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Political humour

Published: Jul 26, 2007

There’s more than subversion in Indonesian jokes

David Reeve

Writing about political humour is a serious business. Rather glum, really. Many jokes look leaden on the printed page. They miss that personal element of joke-telling, in a group or in a hall, when the skill of the jokester and the emotions of the moment create much of the effect.

For the foreigner, even if they understand Indonesian, many of the jokes are mystifying; they just don’t seem funny. Perhaps the cultural content and context of humour are among the hardest aspects of another culture to acquire. Or the references and allusions are too hard for foreigners to follow. Or perhaps humour simply travels badly across cultural boundaries.

Still, for the language learner it can be useful to discern different styles of humour. In political humour, as in Indonesian humour generally, reinterpreting acronyms is popular — sending up the acronyms, and exposing a more brutal truth.

Playing with acronyms

There have no doubt been acronym jokes as long as there have been acronyms. During Sukarno’s Guided Democracy regime (1959-66), there were lots of powerful acronyms. One was USDEK, part of the official propaganda: Manipol-USDEK. Manipol = Manifesto Politik; while USDEK summarised the five main constituents:

U Undang-undang Dasar 45 (1945 Constitution)

S Sosialisme a la Indonesia (Indonesian Socialism)

D Demokrasi Terpimpin (Guided Democracy)

E Ekonomi Terpimpin (Guided Economy)

K Kepribadian Indonesia. (Indonesian Personality)

The cynical interpretation, USDEK = Untuk Saya Dulu, Engkau Kemudian [For me first, you second], was so beautifully economical and terse, and brutally human. It presented a stark contrast to the piling up of high-sounding ideals in the original. The shift between high rhetoric and bare cynicism creates much of the humour.

I also liked the joking interpretation of the slogan Berdikari from around 1964. ‘Berdikari’ was a new acronym verb, from ‘berdiri atas kaki sendiri’ (standing on one’s own feet). But the counterjoke ‘berdiri atas kaki kiri’ (standing on the left foot) was much closer to real politics in 1964-1965, making a joke about the political left, about imbalance, and suggesting a grotesque pose, inherently unstable. It was a great deal to pack into just one word, which is why it was so clever and so successful.

Language students should make a collection of political acronym jokes. I can’t remember too many real whizzers from Suharto’s New Order (1966-98), though I always liked it when the maids in the film Inem Pelayan Sexy (Inem the Sexy servant) formed a union called Perserikatan Babu-Babu (Maids’ Union). The initials are the same as the United Nations in Indonesian (Perserikatan Bangsa-Bangsa). The jump from ‘bangsa’ (nation) to ‘babu’ (maid) is huge, in status terms. The joke is also against high-sounding titles. There is also I think a less pleasant status joke, in the tension between ‘perserikatan’ (union), suggesting high status modern activities, with a long Indonesian word, and ‘babu’, which suggests low status, ignorant, female and kampungan or ‘villagey’, hickish or unsophisticated. There is much going on in these jokes.

As a student of the New Order’s quasi-party, Golkar, I liked both the fake ‘full forms’: Golongan Keturunan Arab (Arab Descent Group), referring to the alleged prominence of Arabs like Ali Alatas in senior positions, and Golongan Karung (the peasant- rough basket group). The low status, poor feel of ‘karung’ undercuts the high-sounding Sanskrit-derived ‘karya’ in Golkar’s real name, Golongan Karya (functional groups).

I also enjoy the way the acronym KKN got revamped under Reformasi. KKN used to refer to the compulsory fieldwork study for Indonesian university students, Kuliah Kerja Nyata (‘Real Work Classes’). It had long had a joke meaning, on the grounds that romance sometimes occurred ‘in the field’. So KKN was supposed to mean ‘Kisah Kasih Nona’ (Tales of a Girl’s Love), or even ‘Kenal, Kencan, Nikah’ (Meet, Date, Marry). Then this formulation was taken over for the serious accusation of Kolusi, Korupsi, Nepotisme under Reformasi. It was extended yet again into one of those tight paralleling jokes about the range of presidents (see below).

Parodying the powerful

Under Suharto’s New Order, humour mocked members of the presidential family and their associates. It has long been known that Madame Tien Suharto was called ‘Madame Ten Percent’, supposedly the cut she took from government projects. It was especially apt because Tien means ‘ten’ in Dutch. As her skills grew greater, she was also known as Madame Fifi (fifty-fifty) and Madame Elsa (‘give me your money or elsa’).

When Suharto’s son Tommy led the infamous Timor automobile business, ‘Timor’ was unpacked to mean ‘Tommy Itu Memang Orang Rakus’ (That Tommy is indeed a greedy person). In another version, incensed at the car’s poor quality, his dad said to him ‘Timor itu mobil opo rongsokan?!’ (Is the Timor a car or junk?!).

A bit of Javanese was creeping into that last joke, (‘opo’ for ‘apa’), hinting at another line of anti-Suharto joking, which satirised his Javanese accent. He was famous for saying ‘mangkin …mangkin’ for ‘makin …makin’ [the more … the more… ], and for the Javanese ending he gave to his Ôme-kan’ verbs, replacing the ‘kan’ with ‘kn’ (rhymes with ‘open’).

This was common in the New Order. One could hear even Sumatran businesspeople adopting this Javanese mannerism, in full seriousness. But sending them up by imitating a Javanese accent has always been almost as funny as imitating (and exaggerating) a Batak accent, normally guaranteed to bring the house down.

There seem to have been a lot of helicopter jokes during the New Order. The truth seemed to emerge out of helicopters. One had Mrs Suharto and Mrs Marcos flying over Asia for ‘mining’: ‘That’s mine! But that’s mine. And so’s that!’ Another one had Mrs Suharto in a helicopter with rice being ‘didrop’ (dropped) for the people. ‘Over there, over there! Biar rakyat senang. (So the people are happy).’ In this rather unlikely story the pilot asks ‘Apakah benar Ibu mau membuat rakyat senang?’ (Do you really waýt to make the people happy?). To which Mrs Suharto replies, ‘Ya memang, bagaimana caranya?’ (Yes, certainly; how to do it?). His answer: ‘Ibu saja yang didrop’ (Then you should be dropped.) How rude! But nice and concise, its punch line well prefigured but not given away.

Another much-parodied linguistic mannerism of President Suharto was his habit of inserting an unnecessary ‘daripada’ (where we might use ‘of’ in English). This figured in the 1998 Suharto joke-book titled Mati Ketawa Cara Daripada Soeharto (Die Laughing the Suharto way). This daring compilation of jokes was published four months before his fall, allegedly written by ‘Rakyat Indonesia’ (the Indonesian People). It can be downloaded from www.societies.ncl.ac.uk/indosoc/ MATIKETAWA.doc. Well worth doing. It has over 120 anti-New Order jokes, some quite scandalous as well as funny.

Most of the political joke-books now available tend to tell amusing stories or anecdotes, rather than tightly-structured jokes. These include Hedy Susanto’s Dagelan Politik. Seputar Reformasi (September, 1998) and itu Aja Kok Repot! Ger-geran Gaya Gus Dur (several printings from March, 2000). There are many others.

This burst of publications shows political jokes moving from a clandestine world of anti-government mocking, to a public business. Still, there has always been a debate over whether political jokes represent a subversive act or, by providing catharsis, are a substitute for political action and thus sustain the status quo.

Poking fun at presidents

Until May 1998 Indonesia had only two presidents. Since then there have been three more, in quick succession. This has produced a nice tight form of joke, where a single unifying linguistic construction has been applied to several presidents, providing a comic commentary on each, gaining force as it deals with several presidents.

One very neat set of president-comparisons, uses the ‘–wan’ ending to provide parallels and comparisons:

Sukarno negarawan (statesman)

Suharto hartawan (millionaire)

Habibie ilmuwan (scholar)

Gus Dur wisatawan (tourist)

The joke here was on President Gus Dur, who seemed to be always going overseas while crises multiplied at home. Here’s another that used English:

Sukarno Old Order

Suharto New Order

Habibie Out of order

Gus Dur Disorder

One of the best used the ‘gila’ (crazy, mad) theme:

Sukarno gila wanita (mad about women)

Suharto gila harta (mad about possessions)

Habibie gila saja (plain mad)

Gus Dur membuat orang lain gila (drives other people mad)

Gus Dur liked this last and told it often.

The jokes which include President Megawati seem to me less funny, as they focus on her size, rather than her behaviour. This one is on KKN under different presidents:

Sukarno Kiri Kanan Nona (Girls Left and Right)

Suharto Kiri Kanan Nyolong (Stealing Left and Right)

Gus Dur Kiri Kanan Nuntun (Has to be guided Left and Right)

Megawati Kayak Kuda Nil (Like a Hippopotamus)

The same tasteless comparison is made of the 2004 presidential elections, comparing the almost identically pronounced SBY (Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono) to his opponent SBG or Si Bokong Gede (Big Bum). Funny, or not very?

Still, overall Indonesian political humour is rich in insights, political and linguistic. Please tell jokes like these, and ask people to tell you more.

Associate Professor David Reeve (d.reeve@unsw.edu.au) coordinates the Indonesian studies program at the University of New South Wales.

Inside Indonesia 81: Jan-Mar 2005

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