Note from editors |

Who Understands Gotong Royong?

Note from Editors | 27 October 2021

There is a wonderful old practice which was widespread in Java at least when I first arrived here, called Gotong Royong. Literally meaning ‘lifting together’ this is a customary practice of a community working together to achieve a desired result. It started with the people of a village all helping if someone wanted to build or move a house, which was achieved by placing the building on the trunk of a coconut tree (ruyung) and everyone carrying it together.

       Because it was so obviously beneficial to all members of the community, the practice extended to other forms of work when everyone would help one family in their task knowing that they would receive the same benefit when it was their turn.

       What a great philosophy. But where is it now in our ‘me first’ society of today? In fact, often it is not even ‘me first’ but ‘only me! The degree of selfishness which modern urban communities display is quite disheartening, in fact to even call them communities is a misnomer. In huge cities like Jakarta there is a definite tendency to urban anonymity, the loneliness and isolation of metropolitan life. Being alone in a crowd is probably the worst form of social isolation and can happen so easily, especially when we have lockdowns, working from home and social restrictions.

       And quite a number of our chosen lifestyles add to the sense of isolation though we may not realise it: riding a motorcycle (with helmet on) is much more isolating them walking, cycling or being in a bus or train with others in direct view or proximity. Constantly using a handphone is another isolating practice which so many do - thinking they are ‘connecting’ when in reality they are disconnecting from the world around them, even when seated at a cafe or restaurant table with others.

       The constant use of computers and digital devices to communicate also distances ourselves from others. The wonderful practice of real-life meetings, brainstorming, ‘sharing’ sessions and discussions has been replaced by zoom, with “chat” and Q & A functions as our social content.

       If you add to that the isolation of the multi-story apartment, the seclusion of the evening in front of the TV (or again computer screen), the massive urbanisation drift from rural to suburban developments, leaves us with little sense of a real community, and very little chance of helping others and being helped-by ‘gotong royong’.

     The exceptional strength and resilience of the Indonesian people will be eroded if they are unable to interact as a cohesive community. This has never been a nation of ‘individuals’ striving for success as exemplified by the ‘American Dream’ (think Will Smith in ‘The Pursuit of Happiness’ who was obsessed with financial success at all costs) but a nation of cultural communities (think Javanese, Sundanese, Balinese, Batak, etc) each pulling together for the greater good. But without the village or the smaller communities functioning as real cohesive all-for-one-and-one-for-all groups this spirit of ‘gotong royong’ may be lost forever, replaced by local government administration. Just not the same.

       We are now fascinated, my obsessed, by the astonishingly successful and often astonishingly stupid online communities, where instead of knowing that your neighbour is ill or has had a baby daughter, you follow the fortunes of the Kardashians, Brittany Spears (no relation) or Jeff Bezos. And facebook, instagram and linked in (etc etc) are dedicated to drawing us deeper into their community which only has one beneficiary: them.

       So it’s time to put down the phone, look up from the computer, speak to the person next to you in the office, in the house next door, at the cafe table and start building a real community again. So many people say “yes I spoke to him/her yesterday” when they actually mean ‘I WA’d him yesterday”. Let’s rebuild real  relationships, face to face meetings, real phone calls, and real communities. When the next disaster strikes won’t it be nice to have the power of ‘gotong royong’ all around you? I think so.