Evi Nurvidya Arifin
Opinion Asia, 20 February 2010
Indonesia has been in transition in more ways than one. For over a decade, it has undergone social, economic and political transformation, portending tremendous change in the country. The island of Java and Javanese have played and will continue to play a pivotal role in this transition. Demographically, the Javanese represent the majority ethnic group comprising about 42% or 99 million out of Indonesia’s 230 million population. By any stretch, this is a huge number.
The Javanese Diaspora through Jakarta’s transmigration policy has provided a framework to understand the Indonesian geopolitical landscape. The transmigration policy of yesteryears was promoted to improve the national poverty profile by sending Javanese Indonesians to outlying islands thus giving them more land to improve their livelihood. The famous Javanese saying Mangan ora mangan pokoke kumpul (literally: eating or not, the most important thing is being together) is thus just a myth as the Javanese are spread throughout Indonesia’s 17,000 islands. In the neighbouring countries of Singapore and Malaysia, the Javanese comprise a significant portion of their Malay population.
From a cultural-political perspective, transmigration has been interpreted by Indonesians outside Java as a process of “Javanization”, as outer island cultures are displaced by Javanese cultural practices. Moreover, since the days of Suharto’s New Order, many administrative officers such as state officials and military personnel, guarded and maintained the writ of Jakarta.
Throughout the Suharto years, the government was central in nature. The gain and profits from the regions, especially from natural resources, were sent to Jakarta and the island of Java. Over the years, a pent-up sentiment from the provinces in rich natural resources such as Aceh, East Kalimantan, and Papua was unleased, in concert with a call for a greater autonomy after 1998. At worst, the demand for a greater autonomy in some cases has transformed into a call for independence from the Javanese colonisation.
The Javanese play an important role in Indonesian politics. In particular, Javanese culture was a source of legitimacy throughout Suharto’s 32 years. As the political regime changed in 1998, the autocratic Javanese era moved into a democratic phase. For the first time, Indonesia was ruled by a non-Javanese President, one B J Habibie (after Habibie, all Indonesian presidents have been Javanese again). Habibie’s political objective of winning regional votes for his political party’s advancement accelerated the move towards decentralisation – as a consequence, the central government of Indonesia decentralised power and resources to regencies and municipalities, although not to provinces. Two important laws were enacted: Law No. 22/1999 on Regional Governance and Law No.25/1999 on the Fiscal Balance between the Central and Regional Governments.
Regional autonomy has kindled a “son of the soil” (Putra Daerah) debate. In some cases, this represents an old rivalry between Javanese and locals, and can be seen as a mark of the end of Javanese’s over-lordship in many provinces. Direct regional elections, which continue to see contests of popularity between Javanese and local up-and-coming politicians, can be seen as a test of this hypothesis.
On another level, Indonesia’s political transition and experiment with decentralisation is in tandem with population transition. Today, the average Javanese prefer a small family. As past campaigns reminded Indonesians – “Two is Enough, Boys or Girls do not matter” – mothers in the province of Yogyakarta, major city in Java, tend to have two or fewer children today.
The transition from a high rate of five to a low rate of two offspring in Yogyakarta took place in 20 years, while in a country like Britain, as reported by the Economist November 2009, the same change took 130 years from 1800 to 1930. The latest estimate of Yogyakarta’s total fertility rate, as estimated by the National Statistical Agency at the end of 2009 in Yogyakarta is now 1.5. It is the lowest among all provinces and the lowest in by Indonesia’s standards.
If this pattern is not reversed, it is likely that the number of Javanese will dwindle soon. The fact is that mothers in East Java and Central Java, also home provinces of Javanese, are on average raising only two children. These provinces are likely to follow Yogyakarta’s lead before too long. As it stands, the continued falling fertility among Javanese will also spark the same population fears that are unfolding in Taiwan and Japan. A projection of the Javanese Diaspora throughout Indonesia projects that the number of Javanese, especially those who represent the working age population from 15-49 years old, will start to decline after 2020.
Ironically however, Indonesia’s population will continue to increase. The non-Javanese population will continue to grow faster and a decline in the number of Javanese throughout Indonesia is inevitable. At the same time, the rising trend of interethnic marriages between Javanese and non-Javanese will accelerate this decline. On the other hand, this demographic reality will necessitate the emergence of more non-Javanese national leaders. Will Indonesians have non-Javanese presidents in future? From a demographic point of view, the likelihood of Indonesia being led by one will be pretty high after 2020.
(Evi Nurvidya Arifin is Visiting Research Fellow at the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies, Singapore.)