By: Muhammad Zulfikar Rakhmat

With half of Indonesians under age 30, some analysts believe youth are set to play a substantial role in national elections scheduled for next April. Increasingly this baby boom generation, whose median age is 29.9 years, is making an appearance in the country’s public sphere.

One of the signposts of this rising influence is the fourth international Conference of Indonesian Diaspora Youth, being held this week in Jakarta and attended by young Indonesians from around the world, including representatives of Indonesia’s 34 provinces to discuss Vision 2045, a development plan introduced by President Joko Widodo which aims to turn the Indonesian economy into the world’s fifth largest. The conference is aimed at fostering tolerance,  multiculturalism and the country’s cultural heritage.

At the same time, another harbinger is the rise of the still-nascent Indonesian Solidarity Party (PSI), which has been dubbed the “millennials’ party” as it seeks actively to incorporate young voters into its membership, focusing on women’s rights, pluralism and youth.

Its workers call each other “bro” and “sis” and their leader, Grace Natalie, a former television journalist, sets the sartorial standard with a pair of ripped jeans. Natalie says she hopes to tap into young voters’ contempt for entrenched corruption and the divisive identity politics of the ruling elite. The party has endorsed President Joko Widodo, who is regarded as the party’s ideological father, in his campaign to win another five-year term in office. The party claims to be close to the Corruption Eradication Commission,  the fearsome KPK, which has jailed dozens of politicians and government officials on corruption charges.

From 23,000 members in 2014, the party now claims 400,000 participants although only about 10 percent of the voting public know the party exists, according to a recent survey, and perhaps 5 percent will vote for it. Nonetheless, it is a start. It has collected more than 1.7 million followers on Facebook, 68,000 followers on Twitter, and 46,000 on Instagram. Some of their top figures can be categorized as social media influencers or Twitter celebrities.

Why the trends?

That is minuscule in terms of Indonesia’s 261.1 million population, and multicultural in a largely Muslim nation that is growing more conservative, although its leaders hold out hope that they can have an effect on the 2019 election. On its board of directors, along with Natalie, is Sunny Tanuwidjaja, a former special staffer for former Jakarta Governor Basuki “Ahok” Tjahaja Purnama, who lost the gubernatorial election in 2017 and was subsequently jailed on blasphemy charges that are regarded as trumped up.

That growing conservatism is believed to be an obstacle for both the PSI and the party’s intellectual allies. Young voters, according to some surveys, are more likely to vote for Muslim parties including the Prosperous Justice Party (PKI), which has aligned with Jokowi’s opponent, Prabowo Subianto. Across the board, in other countries as well, young voters are often likely to vote their parents’ prejudices and beliefs.

Others appear likely to stick with secular parties out of a belief that unlike the secular parties, PSI is inexperienced at governing.

Nonetheless, PSI hopes to find its intellectual and ideological home in a wave of young individuals on the political and social stage, in good measure because of the government’s provision of scholarships for higher education, both domestically and abroad. Those offering scholarships include the Ministry of Religious Affairs (DIKTIS), the Indonesian Directorate General of Higher Education (DIKTI) and the Indonesian Endowment Fund for Education (LPDP). The latter has the highest number of recipients. Each scholarship source has sent thousands of students to various countries worldwide. Particularly LPDP, which has provided for 6,400-odd recipient to study at universities globally.

The United Kingdom’s ambassador to Indonesia, Moazzam Malik, recently noted that an estimated 3,000 Indonesian students are currently studying at several UK institutions, a figure expected to increase by around 20-30 percent annually.

What is interesting is that these young intellectuals are also given extensive social indoctrination to contribute to the country’s considerable needs. Consequently, when they return they hopefully have not only the spirit to make a change or contribution, but also the necessary knowledge, distinct skills, and global networks to do so.

Another important element is the proliferation of social media. Indonesian now has 88 million people connected online, including 79 million active social media users. Nearly 90 percent of users are below the age of 34, and 54 percent are between 16 and 24. Indonesia is ranked high for social media penetration. With 111 million Facebook users — active and inactive — Indonesia comes fourth globally and first in Southeast Asia. The country has 24 million users on Twitter, one of the highest in the world, and 8.9 million are on Instagram.

These circumstances expose the young not only to how youth outside Indonesia play a big role in their countries, but also make them more aware of the history of youth in Indonesia.

In an interview with Asia Sentinel, Dikanaya Tarahita, an Indonesian writer on socio-economic issues in Indonesia and a graduate of the University of Manchester via LPDP scholarship, argued that the exposure of youth to the outside world and social media helps them to learn about how youth become drivers of change in many countries.

It also makes them revisit their own history, especially how Indonesia’s independence was taken from colonials  and put in the hands of young men who later became known as the fathers of the nation.

Looking back at the history of how Indonesia escaped from colonialism, the story of the independence movement has been engraved since the decision of the Youth Congress (Kongres Pemuda) on October 27-28, 1928 which gave birth to Sumpah Pemuda (Youth Pledge) as a crystallization of the spirit of affirming the ideals of the founding of Indonesia’s independent nation.

Tarahita said that today, even though the situation is far better than the two darkest periods of the country has experienced – colonialism and the 1998 monetary crisis, it is difficult to claim that independence has been felt and experienced by all 261 million Indonesians.

There are still 25 million people living below the poverty line, 26 million women have claimed to have been abused, nearly more than one in six Indonesian girls marries before reaching adulthood, more than 4 million residents of Papua are still discriminated against due to uneven national development, and only a small fraction of the 10 million disabled have the same opportunity to access education as the non-disabled. These are only the tip of the iceberg. There are lots more human rights issues that Indonesian government and society need to resolve.

The roles of Indonesian youth have been seen in the development of useful technology for the public. Market leaders in various industries, such as Bukalapak in e-commerce, Traveloka on travel services, Gojek in transportations and logistics, Ruang Guru in education, have been founded among the brightest Indonesian youth. Their work not only revolutionized how these millennium-era industries should be run, but also transformed the lives of millions for the better.

Besides in politics and markets, many of these young individuals are also active in the country’s academic fields, becoming rectors and lecturers at universities.  

The government should respond

Government laws require that both the central and regional governments and society synergize youth services in an effort to empower, with youth services directed to foster patriotism, dynamics, a culture of achievement, and a spirit of professionalism; and increasing the participation and active role of youth in building society, the nation and state.  That is a tall order.

Nonetheless, the government needs to make sure that these young citizens are given platforms to voice their concerns and to play a more active role in development. Providing scholarships should be appreciated, but providing spaces once these young intellectuals to return is also crucial.

The lack of attention to these phenomena could lose Indonesia their own youth as they find opportunities elsewhere. Iskhi Ittaqi, an Indonesian student at the University of Manchester, argued that “when these youth are not given the opportunity to contribute to the country, they will likely to turn their back on the government.”