Monday, 4 November 2002

Letters from Palmerah

Surat dari Palmerah: Indonesia dalam Politik Mehong 1996-1999 (Letters from Palmerah: Indonesia under the Mehong Politics 1996 - 1999); By Seno Gumira Ajidarma; Kepustakaan Populer Gramedia (KPG), Jakarta, April 2002; xxii + 287 pp

Although the reform drive in Indonesia has been going on for four years, everyone is curious if Indonesia has really changed for the better.

Is Indonesia still trapped by the mehong politics so that the ongoing reform is nothing but reformehong? The political show by the political elite has only disappointed the public and to a certain extent has lent apathy, or even pessimism, to part of the community.

This book is a collection of editorial-like letters that Seno wrote in Jakarta Jakarta magazine between 1996 and 1999. These letters have some interesting aspects.

First, his choice to write an editorial in the form of a letter seems to suggest a more liquid form of communication generating a greater personal and humanitarian touch on the part of the readers. Perhaps, Seno saw something wrong in the communications involving all national elements. He may have seen the result is only a fawning attitude or a mentality fraught with revenge and animosity.

Second, given the fact that the readers of Jakarta Jakarta were mostly young executives who the New Order regime had alienated from the political realm, these letters in a certain sense could serve as an interesting medium of political education as they were intended for the middle-class people.

Sometimes, the letters very explicitly show this direction, especially when the writer uses words like yuppies and the like.

The next interesting aspect of these letters is they are conveyed in a good and interesting narrative flow, interspersed with sarcasm, worries, reflection, wisdom, comedy or a ridicule of our political life.

When Seno put under his spotlight the never-ending violent communal conflicts, he took the viewpoint of how the community got themselves trapped in the prison or labyrinth of animosity.

He described how people were no longer masters of themselves and willingly allowed themselves to be the slaves of unconsciousness called animosity, ambition or revenge. At this point, Seno made a conclusion that the reform was yet to produce a significant change, particularly in the political culture of everyday life.

Indeed, political ideology has found its freedom of expression. Unfortunately, it still came from a hypocritical and arrogant cultural tradition. Comically, Seno poses a question: While someone's mental crisis can be addressed by a psychologist or a witch doctor, what about a mentally ailing nation?

The acute ailment that this nation is afflicted with seems to be slowly leading it towards destruction. In the other part of the book, he also gives his warning that if you have an excessive desire to put down conflicts and anarchy for the sake of orderliness, the result will often be another form of anarchy.

Seno has touched the nation's political culture, an aspect of life which is yet to undergo substantial changes. It is true that it is now rare to find physical or militaristic repression of the New Order regime, but a conspiracy of oppression, which the illegal product of power that colludes with ignorance and deception, is not rare to find.

While the political elite are busy vying for power, the little people have been duped. While in fact these little people are the reform and development heroes, they have been turned into mere commodities.

In one of the letters, Seno rhetorically asks: "Do you know who has built Indonesia? They have no seats. They are the people that have been sacrificed."

In this context, the perspective of a political education intended to improve the political intelligence of the people and encourage their political participation has assumed great importance for a discussion. Seno criticizes the elite on the political stage because they provide little education to the people. Their speeches are rarely based on the clarity of their mind and a well-arranged thinking system. Their words sometimes resemble curses smacking of trash, provocations or an outburst of their personal emotion or the emotion of their own group.

His letters are good to read and observe. They will encourage us to reflect together upon the process of changes now under way in this country and ensure that in this way the victims of changes and reform, already quite big in number, will not just vanish.

The Jakarta Post, November 3, 2002.

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