancasila through a massive, nation-wide indoctrination program popularly known as ‘P4’ in the 1980s and 1990s. Opposition movements calling for greater democracy and human rights were portrayed as deviations from Pancasila, which was said to prioritise harmony.
After Indonesia transitioned to democracy in 1998, the P4 program was stopped and Pancasila’s importance in public debate waned, even though it was maintained in the Preamble to the amended 1945 Constitution.
Over the past few years, however, there have been attempts to revive Pancasila, especially under President Joko “Jokowi” Widodo. Pancasila has once again become a tool for the government to weaken Indonesia’s democratic quality. In 2017, for example, following the anti-Ahok protests, the Jokowi government enacted a regulation that provides it with sweeping powers to ban any organisation that contradicts Pancasila (Government Regulation in Lieu of Law No. 2 of 2017 amending the 2013 Law on Mass Organizations).
In fact, Jokowi’s government appears intent on using the BPIP to disseminate Pancasila ideology at all levels of society to challenge the influence of political Islam. These plans are barely distinguishable from the Soeharto regime’s P4 program.
But using Pancasila for anti-democratic purposes has not been confined to the government. Civil society groups have also used Pancasila, albeit in a very different way: to repress minorities or impose Islamic values in the public sphere.
In 2016, for example, a conservative Muslim group called the Family Love Alliance (AILA) asked the Constitutional Court to expand the scope of Article 292 of the Criminal Code (KUHP) to criminalise all same-sex activity, not just same-sex activity with minors (as is currently the case). They argued that the Criminal Code was a product of Dutch colonialism, and its permissive stance towards same-sex activities was incompatible with the idea of a religious state based on the first principle of Pancasila, the belief in one Almighty God.
The Pancasila bill has been shelved for now. But the debate around the controversial bill has exposed the real problem, namely ongoing public acceptance of the idea that Pancasila is a sacred and untouchable ideology. This is dangerous. Indonesia’s experience under two authoritarian regimes, and more recently under Jokowi, has shown that the highly abstract nature of Pancasila means it is very prone to being abused by those with undemocratic agendas.
It would be better if the discourse around Pancasila was directed more at exposing the conceptual weaknesses that make this ideology so vulnerable to abuse for authoritarian purposes.