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Jakarta Post

Evil cannot show remorse, but our leaders can

  • Bonni Rambatan

    The Jakarta Post

Jakarta   /   Wed, July 15, 2015   /  05:54 am

There is a famous Indonesian Idul Fitri song by Ismail Marzuki that contains the lyrics: Selamat, para pemimpin/Rakyatnya makmur terjamin (Congratulations, leaders/The prosperity of your people is guaranteed).

This pop song of the 1950s found its way back into the mainstream after a repopularization by a few young female Indonesian singers, most notably Tasya (circa 2002) and Gita Gutawa (circa 2010).

What cannot but tickle the ears is the inclusion of such lyrics in the middle of popular discontent against the country'€™s leaders.

I mean, what gives? Clearly, what with poverty running rampant and mudik (homecoming) continuing to be a nationwide logistical challenge (often a deadly one at that), the prosperity of the people is far from guaranteed.

Was the song state-sponsored? It doesn'€™t seem likely.

Another interesting thing about the post-2000 version of the song: It has been completely stripped of its troubling 1950s aspects '€” from gambling to alcoholism to wife-beating '€” only showing its wonderful sunshine-and-daffodils side: new clothes, forgiving others and so on.

Interestingly, Gita Gutawa'€™s clip features a small child playing the part of a pickpocket who gets caught near the end of the song, only to be forgiven so everyone can sing along and dance to the happy music.

What do we see here, in the two different renditions of the same song, if not a progress of ideology in Indonesia?

The first one seems almost rude in its blatant honesty '€” we drink, we steal, we beat our wives, but nonetheless we feel safe and prosperous (except maybe the wives) '€” it'€™s that gritty tastelessness coupled with reckless optimism that is characteristically 1950s.

The second one seems chokingly polite in its cheerful posturing '€” it'€™s true, we talk bad about the government all the time, but in this one moment let us sugarcoat everything and pretend that our leaders have been doing a good job.

How can we not? The leaders, after all, have been showing us that single, most powerful image that all rich and powerful people in Indonesia are almost required, as if by law, to show: Holding a feast with similarly-dressed kids from some orphanage in your huge mansion.

Look: There is nothing wrong with charity, just as there is nothing wrong with forgiving ex-criminals and other people who have messed up.

The danger lies when we conflate charity and forgiveness with political praxis, when we use the former to obfuscate the latter by painting everything as moral problems, by acting as if moral solutions are all-encompassing solutions.

When the President pardons convicted criminals, it can make for a few touching moments.

But on the other hand, we just killed close to a dozen people, with a Filipino trafficking victim still on death row.

We have grandma Asyani and many other helpless elderly people behind bars for cases that seem to belong to a Kafka novel, and no guarantee that these cases will ever stop.

We have entire villages sunk under toxic mud, uncared for and unpaid for almost a decade now. We have deforested lands and displaced populations, and rivers being directed away from villages to be turned into money for the pockets of wealthy corporations.

We have entire livelihoods at stake in so many parts of the country.

The promise of Idul Fitri is a promise of a peaceful civil society, united together under a clean slate after mutual forgiveness. But in Indonesia we do not even have a slate '€” it'€™s a sharply jagged, uneven and fragmented rock.

So fragmented, in fact, that we can no longer relate to one another. Who are those children up front, all similarly dressed and sitting in the corner?

What does it feel like to be them'€”orphaned, told to sit quietly and be polite while the rest of us ogle them like a zoo attraction or a fine trophy?

We tell ourselves their bad luck is a test from God '€” but can it just be that simple, really? Is it not more like they are there because a systemic failure in society has made it possible for them '€” and millions of others like them '€” to be poor, uprooted from their families and communities, while wealth is
accumulated in the hands of the people who have taken part in destroying their livelihoods in the first place?

The paradox here is that it'€™s not a moral problem. It'€™s too easy to paint people as evil, their charitable feasts as just another ploy of narcissistic self-promotion.

But try visiting these people, enjoy their feast and have a good time, and most of the time you will see how genuinely nice they are.

It is in these little moments in Idul Fitri that we are confronted with the biggest paradox of our contemporary civil society: Everybody is polite, genuine, kind and forgiving, and yet poverty is rampant and social discontent is sweeping us up like a plague.

How do we reconcile these two? We don'€™t. Not unless we want to go down the racist, classist or fundamentalist route.

Rather, the fact that those are irreconcilable is a proof that the moral argument does not work '€” that, instead of morals, perhaps we should be looking at other sources of evil.

This, I think, is the most valuable legacy of Idul Fitri. Should we forgive leaders? Sure. Politicians? No problem. Because they are human beings and we can and should forgive our fellow human beings when they have shown true remorse.

But some things cannot show remorse. When we take away the actors, we still have the orders and the systems that have given birth to all of society'€™s discontents.

We still have the things that have given birth to corporate greed and corruption, as well as the oppression and marginalization that has given birth to hatred and terrorism.

These are inanimate things that are impossible to forgive and therefore must be changed of our own accord.

Idul Fitri is a beautiful holiday, a time to get together and reconnect with loved ones. But let'€™s leave it
at that.

Let us not politicize it and treat it like it has magical properties for entire countries, as if forgiveness begets morals and morals beget the perfect nation.

And maybe stop singing praises to leaders for prosperity we don'€™t yet have, while we'€™re at it.

The promise of Idul Fitri is a promise of a peaceful civil society, united together under a clean slate after mutual forgiveness.

But forgiveness is not a magic social elixir.

Because to have a clean slate, we must first have a slate.

The promise of Idul Fitri is a promise of a peaceful civil society, united together under a clean slate after mutual forgiveness.

The writer runs the online publication Southeast Asian Social Critique.

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