Often, children in public schools in the United States will recite the Pledge of Allegiance at the beginning of a school day. Requiring America’s young minds to declare their allegiance to their country and its flag can seem a bit odd, maybe even jingoistic, but in Indonesia most schools take the opportunity to foster a sense of nationalism a step further.

Each Monday at my school there is a flag ceremony. The word for ceremony is upacara (oo-puh-char-uh) and most people know upacara refers to the flag ceremony, though it can refer to other types of ceremonies. Weekly is common, however, some schools will have the flag ceremony once a month, on the seventeenth, to commemorate the day Indonesia declared its independence.

The entire ceremony lasts for almost an hour and it’s not a thrilling event. In hotter regions of Java students are known to pass out due to dehydration and standing in the sun for too long. Some volunteers have also fainted during their respective schools’ upacara. In places where this is common the Red Cross student organization will be standing by ready to cart off anyone who is unlucky enough to succumb to the pressure of upacara.

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Upacara is handled quite seriously by all those involved. It greatly resembles a military procedure, lots of marching, assembly into lines and rows, yelling of commands and yelling of replies in unison. Everyone stands at attention and no one is allowed to speak. I think it would be difficult to implement this kind of a school activity with American children nowadays. Despite the fact that over seven hundred high school aged kids are packed into an area a little larger than the size of a basketball court everyone remains very quiet.

My understanding of upacara is not all-encompassing, but I have spoken with a few Indonesians and have been to upacaras at a few different schools. Near the beginning of the ceremony there is a rollcall of the classes to make sure that everyone is present. Not every individual student is called, but the classes are called upon and a designated student calls back to verify their class is present.

Sometime after the rollcall three students will march to the flag pole and raise the Indonesian flag. While the flag is being raised a group of students will sing the national anthem of Indonesia: Indonesia Raya, or Great Indonesia. It’s a lovely little tune but, to me at least, it sounds rather European and not like the national anthem of a Southeast Asian nation.

The Indonesian flag is officially known as the “Sang Saka Merah Putih” (meaning the “lofty bicolor red and white). Indonesia’s flag is nearly identical to the flag of Monaco except for the dimension ratio. Indonesia’s flag is two by three and Monaco’s flag is four by five. Meaning Indonesia’s flag is slightly longer than Monaco’s flag. Poland’s flag is also similar with white is on the top half and red on the bottom and the dimensions of the Polish flag are five by eight.

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The flag of Indonesia.

After the flag raising and singing of the national anthem the upacara leader will deliver a brief message to the students telling them to work hard, preserve Indonesian culture, and make Indonesia great. Indonesia’s hundreds of years of colonization is mentioned to add weight to the importance of the ceremony. Parts of the constitution of Indonesia (Undang-Undang Dasar Republik Indonesia) are read about how every county has a right to freedom and colonization should be erased.

The most interesting part of upacara is the reading, and recitation by the students, of Pancasila (Pan-chuh-see-lah). Pancasila is a portmanteau of two Javanese words which mean “five principles,” and these are the principles which Indonesian government is supposed to be modeled after and abide by. There isn’t a clear analog within the American government; though, I would say the closest thing we have in comparison is the preamble to the constitution, to which there are some striking similarities.

The following are the core tenets of Pancasila:

  1. Belief in one God
  2. Fair and civilized humanity
  3. The unity of Indonesia
  4. Democracy guided by the wisdom from the deliberations of gathered representatives
  5. Social justice for all peoples of Indonesia

Pancasila can be seen inscribed on government buildings and the emblem with its bird depiction is found in every classroom.

Pancasila deserves its own post but some key things are points one and three. Belief in one God is required by the government. Religions with more than one god are not recognized by the government and neither is atheism.

The unity of Indonesia. When Indonesia gained its independence there was no guarantee this massive collection of disparate cultures and people would stay together. It is, after all, a collection of thousands of islands and hundreds of languages. Declaring “unity” as one of the main points of Indonesian government reflects how hard people have worked to keep the archipelago united.

Upacara is an interesting practice that is quite unlike anything I can think of in the United States. But, in a lot of ways, it makes plenty of sense. What better way to create a sense of national identity than by having schoolchildren go through an hour-long flag ceremony every week?

4 thoughts on “Upacara

  1. “What better way to create a sense of national identity than by having schoolchildren go through an hour-long flag ceremony every week?”

    I can’t think of a better way, but I don’t think upacara is doing any better in nurturing our national identity.

    Reminiscing when I have to do this every Monday during my 6-years of elementary school (80s-90s), all I can think of is to pray that it will get over soon. As one of the shorter guys, I will always stand at the front rows, no chance of joking around — while my taller friends at the back can chat and talks about last night’s MacGyver episode :D. Upacara is a pain.

    Ironically, I remember having a different feeling when the teacher assign me to one of the tasks, either to raise the flag, read the preamble of the constitution, or bringing the Pancasila text to the leader. Ah, talking about that, not sure it’s the same practice there, do you find it odd that the student need to do this? Can’t the leader memorize Pancasila? 😀

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    1. I don’t think the flag ceremony is all that odd given the context. Haha! It is surprising the leader doesn’t memorize Pancasila instead of reading it each time but I guess that’s one of those things you don’t want to mess up so it’s better not to mess around with memorization. Thank you for taking the time to read what I wrote about upacara!

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