Strengthening the Local in National Reform: A Cultural Approach to Political Change

By Morrell, Elizabeth | Journal of Southeast Asian Studies, October 2001 | Go to article overview

Strengthening the Local in National Reform: A Cultural Approach to Political Change


Morrell, Elizabeth, Journal of Southeast Asian Studies


Elizabeth Morrell (*)

New Indonesian decentralisation policies have generated strong localisation movements which recall regional history During the Soeharto years history was invoked as part of an homogenising nationalism. With recent changes in the city of Makassar that process is being reversed to strengthen local participation in redefined national structures.

'Makassar, si anak hilang telah kembali' (Makassar, the prodigal child has returned), rejoiced a newspaper headline expressing the affectionate response of residents in the eastern Indonesian city when the name reverted from Ujung Pandang to its former title, Makassar. (1) The city is the capital of South Sulawesi Province, and the renaming change occurred when Sulawesi-born B.J. Habibie, in his final days as interim Indonesian President, gave his assent to a petition from the regional parliament requesting the change of name. This petition was initiated by the new mayor of Makassar, as part of his programme for revitalising the city. The name was formally reinstated on 13 October 1999, one day before Habibie presented his accountability speech to the national Indonesian parliament. Cognisant of increasing dissatisfaction with his tenure as President, perhaps Habibie was hoping to influence a more favourable outcome in the forthcoming presidential election, or perhaps the name change was a sentimental departi ng gift to the region which had resolutely supported him in the national election. (2) Whatever the reason, for years many local citizens had been urging the change, although the eventual granting of that request came as a surprise, and was greeted with widespread acclaim throughout the city.

Reinstatement of the name became the focus of a New Year and New Millennium event which valorised the history of Makassar, recalling its past fame as a cosmopolitan centre of international trade. In this article I examine issues surrounding these festivities, and in particular the way in which history was incorporated into public culture and utilised in the process of asserting identity and revitalising local civil society. The celebrations were attended by a large and enthusiastic audience, and were still being avidly discussed three weeks later when I arrived in the city to continue a research programme. (3) The event and its animated reception originated in the intense promotion of local identities which has occurred with political change and increased regional autonomy after the fall of the centralist Soeharto government. In Makassar, President Soeharto's departure from office engendered the renewal of hopes for increased local power and prosperity. The day following his resignation in May 1998, headlines in the Makassar print media welcomed the change of leadership by asserting that 'DPRD Sulsel Harus Perjuangkan Otonomi Daerah' (The South Sulawesi Parliament must struggle for regional autonomy). (4) In the province, the achievement of increased economic, political and social equity through autonomy has become synonymous with the concept of reform.

This foregrounding of local needs and aspirations is a grassroots measure to address the imbalance between forces which Arjun Appadurai has termed the 'majoritarianisms' and 'microidentities' within the nation-state. (5) In the Indonesian context, many localisation activities arising from this imbalance are intended to reinforce civil society by increasing participation in all aspects of reform. They are also an assertion of regional presence to reduce national government control over local resources and income. Yet, political movements are expressing dissatisfaction not only with the unequal distribution of resources from the national level, but also with internal inequities occurring within provinces and regencies. In South Sulawesi, assertion of local rights is being manifested in calls to redistribute local government boundaries, and in some cases to create new provinces as break-away movements from the existing structure.

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