“Freedom means Rice”

Food, Agriculture, and Independence in Sukarno-era Indonesia

Sebastiaan Broere


After gaining political independence in 1949, the Indonesian state grappled with permanent food shortages and occasional famine. While the state responded in a variety of ways, including rice redistribution programs and land reform legislation, policy to increase agricultural food production to achieve self-sufficiency received particular attention. Why was this the case? In search for answers, this paper examines the meaning of food production and self-sufficiency in Sukarno-era Indonesia.

Tuong Vu wrote several years ago that the Indonesian state’s “unusual sensitivity to rice as a symbol of authority” was a legacy of the Japanese occupation. This paper submits that the meaning of rice was much richer than simply a symbol of authority. The theme of food production resonated with notions of independence, national development, and social justice, and figured prominently in the discourses and imagery of Indonesia’s postcolonial state. As Sukarno stated in 1952, the meaning of these ideological notions remained empty as long as food shortage continued to grow. Food production, and particularly the cultivation of rice, presented a means to imagine and enact an independent Indonesia.

The exploitative and export-oriented system of agricultural production under Dutch colonial rule served as a counter-marker for the postcolonial state. Officials and politicians pointed out that this economic system left Indonesia’s economy vulnerable to fluctuations in world market prices. It had also rendered Indonesia’s population inactive. Some commentators linked the “myth of the lazy native” to colonial food conditions. If Indonesia strived to become “a strong and healthy nation,” one of the slogans of its national leadership, certain health-determining minima, including nutritional ones, had to be taken into account. During the Sukarno-era (1945-1967), self-sufficiency in the production of subsistence crops became an important goal for national development.

In a 1963 address to foresters and agriculturalists, President Sukarno recalled the encounter with “a young fighter” who asked the president for his view on the meaning of freedom. “Freedom,” Sukarno replied, “means that our country is independent, sovereign, and that we are building a just and prosperous society”. “That is not completely true, Sir,” the man countered politely, “freedom means rice (kanjang makan nasi)”. Within the speech’s framework, the anecdote served to support Sukarno’s claim that Indonesians were too “rice-minded”. Praising the Japanese for eating “everything,” the president suggested that Indonesia’s food problem could be resolved if only the Indonesian people would adjust their diet. Yet the pemuda’s interpretation of freedom contained a kernel of truth, as this paper seeks to demonstrate.