Sunday, July 06, 2008

Dream within a Dream

Indonesian television is not generally something that particularly interests me however there is one show that has stirred up a hornet’s nest of controversy of late. I refer, of course, to Republik Mimpi (Dream Republic) which has had the establishment's well groomed moustaches bristling with indignation on more than a few occasions over the last few years.

My low tolerance threshold for the local TV shows has meant that I can only ever recall seeing the show once as broadcast live. However, the very super You Tube hosts a number of clips from the show which I have been free to download now that the site has once again been unblocked after the Fitna debacle.

Republik Mimpi's satirical content would have been unthinkable during the New Order's brutal and censorious regime and its a mark of how Indonesia has changed during the last decade that the show has managed to establish itself and continues to puncture the puffed up and pusillanimous on a weekly basis. Indonesia may still be corrupt and riddled with cant and sleaze but at least you can say as much publicly these days. In fact, in terms of freedom of speech and of the press, Indonesia has leapfrogged over many of its near neighbors. It is now legally possible to criticize the country's elites on TV and in print (although, in practice, journalists can still get their heads kicked in for their pains).

Republik Mimpi used to be broadcast on Metro TV however it moved to TV One in February as Metro apparently found it too hot to handle. Politicians have lambasted the show for flouting traditional Indonesian respect for authority. The Constitutional Court has, however, dismissed such cynically self-serving arguments and has removed articles that make it a crime to insult senior figures from the statute books. Bravo and hurrah I say. Blind respect for authority will get (has got) the country precisely nowhere.

Politicians are not there to be respected; they are to be questioned, hard and should be able to justify their dealings. Perhaps a healthy mistrust of politicians is the essence of democracy. We should never forget that politicians work for us rather than vice versa. There's no need to feel bad for them, they get their 30 pieces of silver for their troubles.

The increase in press freedom and the freedom to criticize the government is probably the best thing that has emerged in this country's politics during this reform decade. This has to be balanced against a decrease in religious freedom though and I suspect it can't be long before the powers that be start to censure Republik Mimpi on religious grounds, just as back in the 12th century, Chaucer's satirical portraits were attacked for being unchristian and disrespectful.

Satire is a powerful tool and runs through literature from ancient Greece through Chaucer and Mark Twain right up to current favorites such as The Simpsons or the online spoof newspaper The Onion. Wikipedia defines satire as a device by which, "Human vices, follies and abuses are held up to censure by means of ridicule, derision, burlesque, irony or other methods, ideally with the intent of bringing improvement." Literary critic Northrop Frye said that, "In satire, irony is militant."

Dream Republic has played its own small part in bringing improvements to the country by showing Indonesians that the prevailing cultural imperative of deference to authority is not necessarily always in the long-term good. It has encouraged people to express their too often repressed disapproval of those who hold power.

Anyway, I checked out the show on You Tube and a few chuckles managed to make their way through the barrier of my woefully mediocre Bahasa. In the show SBY, Yusuf Kalla, Gus Dur, Megawati, et al are all impersonated by actors and grilled by the studio audience over the issues of the day. The RM crew dispenses one-liners galore in between musical interludes and chantings of the catchphrase BBM (Baru Bisa Mimpi).

At one point, the actor playing Yusuf Kalla revealed that he had attended a celebrity movie event with the real Yusuf Kalla which had caused much confusion and amusement. I also watched as the show's cast joined knee-jerk protests outside the Malaysian Embassy, helping to diffuse the nationalist tension down there through humor and their threats to boycott the music of popular Malaysian songstress Siti Nurhaliza. Long may there be dreamers in this country.