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Jakarta Post

Youth Pledge Day: Celebrating contemporary youth, too?

Thijs Schut
Perth   ●   Wed, October 28, 2015

On this day in 1928, exactly 87 years ago, the Youth Pledge was made at the Second Youth Congress and Indonesia Raya was sung for the first time. The pledge, which proclaimed unity of homeland, nation and language, laid the foundation for a unified Indonesia, and guided the country through its tumultuous founding years.

Each Oct. 28 we commemorate Hari Sumpah Pemuda (Youth Pledge Day) and its pivotal role in the foundation of Indonesia. This day is also a celebration of youth and its leading role in the national awakening: Young people proclaimed Indonesia'€™s undividable character in 1928, and it was youth that had a leading role in the 1945 Declaration of Independence and the following war of independence. Therefore, Oct. 28 is the celebration of the youthful revolutionary hero, and the ideals it embodies.

The image of the youthful revolutionary hero continues to play an important role in the national imagination, particularly regarding development and progress. Contemporary young Indonesians are still considered to be the vanguard of positive change, as they were in 1928 and 1945.

Education plays a vital role in this imagination: According to widely shared ideals, young people should devote their time and energy to becoming educated, and achieve progress for themselves and the nation. These ideals are endlessly repeated in the public domain and at schools, through state-supported outlets, such as school textbooks and government programs.

As a result, young people consider themselves to be central to national progress and development. For example, for educated young people in central Flores, East Nusa Tenggara '€” where I studied the life course trajectories of educated young people who had returned from studying in a city to their natal communities in Ngada regency '€” their educated status entailed a promise of personal progress, like finding a white-collar job and associated income.

Yet, it was at least equally important to these young people that their educated status also implied a moral obligation to contribute to the well-being of their community, mainly through obtaining jobs that could benefit the community, like being a teacher, nurse or administrator.

The problem, however, is that in areas like Ngada there is not much work for these educated young people. In Ngada, most people still rely on agriculture. Young people, their parents and the community consider an educated status unsuitable for agriculture. Instead, the educated young should aspire to white-collar jobs. However, private sector service jobs are rare in Ngada and the government, which previously
employed most educated young people returning to Ngada, has implemented a hiring freeze since 2011.

Thus, educated young people in Ngada, like in so many other rural area outside Java, have much trouble realizing the promise that their education entails. For the young people I spoke to during my research, this meant that they had to live with '€” and depend on '€” their families, delay marriage (as they were not financially independent) and therefore prolong their youth.

Despite the negative impact that this lack of jobs had on the lives of the educated young in Ngada, they were remarkably active: They pursued volunteering positions at the church or in local government, for example within local health posts. Also, they frequently expressed their commitment to parents, families and the community, and showed a deep connection with local practices through, for example, participating in rituals. As a result, they were active and positive members of their natal communities.

Their actions were not merely opportunistic attempts to gain experience, learn new skills and improve their labor market position; these were also attempts to give substance to notions of being a positive force within their community. In a way, they thus gave shape to the ideals that are celebrated today.

Educated youth were central to the formation of Indonesia. They voiced their discontent with the colonial order, and proposed new ways of imagining the state; that is, as a unified nation. The Youth Pledge is a symbol of young people'€™s capacity to be at the center of positive social change. Also in Ngada, like in many other parts of Indonesia'€™s outer islands, educated young people feel they can contribute to the development of their relatively poor areas. Yet, if young people are unable to find suitable entry-level jobs, how can we expect them to practice the ideals we celebrate today?

We should be aware '€” particularly on Hari Sumpah Pemuda '€” that in many places people still lack basic needs (for example in sanitation, infrastructure and social security), and that educated young people are vital to improve the livelihoods in these areas. Therefore, they need jobs that are appropriate to their level of education and which enable them to live up to their potential to contribute to the welfare of their community.

Their ideals and potential should be nourished and not hindered by a poorly functioning labor market. If the central and local governments are sincere about young people and their capacity to establish positive change, today should not only be a celebration of the Youth Pledge; today should also be, in fact, about celebrating contemporary young people, and paying attention to their difficulties in realizing their potential.

In a way, today is about the educated young men and women of areas like Ngada, and placing them central to the national imagination of the revolutionary young hero, as it is them '€” with the right policy support '€” who will further transform Indonesia into a prosperous nation.

The writer is conducting research for a PhD in anthropology and Asian studies at the University of Western Australia.