Difference is Full of Wisdom of Life

Monday, October 23, 2006
By nias

An Interview With Basyral Hamidy Harahap

Introduction: Recently Yaahowu website held an Online Discussion with a topic ”Welcoming and Reflecting on the Formation of the Tapanuli Province”, from 10 July – 17 August 2006. The organiser surfed various internet sites to search for the materials suitable to be included in the forum. An artcle, called: “Tribalisme: Sisi Gelap Otonomi Daerah” (Tribalism: The Dark Side of Regional Autonomy) was found in the website of Basyral Hamidy Harahap. This article was then included in the Discussion. The content of the article raised the interest of the Discussion Organiser to get to know more closely its writer. E. Halawa* of Situs Yaahowu then contacted Mr. Harahap by email. After a number of email exchanges, Pak Harahap was keen to share his views on a number of matters to visitor of Yaahowu website through an e-mail interview.

[Note: The Indonesian version of this interview can be found at Situs Yaahowu website. This English version was intentionally displayed in the eve of Idul Fitri 1 Syawal 1427 H as a way of saying: Selamat Hari Raya Idul Fitri, Pak Harahap]

Could you tell us briefly the history of the formation of North Sumatra Province – well known as one of Indonesia’s multiethnic provinces ?

The formation of the North Sumatra Province was based on the Law Number 10/1948 issued in Yogyakarta on April 15, 1948, which divided Sumatra into three provinces, i.e.: North Sumatra Provinve, Central Sumatra Province, and South Sumatra Province as autonomous provinces. The North Sumatra Province consisted of three residencies, i.e.: Aceh, East Sumatra, and Tapanuli. The Provincial Parliament was chaired by the Governor who had no vote. The Executive Council consisted of five persons who were elected among the Provincial Parliament members. The Governor chaired the Executive Council, and had the vote.

The tasks of the former Governor of Sumatra, Teuku Muhammad Hasan, were taken over by the Commissariat (a board of commissioners) formed by the Central Government who then handed over these tasks to the newly formed provinces. Teuku Muhammad Hasan was appointed as the Chairman of the Commissariat of the Central Government who resided in Bukittinggi.

S.M. Amin was installed as the Governor of North Sumatra by President Sukarno on June 19, 1948 in Kotaraja (now Banda Aceh). Nias was one of the regencies of the North Sumatra Province. Nias archipelago consists of a total of 132 islands, among others: Nias Island (the main island), Batu in the South, Hinako in the West and North, and the islands Lafau, Senau, etc.

The North Sumatra Province has multi ethnic population, i.e.: Malay, Minangkabau, Acehnese, Javanese, Bataks (Karo, Simalungun, Dairi, Toba, and Angkola-Mandailing), Niassans, Coastal peoples, Chinese, Arabs, Indian, Pakistani. These multi ethnic inhabitants profess many religions, such as: Islam, Christians (Protestantism and Roman Catholicism), Hinduism, Buddhism and some local traditional religions.

Despite being multi-ethnic and multi religious, North Sumatra is one of the “calmest” and most harmonious provincies in Indonesia.

Medan, the capital of North Sumatra Provice, has so far enjoyed the most peaceful time and life – despite it being a city with religious and cultural pluralism. Why ?

The calmness is the result of the social equilibrium, balance and harmony, in ethnic relationships, where all of the components of the society are harmoniously functioning, that all tribes look after their groups and other groups to avoid social conflicts.

The facts show that the multi ethnic populations of the North Sumatra Province practice their noble cultural values which teach them the wisdom that there is interdependency among themselves.

The other factors are the character and mentality of the North Sumatran. They are rational, pragmatic, and not emotional.

All of the groups know their strength as well as their weakness. So they are used to calculate the luck and loss, benefit and disadvantage of any action and attitude for the sake of the human life. The North Sumatran people realized the wisdom of the national motto, “Unity in Diversity” (this is an old Javanese motto, first used by the Mojopahit poet Mpu Tantular in th 15th century).

May we hope that the people of Medan city and North Sumatra Province in general will never engange in any religious and tribal conflicts in the future ? Weren’t the Ambonese (the people of Ambon) previously enjoying the harmony but eventually had to accept the bitter fact: the bloody war among themselves ?

Yes, we may hope that the peoples of Medan and North Sumatra will escape from any ethnic, religion and race conflicts, as far as there are no activities of any group that may destroy the social equilibrium.

According to the experts, the Ambon conflicts happened because the peoples had been pulled from their noble tradition and cultural roots, for example the annihilation of the noble tradition and cultural values as the foundation of the harmonious life of the traditional communities. The replacement of the traditional village government with the village administration based on the national law opens a possibility that the Ambonese villages may be headed by lurah who come from the outside of the Ambonese villages. Lurah were more dominant than the wise and charismatic traditional leaders who even might have magical capabilities, etc. The communities lost their genuine spiritual leaders who have guarded them in the physical and spiritual lifes. The other factors are: the presence of the political and social organizations that might motivate the society to have friends as well as enemies at the same time. These conditions create sensitive spots that result in different opinions which in turn may ignite conflicts. The conditions then might be exacerbated by the differences in the dynamics between the outsiders and the local people, which may drive social jealousy that touch the ethnic, religion and race pillars.

In one of your writings which is also displayed on this website (Situs Yaahowu), you mentioned the population distribution based on religions professed by the people of Tapanuli. What would these figures mean in the long term in terms of the harmonious conditions that have been enjoyed so far by the people of North Sumatra ?

As far as I remember, I mentioned the religious composition in Tapanuli in my paper at the International Interdisciplinary Symposium on Cultures and Societies of North Sumatra, held at the Universität Hamburg, in Autumn 1981. That was the analysis of the results of the 1955 general elections, that the majority of the North Tapanuli people are Christians, and the majority of the people of the South Tapanuli are Muslims. That is one of the many sides of the social equilibrium.

What is your opinion about the Syariah (Islamic) regulations issued by a number of local goverments across Indonesia? What would be your advice to the local governments, in particular the Government of North Sumatra, related to this issue?

I have an opinion that the Islamic Syariah regulations issued by the local government are good. The local regulations are issued in connection with the promotion of the quality of religious life among the Muslims, to teach the Muslims to become true Muslims. My advice to the heads of the local governments, that it is their task to socialize the Islamic regulations to the general public including to the non-Muslims communities so that they understand clearly that the local regulations are only for the sake of the Muslims in the certain regions, so that the Muslims become true Muslims based on the Al Qur’an and Hadis of the Prophet Muhammad, the God Messenger. The socialization may refer to the Madina Charter in the time of the Prophet Muhammad, that ruled the very temperamental multi ethnic, race and religion societies lived in harmony and peace with the Muslims in Madina.

Shouldn’t a local government regulation be issued for the interest of the whole population and should not be directed specifically to a certain group of people, based on their religion for example? Can you accept if, for example, the Government of Papua Province or other provinces in which the majority of population are Christians, issues special regulation(s) for Christians for their own benefits ? Don’t you think that this will become the trigger for the destruction of the Indonesian State ? What if – (assuming the idea of Tapanuli Province formation materialises) – the Government of Tapanuli Province follow your advice and issue “Christian” regulations ?

As far as I know, there are no laws which specifically prohibit the local government to issue local regulations for the benefit of a certain community members in a certain area. We know for examples, there are ministerial level decrees known as SKB (joint Ministerial Decrees) on the regulations of how to build churches.

It is good if the local government take part to motivate its populations to obey their religious orders, so that the local peoples practice their religion according to their sacred scriptures.

Go ahead, if, for example, the Papua local government issued local regulations to motivate its Christian populations to obey the orders of their religion, so that they become true Christian followers. No doubt, such local regulations will favour the followers of the certain religion in the certain area. The more people obey their religious teachings, the more they become good members of their multi ethnic, religion and race community.

Your question is very strange to me. Why, if everybody practiced their religion according to the orders of their Holy Scriptures, will destroy the Union State of the Republic of Indonesia (NKRI)? There is no problem if the utopian province, Tapanuli Province, will issue local regulations that will favour the Christians, Hindus, and Buddhists in the area, if the goal of the regulations will motivate the followers of the religions to practice their true religions. You are surely understand, that if anyone does not obey their religious teachings according to their Holy Scriptures, that is the beginning of the destructions.

For example, according to the Islamic teachings, it is a must for every Muslim to appreciate, to love, to protect, and help in need to solve his/her neighbors’ life problems. Islamic teachings say that anybody hurts his/her neighbours may not enter the heaven.

There are three kinds of neighbors:

First, as neighbor, as family members, and as Muslims. These neighbors have three rights to be treated as neighbors, as family members, and as Muslims.

Second, as neighbors and as Muslims, but non-family members. These neighbors have two rights to be treated as neighbors and as Muslims.

Third, as neighbors, but non-family members and non-Muslims. These neighbors have one right to be treated as neighbors only. A Muslim must help his/her non-Muslim neighbors in solving their poorness, daily life problems, to help in need, for examples when their neighbors are sick, etc. The Muslim has no duty to involve in the family and religious problems of their non-Muslim and non-family neighbors. Because, religious problems are the only own by the believers of the certain religion.

Al-Qur’an Surah 109 verses 2-6, says:

Laa a’buduu maa ta’buduun. Wa laa antum ‘aabiduuna maa a’bud. Wa laa ana ‘aabidum maa ‘abattum. Wa laa antum ‘aabiduuna maa a’bud. Lakum diinukum wa liya diin.(I worship not that which you worship. Nor will you worship that I worship. And I shall not worship that which you are worshipping. Nor will you worship that which I woship. To you be your religion, and to me my religion).

These verses show the wideness of the Islamic teachings that will not force other people to obey the Islamic teachings. Everybody practice his/her religious orders, and not mix the teachings of one religion with the others.

Let’s now move to the idea of the formation of Tapanuli Province. In your aforementioned article, you vehemently reject this idea. Is this a very bad idea?

The movements of the formation of the Tapanuli Province are mainly organized by small groups of the Toba Bataks. I have asked the opinions of some of the Toba Batak intellectuals in Jakarta on the idea of the formation of the Tapanuli Province. They told me that the idea is not good. Their reason is that the creation of the Tapanuli Province may tend to raise social tensions in Tapanuli.

The history has recorded that the people of South Tapanuli (now South Tapanuli Regency, Padangsidimpuan Municipal City, and the Mandailing Natal Regency) refused the idea of the formation of the Batakraad (Batak Council) in the end of the 1930s, and the Mandailing society still refused to unite with Nothern people even though the name of the council was changed to Tapanoeliraad (Tapanuli Council). The spirit is still strong in connection with the idea of the formation of the Tapanuli Province.

The difference in religion and mentality among the North-South are parts of the very potential sensitive spots of the ethnic, religion, and race. This point of view was also elaborated by sociologist, Prof. Usman Pelly, in his article published by Harian Analisa last year edition.

Why do you think North and South Tapanuli people cannot be united to form a Tapanuli Province ? Is this due to difference in their religions? Or are there any more fundamental reasons?

It is hard to unite the two regions into a Tapanuli Province. I have mentioned some of the reasons in my answer to the above Question number 6. The other factors are: the North aggressiveness, the strong land hunting spirits, difference in decency norms, the different attititude on the conflict values: the South feel that involving in conflict is a shame, but the North feel that the conflict is a part of their life dynamics. May be the Nias feel that too (the effects of the Toba Batak dynamic life).

In an Online Discussion recently held by this website, there are a number of options contemplated for Nias; among others: (a) stay in the North Sumatra Province, (2) fuse into Tapanuli Province, (c) form own Nias Province, or (d) create a West-Coastal Province together with other islands along the Sumatra’s western coast such as Mentawai islands. Is there a more aceptable option, such as South Tapanuli-Nias Province? (There has always been a harmonious relationship between Nias and Mandailing people despite their religious difference)

First choice, still in the North Sumatra Province. Second choice, create the Nias Archipelago Province. The idea of the South Tapanuli-Nias Province is not correct, eventhough the two communities live in harmony and peace though they have different in ethnic and religion. I have heard an idea of the formation of Tasmanlaba Province (South Tapanuli, Mandailing Natal and Labuhan Batu) which base on their strong common history, ethnic, religion, cultural traditions, language, mentality and natural environtments. The Tasmanlaba Province may have harbors on the edge of the Indian Ocean and on the Straits of Malacca.

Can you explain the origin of “Tapanuli” term ? Does this term closely relate to Batak?

As far as I know, the word Tapanuli is derived from the Batak language: tapian means bath place, na means which is, uli means beautiful. Tapian Na Uli meaning the beautiful bath place. The words Tapian Na Uli then spelled Tapanuli. Tapanuli is the bay of Sibolga faced Mursala Isle and Nias Island on the West Coast of the North Sumatra Province. The word Tapanuli is closely related to the Batak.

In you opinion, is there any cultural relation between Nias and Batak ?

I may say, that Nias is a cultural island, that is a region that has unique cultural types. So unique, that we can not trace any type of the Batak cultures in the Nias cultures. There are many differences between Nias and Batak, i.e. language, traditions, traditional sayings, architecture, traditional ceremonies, the decency in youth relationship, traditional religions, etc. There is a clear different in the postures between the Nias and Bataks. They have also different in the paths of their forefather migration history.

A numnber of Batak writers claim that Nias ethnic is a sub-ethnic of Batak. Therefore, according to them, there: Batak Toba, Batak Mandailing, Batak Karo, … and Batak Nias. Your opinion ?

Such an opinion is the manifestation of the strong batakness spirit. My opinions are in my answers to a previous question.

What are the best presciptions for maintaining the ethnic and religious harmony among the people of North Sumatra in particluar and of Indonesia in general ?

To respect for differences is one of the ways to maintain social harmony in different communities with different religion, traditions, language etc. The differences are full of wisdoms of life. By appreciating the difference, we will know more about ourselves and other peoples. The other recipes are: all parties should practice their religion and their noble cultural values as the basic philosophy for their code of conducts in their attitudes in multi ethnic, religion, and race communities. And in the national level, the government should create curriculum on the diversity of ethnics, languages and cultures of the Indonesian nation beginning from the kindergarden to university levels. Local languages and cultures should be taught in the elementary, junior and senior high schools. Parents and the community take part in the teaching processes. Parents should speak in their local languages in their family life, so that their children can speak in their vernacular. Good to remember that vernacular language full of high wisdom of life. Not long ago, I was introduced to someone who belongs to Sembiring clan. He was born and grew in the far places from his original homeland. No doubt, he must be a Karonese. But I was surprise when he asked me whether my clan, Harahap, belongs to the Karonese clans.

What are your messages to the visitors of Yaahowu (and Nias Oline) Website ?

My advices, let us enrich our knowledge and experiences on the diversity in ethnics, religions, and the cultures of our nation. We need the knowledge and experiences to interact with other people properly, so that we can live in harmony, peace, and love as the children of our nation.


Basyral Hamidy Harahap, born in Sihepeng, Kecamatan Siabu, Mandailing Natal, 15 November 1940. Lecturer at the Fakultas Sastra Universitas Indonesia 1964-1975, Part-time librarian at Lembaga Pers dan Pendapat Umum (Press and Public Opinions Intitute) in Jakarta 1964-1965, Head of the Department of the Library School, Fakultas Sastra Universitas Indonesia 1965-1967, Lecturer at the Job Training Lembaga Administrasi Negara (Institute of Public Administration) 1965-1967, Bibliographer at Ikatan Penerbit Indonesia Pusat (Central Board of the Indonesian Publishers Association) 1967-1969, Part-time librarian at the Representative Office of the Koninklijk Instituut voor Taal-, Land- en Volkenkunde (KITLV) in Jakarta 1969-1975, Assissted the President of the Universitas Indonesia in preparation of the Central Library of the Universitas Indonesia 1970, Reporter of the Pendam V Jaya (The Jakarta Military Command Information Services) 1970, Acquistions Representative of the Indonesian Publications for Malaysian universities: UM, UKM, USM, UPM dan UTM 1970-1976, Retired from the civil servant 1975, Ful-time librarian of the KITLV 1975-1995, Part-time lecturer at the Fakultas Sastra Universitas Indonesia 1976-1977, Researches on the biography and works of Sati Nasution gelar Sutan Iskandar (Pidoli Lombang Maret 1840 – Amsterdam 8 Mei 1876) who was famous as Willem Iskander, poet and the pioneer in the teachers’ education in the 19th century Indonesia. He founded Kweekschool voor Inlandsch Onderwijzers in Mandailing in 1862. Archival researches on Willem Iskander began in the Netherlands in 1975, and continued in 1981, 1985, 1989 and Juli-Agustus 2006. Reporter of Selecta Group 1976-1985, Co-founder of the Yayasan Adam Malik (Adam Malik Foundation) 1985, then Secretary of the Adam Malik Foundation 1985-1998, Assistant to the Editor of the Masyarakat Indonesia : Majalah Ilmu-Ilmu Sosial Indonesia published by Lembaga Ilmu Pengetahuan Indonesia (LIPI) 1986-1987, Member of the Central Board of the Ikatan Pustakawan Indonesia (Indonesian Librarian Association) 1992-1995, Head of the Office of the Central Board of the Indonesian Librarian Association 1997-1998, Source person of the Sumatra Heritage Trust since Oktober 1998, Member of the Kelurahan Council of the Kelurahan Jati, East Jakarta 2001-2006. Wrote many works on Willem Iskander and on socio-cultural issues of South Tapanuli and Mandailing-Natal, for examples: The Political Trends of South Tapanuli and its Reflections in the General Elections 1955, 1971 and 1977 presented at the International Interdisciplinary Symposium on Cultures and Societies of North Sumatra di Universität Hamburg, Germany, November 1981, published in Cultures and Societies of North Sumatra in Berlin and Hamburg by Dietrich Reimer Verlag in 1987, ISBN 3-496-00181-X ; paper Islam and Adat Among South Tapanuli Migrants in Three Indonesian Cities: Jakarta, Medan and Bandung presented at the Tenth Annual Indonesian Studies Conference di Ohio University, Athens, USA, Agustus 1982, published in Indonesian Religions in Transition in Tucson, Arizona, by The University of Arizona Press in 1987, ISBN 0-8165-1020-2. Published collected poems Kumpulan Puisi: Perjalanan, by Penerbit Puisi Indonesia in Jakarta 1984, one of the poems is New York translated by John H. McGlynn, published in Manhattan Sonnet: Indonesian Poems, Short Stories, and Essays about New York in Jakarta by The Lontar Foundation, 2001. – ISBN 979-8083-40-7. – p. 44-45. Since 1979 Assistant to Prof. Dr. Bernhard Dahm in the research on the traditions and modernization of the South Tapanuli peoples in 1979, 1980, 1989, 1994. Member of the writer team of the book 60 Tahun Indonesia Merdeka published by the State Secreatiat in August 2006.

Nias Onlne’s note: The readers can find the works of Basyral Hamidy Harahap at his website:


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Kalender Berita

October 2006