Issue 7 | Unity in Diversity
By Gordon Flake from Perth USAsia Centre | 20 Jul 2017
At the beginning of this month I was privileged to attend a speech by former United States President Barack Obama in Jakarta as part of the 4th Congress of Indonesian Diaspora organized by the indefatigable Chairman of the Indonesian Diaspora Network, Ambassador Dino Patti Djalal. I joined a room of mostly young and internationally oriented Indonesians who were more than ready to extend to the former President status as a member of the “diaspora” by virtue of the years he spent living in Jakarta while he was in primary school. The experience was, for me, a much needed respite from our new political realities.
By Obama standards it was not a remarkable speech. It lacked some of the soaring rhetoric of his best known addresses. As suits a more sober era, there were no chants of “Yes We Can!” Even so, the contrast to our current political discourse could not have been more striking. His observations on developments in Indonesia, the Indo-Pacific, and the world more broadly were thoughtful, inspiring, hopeful, constructive, and—as is his want—called on individual listeners to heed our better angels. He warned against “an aggressive kind of nationalism,” “increased resentment of minority groups” and added that:
“If we don’t stand up for tolerance, and moderation, and respect for others and begin to doubt ourselves and all that we have accomplished, then much of the progress that we have made will not continue.”
The alternative, he cautioned, would be “more people arguing against democracy,” “more people who are looking to restrict the freedom of the press,” “more intolerance, more tribal divisions, more ethnic divisions and religious divisions and more violence.” He concluded his remarks with a phrase in Old Javanese Bhinneka Tunggal Ika which has become the national motto of Indonesia “Unity in Diversity” or more exactly “different but one.”
Recent developments in Indonesia, particularly surrounding the sentencing of the former governor of Jakarta, meant that former President Obama’s speech had a particular resonance for the internationally oriented Indonesian audience at the event. That said, I was seated amidst a group of Ambassadors from every corner of the world, and I doubt that there was a single envoy in the room who did not share Mr Obama’s concerns. The crisis in Marawi in the Southern Philippines, the decision by Myanmar to block a visit to Rakhine state by UN Officials, and the passing of Nobel laureate Liu Xiaobo in China are but a few of the daily reminders of the challenges we face. At the same time there was a further indication that the current U.S. Administration continues to back away from its traditional role as an international advocate for human rights and “values” with reporting that the Department of State is considering closing its Office of Global Criminal Justice which focuses on War Crimes. It is perhaps an opportune moment to observe that the traditional motto of the United States E pluribus unum or “out of many, one” remains equally important whether expressed in Latin or in Old Javanese.
Gordon Flake is the CEO of the Perth USAsia Centre
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