Saturday, June 27, 2009

Adventures in Mega Reality

Last week's first televised Debat Capres (Presidential Candidates' Debate) proved to be a bit of a damp squib in many people’s opinions. Aside from Mega's hopes for a, "Bouncy nation," an aspiration I'm sure most red-blooded males can get behind, the debate was, by contrast, pancake flat and frankly not even a debate at all in any commonly accepted sense of the word. Moreover, every five minutes of verbatim regurgitated and almost identical political platitudes came accompanied by about ten minutes of adverts.

Perhaps we shouldn't be surprised that the cultural malaise that has pretty much erased all political and ideological differences in the West has now arrived in Indonesia. According to the great philosopher of our technologically advanced, information overloaded age, Jean Baudrillard, our great traditions of politics and philosophy have now passed over into the realms of advertising, movies, television and the spectacle and are now mere simulations of their former selves.

In keeping with Baudrillard's concept of hyper-reality (more real than real) SBY, hovering around the 62 percent mark on the digital ticker at the bottom of the screen during the 'debate', is seemingly popular for being popular. Like Madonna and Ronald Reagan before him, SBY's very popularity, rather than anything especially substantive, is popular.

Mega, on the other hand, who often comes across as if the stick up her posterior has got to stick up its posterior, is also a postmodern dream. The daughter of Indonesia's founding president often seems as insubstantial as a hologram, paradigmatically real but not much else, a vacant nationalistic digital simulation constituted entirely by the rose tinted, reflected glow of her father.

Meanwhile, in the TV studio, the usual failing microphones and missed cues are the only thing that disrupts the seamlessly banal flow of images, adverts and cliches and symbolize the still remaining vestiges of the failing world outside and the fact that real people still sleep in the cracks of the pavements of our new PR designed, digital wrap around, hyper-real simulation of the Indonesian body politic. Just text us your vote, and democracy will flourish.

After the presidential debate, I thought that I'd also hit the pavements in order to inject a much-needed dose of real reality into my election coverage. I didn't want to end up like Baudrillard himself who, during the first Gulf war, refused an offer to travel to Iraq to cover events. Remaining true to his postmodern theories, he instead chose to file his reports from his Paris flat, sitting in front of his CNN filled TV screen where, "The war really happened."

No, it was time to sally forth to Mega and Prabowo's media centre, handily located in the Prapanca area in an ex-Padang restaurant that I often used to frequent. Outside, the unlikely pairing of Mega and Prabowo, my least favorite presidential ticket, beamed down benignly from a huge banner.

I entered and received a warm welcome from the assembled cadres. After being presented with stickers, a campaign magazine and even a book outlining Prabowo's various policies, I thought I'd float a few questions.

"Is Mega a CGI hologram?"
"No, no Mister!"
"Well, has she ever been here?"
" Mister, she's very busy on the campaign trail."
"Hmmm. Interesting. So you've never seen her in the flesh as such?"
“No. But please Mister, have a free glass of Aqua!"
“Most kind, so what would you say to allegations leveled at Prabowo, namely that he was involved in the kidnapping of student activists a decade ago?"
"That's just a political smear I think. Nothing was ever proved. I believe that Prabowo will help Indonesia's poorest citizens."

Inevitably, however, my political probing was diverted onto other matters.
"You’re English Mr. yes?"
"Yes, indeed."
"You know David Beckham?"
"Erm... I'm aware of his work."
Yes, the 'Hello Mister' wall had gone up and serious debate was now off the agenda down at the Mega Pro Media Centre. After a few matey photos, I bid farewell to the staff, saddled up my trusty mountain bicycle and headed off into the sunset of a bright new Indonesian future.

Later, leafing through my free copy of Prabowo's Tani Merdeka magazine, with its pictures of noble farmers in the fields and attacks on laissez-faire, neoliberal capitalism (one of the buzzwords of this election) I couldn't help marveling at our man’s audacious political rebirth. Prabowo, 1.7 trillion rupiah in the bank, accused of blazing a trail of destruction from East Timor all the way to Jakarta and formally banned from entering the US, has reinvented himself as Indonesia's very own Mahatma Gandhi: agrarian champion and friend of the great unwashed.

There's even a cartoon for children stapled into the magazine’s centre, a short morality skit on the evils of money politics entering a student election. Despite offering his fellow students bribes of baso and mie ayam, the Eric Cartman-esque Tambun loses the cartoon class election to young Boni. A laudable lesson indeed, although how the huge amounts of money that Prabowo's pumping into his credulity stretching campaign squares with this cautionary tale I don't know. And now a word from our sponsors.