Bridging diversity the Indonesian way

Indonesia has answered the age-old question of how to ensure cooperation across a diverse population, by using a set of principles derived from the local culture and wisdom.

Pancasila – the official, foundational philosophical theory, and the state ideology of Indonesia – has its roots in inclusivity, and is the unifying principle of the nation. The FES Indonesia Office had a conversation with Yudi Latif, scholar and chairperson of the Center of Islam and State Studies and the former head of the Presidential Unit for the Implementation of Pancasila (2017- 2018) to learn more about Pancasila and its relevance to the world.

Sukarno, the founding father of modern Indonesia, stated that at the heart of Pancasila is the term gotong royong, or mutual cooperation and the sharing of burdens, which can be seen as Indonesia's way of life.Could you please explain these principles?

YL: Pancasila consists of the word Panca meaning five, and Sila meaning principles. They are the five guiding principles of the Indonesian nation state; they are fundamental to Indonesian ideology, inseparable and interrelated. 1) Belief in the supreme being (civilized theism), 2) just and civilized humanity (internationalism), 3) the unity in diversity of Indonesia 4) democracy guided by the inner wisdom in the unanimity arising out of deliberation amongst representatives (deliberative democracy), 5) social justice for the people of Indonesia (social welfare).

Pancasila is built out of a consensus of different ideologies, and is based around three principles: social religion or compassionate religiosity; social nationalism that commits to global humanity, and social democracy, that represents inclusivity in politics, economy and society. In the principle of socio-nationalism, Indonesian nationhood is a nationhood which surpasses narrow individual and group thinking and stands for all. At the same time, Indonesian nationhood is also humanistic nationhood, which brings universal sisterhood and fraternity into reality, along with justice and civility of the world. Sukarno said; “Internationalism could not live without rooting in the fertile soil of nationalism. Nationalism could not be fertile, if it is not living in the flower garden of internationalism.”

All these principles are bound together by the spirit of mutual help, respect, sympathy, and caring; this is called gotong royong.

We live and interact with each other without losing our individuality. However, we must transcend the individual level and become part of the public, in order to benefit from collective dynamics such as consensus, inclusiveness, mutual help, and cooperation. Gotong royong became the centre of the merging process, but free of any domination or homogenization. Every community still can develop their own identity. But once they engage with the public sphere, they all adhere to principles and core values of Pancasila.


Indonesia, having the largest Muslim population in the world, is internationally acknowledged for being a country where Islam and democracy go hand in hand. What is your take on this?

The function of religions in our national integration is very important. Historically, religions have provided a social and organization framework. During the struggle for independence in the mid-20th century there were no formal association or civil society groups, and people would unify under religious groups. Religious networks became a sort of nervous system binding and integrating the country.

After our independence, Pancasila monotheism acknowledged six official religions in Indonesia. With this limitation, Pancasila could be interpreted as a universal concept for inclusivity of a heterogenous society. However, there were initially some challenges in cross-linking the different religions with each other. The challenge is to realize harmony between the religions and between the different schools of the majority religion Islam. Pancasila offers a bridge to connect people from different religions, through their commitment to the same values and shared principles.


Pancasila and gotong royong showcase the country’s ability of unity in diversity and the value of accommodative pluralism. In your view, what could the international community learn from the Indonesian concept of society?

Indonesian society has a strong culture of solving problems and differences through diplomacy and communication, using empathy, gentleness, humility, and sensitivity. With thousands of ethnic groups in the archipelago, the culture of mutual respect has a strong foundation in society. The process of Islamization in Indonesia was non-violent and through the trade network. The indigenous religions overlapped with the new one as Islam was absorbed by local culture. Such sharing of values and mutual respect have thus been part of our society for centuries. However, later waves of Islam from abroad brought an ideology of purification or homogenization of how religion is to be expressed. This became even more problematic when it gained followers in the public social sphere, compared to the political or economic sphere.  


You mentioned that Pancasila has the potential to become a knowledge framework to resolve the problems of the nation. What do you mean by that?

I consider Pancasila as the simplification of the complexity of social life. In order to unite the diverse society, we have to find the basic essence of the human being, simplified along three axes: human being as individual and social being; human being as physical and spiritual being; and human being as universal and particular being. We have to find a principle that can maintain the balance between those axes.

Nationality is somewhat halfway between locality and universality. Nationalism makes people from various localities agree to be part of a nation. Nationality then provides the bridge to global relations. And nationalism – in the positive sense – can protect local cultures from the homogenizing pressures of globalization.  In this context nationalism has an emancipatory function.


There is a global trend of increasing populism and extremism. In your view, what role could the Indonesia experience play to address these?

When religiosity become radicalized, it no longer expresses the text, but rather reflects the reality in the society. Populism and radicalism are symptoms of an imbalance along the aforementioned axes - limited to religious dogmas and no hermeneutic is allowed.

Therefore, every forms of radicalism demonstrate the weakness in the implementation of Pancasila’s five principles as a promise of inclusion.

First, religious radicalism can make religions exclusive, and takes the focus away from the spiritual level and onto the ritual and formalistic dimensions. The unifying spirit of love is distorted into antagonism.

Second, when religious radicalism appears in the public sphere, this reflects a lack of implementation and understanding of human rights. I believe radical ideas tend to show in countries with poor human rights.

Third, religious radicalism reflects a society’s inability to unify amid diversity. Plural societies like Indonesia should cultivate the spirit of multiculturalism, not monoculture. When fundamentalists interact with people from diverse backgrounds this can make them more moderate.

Fourth, religious radicalism plays on the pitfalls of democracy. If some individuals do not feel represented by the national system, they make take refuge among their tribal group and become radicalized. To address the issue, this group should not be excluded by the formal political process.

Fifth, on the dimension of social justice, religious radicalism is the reflection of the inequality in the distribution of wealth, opportunity, and privilege. Alarmingly, religious radicalism is widely found among the students or graduates of the top universities in Indonesia. Most of them come from humble backgrounds with high aspiration for vertical mobilization. As they are unable to succeed in the job market, they can easily fall into the trap of radical movement campaigns.

So, Pancasila begins with the abstract principles: the belief in God and humanity; then continues to the more concrete principles – the fifth is social justice. Since it manages to cover all those aspects Pancasila has the potential to be an ideological framework or a toolbox to understand and resolve all kinds of social conflicts.


For more information on the work by Friedrich-Ebert-Stiftung in Indonesia visit their website or follow their official Facebook for regular updates. 

The views expressed in this interview are not necessarily those of FES.

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