Because the Freedom to Think Is What Makes a Human Human

(More boringly known as: “A Personal Musing on Who Should Be
Indonesia’s Next President”.)

As the old car we rented passed by a local school in Putussibau yesterday, my mind wandered back to the time I was still an elementary student. Compared to how ‘she’ works today (yes, my brain is a female), I was a very different girl back then. For starters, I never really questioned regulations, I enjoyed abiding them, and being critical was not really a concept I could grasp. Growing up is funny, you see: we are physically still the same person—seeing with the same eyes and talking with the same mouth—but inside, we are almost a different person every day. I could vividly imagine myself from five, ten years ago in loud disagreement with the present me.

Anyway, there are some fragments of memory I would like to share about being in a white-and-red uniform in the last two years of New Order era (and four more during the early Reformation period).

I remembered wearing my favorite hairband (which was pink); I remembered the great sensation of knowing that you could add and subtract numbers (I mean how awesome is that); and I remembered impatiently waiting to learn new things every morning. But on top of them all: I remembered being introduced to rules. I remembered recognizing ‘right’ from ‘wrong’.

Parlemen Muda-6571

They say kids are like sponges: they absorb knowledge very quickly, and they memorize what their parents say on the fly. This, I now understand, is the basic idea that Soeharto’s regime utilized to control the way young Indonesians behaved—through feeding us doctrines of what is okay and not okay via education.

Being under the authorities’ influence, my brain automatically created a simple binary system that registered deeds into ‘GOOD’ and ‘NO GOOD’ shelves. Submitting homework on time, for example, is an absolute ‘GOOD’. Not wearing the red cap on Mondays is ‘NO GOOD’, just like being late is. The flag should not touch the floor (now I find this idea very ridiculous) and the teacher is always right.

This library of information continued storing data as I grow up (adding things like ‘drinking alcohol’ to the ‘NO GOOD’ list as well as ‘being extremely active in extracurricular activities’ to the ‘GOOD’ list—not sure where I got that from LOL).
And it evolved to the extent I hated the Communist Party with all my heart. Our history books were pre-cooked with judgments, you see, it was written in a way that made us hate certain actors (including the Dutch and Japanese—the ‘penjajah’) while overselling the patriotism of our military force.

This over-controlled sphere of opinion-producing and significant absence of space for debates and criticism (linear curriculum with multiple choice tests FTW—NOT) turned most Indonesians (including yours truly at that time) into self-righteous, narrow-minded, judgmental pricks.

Today, more than a decade later, I know better.
I know that there is no such thing as an absolute right and absolute wrong.

I would tell myself from 17 years ago that sometimes not submitting homework on time is good when you have to take care of your mother, and I would break the news to my teenage self that people have life priorities, she would have to accept that. You see, my stupid young self: 1) laws were made by human—even the ones God created are interpreted by people with flaws, 2) we could criticize and challenge any of them when it’s not working, and 3) we could also create one of our own.

My college friends call this epiphany as being ‘liberated’—I call it a blessing. It’s a blessing to be fully aware that we are allowed to think; that we could question any tradition, we are encouraged to doubt the regulars, and we are free to investigate fallacies. Most fundamentally, I appreciate the rewarding pleasure of being able to disagree and produce our own, independent thoughts. (Read 1984/Anthem/A Brave New World for more of this.)

Having gone this far, of course, I would not allow the slightest possibility of having an authoritarian regime that will limit our newly-acquired freedom to think (let alone of speech) again. I won’t give a room for a new New Order.

Now this consciousness development relates a lot to whom I’m voting for on July 9th.

If you’ve been reading my tweets lately, you would’ve guessed already that I’m rooting for Jokowi. Well I am, you see, but unlike the people with half-red avatars who’ve been actively supporting the incumbent governor of Jakarta, my initial reasoning process is very straightforward. I simply don’t want to be governed by people who haven’t undergone the same mind-opening process, who think that democracy is merely a means, that freedom of speech is secondary in comparison to access to welfare.

I would rather avoid having a self-righteous president who are subsequently backed by a group of narrow-minded politicians in his cabinet.

The evidence of this allegation toward Prabowo is all over the place:

#1 Whenever asked about his human rights record, Prabowo always passes the ball to his military bosses (‘tanya atasan saya’). This signals two things: 1) he could not see the underlying problem of this ‘order’ from the first place (needs some text book to grasp the concept of human rights, perhaps?) such that he wasn’t able to feel guilty or at all apologetic to concerned families, 2) he still thinks like a soldier, because certainly a leader would be brave enough to take a bullet and volunteer to go to the court and let the bar decides.

#2 ‘Self-righteous’ is the second adjective that came into my mind to label the parties and organizations supporting him, after—of course—’hypocritical’. I mean, how else would you call PKS (meat corruption), PPP (Surya Dharma Ali case), Ical (and his unfinished Lapindo business), as well as PAN (Amien’s inconsistent statement). Not to mention FPI, FPR, and Pemuda Pancasila boys who are far from valuing human beings, let alone our rights to everything else.

#3 His party specifically mentioned about ‘membuat jera agama yang menyimpang, which is practically rising a big fat board with ‘I AM VERY NARROW-MINDED’ in capital letters on it. I could really go on with this, but there isn’t really much point in doing so.

But again, if my problem is with Prabowo, why bother voting for Jokowi at all? Why don’t I just, let’s say, go Golput?

Well honestly, I had my hesitations (cherishing the freedom to think, remember?), but then I talked to a number of people, read several articles, and eventually arrived to the conclusion that Jokowi deserves my vote. Just to make it an apple-to-apple comparison: Jokowi does value open-mindedness, and this is reflected from how Solo and the first several years of Jakarta performed under his wings. Instead of going with the conventional methods of running things, he made notable breakthroughs here and there. Innovation as well as the ability to think beyond what has been done for years.

Now because we all attach importance to the freedom to think, I would not try to convince those who doubt Jokowi’s control over Megawati’s hidden intentions. However, so far he has demonstrated:

#1 Merit, merit, merit—I’ve been telling people how I am all for meritocracy.
Jokowi is the only presidential candidate with almost 10 years of experience (and proven achievements) leading different governmental levels, and there goes my first checklist. If there’s anything you should doubt, it’s the ability of a fired military personnel to run a cross-level and cross-sectoral ministries that sometimes need out-of-the-box debottlenecking measures.

#2 He is surrounded by open-minded people—Anies Baswedan is more than enough to prove this point. This also means that the people around him does not seek for power (they are smart enough to know that ministerial positions are non-negotiable). On top of this, his work has also inspired his own party and its chairlady to actually be open-minded enough to allow someone from outside the party’s leadership to run as president.

#3 He has a lot more to offer and a lot less moral baggages to deal with—despite having Jusuf Kalla as his running mate (the man who introduced Ujian Nasional), Jokowi actually promised to erase the national examination for good if he gets elected. This is a very bold offer, of course, and at the same time also shows his ability to negotiate and compromise with Kalla. At the same time, despite generic, he also has many ideas to bring to the table in his white book (although debatably this was prepared by his team, which presidential candidate doesn’t?).

Because to me, the freedom to think is what makes a human human. Because the freedom to think is the start of every great civilization in the world. In this light, I will vote for Jokowi because I believe he would do everything he could to protect our freedom to think—to disagree, and to criticize the government. He would work for us, and that’s enough.

[Btw, this probably isn’t the first article you’re reading on June’s heated presidential race, and certainly isn’t the best either. I call it a ‘musing’ because clearly it’s circling around without making any sharp point, and ‘personal’ because d’oh.

Thanks for making it this far, though.]


Good Conversations and Why We’ll Never Have Enough of Them

To tell you the truth: I had been very unhappy this past month. This singular discovery confuses me, of course, noting that I wasn’t able to find any particular reason of me being in such state. I definitely have an awesome job, got myself a dozen of new books, and published a couple of (although generic) articles here and there. Baffled, I slid through the calendar trying to get myself distracted on an arbitrary rotation of activities.

Only recently, I figured out that I haven’t had any good conversation for a while.

I’m not talking about the typical “What are you up to?” kind of catching up—those are delightful as well, but too predictable. I’m taking about conversations that make your heart race because you cannot foresee how the person across the table would respond to your weird question; conversations that could not make you care any less about what you’re wearing that day. The best ones.

The partner I usually count on, to my remorse, has been unavailable for intellectual engagement recently and my instinct told me this situation isn’t gonna change anytime soon. Luckily enough, a nice friend who just came from down under invited me to chat over coffee (I ended up getting green tea) last weekend—and another took me to a spicy dinner with the following Monday. Both supplied me with insights special enough to keep my mind sane for the rest of the week.

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People have different analogies but I think conversations are like a thought-mining site—one that works best when reciprocity is conceived. Here’s how: as you continue listening to the other person, your mind wanders and digs into new memories or piece of idea—then takes them from the back of your head, brings it right on, until it passes on through the dialogue. Later they work as a stimulus for the other person to also prepare a new set of responses, thoughts that would not have presented themselves otherwise.

It is a remarkable process and, like someone said, might actually be more intimate than sex.

P.S. An unbalanced interaction, on the other hand, would leave one of the parties tired, either of slowing down or trying to run faster. (This is why humans must stop settling down for spouses who aren’t their par, btw.)


On a more substantial note, here are several viewpoints from both conversations that resonate and stay with me whenever I wake up in the morning within the past few days:

1. Conversation Is the Closest You Could Get to Pretending That Connection Exists

Each of us was born in this world alone, and although the promise of having a soulmate is very tempting, at the end of the day we will also die alone (and pretty much alone in between, too). We have families, friends, and lovers, indeed, but these are external beings; individuals who went through a unique experience different to yours—chances are they could not grasp the inside of your brain 100%. They could try because they care about you, but they would not—and never could.

Conversations are then a very good consolation to this sad truth.

Through exchange of symbols (words and gestures) that we somewhat agree to understand as representing certain concepts, humans think they understand one another. The truth is, there’s a good possibility that we are not even talking about the same things right now.

I however still believe in the romantically stupid idea of ‘having a connection’—because let’s be honest to ourselves: there are moments, magical ones, when you look into another person’s eyes and know exactly what they are talking about and, at the same time, know that they know that we know about what they’re talking about. When you’re at that point of epiphany, for a short second, you might believe that connection is possible. It’s a comforting sensation.

2. Life Could Be More Meaningful If People Stop Romanticizing Their Consumption

Johan, an extraordinary thinker he is, suggested a brilliant dichotomy: that any activity is either a consumption or production. Easy examples to the former would be: eating, drinking, and reading. The latter in the meanwhile involves certain efforts made to construct or build a new item for someone else’s consumption—writing, cooking, and film-making could be several.

We used to, he pointed out, hit the minimum bar of survival for our consumption activities, and focus on romanticizing things that actually matter. We ate because we’re hungry, not because the restaurant cooked our favorite meal with a foreign oil. We went to places because we wanted to spend more time with friends, not because we wanted to be part of the acknowledged hipsters.

But thanks to social media, recently this trend shifted and we’ve become this cult of empty individuals who oversell what we buy and lost interest in smaller things that are essential—things that make us human. Today, it’s a shame how bookworms and librarians (yours truly, too) stop sharing the insights they got from books and instead start posting quotes on the virtue of reading books. People take pictures with famous people they’ve never heard of and check in places they saw from postcards.

Conversations, on the other hand, are an act of producing. It processes raw thoughts and words into more digestible and consumable premises. It is production, ladies and gentlemen, that allows mankind to possess a sense of purpose and fulfilment.

3. People Don’t Actually Care About What You Do With the Rest of Your Life

I don’t know about you but in the past 20 years, I have lived under the misleading impression that people cared about what I achieved or failed to deliver. This then set me on a winding road of, among others, taking a major I don’t necessarily love, winning competitions I don’t necessarily feel challenged by, or doing work I don’t necessarily enjoy. I have no regrets up to this point though, because, as you might have been part of, so far the journey has been wondrous.

But here’s where it gets interesting: I finally realized that apparently nobody cared. Or if they actually did, they stopped caring as you turn 21.

I mean, I’ve always been told to take option A over B, do C over D, read E over F, but now suddenly everyone went quiet. My parents let me do what I want, my friends are busier minding their own career, and here I am, pretty much clueless about what I should be doing ahead. Our linear education system has been constructed in such way that we have always been assured that there is only one correct answer (remember those multiple choice questions), and the fact that now life allows you to create your own options from thin air is not very helpful.

Yes, some of them still advise you to take A or B and the rest have expectations on your shoulder, but if you have reached that mature understanding that none of them actually cared, things become a lot easier (although trickier at the same time). I mean, it’s been bugging my mind for some time about the steps I must take had I really wanted to publish a book.

Regardless, I’m quite sure that I do not want to be part of the proud corporate slave society who have doubleplusgood income but got their entire life given up to the 9-to-5 routines manipulated by companies that pay their salary. I want to still have this independent mind, to be able to think critically, and most of all, to be myself. I want to be fully-aware and conscious that it is my right and it is completely fine to take a day off to just sit down under a tree and spend the entire day thinking about the meaning of death.

4. Instead of Love, Use Fear; It Offers More Certainty

Still related to that: almost two months ago, I came across this clever article on, to oversimplify, career choices. The most appealing part of the article (that might be misjudged as a crappy self-help scribbles), is the fact that instead of using Job’s overrated ‘do what you love’ one liner, it appeals to the human fear. It suggested that, if you’re not afraid of losing it, you don’t love it enough. So instead of measuring affection or admiration toward certain job or sector, think about something that scares you the most. To me, it is imagining that if I eventually publish a book, it will end up on the discounted shelf because nobody likes reading it. *knocks on wood*

5. Understand, Because Tolerance Is Ignorance

This one came from Ben, who unintentionally pointed out how the concept of ‘tolerance’ has been overused (if not abused) to accommodate the worst state of human being: ignorance. We have not, he said, tried our best to understand differences—let alone putting our shoes in someone else’s. Instead of really getting to know them better and understand their situation, all we do is sit down and create distance.

“It’s fine as long as they don’t disturb me,” is not enough. It’s not fine. Talk to these people, try to grasp how they look at the society who puts them as the marginalized, then you could claim that you have done your part.


If you’re also feeling unhappy lately, maybe you need a good conversation, too. Here’s a tip: start with an honest “How are you?” and mean it when you ask it. Also remember to answer it with however long you want to answer it with when someone else ask you that.