The shape of the world a generation from now will be influenced far more by how we communicate the values of our society to others than by military or diplomatic superiority. William Fulbright, 1964

Wednesday, May 07, 2008


The glamor of Superliss ©

Why are so many Indonesians reluctant readers?

Nurullita (Lita) Berlianti, 35, has a volume of reasons, and speaks with some authority.

She’s one of those blessed people who chose their parents wisely, rearing her in a book-filled home where sitting hunched over a good yarn was considered behavior warranting reward, not reproof. And when she wasn’t curled up in an armchair turning pages she was airbussing her way around the world turning up other cultures

Which is as it should be because her family were publishers, a business now maintained by their smart daughter.

“For most poor Indonesian women the number one priority is putting food on the table for their family,” Lita said.

“Women are so busy. The average woman is multiskilled. She has to be a wife, a mother, a babysitter, a caregiver to other relatives and a manager of limited resources.

“In most cases books just aren’t on her shopping list. Even to buy a small book that retails for Rp 25,000 (US $3) means that she might have to forego five meals.

“Yet the reality is that kids love books and of course they are an essential part of education.”

Another factor may be the policies of past governments that labelled books as potentially dangerous, seditious instruments that might stir the masses to question their leaders.

During Soeharto’s new order administration tight controls were exercised on authors and publishers. Reading then was considered much like drug use today, an evil that could destroy society.

Bookshops were akin to chemists – the wares sealed and held behind locked glass doors. Today the books are on open shelves, but the plastic wraps remain and grumpy guards watch for those who want to peel, not purchase.

So what to do? Lita isn’t short of ideas, including a proposal that the government should better control school curricula so parents don’t have to buy a new text every year. Instead they should be able to pass the same book down to their younger children.

More radical is her suggestion that the government subsidises the cost of paper for book printing, a policy that she said was having an impact on reading in India, making books cheap and available to the masses.

With a government already crippled by maintaining subsidies on basic commodities like rice and fuel, adding another burden to the economy seems unlikely despite its power for good.

So in the meantime Lita and two friends, businesswoman Litasari and psychologist and social activist Dyah Katarina decided to stop muttering and start motivating.

The results of the trois amigos’ energies (pictured above) peaked at an extraordinary event staged last Saturday (26 April) in a shopping mall convention centre in Surabaya.

Dubbed Superliss it was more like a political rally held before a backdrop of a portrait of national heroine Kartini, a pen and a book. In the auditorium more than 1,000 women dressed in yellow, green and blue T shirts, whipped into a lather by silver-tongued MCs, showed the sort of enthusiasm Hillary Clinton could only imagine.

On the stage speakers gave testimonials of how their lives had been changed since they started reading and writing, using the sort of language normally heard at religious revivals and to the huge delight of the frenzied females.

Entering this maelstrom it seemed the show had been sponsored by an over-zealous manufacturer of skin whitener or hair shampoo. Superliss has that certain ring of freshness, the development of a lissom figure and romantic success that accompanies the destruction of dandruff.

“It’s a made up word from our vision and slogan of Seribu Perempuan Menulis (a thousand women writing),” said Dyah. She also doubles as the wife of the mayor of Surabaya, Bambang Dwi Hartono, but would still be formidable without that cachet.

“We want to get across the message that if you don’t read and write you are going to be left behind. Women are such a powerful influence in the family. They can be agents of change. If we can convince 1,000 of the importance of books then they will spread the message.”

On the stage the electrified Litasari cracked jokes at broadband speed, got her listeners laughing and singing, leaping up and down, whooping slogans and generally having a rollicking good time. In amongst the quips were smart tips on reading faster and staying on course.

“Remain focussed on the task,” screamed Litasari, an expert on speed reading. If the sound system had been linked to a tsunami warning it would have ranked as a red alert.

“If you feel you are getting tired suck a sweet. Glance up from the page occasionally, cover one eye and look at something far away. Then do the same with the other eye.”

On big screens easy-to-remember logos, verses, singalongs and pictures pummelled the message that reading is yeah, wow, like trendy, fun, better than fashion. The women were so enthralled most forgot to use their handphones. If school had been like this no one would ever leave half educated.

“It’s true that we are an oral culture,” said Lita who reads her children bedtime stories and knows this is still unusual parenting. “If you’re a bookworm at school you’re likely to be considered a freak.

“In Europe people understand the enormous importance of books and give authors high status in society. That’s part of their culture.

“In Indonesia the growth of television has also damaged literacy, so we have to make reading and writing look glamorous.

“If we had an internationally famous well-established author sitting on this sofa alongside a starlet from a forgettable sinetron (soap opera), the journalists would only be interested in the actress.”

But this time the scribes and lenses were focussing on the femoforce of literacy in full attack mode and never given a moment to ask banal questions about marital status and womb production statistics. “Despite everything I’m positive,” shouted Lita above the din as a thousand lungs praised the written word. “I really think things are improving.

“There are more books being published and more bookshops being opened. A few, like mine, let customers browse – even when they don’t eventually buy.” Now that is progress.

(First published in The Jakarta Post 5 May 2008.)



max said...


I grew up as a reluctant reader. Now I write action-adventures & mysteries, especially for boys 8 and up, that kids hate to put down. My web site is at and my Books for Boys blog is at
Ranked by Accelerated Reader

Thank you,

Max Elliot Anderson

henny said...

Interesting posting! I'm an Indonesian and feel worried too about the reading habit here. I'm so lucky came from a middle class family and got good reading habit from my dad, then now I 'transfer' it to my kids. I couldn't make "big" movement for this, only open/manage a small preschool next to my house and try to make kids there love books. But often, some mothers don't support their kids and I feel annoyed, maybe I should open a 'moms class' too for teaching 'how to love reading and books'. :-)

Anonymous said...



indonesianegriku said...

thank's for sharing info,..!
Kerja Keras Adalah Energi Kita