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West Sumatra reinvents its original roots

Opinion and Editorial - January 08, 2003

Ardimas Sasdi, Staff Writer, The Jakarta Post, Jakarta,

Each province responds in a different way to the reform movement that evolved four years ago and led to the implementation of regional autonomy on Jan. 5, 2001.

For resource-rich provinces like Irian Jaya and Aceh, it has meant greater autonomy to manage their own internal affairs, a larger share of natural resources from oil, gas and mining, and new names. Irian Jaya is now named Papua, while Aceh is called Nanggroe Aceh Darussalam (NAD).

In Aceh the reforms have also meant the implementation of syariah (Islamic) law, including an obligation to wear Muslim attire for both men and women.

The resource-poor but culturally rich province of West Sumatra, however, translated the reform into rolling back history by returning to a unique administrative system, nagari, a long lost cultural heritage.

Mochtar Naim, a sociologist from Andalas University in the West Sumatra capital of Padang, said the movement of returning to nagari was an attempt by Minang (native West Sumatra) people to reinvent their own identity.

This identity is enshrined in the basic philosophy of the Minang, known as Adat basandi syarak, syarak basandi Kitabullah (custom law is based on religion (Islam), religion is based on the Koran). The 4.2-million population of the province, formerly known as Minangkabau, is predominantly Muslim.

"Reform in West Sumatra has nothing to do with secession or rebellion, as evolved in Aceh, Riau, Irian Jaya or East Timor. Minang people want to return to their old philosophy of life, but remain as Indonesians," said Mochtar.

West Sumatrans, the noted sociologist said, never thought of engaging in conflict with the central government as they were still traumatized by a short-lived armed rebellion in the late 1950s.

The trauma left by the half-hearted rebellion, which has roots in an unfair distribution of wealth and development by the centralistic Sukarno administration, can be observed from cautious steps taken by West Sumatrans with regard to a movement to return to nagari. The plan to return to nagari had been warmly discussed by the Minang soon after the fall of Soeharto in 1998, but it went into top gear only in 2002 after political conditions were seen to be more encouraging for it.

The opportunity to reinvent their culture in the reform era is a long dream come true for the Minang. But they could not do it under the Soeharto government, which did not tolerate any attempt by provinces to promote local cultures, under the pretext of preserving the unity of the Unitary Republic of Indonesia.

The best a province could do in the past was what one former West Sumatra governor, Harun Zain, did in the 1970s by instructing government agencies to build their offices using traditional Minangkabau architecture, which took the form of buffalo horns.

Overwhelming support given by the Minang on the shared goal to a movement to return to nagari four years ago, when the plan was launched by reformists, should be viewed from this aspect.

A culturally proud and loyal people, the Minang have emotional ties with their hometowns. They are concerned about moral decadence among their youth, uprooted from their own culture under the rapid intrusion of perceived negative Western culture, high crime rates, rising unemployment and development of their villages.

More importantly, West Sumatrans are wary about a decline in the number of prominent figures from the province in politics, education, culture and government agencies compared with the situation hitherto, even though statistics indicate that West Sumatra still enjoys the highest literacy rate in Indonesia, due to strong family support for child education.

Prominent figures from West Sumatra have come from all walks of life, including Marah Rusli, Abdul Muis and Nur Sutan Iskandar (literature), former vice president Mohamad Hatta, prime minister Sutan Syahrir and Natsir (politics), Haji Abdul Malik Karim Amrullah, known as Buya Hamka, (religion and culture) and Dasaad and Hasyim Ning (business), to name but a few.

H. Asbir D. Radjo Mangkuto, a former chief executive officer of a large construction firm in Padang, which has become a Wali Nagari of Simarasok, in Baso, Agam regency, admitted recently that much had still to be done to successfully create a movement to return to nagari.

The concept for the administrative system has long been abandoned, in line with Jakarta's policy on uniformity of the administrative system throughout the country.

The social structure in the province has also changed, along with rapid development in education, culture, politics and the economy.

Minang leaders are now studying a proper model of nagari to be adopted in all areas in the province.

"One option is a type of nagari administrative system adopted after the arrival of Islam in the 14th century and before the (second) arrival of the Dutch in the 19th century, which is identical to the 1946-1958 administrative system, with some improvements here and there," H. Asbir said.

Experts differ on the arrival of Islam in Minangkabau. Dien Rice, in 1998, wrote that Islam, in the form of sufi cults, arrived on the coast in the mid-16th century but was not yet firmly entrenched nor present in the interior when the Dutch arrived early in the 17th century, while Minangkabau civilization reached the height of prosperity around the middle of the 15th century. The period also served as a golden age for the formulation of Minangkabau matrilineal culture.

The shared goal to return to nagari received full support from the West Sumatra administration by promulgating new laws and decrees in order to accelerate the process of returning subdistricts and desa (villages) to nagari. As of last December, 450 nagari had been formed, said assistant to the West Sumatra governor Yulrizal Baharin.

Government agencies have launched a campaign to promote traditional arts, such as randai (traditional Minangkabau drama), saluang (flute-playing), pepatah petitih (wise sayings), kaba (narrative poems) and Malay-like pantun (rhymed couplets).

Minangkabau youths used to live in surau (communal buildings), not with their parents. There they learned silat (traditional martial arts) and memorized the Koran under a guidance of a teacher.

The Minang are also famous for their oral culture, a tradition of discussing at length current issues such as culture, the economy, politics, education and social affairs in coffee shops and at formal places in the community. This tradition helps them sharpen their intellectual skills and curiosity as this habit requires them to critically observe and analyze events before making a decision.

Indra Catri, an intellectual from Baso, said the movement to return to nagari should not end with a superficial change in the administrative system, but should cover wider and more substantive areas, such as an aggressive drive to promote education, positive aspects of Minangkabau culture and religious teachings.

The aim of the Minang to reinvent their cultural heritage is laudable, but whether they will be able to achieve the noble goal will be determined by many factors, including how they reconcile their plan to return to nagari with the concept of autonomy offered by Jakarta.

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