All hail the great Indomie, the all-encompassing and the ruler of taste buds. This simple and cheap noodle has become the comfort food of many Indonesians and the immensity of its popularity outstrips ethnicity and class. The question of how does this noodle broke through societal differences is an interesting question to be discussed.
Indomie originated from Chinese noodles that brought by merchants and immigrants during the colonial era. To serve local palates, adjustments of its recipe happened. In the 70s, Indomie was mass-produced by the Indofood company. For a mere 2.500 Rupiahs (16 US cents), one would enjoy a fulfilling meal. Its cost-efficient yet palate-appealing characters are the main reason for the widespread popularity. With the spread of this dish, it represents a growing trend in Indonesia of shared identity between the ethnicities.
During the olden days, Indonesia’s ethnic lines were rigid due to the colonizer-mandated societal structure that prefers non-natives such as the Chinese, Arabs, and Europeans over the natives. Inter-ethnic relationships are not better, many of the ethnicities' leaders counted upon the societal structure to maintain their legitimacy. Through the Indomie one can tell what has changed in Indonesia after the years of independence, a tale like that of the origins of the Indomie—an initial rejection, forced assimilation, and change.
The tale begins in 1945—the year of Independence. The past Indonesian identity was born out of the common suffering under colonialism, but now after independence, the greatest question being the question of the post-colonial Indonesian identity. The founding fathers decided that the post-colonial identity will be of friendship under the same nation, country, and language. Not one ethnicity would rule the country, the decision to use Malay (now called Indonesian) as the lingua franca instead of Javan—the language that over 60% of the population at the time spoke—is one such example of equality. Equality as a foundation of Indonesia has been laid out from the start.
But some people misinterpret equality, those people that took it too far are people behind the Suharto Dictatorship. In the years of 1972-1998, Indonesia’s booming economy has been fueled by the suppression of civil liberties and unequal treatments of minorities. Regardless of the inequality of treatment, the Chinese—a minority—have succeeded in controlling the economy of Indonesia. The stark economic divide between non-Chinese and Chinese has justified anti-Chinese sentiments. Many thought that it is still unequal and further antagonized the Chinese. This attitude culminated on the 1998 race riots after the 1997 Asian Economic Crisis hits Indonesia particularly hard and many Chinese entrepreneurs are put to the blame.
The discrimination towards people that do not match with the dictatorship-era identity does not stop with the Chinese. The Papuans have also been discriminated because of the colour of their skin. Papuan lands that are rich with minerals are being exploited not for the benefits of the Papuans, but for the benefits of the corrupt officials. Angered by this, many Papuans seek to change this state but failed miserably. Countless critics have also been subdued and thrown in jail due to their dissident views. The people were complicit due to the fear of being called a communist—a term that was associated with the 1965 conflict. However, in 1997 the same economic crisis that led to the persecution of the Chinese also lead to the fall of the dictatorship.
After the economic progress that the dictatorship has promised gone overnight, support of the dictatorship hit an all-time low and many began rioting and protesting. People thought that the country’s goals have been distorted and the systematic cruelty denies the conditions for freedom. Suharto resigns after demonstrations against his rule and with his resignation a new era of reform arose. Pluralism for the politically empowered group, licensed rights, and the rule of law was reinstated. With the reforms, also came the decentralization of power where local governments are given greater freedom hence allowing a more flexible regional identity.
Contemporary history of Indonesia is scarred with ethnic conflicts, but success in voluntary ethnic integration is something greater than that of its conflicts. Discrimination of other ethnicities is unheard of in many urban regions of Indonesia and inter-ethnic marriages are not uncommon in many major cities of Indonesia. Indonesia’s success story of maintaining high levels of diversity while at the same time having a strong sense of national belonging is something to be proud of.
Going back to Indomie, I identify it as an anchor-object for the state of the Indonesian identity for its reach and popularity. When Indomie started making more varieties of noodles, I analyze what is going on in Indonesia. I concluded that its producers are starting to diversify their noodle selections to include local varieties of noodles. This is a sign of the changing Indonesian identity demanding more diversity. After the rigid dictatorship-era ideals being abolished, local and individual identities are being liberated. Indonesia is once again a nation of diversity.
Everyone in Indonesia will say Indomie is delicious. This same sense of unity is what made current Indonesia possible. From a simple noodle dish, one can tell the history and identity of a nation. This is how a noodle broke societal differences. Answered within Indonesia’s own history and identity. An identity to be proud of and a history to be explored.