Learning about Indonesian language, history, society and culture

Month: June, 2012

Translation – Chairal Anwar: To a Friend

This is one of my favourite Chairil Anwar poems, bursting with a vitality combined with a sense of foreboding. Again, like Aku (for which see my previous post), the driving rhythm that the poem has in Indonesian is rather lost in translation.

I wrote this translation before referring to other translations, particularly that by John Echols, in Indonesian writing in translation (available to view free online at the Cornell Modern Indonesia Collection). When I read Echols’ translation, there were a few bits of his that I preferred, and some bits of my version that I preferred.  On one significant point I am somewhat undecided. Echols translated ‘putuskan’ as ‘to part’ whereas I have gone with ‘to resolve’ or decide. Both of these are plausible to me, but cast the poem in a somewhat different light: is this poem about parting words in the shadow of death or about two friends resolving together to blaze a trail regardless?

To a friend

Before fate draws near and betrays,
Grasping from behind when we’re not looking,
Whilst blood and feeling still surge in our breasts,

Not yet consigned to despair nor trembling,
Not forgetting how suddenly the night envelops,
A fluttering red sail disappears into the gloom,
Friend, let’s resolve here and now:
The fateful moment that draws us also strangles itself!

Fill the glass to the brim then empty it,
Scour the world and turn it upside down,
Embrace women, leave them if they seduce,
Choose the wildest horse, spur it on,
Don’t bind it to the day and night
Destroy everything you’ve made,
Dissapear without inheritance, without family,
Not begging forgiveness for all your sins,
Not taking leave of anyone!
Let’s resolve once more,
The death that draws us will feel the sky’s stillness,
Once more friend, one more line:
Drive your sword in up to the hilt,
Into anyone who dilutes the honey with water!!!

Kepada Kawan
Sebelum Ajal mendekat dan mengkhianat,
mencengkam dari belakang ‘tika kita tidak melihat,
selama masih menggelombang dalam dada darah serta rasa,
belum bertugas kecewa dan gentar belum ada,
tidak lupa tiba-tiba bisa malam membenam,
layar merah berkibar hilang dalam kelam,
kawan, mari kita putuskan kini di sini:
Ajal yang menarik kita, juga mencekik diri sendiri!
Isi gelas sepenuhnya lantas kosongkan,
Tembus jelajah dunia ini dan balikkan
Peluk kucup perempuan, tinggalkan kalau merayu
Pilih kuda yang paling liar, pacu laju,
Jangan tambatkan pada siang dan malam
Hancurkan lagi apa yang kau perbuat,
Hilang sonder pusaka, sonder kerabat.
Tidak minta ampun atas segala dosa,
Tidak memberi pamit pada siapa saja!
Mari kita putuskan sekali lagi:
Ajal yang menarik kita, ‘kan merasa angkasa sepi,
Sekali lagi kawan, sebaris lagi:
Tikamkan pedangmu hingga ke hulu
Pada siapa yang mengairi kemurnian madu!!!


A Family Business – Political Dynasties in Post-Suharto Indonesia

Decentralisation and elections have provided opportunities to establish and perpetuate regional political dynasties.

There was recently an interesting episode of the MetroTV current affairs  programme Mata Najwa on dynastic politics in contemporary Indonesia.[1] Najwa, the host, interviewed two couples where the husband had been Regent (bupati) then been succeeded by his wife. Each couple argued that the wife following the husband was the result of the will of the electorate. However, a democractic deficit was pretty apparent. For example Irianto MS Syafiuddin, former Regent in Indramayu, admitted to overseeing his wife’s activities

Najwa: ‘So you still fully control (mengontrol penuh) what Ibu Anna [the Regent] does?’

Irianto MS Syafiuddin : ‘Oh yes, [I] have to, because these things can have a negative affect on our family’.

He later went on to say that his wife is the Regent ‘formally’ but ‘as head of the family I also have to protect (menyelamatkan) my own family’. Moreover, Irianto MS Syafiuddin was not just succeeded by his wife. One of his children is a member of the DPRD, as is a nephew/niece.

In the middle of the programme there was a musical montage of Indonesian political dynasties (against the soundtrack of the cheery Tom Chapin song ‘Family Tree’) showing the family ties between prominent office holders in in more than half a dozen regions of Indonesia.

The topic rather caught my imagination so I started looking through online newspapers. There is quite a lot of material on the subject, particularly as the interlinking of family ties and politics is often linked to money politics.[2]

Perhaps the most spectacular of the regional family political networks is the family of the late Chasan Sochib in Banten. His daughter, Ratu Atut Chosiyah Governor is Governor of Banten and in March 2011 Tempo detailed the public offices held by her relatives as follows:

1. Hikmat Tomet (Atut’s husbans) DPR member 2009-2014.
2. Andika Hazrumy (Atut’s eldest child) DPD member 2009-14.
3. Adde Khairunnisa (Atut’s daughter in law) Representative in Serang  DPRD.
4. Tb Khaerul Zaman (Atut’s youger brother) Deputy mayor of Serang.
5. Ratu Tatu Chasanah (Atut’s younger sister) Served as vice-chairman of the Banten DPRD then became vice regent of Serang.
6. Aden Abdul Khaliq (Atut’s sister in law) Member of the Banten DPRD.
7. Airin Rachmi Diany (Atut’s sister in law) Mayor of South Tangerang.
8. Heryani (Atut’s stepmother) Vice-regent of Pandeglang.[3]

The rise and continued influence of the Chasan Sochib clan is a remarkable story in itself and is intertwined with the particular social and political make-up of West Java.[4] However, it seems it may be part of a more general trend for the interweaving of pribumi (i.e. non Chinese-Indonesian) business interests with elected office in what has been termed a ‘patrimonial oligarchic’ state.[5]

Whilst Indonesian politics at the moment certainly has oligarchic features, what makes it so interesting to me is the incredible complexity of the interellations between different elites and social groups. So how are these patterns at regional levels linking up with national level politics, and how do the army, religious elites and labour leaders fit in here? Lots of work is being done currently to try and answer those questions.

[1] (update 22.7.13 this link is now dead and as far as I can see MetroTV no longer have this episode online. If you are interested you might still be able to find it on YouTube)

[3]; a more extensive family tree can be found in the Nov-Dec edition of the Indonesian language journal Asasi, available at p. 13.

[5] See Yuki Fukuoka ‘Politics, Business and the State in Post-Soeharto Indonesia’ in Contemporary Southeast Asia Vol 34, No. 1 April 2012 for the ‘patrimonial oligarchi state’; see for a shift in Banten towards a more general money politics.

The Benefits and Challenges of Bilingualism

Reasearch into Bilingualism has highlighted the cognitive benefits and social consequences of speaking a second language.

There was an interesting piece in a recent edition of New Scientist summarising research about some consequences of bilingualism.[1] Research has pointed to cognitive and even health benefits to those who speak another language. Those who spoke more than one language scored higher on verbal and non-verbal reasoning tests, even after controlling for factors such as education and class. They were also found to have a more developed ‘executive system’, allowing them to more effectively switch between tasks and block out irrelevant information. Other studies showed them to be better able to see other people’s perspectives and bilingual people were even found to be less vulnerable to the onset of dementia.

As a native English speaker learning Indonesian and with an interest in Indonesia, these are interesting findings. One might wonder, as New Scientist does, what cognitive benefits native English speakers are missing out on. New Scientist cites an EU study from 2005 which found that Britain and Ireland had the lowest rates of bilingualism in Europe, with only around 1 in 3 people being able to converse in more than one language. By learning Indonesian at least I can take satisfaction in doing my bit to bump up Britain’s numbers!

Another cluster of studies covered in the New Scientist piece pointed to behavioural and social changes when bilingual people were asked questions, shown adverts or were presented with stories in different languages. The article linked these studies to ‘the role of language as a kind of scaffold that supports and structures our memories’. To me these findings are fascinating in the context of Indonesia, given the wide extent of bilingualism combining a ‘local ethnic’ language such as Javanese with Indonesian. In addition to this amongst the educated English is often spoken to some degree and amongst the pious some level of proficiency in Arabic is not uncommon.

From my own experiences in Java I was struck by the differing emotional and social resonances of social settings in which Indonesian was spoken and those where Javanese was used. My inability to speak Javanese is a road block here, but the sense I had from my Javanese friends was of the flatness of Indonesian (even when made more expressive with slang or borrowings from Javanese), the limitations in its ability to express intimacy and civility. Moreover, certain egalitarian elements of Indonesian posed both problems and opportunities – I remember the mother of a friend decrying Indonesian as ‘too democratic’ in comparison to Javanese with its elaborate demarcation of social status amongst interlocutors.

In the 1960s Benedict Anderson sketched out an argument with parallels to some of the above points in his article ‘The Languages of Indonesian Politics’. Looking at the first generation of Indonesian nationalists, he saw their learning of Dutch as implying a change in ‘modalities of consciousness’, opening them up to ‘fundamentally different’ structures of thought. This led to a ‘profound mental and spiritual displacement’ and a potentially ‘destructive and/or creative… two mindedness’. I think there is some mileage in his argument that ‘there was a general tendency for the weight of individual’s personality to be laid on either the Dutch or the regional-traditional “leg.”’ However, I think this loses some sense of process of creative synthesis that took place. Ki Hadjar Dewantara is an interesting case in point. He was learned in Dutch language scholarship (and much of his correspondence is in Dutch), yet he was a key figure in the Taman Siswa school movement which paid great attention to regional ethnic cultures, as well as having significant influence on the cultural and educational direction of the new Indonesian state.

Since the 1960s when ‘The Languages of Indonesian Politics’ was published, work on the interaction of language, culture, society and politics has served to elaborate on and modify some of Anderson’s arguments. The picture emerging seems to me in some ways messier, more fluid, more multidirectional (to put it inelegantly) than Anderson portrayed. For example work by Joseph Errington has, amongst much else, looked at the interaction between ‘macro’ and ‘micro’ linguistic change, highlighted syncretic patterns of language use (such as Bahasa gadho-gadho, or ‘language salad’ involving the mixing of different languages), and explored shifting usage of the Javanese krama speech style in the context of social change.[2] However, even as some of Anderson’s arguments are modified, we seem to be brought back to other thrusts in ‘The Languages of Indonesian Politics’, with its view of language as an ongoing, socially creative project.

[1] See ‘My Two Minds’ in New Scientist, 5 May 2012,.

[2] There is a bibliography of Errington’s work at