Jakarta is a messy city.
Perched on the northeast coast of Java, the capital of Indonesia has long been the country’s economic, cultural and political centre. Having been inhabited since the fourth century by various cultures and communities, it is a city of many names, many pasts, and many peoples.
Today, Jakarta strains under the weight of over 9.6 million residents, many whom have come from all over the vast Indonesian archipelago in search of better jobs and grander dreams. Like many other Southeast Asian capitals, Jakarta is legendary for its formidable traffic jams and urban congestion. This is a grand old city: unapologetically and cheerfully chaotic. For many Singaporeans, Jakarta is simply a place for good food, promising business opportunities, and inexpensive shopping.
But a city is a complex entity, comprising many faces and aspects and meanings. For a small group of students from the University Scholars Programme (USP) who took the Inter-Civilisation Dialogue Study Programme in February 2017 (Recess Week in Semester 2, AY2016/17), Jakarta has come to symbolise something more than traffic jams and shopping sprees.
The one-week Jakarta Study Trip did not arise spontaneously. It was the latest iteration in a series of international study programmes based in USP, and led by Associate Professor Syed Farid Alatas from the NUS Department of Sociology. Previous trips had taken curious students from USP to other ancient cities like Istanbul and Tehran, which likewise possessed rich, long heritages of multicultural tolerance. In these past programmes, students had attended talks and conferences that touched on Iranian and Turkish civilisations, Muslim intellectuals, and interfaith dialogue.
This was the first time the programme had been conducted in Jakarta. Over the course of seven days, the USP delegation, along with a diverse mix of participants from a vast array of backgrounds were acquainted with various aspects of Islamic thought in Indonesia. The issue of how Indonesian Muslims dealt with societal change and modernization was a recurring theme throughout the entire week’s itinerary of dialogues, lectures and forums.
On paper, the schedule was deceptively carefree: how difficult could it be to spend a whole week listening to talks and speeches? As participants discovered, it takes a certain degree of mental and physical stamina to be continually engaging ideas and issues, sometimes in a field you have little knowledge in. For the most part, it was a very challenging schedule: beginning at 9am every day, delegates boarded a minibus that weaved through the formidable Jakarta traffic, and moved them from one location to the next; from one thought-provoking speaker to another. The programme on some days did not end until nearly midnight, with the delegation attending discussions and sharing sessions late into the night.
Despite the packed schedule and long days, the Study Trip was incredibly rich in learning, as the talks and visits spanned topics that crossed into numerous discursive spaces. Speakers included academics and researchers, of course - but also the daughter of a former Indonesian president, veteran feminist activists, and even reformed terrorists/freedom fighters/mujahideen (the labels change depending on who does the labelling). Whether it was campaigning for women’s rights in the province of Aceh, or opening a safe space to discuss controversial topics in Islam, participants were exposed to organisations, perspectives and movements all over Jakarta which are involved in different projects to realise and maintain the vision of a moderate, dynamic and accepting Islam.
Participants not only benefited from the words and thoughts of Indonesian thinkers, however. There was another dimension to the trip – a human one, stemming from the chemistry between delegates themselves. This year’s delegation featured delegates from Krakow to Kuala Lumpur, from Tehran to Toa Payoh. Freshmen shared and debated with postgraduate students and lecturers in an endearingly candid atmosphere of curiosity and openness. If a fly in the minibus had been able to understand the animated conversations that were happening as the vehicle inched across the concrete jungles of Jakarta, it would have caught arguments on the history of sexuality, sociological penetrations, Western neocolonialism, war memory, or the origins of altruism.
The aim of the Jakarta Study Trip sought to give students an opportunity to exchange ideas and foster interaction with researchers and students from Indonesia, as well as offer them insights into the cultural and intellectual aspects of Islam in the Malay world. To read this on paper is entirely different from experiencing it for oneself: through the senses, the mind, and the heart.
As Claire Lew (Pharmacy + USP, Class of 2017) remarked,“The most memorable part of the programme was interacting with people from diverse backgrounds and differing religious views during formal discussions, as well as through casual conversations. It was through these interactions that I gained deeper insights on the complexities of religious issues.”
Jakarta is a messy city, made messier by its proud long traditions of tolerance and freedom of speech. The one-week itinerary was a breathless rush from one formal dialogue to another conference. There had been no time to see the tourist attractions, nor to indulge in much shopping. Instead, participants were privileged with something more sublime: as they traversed the teeming, intellectual and religious landscapes of a city more than six hundred years old.