Destructive Nationalism: Why We Should Avoid It

First of all, I would like to say that this writing is dedicated to two persons. The first one is Sharlini Eriza Putri since it is developed based on my daily conversation with her regarding her thesis in low carbon energy policy in Indonesia. Secondly, it is dedicated to one of security guards on my campus where I had nearly 3 hours conversation about Indonesia. This writing then mainly talks about nationalism and to be specific: the destructive nationalism. How could nationalism be destructive and why can it be so bad for building Indonesia? Does it mean that liberalization should occur in Indonesia? What is the trade-off in this regard? This writing then tries to explore all the questions and hypothesize the possible answers.

Destructive nationalism

One day I had a talk with a security guard in my campus. We talked about many things and one of them is about nationalism. Firstly, he praised the achievement obtained by Garuda Indonesia since it has been widely acknowledged worldwide for its professionalism and high quality service. It is not strange at all that the company deserves many awards from aviation organizations across the globe. However, he continued to talk, he was quite disappointed with the fact that many public companies could not attain similar satisfactory level as obtained by Garuda Indonesia. In this respect, he blamed that Indonesia Government was too lenient for its companies that actually had to be financially sustained by itself. For him, taking as an example, a public company that won a tender in Indonesia Government’s project did not deserved to be praised because there was a tendency that the connection between the government and company were too strong to be broke out even by other companies who offered higher efficiency in building the project. He then criticized this condition because he had an experience in a private company in which “time is money” is the sole principal and where the boss should think how to make their business sustain even without government support. “But if we sell the public company to private one –namely to liberalize it- we will be deemed for not to be a nationalist. But that is the case. Sometimes everything is not so efficient and our public company cannot grab much money because of corruption and they are never taught about how to compete with the other ones just because they have Government on their back. It does also seem that it is no longer an obligation for them to run their business as usual: namely to be financially stable and competitive.”

I then talked with my Sharlini where she and I often shared our thoughts about her thesis. She also has similar concern as the security guard. However, her focus is mainly aimed at energy sector where renewable energy has not been the priority in Indonesia due to the lack of grand strategy in the sector. Moreover, according to her, it does also seem that there is reluctance in Indonesia regarding foreign investment in energy sector. In Indonesia, electricity cannot be sold by private companies and should be provided by PLN, a public company in Indonesia that deals with electricity. The problem comes when foreign people wants to alleviate the dire circumstances faced by people living in rural areas where electricity is really a luxurious matter. In this regard, they should integrate their system with electricity grid owned by PLN and later PLN will buy the electricity according to the price agreed by both parties. The question is: how if the electricity grid is not there in the rural areas? Should we integrate the system with the electricity grid available in PLN system and then only increases the inefficiency? On the other hand, it is actually the main task of PLN to guarantee that all Indonesians should have electricity access. Thus, there is a contradiction in this matter. On one hand, the electricity provided by the foreign organizations can be considered to be not in line with Indonesia’s main policy in electricity but on the other hand the infrastructure is not yet available to deliver electricity for people in rural areas and inequality access towards electricity does prevail in this matter. Should then we hold our nationalism ethic or let this matter go with pure liberalization?

From this conversation, I find that there is actually a condition where nationalism can be very destructive. In this respect, I call the condition as destructive nationalism. Destructive nationalism can be defined as the condition where our tendency towards nationalism is very tense and high until a point where it has successfully blinded our eyes towards our main goal, namely to deliver prosperity for all Indonesians. In this condition, we can justify our action as nationalist but on the other side, it only aggravates Indonesians who are not satisfied with the performance of Indonesia Government. Destructive nationalism is then very dangerous. Its effects might not be felt right now but it will slowly release painful effects where its accumulation only leads to degeneration. Thus, how can we define the condition based on the above examples?

Destructive nationalism occurs when we have a tendency to choose public companies to finish the public project despite their inefficiency. This can happen merely because the companies have connection with government and in the name of nationalism, we prefer to directly determine the public companies as the winner. Destructive nationalism can also happen when we are reluctant to close down public companies that do not perform well and cannot achieve satisfactory level. On the other hand, we continuously inject financial aid to the companies in the name of nationalism and preserve the right of doing so. Destructive nationalism then also occurs when we reject foreign investment in electricity just because we are very determined to strictly hold on to our policy in retaining the right of PLN to deliver electricity yet insufficient electricity infrastructure does still prevail. In this regard, PLN should be the one who sells the electricity and all electricity that can be individually provided should be sold to the company and integrated on its grid. Despite that it will increase the inefficiency of the whole system, nationalism justifies the action. In short, destructive nationalism can occur because of irrationality equipped with nationalism euphoria lingers our mindset.

Instantaneous bad effects coming out from such disposition may not be direct. However, as time goes on and accumulation occurs, the effects may be very persistent. First of all, it can lead Indonesians to think that all their public companies are doing well despite the contradictory facts. This will bring then down the transparency culture and can further lead to declining the trust between society and government. Secondly, Indonesia will be very reluctant towards the presence of foreign companies, justifying the act as non-nationalist; while the fact is we still need them in some areas. Thirdly and the most important bad effect is it will exacerbate the inequality in this country because lack of infrastructure and incentives of the public companies can be a justification for suspending projects regarding rural areas development in Indonesia. Thus, how can Indonesians avoid this destructive nationalism mindset? What should we do in order to preserve our national interest with rationality? The answer is mainly located on the development of every single Indonesian to shift their paradigm about nationalism.

First of all, it is important to note that globalization is unavoidable phenomenon. Since every country is now connected one to the others, globalization can be seen as “normal” phenomenon. Thus, it is actually not a strange phenomenon to see foreign companies invest in other countries. What Indonesians have to do is to improve the quality its public companies in order to increase its competitiveness level. This is the reason why every young generation should contribute in this grand project. By fulfilling public companies with talented people, its competitiveness level will increase and it will be ready to compete with other companies. In this current globalized world, competitiveness is more important rather than connectivity since the true quality of a company lies on its ability to professionally handle a project and not relies mainly on irrational government support. Thus, be a nationalist in a professional way and not on nepotism.

Secondly, it should be noted that not every foreign investment is non-nationalist. There are conditions where Indonesia has not yet acquired sufficient level of expertise amount in several areas. In this case, foreign investment is indeed required if we are going to excel in the matter latter. However, our bargaining position should be elevated in order to protect our national interest and thus not wholly let foreign people dictate their egoistic will upon us. This begs a crucial question: how could we elevate our bargaining position? This could only be done if it has been already previously stated about the requirements for investing in Indonesia. Foreign companies that are not able to fulfill the requirements are not eligible to be granted the project. This begs another question: what if there is no company interested in doing the project due to the strict regulations? There are two main answers possible. First lowering the standard but not exceeds a certain level that is agreed among Indonesia expertise. This can be followed by technology transfer so Indonesians could excel in the matter latter. Secondly, we could hold the entire project and send Indonesians to study about the respecting area. They are then obliged to come back to Indonesia to develop the area. The first approach is suitable if the situation is urgent while the second approach is more suitable if we deal with natural resources. As natural resources will go nowhere, we could hold the project until we have acquired sufficient amount of expertise in the area and then extract the resources by ourselves. Both ways are indeed useful in protecting our national interest.

Destructive nationalism is indeed a bad precedent for every country in this world. It delivers nothing because it justifies the action solely on irrational nationalism where professionalism is set aside. It will not improve the quality of our public companies or human resources because it only depends on nepotism. If Indonesians really want to bring prosperity to this country and reduce inequality that lingers its society, destructive nationalism should be abolished. We should apply nationalism based on professionalism where we protect our national interest not because we are blinded by our nationalism euphoria, but because we are conscious about our ability to build our country by ourselves. Even we will also be conscious that we are also able to compete globally and may accomplish nearly everything.