Indonesia Malaysia tensions

Sexualized Dangdut Performances in Indonesia and Resulting Controversies

As the most recent GeoCurrents post explained, heavy-metal music has been of some political importance in Indonesia, with the country’s new president, Joko Widodo, being a major fan. Although cultural tension between “metalheads” and conservative Muslim organization is an on-going issue, overt clashes have been relatively rare and restrained. Religious groups in Indonesia have, however succeeded in shutting down musical performances that they judge threatening to public morals. In 2012, for example, international news outlets widely reported the cancellation of a Lady Gaga show scheduled to be held in Jakarta. The performer reported feeling “devastated” by the news, but her Indonesian critics were highly pleased. As the BBC reported:

The Islamist FPI had threatened violence if the concert went ahead, calling Lady Gaga a “devil’s messenger” who wears only a “bra and panties”. Habib Salim Alatas, the group’s FPI Jakarta chairman, said the cancellation was “good news” for Indonesia’s Muslims. “FPI is grateful that she has decided not to come. Indonesians will be protected from sin brought about by this Mother Monster, the destroyer of morals,” he told AFP news agency. He added: “Lady Gaga fans, stop complaining. Repent and stop worshipping the devil. Do you want your lives taken away by God as infidels?”

Dangdut Jupe PhotoWith this Lady Gaga commotion in mind, many observers might conclude that overt displays of female sexuality are not allowed, or are at least are highly frowned upon, in Indonesia, the world’s largest Muslim-majority country. But in actuality, this is not the case. For several decades, the most popular form of music across the Indonesia archipelago has been dangdut, described by the Wikipedia as a “genre of Indonesian folk and traditional popular music that is partly derived from Hindustani, Malay, and Arabic musics.” My own knowledge of popular music of obviously quite limited, as the dangdut performance that I have watched on YouTube strike me as more “techno” than folk in style. But regardless of the various influences that dangdut incorporates, the stage dancing that often accompanies the music can be extremely sexualized. Jupe, the genre’s star performer, has certainly not been shy about issue of sexuality. As reported first in the International New York Times and then in the Jakarta Post:

Julia Perez, 30, better known as Jupe (pronounced jew-peh), has quickly become one of this nation’s most sought-after celebrities and a mainstay of television gossip shows. In a society increasingly polarized between supporters of political Islam and Western-style openness, Ms. Perez has led the charge one way with her sexy shows and music videos, her celebration of female sexuality and frank talk about sex. Her best-selling album, “Kamasutra,” included a free condom, which drew the ire of Islamic organizations and got her banned from performing in several cities outside Jakarta, the capital.

Actress and dangdut singer Julia “Jupe” Perez did a pole dance at the Kuningan intersection, South Jakarta on Tuesday night, in order to fulfill a promise. In her Twitter account, Jupe had promised to do the dance if she got 1 million followers “Jupe promises to dance at a red light if [she] gets a million followers! Allah, please make it happen during this fasting month, so I can dance with my clothes on”…. Within a week, her wish came true. Donning a tight suit and a black leather jacket, Jupe moved sensually around the pole of a traffic light at the intersection.

Indonesia Religion MapAs these reports indicate, dangdut is widely disparaged by the more conservative portions of the Indonesian public, and some provinces have banned several songs for being “pornographic.” But overall, it remains the most beloved form of music in at least western Indonesia, by far the most populous and powerful half of the country. A 2012 article in the Jakarta Post reports that the popularity of dangdut has declined in eastern Indonesia (apart from Maluku), although it does not specify what is meant by the term “eastern Indonesia,” nor does it give any reasons for the drop in popularity in that region. (The terms “eastern Indonesia” and “western Indonesia” are often used, but have no formal boundaries to my knowledge; the division that I have inscribed on the map here is a mere estimation.) It is notable, however, that eastern Indonesia in general has a lower percentage of Muslims than western Indonesia, as can be seen in the map posted here.

The Jakarta Post article in question almost seems to imply that the decline of dangdut in the east is a possible threat to national unity. As the author contends:


When the media began promoting the music in the 1980s — and the government did the same in the 1990s — dangdut helped to provide a national narrative popular with most Indonesians. Government officials strategically used the genre to promote political messages on a national stage, often singing and dancing alongside dangdut artists, while cultural institutions used the music to create national unity. In March, an Indonesian official said the government was in the process of having dangdut promoted to the heritage list of the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO).


One problem with the use of dangdut, or of any other form of “traditional” music, to enhance national unity in Indonesia is the fact that most of these traditions extend across the border to include Malaysia (and, to some extent, Brunei, far southern Thailand, and other adjacent areas). In 2007, a minor diplomatic scuffle emerged over Malaysia’s use of the popular folk song Rasa Sayang in a tourism promotion campaign. As reported by The Star On-Line:


The call by Indonesian lawmakers for action against Malaysia for using the Rasa Sayang folk song – which Indonesia claims to be its traditional song – in its Truly Asia tourism campaign is unrealistic, said Datuk Seri Dr Rais Yatim. The Culture, Arts and Heritage Minister said the issue should not have arisen as the song, like other folk songs such as Jauh Di Mata, Burung Pungguk and Terang Bulan, were songs of the Malay archipelago inherited by the people from their ancestors.  “I think Indonesia or other parties will not be able to prove who the composer of the song (the Indonesian version being Rasa Sayange) was,” he told reporters at the breaking of fast organised by his ministry here on Tuesday. He was commenting on Indonesia’s House of Representatives member Hakam Naja, from the National Mandate Party, calling on his government to sue Malaysia over the use of Rasa Sayang in its tourism campaign.


In response, one Malaysia blogger re-wrote the song’s lyrics (in English) to showcase Malaysia. My favorite verse runs as follows:


Though it’s great to be Malaysian,

Not everything is perfect, you see,

Rasa Sayang is claimed to be Indonesian,

And it’s cause for controversy.


Malaysia’s world stance is on the rise,

We keep our image looking bright,

Our government is pretty wise,

And our people are super tight.


As a first take-home message from all of these controversies, I can only conclude that public values in Indonesia remain quite distinctive and far more open to displays of female sexuality than those of the Muslim areas of South Asia, or of the Middle East. I cannot imagine a Pakistani equivalent of Jupe performing a pole dance at a major intersection in Karachi while praising Allah for giving her enough Twitter fans so that she could remain clad while doing so. The second message concerns the generally successful efforts to create a strong sense of national identity across the sprawling archipelagic country of Indonesia. Here the pronounced degree of cultural commonality with Malaysia remains an obstacle, and will likely generate new controversies in the years to come.

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North Kalimantan: Indonesia’s Newest Province and Southeast Asian Geopolitical Tensions

Indonesia provinces North Kalimantan MapIndonesia and Malaysia have a long history of mutual distrust, despite—or perhaps because of—their similar historical and cultural backgrounds. Indonesia objected so strongly to the creation of an independent Malaysian state out of several British colonies in the early 1960s that it instigated a four-year undeclared war, the so-called Indonesian–Malaysian Confrontation (1962–1966). But with the fall of the Sukarno government in Indonesia and the creation of ASEAN (the Association of Southeast Asian Nations) in 1967, such tensions receded into the background. In recent years, arguments between the two countries sometimes seemed more comedic than threatening. A prime example would be the 2007 Rasa Sayang controversy, generated when prominent Indonesians accused Malaysia of “cultural theft” over its use of a popular folk song that originated in what is now part of Indonesia in a tourism campaign.

But latent mistrust between the two countries persists and sometimes surfaces more directly. Deep Indonesian concerns about Malaysia were clearly apparent earlier this year when the country’s 34rd province, North Kalimantan, was inaugurated along the Malaysian border despite Indonesia’s stated moratorium on the creation of new provinces. Although the official justification for the elevation of North Kalimantan to provincial status focused on development issues, an article in the Jakarta Post made it appear that geopolitical concerns were prominent. As the article noted:

Lawmaker Agun Gunandjar Sudarsa, who sits on House Commission II on regional autonomy, said that the endorsement of North Kalimantan would secure the loyalties of Indonesians living on the Malaysian border. 

“North Kalimantan will be an open gate to enter Malaysia, the southern Philippines and Brunei Darussalam. Therefore, the province is a strategic location to counter threats against the unity of the nation from neighboring countries,” Agun said. 

According to the Golkar Party lawmaker, the establishment of the new province would also prevent Malaysia from making territorial claims on Sebatik Island, which is divided between the nations, and in nearby Krayan subdistrict.

Sebatik Island Google EarthAlthough it hardly seems likely that Malaysia has designs on the Indonesian half of Sebatik, Indonesian concerns about the area are understandable. Population density and infrastructural development are much higher on the Malaysian side of the border. The third largest city in the Malaysian state of Sabah, Tawau (population 382,000), lies just across an ocean inlet from Sebatik, whereas the entire area that now constitutes the Indonesian province of North Kalimantan counted only 525,000 inhabitants in the 2010 census. Indonesian authorities have also identified the town of Nunukan, located just south Sebatik, as a human trafficking “hotspot,” from which poor Javanese women are sent to Malaysia under false pretenses. As a recent article in the Jakarta Globe notes, “Women from the provinces are often promised jobs with good salaries in Malaysia but are then forced to work at nightclubs or similar places.”

Geopolitical tussles have also recently broken out in the area. In March 2013, Malaysia forced Indonesian nationals living in its part of Sebatik to return to Indonesian territory. Its ostensible reason for doing so was its inability to protect the Indonesians from possible attacks by militants from the Philippines. The precipitating incident here was the so-called 2013 Lahad Datu Standoff, generated when 235 fighters professing loyalty to the long-defunct Sultanate of Sulu in the southern Philippines, and with links to radical Islamists groups, landed in a nearby town to assert dormant Philippine claims to the entire Malaysian state of Sabah. Malaysian troops eventually defeated and expelled the militants, killing 56 and capturing 79. Although the event seemed to some observers to be an odd mix of farce and tragedy, it revealed deep nationalistic tensions persisting between the Philippines and Malaysia, notwithstanding either ASEAN-engendered amity or the fact that the Philippine government had nothing to do with the Lahad Datu adventure. As reported in the Wikipedia:

On 3 March 2013, the website of Globe Telecom [a major Philippine company] was defaced by hackers claiming to be from the “MALAYSIA Cyb3r 4rmy”. The group left the message, “Do not invade our country or you will suffer the consequences.” Global Telecom confirmed its own website had been hacked but assured the public that no sensitive information was stolen. The website was restored at around noon the same day.

In apparent retaliation, hackers identifying themselves as from Anonymous Philippines, attacked several Malaysian websites. They warned Malaysia to “Stop attacking our cyber space! Or else we will attack your cyber world!” The website of Stamford College in Malaysia was also hacked with its front page replaced by a note that said: “The time has come to reclaim what is truly ours. Sabah is owned by the Philippines, you illegally [sic] claiming it.”

Indonesia GDP by Province MapRegardless of possible underlying geopolitical issues, the creation of the Indonesian province of North Kalimantan did have an economic rationale. The new province was hived out of East Kalimantan, a resource-rich and rapidly growing part of Indonesia. Owing mostly to oil, natural gas, coal, and gold, East Kalimantan is by far the most economically productive part of Indonesia on a per person basis.* According to the most recent available statistics, the per capita GRP (Gross Regional Product) of the province was US$ 11,300, whereas those of second-place Jakarta and third-place Riau were US$ 8,200 and US $5,900 respectively. Although East Kalimantan is still lightly inhabited, with only about three million people in an area roughly the size of the United Kingdom, its population had been only 733,000 as recently as 1971. Most of the explosive growth in the area occurred in the southern coastal portion of the old province, especially in and near the capital city of Samarinda. By creating the new province, with a new capital city, Indonesian authorities are hoping to even out the developmental process. More rapid growth in the area may already be occurring; if the figures cited in the Wikipedia are correct, North Kalimantan gained more than 200,000 people between 2010 and 2013.**

North Kalimantan Google EarthEnvironmentalists are concerned that the creation of a new project will accelerate deforestation in the region. In the rump province of East Kalimantan, little primary forest remains, covering only some fifteen percent of its territory. But in North Kalimantan, a land of few paved roads and minimal infrastructure of any kind, primary forests still cover 69 percent of the land. Such a situation is unlikely to persist for long.

* Such figures, it is essential to note, do not reflect average living standards, as the distribution of wealth is not considered and as much of the economic gains in resource-rich areas are taken by outsiders. On the map, such Indonesian provinces as Papua and West Papua appear to be relatively prosperous, but such prosperity reaches relatively few of their residents.

** The article on the province states that its population was 525,000 in 2010 according to the census, but it places its current population at 738,163.


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