An intrigue of Indonesian politics to Western observers is the latest use -- and sometimes abuse -- of Pancasila, a five-point national philosophy with as many shades and shadows as the Wayang puppet play.
Since 1978 all civil servants from just below minister down to village chief have been required to attend a government-run ''refresher'' course on the meaning of Pancasila. And two years ago a lively academic debate broke out over the application of the ideology to economics.
Put forth in 1945 by founding father Sukarno as a unifier for a divided, emerging nation, Pancasila remains as fundamental to Indonesia as the Bill of Rights is to the United States. In its simple statement, Pancasila, or ''five principles,'' reads like an admirable code for a nation, with each principle symbolized in the Indonesian coat of arms:
* Belief in one god (star).
* Humanitarianism for all peoples (chain).
* National unity (buffalo head).
* Democracy (banyan tree).
* Social justice (rice and cotton).
Almost daily, newspaper headlines in Indonesia tell of the government's interpretation of Pancasila. For instance, President Suharto said recently that Pancasila does not forbid people to accumulate wealth. Such an interpretation contrasts with Sukarno's belief in the early 1960s that Pancasila can include Marxism. Delving into interpretations, however, can be as baffling to outsiders as the abstract concepts themselves. If there is one consensus on Pancasila, it is that the doctrine drives for political consensus, the kind that marks most Asian countries.
''What Pancasila does is replace other 'isms,' '' says Vice-President Adam Malik. ''In Pancasila there is no place for communism. But neither is there a place for capitalism.
''It's our own ideology, which has grown within us and which wards off any other ideologies.''
Critics see Pancasila as a smoke screen for the Suharto government to claim legitimacy and to deny demands of fundamental Islamic leaders for pro-Muslim policies. Others see it as too vague to be meaningful.
''Indonesians talk 'Pancasila, Pancasila, Pancasila', and they end up talking about nothing at all,'' says A. M. W. Pranarka, political specialist at Indonesia's only think-tank, the Center For Strategic and International Studies.
''Suharto has used Pancasila purely as a nationalistic interpretation, and not in an egalitarian way or in a religious context,'' he adds.
Indeed, memories of the 1965-66 massacre of communists -- and even atheists -- are still fresh in Indonesia, and a need for communal identity to depolarize the populace may remain strong. On a day-to-day basis, however, the official ideology comes in handy to justify government projects such roads, dams, or family planning.
It is particularly useful in promoting village cooperatives in the name of unity, social justice, and democracy. ''Right now, the concept of social justice will figure more and more in the national consciousness,'' states Vice-President Malik. ''We must achieve a socially just society, not just a prosperous society.''
''Vis-a-vis religion, Pancasila does not poise an either-or proposition, because Pancaslia encompasses all religions (in the belief in one god),'' he adds. The danger always exists, says Mr. Malik, that one political group may stress one principle over another, such as the communists in the 1960s putting unity first. ''That is why we are having refresher courses on Pancasila. We are not naive to think that everyone will be a Pancasilist overnight. What's important is that everyone get the same interpretation.''
The New Order regime of President Suharto has more frequently been criticized for its interpretations, such as one that stated the Army should give its support to the political party that is the staunch defender of Pancasila. The party implied was the government Golkar party. Critics also worry that Suharto will paint himself as the personification of Pancasila, to prevent attacks on his actions.
Pancasila has been used to view democracy in Indonesia as a process of giving advice to the government rather than passing judgment through acrimonious, and hence needless, debate. Elections are meant to resemble gotong-royong, the old village practice of ''mutual assistance.'' It also justifies another village idea that the people are best served when they are guided and guarded by their leaders.
Perhaps the most harmless aspect of Pancasila put forth recently was by a number of economists based at Gadjah Mada University at Jogyakarta, a semiautonomous province still ruled by a sultan. In nebulous terms, the group tried to apply the five principles to such problems as labor relations, management, and resource allocation. This ''Pancasila economy,'' as outlined by Dr. Mubyarto, included tips such as ''a sense of social responsibility inspires business dealings.''
Like the ancient pyramid Borobudur near Jogjakarta, with its endless tales of the meaning of Buddha's life, the Pancasila will continue to be spelled out for coming generations. That, perhaps, may be its ultimate meaning.