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How many national heroes do we need?

Asvi Warman Adam, Singapore | Opinion | Thu, December 15 2011, 9:32 AM

Indonesia today has 156 national heroes. From 1959, when the first hero was declared, up to the
end of Soehartos regime in May 1998, a total of 104 heroes had officially been named. But only
within the last 13 years, the country has awarded national hero status to 52 individuals.
The question now is how many national heroes does Indonesia actually need?
Female figures account for less than 10 percent of the above total (12). Three married couples
join the list (Muhammadiyah founder Ahmad Dahlan and his wife Nyi Ahmad Dahlan, Acehnese
freedom fighters Teuku Umar and Cut Nyak Dhien, and Sukarno and the countrys original first
lady, Fatmawati) along with a father and son pair (founder of Nahdlatul Ulama, Hasyim Ashari,
and Wahid Hasyim).
The title of national hero cannot be withdrawn. In 1963, Tan Malaka, an anti-colonialist
freedom fighter was declared a national hero, and a communist figure, Alimin, made it into the
list the following year.
But after Soeharto came to power in 1968, these two leftists were given no place in the countrys
history that was taught in schools, despite their hero status.
The idea behind the national hero award is to evoke a spirit of nationalism. The tales of their
struggles are told in schools or via the mass media, particularly on television on numerous
But by my count, only 10 percent of these figures are popular among the general public.
Nomination requirements and criteria for national heroes have been set forth in a number of
regulations, including a 1957 presidential decree, a 1964 law and, most recently, a regulation
enforced in 2009.
The latest law on national heroes says that a national hero is a citizen of Indonesia or a person
who fought against colonial forces in regions now within the territories of the Unitary State of
the Republic of Indonesia who were killed or died defending their people and country, or who,
during the course of their life, carried out an act of heroism or made a great achievement and
produced outstanding work that were key to the development and progress of the people and the
country of Indonesia.
National heroes come from both the military and the general public. During the New Order era,
the military dominated the countrys political life and the writing of Indonesias official history.
The suppression of insurrections in several parts of Indonesia by the armed forces was reported
in detail.

This is the reason why the military rejected the nomination of leaders involved in insurgencies,
such as the Revolutionary Government of the Republic of Indonesia (PRRI) rebellion and
Permesta, for national hero status.
A candidate for hero is usually nominated by regional governments (municipal or regency
level), which then submit the name to the provincial government and later to the Social Affairs
Following a selection phase at the ministry, the name is taken to the Board of Title, Order of
Merit and Decoration that has a membership of seven, for examination before final approval is
given by the President.
Thailand has far fewer heroes than Indonesia, and most of them have been military leaders and
Since the country was never directly colonized, their national heroes are individuals who fought,
for instance, against Burma. Their selection procedure is not as complicated as Indonesias,
according to Thai historian, Charnvit Kasetsiri.
In France, national heroes are comparable to figures who were (re-)buried at the Panthon in
Paris. The total number of residents in the Panthon is no more than 80 and includes scientists
and Nobel laureates Pierre Curie and Marie Curie, and writers Voltaire, Rousseau, mile Zola
and Victor Hugo. The body of Alexandre Dumas was only moved there in 2002, 132 years after
his death.
The latest internment, in 2009, was Albert Camus, whose books have been translated into
Indonesian. Those buried here are Great People and recognized by their country.
The next question would be: when would be the right time for an individual to be declared a
national hero, and how long would the nomination process take? Sukarno became a national hero
in 1986, or 16 years after his death.
It is said that the nomination of Bung Tomo, a prominent figure in the Battle of Surabaya on
Nov. 10, 1945, was rejected twice during the New Order regime. Chinese Indonesians had to
wait 50 years before their candidate, John Lie, was declared a hero in 2009.
There is, however, no national hero of Arab descent on the list. We have authors and songwriters
listed but no figures from the local world of sports.
The nominations of some candidates took a long time, while the nominations for others were
speedy, such as the cases of Soehartos wife Siti Hartinah and Gen. Basuki Rachmat, who
delivered Supersemar (The Letter of March 11), which marked the transfer of power from
Sukarno to Soeharto in 1966.
Islamic figures Mohammad Natsir and Sjafruddin Prawiranegara were proposed more than once.
Natsirs nomination was approved in 2009, but Sjafruddins hero title only came last month. The

two were involved in the PRRI.

Two points can be made here. First, history is now a subject of negotiation as well as a victim of
government intervention, as evident during the New Order regime. Second, the military is no
longer involved in political decision-making.
The successful efforts to make Natsir (2009) and Sjafruddin (2011) national heroes introduced
new blood in preparation for the upcoming election for Islamic parties, which recently lost a
great deal of votes.
Less intense moves were also driven by a Catholic figure, Harry Tjan Silalahi, who initiated the
nomination of Ignatius Joseph Kasimo as a national hero. Kasimo also made it to the national
hero list this year.
There are two conclusions that can be drawn from this discussion.
First, it is difficult to limit the number of national heroes as it depends on how people value the
fighting spirit of candidates.
Only a small number of national heroes are widely and publicly known. But as regional
autonomy takes root, the spirit to nominate national heroes from various regions seems set to
What is the quota for a province? Of the 33 provinces in Indonesia, some have more than 10
heroes while some have none.
Second, it is also important to note when a figure can be nominated. Former presidents Soeharto
and Abdurrahman Gus Dur Wahid have been nominated for years, but many groups resist their
Soeharto is deemed ineligible for the status due to his alleged involvement in corruption and
serious violations of human rights. But if Gus Dur were to be named a hero, pressure would
mount for equal treatment for Soeharto.
This kind of problem may be addressed if there were a law or government regulation stating that
a figure can only be nominated a national hero at least 10 or 15 years after his or her demise.
The writer is a historian at the Indonesian Institute of Sciences (LIPI). The article is an abridged
version of a paper presented at the seminar History as Controversy: Writing and Teaching
Contentious Topics in Asian Countries, in Singapore on Dec. 14-15, 2011.

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