In a previous post I promised to re-print an essay by my friend, Indonesian academic Nuraini Juliastuti (aka Nuning: tumblr, twitter) on the mutability of Bahasa Indonesia. The essay, translated by Camelia T. Lestari, is from the original insert that came with the Punkasila (Myspace) album “Acronym Wars”:

The Language of Punkasila

Danius Kesminas, whom I know, does not speak Indonesian. Initially, upon arriving in Indonesia late last year, he had little comprehension of the social, cultural and political conetxts that define this diverse archipelago. So how did he get so interested in the abbreviations of things in Indonesia?

Reading articles in the Indonesian mass media or books about the country, you never elude the pervasivness of acronyms or abbreviations. Reading a book Entitled The Politics of Indonesia by Australian academic Dr. Damien Kingsbury, Danius could not escape the ubiquity of abbreviations. Page after page, he turned to the index to decipher the meaning of the countless acronyms he encountered. Studying acronyms and abbreviations and eventually using them as entire song lyrics in a  band he formed – PUNKASILA – was how Kesminas got to understand Indonesia.

PUNKASILA is a combination of two words: Punk and Pancasila which are merged into one word to form PUNKASILA. (Pancasila, literally ‘five principles’, is the emboddiment of the unitary basis of Indonesian nationhood. Pancasila is an invention that is open to interpretation and has been manipulated for political purposes. The genius of Pancasilaas propaganda, condensed through its motto ‘Unity in Diversity’ is to unify the wide ranging cultures of the dominion and to suggest that that it is the five principles that they have shared since time immemorial). When PUNKASILA is uttered in Indonesian it becomes Pangkasila, of which the loose interpretation is ‘the severing of the principles’. Do they refer to the moral principles of Pancasila? Who knows? Whatever!

PUNKASILA is comprised of Danius and Hahan (vocals), Rudy Atjeh and Iyok (guitars), Janu (bass), Moky (drums), Krishna (keyboards) and Wimo (home made noise mnachine). All members are students of the Indonesian Art Institute (ISI) who also have their own bands.

So what about PUNKASILA’s lyrics? Here is an example of the song texts:


PKI x 2
PKI x 2
Partai Komunis Indonesia (Indonesian Communist Party)
Penggemar Komik Indonesia (Indonesian Comic Fans)
Penggemar Kaos Indonesia (Indonesian T Shirt Fans)
Partai Kaos Indonesia (Indonesian T Shirt Party)
PKI x 2
PKI x 2
Partai Komunis Indonesia (Indonesian Communist Party)
Partai Komik Indonesia (Indonesian Comic Party)
Penggemar Kaos Indonesia (Indonesian T Shirt Fans)
Penjahat Kelamin Indonesia (Indonesian Sex Offender)
PKI x 2
PKI x 2

As Indonesian citizens, we are used to dealing with a large number of acronyms and abbreviations. Although they can be confusing in the sense that we constantly encounter novel formations, as soon as there is a hint of their meaning we comprehend them mechanically.

Acronyms are used to denote organisations, schools, offices, names of streets and even applied to abbeviate certain phenomenon or characters such as “Bumil” for Ibu Hamil (Pregnant Mother) and “Lansia” for Lanjut Usla (Elderly Person). It seems that anything can be abbreviated in this country.

What is the process for the creation fo these acronyms and abbreviations? It is just the same as the way we acknowledge them. The creative process is so simple. There is no special rule. In Indonesia, there is a kind of agreement or massive consensus at work in “making things possible”. Take the capital letter of each word or remove the first or second syllable, for instance, of the name of an organisation or distinctive phenomena and thus, as abbreviation is created. The same formula is applied for making “plesetan” (word play) whereby signification is distorted from the real meaningby an acronym or abbreviation. PKI stands for Partai Komunis Indonesia (Indonesian Communist Party) but it may also become Partai Komik Indonesia (Indonesian Comic Party) or Partai Kaos Indonesia (Indonesian T Shirt Party). Kopassus is Komando Pasukan Khusus (Special Force Command) but it may also stand for Komando Pasukan Suka Susu (Milk Lovers Force Command or Tit Lovers Force Command).

There are no fixed meanings. Anything may have a double meaning and desire to hise something within. What we need to recognise is that we can endlessly find new meanings in abbreviations. By creating a new version we are also concealing something. It is such a play and practice of language that reflects the broad political and cultural activities in Indonesia. Every aspect of it can be re-interpreted acronym after abbreviation, letter by letter.

Apropos the strategy of “making things possible” in Indonesia, we may in fact embody a tradition or accomplishment whereby sentences are combined regardless of whether they relate to one another. Our daily life is filled with such texts. Their sometimes farcical similitudes are endlessly sought and connected as in the lyrics of this recited children’s play song which is largely nonsensical and essentially impossible to translate into English:

Sim Sim

Sim sim terimah kasih
Sim simpan duan rambutan tan
Tanduk ular mati ti
Tikus main di loteng teng
Tenggok ayam bertelur lur
Lure jalannya laju ju
Jual minyak wangi ngi
Ngitung uang serapak rak
Rakus makanan babi bi
Bintang beribu-ribu bu
Bulan hanya satu tu
Tulis di papan tulis lis
Lihat kebunku cing
Penuh dengan buaya
Ada yang meringis dan ada yang merongos
Setiap hari mau kusiram
Semut merah mawar melatikus
Semuanya indomie
Bapak pegang tongkat ibu pegang sapu
Bapak naik pangkat ibu jadi guru
Naik Kapal kecil takut goyang-goyang
Naik Kapal besar tidak punya uang
Jalan malam-malam takut ada setan
Main korek api takut kebakaran

Sim Sim

Sim sim thank you
Sim keeps the leaf of the rambutan
Shake the horn dies
Mouse plays in the attic
Look at the hen laying eggs
Lure walks fast
Sell perfume
Count money by the penny
Greedy the meal of a pig
Thousands of stars
Moon is one
Write on the blackboard
Look at my garden
Full of crocodiles
Some grin some are bucktoothed
Everyday I water
Red ant rose jasmine
Everything is Indonesian noodle
Father holds a stick mother a broom
Father gets a promotion mother becomes a teacher
Get in a small boat afraid of rocking
Get in a big boat no money
Walk at night afraid of ghosts
Play with matches afraid of fire

In the above text, we find a coalescence of Indonesian and Javanese song lyrics composed using the formula of combining words and sentences as long as they are pleasing to the ear. The last syllable or word of the one sentence prefaces the next without considering whether the resulting inter-sentences are reasonable or not. The strategy is for the text to keep moving forward so that the song can be sung together and the playing continues. These things matter in the process of acronym and abbreviation creation in this country.

Indonesia is an adaptive language. It is easy to mess with, very flexible malleable, absorbent and can be combined with anything. The creation of acronyms and abbreviations – or word play – has to involve feeling, accessibility, have an internal logic that is enjoyable to use and satisfying to hear.

How is this unique phenomenon and Indonesian practice acknowledged by Danius Kesminas? For him, all those acronyms and abbreviations are distilled into mere sounds. They are the sounds of letters without meaning.

Acronyms and abbreviations reduce to mere sounds, sung by a band dressed in military fatigues made from hand painted camouflage batik with embroidered emblems of academic art grades and armed with machine gun shaped guitars are the complete package of a parody for us all. It is entirely a parody of social, political, religious and militaristic meanings hidden in those very acronyms and abbreviations.

Nuraini Juliastuti
Kunci Cultural Center
Yogyakarta, Indonesia, October 2006

There are a number of aspects to Punkasila that interest me with this essay being the foremost. I mentioned language mutability to a colleague at Monash that taught Bahasa Indonesia and he didn’t agree with the thesis, although he’d not read this article either. I think that language mutability (see this piece attributed to Mark Twain, and Valerie Yule has spent years looking at this) is both important and fascinating – power is exercised through language, but more often than not, language changes from the bottom up. Lyrically this album shows this to be true, and personal experience and conversations in Indonesia would support the theory, showing that even punks from Yogyakarta have the opportunity to effect change.

As for the album, the music is great – punk music made by amazing musicians – for eg, first time I saw Rudy play guitar, with the band Zoo at the Yoygakarta National Museum (aka Gampingan), there were fireworks shooting from the neck of his guitar. Punk rock, just how I like it.

Unfortunately, the artist that bought this project together, Danius, is largely irrelevant and otherwise fairly dull as an artist. Displaying the type of kind of entitlement expected from Generation Y rather than his native Generation X, and the deliberate lack of political analysis undermines the Punkasila project’s potential as well as baring his lack of intellectual ability on an artistic level for all to see:

Formed … in 2006, PUNKASILA is a fluid and collaborative project which includes graduates and current students from the Indonesian Art Institute (ISI) in Yogyakarta. PUNKASILA play custom-made, hand-crafted mahogany guitars simulating hybrid M-16s/AK-47s and wear camouflage-patterned hand-painted batik, tailored as military fatigues. PUNKASILA’s debut album, “Acronym Wars” was released in Indonesia in 2006. PUNKASILA give voice to the cacophony of acronyms representing the disparate political, military, religious, cultural and bureaucratic organisations that constitute the Indonesian body politic. Since Soekarno’s reign, acronyms have represented a real site of ideological struggle. Between 1950 and 1965 this phenomenon was defined as the period of “acronym wars”. PUNKASILA have set these acronyms to a frenetic, progressive-punk-rock idiom. Each song repetitively iterates a specific acronym, invoking its popular inversion using plesetan – a peculiar Indonesian word play or subversive double-speak. The name, PUNKASILA, which literally means “punk principles”, derives from Pancasila, the five ideological tenets devised by Soekarno as propaganda to create a unitary basis of Indonesian nationhood. Although PUNKASILA’s repertoire and appearance as a cultural outlaw militia suggests provocative intent the project is more a celebration of new-dawn, post-reformasi openness than critique, ambiguously straddling the fault between taboo, parody and humour.

It has the same empty ring to it that buzzword bingo does – lots of syllables, but nothing to say.

Elsewhere collaborators have noted that “Kesminas still knows nothing about Indonesia, knows nothing about Indonesia. It seems this ignorance was used to the artist’s advantage, for he came from Australia to the creative environs of Yogyakarta without any sense of the ‘other.’ He didn’t perceive any ‘boundary-crossing’ in the project, which has allowed him to avoid the all too common baggage of ‘cultural exchange’ and ‘ethnic crossover’.”

I would contend that as a result of this lack of boundary crossing, he delivers a good idea, but because the militarism and masculinities (as two examples) are never questioned or lampooned exceptironically“, it unfortunately leaves the project as an empty shell. Recently Geert Lovink and Patrice Riemens in their Twelve theses on WikiLeaks note the underlying problems that this attitude causes:

Thesis 3

In the ongoing saga called “The Decline of the US Empire”, WikiLeaks enters the stage as the slayer of a soft target. It would be difficult to imagine it being able to inflict quite same damage to the Russian or Chinese governments, or even to the Singaporean – not to mention their “corporate” affiliates. In Russia or China, huge cultural and linguistic barriers are at work, not to speak of purely power-related ones, which would need to be surmounted. Vastly different constituencies are also factors there, even if we are speaking about the narrower (and allegedly more global) cultures and agendas of hackers, info-activists and investigative journalists. In that sense, WikiLeaks in its present manifestation remains a typically “western” product and cannot claim to be a truly universal or global undertaking.

Kesminas has also chosen a soft target – he notes himself that acronyms are everywhere in Indonesia. Without being able to find anything political to say, he has let a great opportunity slip away. At no point are power structures in Indonesia critically interrogated outside of the those natural aspects of punk rock which first came about in the mid 1970s. At best, Punkasila is educative to Western audiences culturally. At worst, an exploitative joke.

The Punkasila album really is a great listen, and the essay by Nuning is an fascinating cultural insight into Bahasa Indonesia – but it’s always good to remember that the vehicle is just as important a factor.