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

Monday, September 08, 2008


Where there’s a Will, there’s a sinetron Duncan Graham

If you consider sinetrons (soap operas) much ado about nothing, the most base Indonesian art form loitering at the depths where tectonic plates jostle for space, then this BTW is about to change your mind.

Lend me your tears, for I come not to bury sinetrons, but to praise them.

My extensive research shows that sinetrons have style and substance. They embrace the wit and wisdom of our times, expose emotions, drive visions, reveal truths. Watch closely and you’ll notice they’re really high culture, up there with Shakespeare.

The prolific penman from Stratford-on-Avon had a way (or as he was wont to say at home, Hathaway) with plots. And so does Raam Punjabi, the producer from Jakarta-on-Ciliwung and boss of PT Multivision Plus, custodian of this republic’s rich tele-literature and clearly a Shakespearean scholar of note. Mainly large currencies,

Take the use of soliloquies. The Bard employed this technique to avoid scene building and shifting and it’s an equally handy cost saver for a budget shoot. The tousle-haired lad who ponders on the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune as the Prince of Demak, astonished at the arrival of Islam in his hometown, has other things on his mind. He’s just learned that his family is more dysfunctional than the House of Windsor. Better to muse aloud than employ set designers.

Black magic practitioners are the unstable staple of a good sinetron. On the small screen they’re usually men with bad teeth and rank hair and a fondness for goat-skull arrangements. But just like the three hags from the highlands they make vile brews, rabbit on over their steaming road-kill menu and unleash fearsome threats we know will come to pass, like night the day.

Scenes in cemeteries are a dead giveaway of the plagiarism, with a grove of frangipani sheltering the mist-shrouded tombstones the tropic equivalent of a blasted heath. Bringing on the banshees is a masterful piece of theater equally effective on SCTV as it was in the Globe where the God-fearing Elizabethans were as partial to a haunting as any modern Javanese.

Treason, treachery and trauma – but what about love? Muhammad Montague and Sri Capulet are faithful remakes of the timeless theme. In Indonesia these involve teenage trysts set in the local high school, a furnace of raw emotions where trigonometry means plotting a three-way affair.

Mr Punjabi knows well that though the path of true love never did run smooth it does lead to his bank.

Who hasn’t thrilled at the sequence where the red-lipped, rouge-cheeked nymph in her seam-straining white shirt and black skirtlet flits and flirts from class to class on level two?

Missed it? No worries, you can catch it tomorrow, and tomorrow, and tomorrow.

Meanwhile her beau with a showroom-fresh Mercedes CLK 350 coupe parked among the clapped-out Yamahas gets a glimpse of her long black locks as she steals a glance over the wall of cancerous concrete.

Don’t tell me this clip doesn’t have a direct lineage to Mr WS’s static balcony scene.

The world’s finest wordsmith was flexible enough to add bawdiness to his plots, a bit of light relief for the folk in the pits. Sinetrons follow suit with comedies of errors, using dishevelled security guards as the knockabout buffoons, indifferent to the needs of the anti-hero desperately seeking to break into his mother-in-law’s house and drip caustic soda into her happy soda.

Not that she doesn’t deserve the crimson phial treatment. These brutal, scheming maid-monstering matrons are determined to thwart young love. They make the mad Scotswoman’s ambitions for her weak-kneed soldier hubby a toddler’s bedtime story.

But all’s well that ends well. The villains in the best sinetrons realise that using shabu-shabu as an elixir isn’t so smart (a message that’s lost on some actors if the gossip tabloids are right). Overnight their tattoos vanish and they awake from their midsummer night’s dream with neat haircuts and no interest in a cold Bintang or a winning hand at cards. So they return to mum, the mosque and the patient virgin in the headscarf.

So don’t knock Indonesia’s sinetrons. There’s method in their madness. Remember – the play’s the thing.

(First published in the Sunday Post 7 september 08)


Thursday, September 04, 2008


Confessions of a most misunderstood man

Other faiths and Westerners have nothing to fear from Indonesia, despite a fatwa (binding ruling) against pluralism by religious scholars. Nor should outsiders be concerned about nationalism, according to Professor Din Syamsuddin, head of the Muhammadiyah Islamic organization that claims 30 million members.

On a visit to Malang in central East Java the US trained scholar with a doctorate in political science spoke to Duncan Graham. This is an edited version of the interview on the eve of the possible presidential candidate’s 50th birthday.

The West tends to label you a moderate. Is that accurate and what does it mean?

I don’t come with labels. I don’t know whether I am a moderate or not – that’s for others to decide. I have a principle of taking the median position between left and right in terms of balance.

There’s a lot of misunderstanding – all Muslim organizations suffer from attribution, generalization and stigmatisation.

However I have been strongly against the war on terror. I was misquoted as saying President George W Bush was a drunken horse. I used the metaphor of the kuda lumping (the Javanese hobby-horse trance dance). That was changed in translation and my statement misunderstood.

Now many in the US and the West are supporting my position.

You say you support pluralism, but the MUI (Majelis Ulama Indonesia - the Council of Religious Scholars), where you’ve long held senior positions, has issued a fatwa against pluralism.

I’m still in the MUI, though not active – I have too many other duties. I wasn’t involved in the fatwa. Most of the members of the MUI committee that pronounced the fatwa were members of NU (Nahdlatul Ulama - a second Islamic organization that claims 40 million members.)

(Syamsuddin was raised in a prominent NU family but moved to Muhammadiyah as a student. He said this was “a rational choice based on my understanding of Islam – I was drawn to Muhammadiyah by the combination of ideas and action with our schools, hospitals and other institutions – what some have called ‘Protestant Islam’.”)

So is the fatwa wrong?

The title of the fatwa is wrong. The context and the title are different. The position has been distorted. The truth of religion is in relativism. It was a mistake of the committee in using the term pluralism and not relativism.

What do you mean by relativism?

This is a semantic problem. The Holy Koran has many verses about religious pluralism. It has also been a mistake made by outsiders to exaggerate by saying the fatwa is against pluralism. I am active in many national and international inter-faith groups and promoting dialogue.

At the top level there seems to be no problem. After every inter-faith conference we see media photos of happy leaders from different religions embracing and passing resolutions of tolerance. Meanwhile in some kampongs and villages people of different faiths keep fighting.

There has to be a new paradigm on inter-faith dialogue. We have to include the excluded. We should focus on the state of being, not believing. We should all be in one big tent. The only exceptions are those who encourage violence. The government must deal with them.

But how do you include extremists of any faith who refuse to even discuss other people’s positions?

This is the dilemma. Everything is in a state of change and we must involve the non-religious sectors of society in these problem-solving discussions. Let me make it very clear: I am totally against terrorism and I took an active and very tough stand against the tragic events (the World Trade Center attacks) in the US. I did not escape my responsibilities, like some others.

The West often finds the apparent inferiority complex of some Muslims in Indonesia puzzling. You are the overwhelming majority. Why should you fear other beliefs?

Islam was put in a corner by the Soeharto government. After reform started (in 1998) Islam in Indonesia faced multi-level problems and new challenges. We have been like the Indonesian proverb about a man who falls from a ladder, gets hurt, causes breakages and is then blamed by the ladder’s owner.

I agree there is a need for reform in Islam, but I do not support the Liberal Islamic movement. They confuse liberal with liberated.

We don’t want our society to be divided. I tell Muslims not to feel inferior, not to loose hope and blame others. The Arabs took Islam into the golden age. I see Muslims in South-East Asia leading the way into a new age of tolerance and understanding. Of course there’s a place for other faiths.

The next time we meet will you by a candidate for the vice presidency?

Why the number two position? Nothing is definite yet, but I think I’m able. I’m the president of a great and complex organization that is almost like a state. Many have asked me – probably yes, maybe no. I must be whole hearted.

If you did get the top job what changes would you make?

I’d like to see Indonesia as the world’s third largest democracy enforcing freedom …


No, that’s too strong a word. Promoting freedom and the people’s social, political and economic rights, and having religious freedom. We need overseas investment from those who accept our sovereign position.

Sounds like nationalism …

I only want what is the most favourable and best possible position for all Indonesians.

I’ve met Kevin Rudd (Australian Prime Minister) and he is a very good man. I like him a lot. We must be good friends with Australia and work together. We are not a threat to each other. Australia needs to become more Asian.

I didn’t get enough time with him. I want to go to Australia soon and propose Australia working with Indonesia, Malaysia, South Korea and Japan to counterbalance the growing power of China and India.

My obsession if for a peaceful and prosperous world. I want to see a mature, modern and moderate Indonesia facing the world with self-confidence. But at times I feel that I have been a most misunderstood person.

(First published in The Jakarta Post 1 September 2008)