When I was in elementary school in the mid-1990s, my teachers went out of their way to emphasize the national motto, Bhinneka Tunggal Ika, which translates as “Unity in Diversity.”
The motto — taken from a famous Javanese poem penned during the Majapahit kingdom in the 14th century — pertains to the fact that Indonesia is an archipelago that is rich with different cultures, tribes, religions and languages.
The motto is intended to draw on the country’s diversity as a unifying strength instead of allowing it to become divisive. It’s a nice idea, but one that seems to be showing more and more cracks these days. The most blatant recent examples pertain to religion and sexual orientation.
But there are other, more subtle examples that have increasingly come to my attention, mostly having to do with status and money. Take the artists’ enclave of Ubud.
With its starring role in the best-selling book “Eat Pray Love” and the film adaptation starring Julia Roberts, it seems like everyone has been talking about Bali and how perfect it is as a tourist destination. I lived there, among the lush rice fields of Ubud, for more than a year.
And while I love the beauty and culture of the place, I couldn’t help but get the feeling that while it was welcoming to foreigners from all over the world, this same welcome doesn’t always seem to be as warmly extended to fellow Indonesians.
As a Javanese woman dating a Western man, I sometimes felt that I was discriminated against in terms of race and gender while living there.
When I went to a restaurant or shop with my fiance, he was greeted with a warm smile and friendly words. I, on the other hand, was largely ignored. I found myself asking if there was something wrong with me.
Was it because my fiance was a Western man and people assumed that he had more money than me? Or was it maybe because of the stereotype that Indonesian women who date Western men are morally compromised and are just out to squeeze some money from the man’s pockets?
If I only felt this way once or twice about the way I was treated, I could probably just brush it off. But it happened again and again, almost anywhere we went.
I also saw it happen to other Indonesian women, even men, and it never failed to test my patience. I eventually decided to channel my anger in a creative manner by blogging about my experiences. I ended up getting a lot of responses and comments from readers who had experienced the same thing.
There were also some people who were surprised that this would happen, given that there are so many Indonesian tourists who visit Bali.
I have two theories about why this happens. The first is that Bali has become spoiled by tourism money. It seems to me as if a lot of people there have forgotten basic manners in their quest to take a bite out of the tourism pie.
My second theory is that some Balinese may simply not feel kind towards other Indonesians. This feeling may have increased since the 2002 terrorist bombings, from which the island is still recovering today. But it’s not just Bali. I have found that things like this happen in other parts of the country as well.
Before I moved to Jakarta, I called the owner of an apartment in Central Jakarta and tried to rent his place. He was friendly and organized as he went over the details with me. I agreed to all the rules and was ready to pay.
Then, oddly enough, he asked if the apartment was for me or a foreigner. I told him it would be for me, a young Indonesian woman.
I never heard back from him until my Western friend contacted him and he responded immediately with a rental agreement. It is quite sad that this sort of thing happens in Indonesia, especially when we are taught Bhinneka Tunggal Ika growing up. It seems that our motto of equality and tolerance is not always reality.
Tourists from Jakarta who visit Bali may be quoted higher room rates than others. Foreigners are usually given more friendly treatment in tourist shops and restaurants there. They also get easy access to apartments in Jakarta.
Bhinneka Tunggal Ika is a great idea, it’s just one that doesn’t always translate into real life — especially when the equality and unity in question stem from one’s wallet.
Elisabeth Oktofani is a freelance writer.
When Money Talks, Unity Takes a Walk was published by The Jakarta Globe on Oct 12, 2010 before I joined to the newspaper.