Indonesia’s BASAbali online forums empower youth activists

When BASAbali, a not-for-profit online dictionary based in Bali, checked in with its 1mn users during the pandemic by asking simply “How are you doing?”, staff and volunteers were overwhelmed by the number of responses.

The comments and opinions expressed were very different from users’ usual posts, which rarely touched on political or social issues. Now, they sparked discussions on everything from how Indonesia — of which Bali is a province — should manage Covid to ways of improving its tourism sector and education system.

The responses were surprising given Indonesians’ seeming reluctance to engage online with government policies. A 2018 study by the Pew Research Centre found that only 18 per cent of 18-30-year-olds in Indonesia had posted comments on political or social issues, with the figure falling to 2 per cent for those over 50 — the lowest proportions among the 14 countries surveyed.

But, while the outpouring was in part a reaction to lockdown restrictions, it was also of a piece with BASAbali’s community-oriented philosophy — one that is proving able to galvanise civic engagement among young people in both urban and rural settings.

Co-founded in 2011 by Alissa Stern, an American expert in dispute resolution in developing countries, the platform’s aim was to crowdsource knowledge and strengthen appreciation of Bali’s languages and culture using an online “wiki” platform. In 2019, it won Unesco’s Confucius Prize, which recognises “outstanding efforts . . . [in] the promotion of literacy”.

BASABali has responded to the appetite for social and political comment shown in 2020 by running “wikithon” competitions, which offer cash prizes for the best responses to topical questions — though users can express themselves through other channels, too.

W is for Wiki: participants in a BASAsulsel workshop on interfaith harmony © Ari Ashari

“You can talk about any topic that you want,” explains engagement worker I Kadek Agus Juniantara. “You can either respond to a question posed during our wikithons or our new weekly ‘What’s Up?’ questions, or you can just post an opinion on the ‘Public Voices’ section of the wiki.”

The majority of the platform’s 3mn members — numbers have grown rapidly since 2020, helped by funding from Swiss philanthropists Fondation Botnar — are young people, of whom some 28 per cent are aged 25-35, and 38 per cent 18-24.

Among them is Ketut Yoga Pramuditya, a 21-year-old who took part in BASABali’s initial wikithon. “It’s very important for me to become more aware of current public issues,” he says. “As a young person, I have aspirations and can make a broader impact on our society.”

Women are a significant audience, comprising over 58 per cent of users on the BASAbali wiki. On BASAsulsel — a sister platform set up in 2021 to serve the province of South Sulawesi — 46 per cent of women expressed a desire for greater autonomy, with some delivering trenchant testimony in response to a wikithon about sexual harassment in education.

“Lecturers take this opportunity when female students meet them for thesis guidance or something else,” wrote Siti Fathin Faizah Yunus, 21. “They can touch, or do things that frighten female students or even traumatise them. How should the government make women feel safe and secure?”

With more than 700 languages spoken in Indonesia, BASAbali is a multilingual platform, using not only everyday Balinese but also the more formal Indonesian favoured by government officials, and English. BASAsulsel accommodates speakers of Makassarese and Buginese, and — in a nod to Indonesia’s tradition of oral storytelling as well as to the TikTok generation — both platforms welcome short mobile-phone videos.

Policymakers are starting to pay attention. In 2020, Bali’s governor cited BASAbali when he urged his administration to seek public input on cultural, economic and environmental initiatives.

It remains to be seen, however, whether the platform can influence hard policy choices: the head of Bali’s ministry of culture, for instance, recently used a wikithon to canvass opinion on the values the government should learn from “ogoh-ogoh” — effigies of evil spirits that are a centrepiece of new year’s parades.

Ayus Suaningsih, a BASAbali staff member, warns that, although young people’s voices may be heard by policymakers, “it doesn’t guarantee they will incorporate the suggestions into policies”.

Stern, however, notes that BASAbali and BASAsusel are gaining traction in key segments of society. “The two wikis represent a growing number of local languages, national language [and] international language resources used in public participation,” she says. “They are now increasingly being used by schools, provincial governing bodies, communities and NGOs.”

Others point out that cultural change takes time. “We’re working to change behaviour,” says BASAbali community organiser Dewa Ayu Widya Utami. “From policymakers acting on their own, to a culture where policymakers regularly reach out to young people for their opinions and have regular dialogue.”

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