Johannes Nugroho: In Indonesia, Too Difficult to Apologize?

A plaque in the Polish city of Warsaw to commemorate German chancellor Willy Brandt's famous genuflection. (Photo courtesy of Wikipedia)

By : Johannes Nugroho | on 3:50 PM February 12, 2016
Category : Opinion, Columns

Indonesian celebrity gossip columns were rife with coverage of the feud between illusionist Deddy Corbuzier along with fellow celebrity Chika Jessika and a Jambi netizen by the name of Anton Nugroho last week.

The latter indeed made a bigoted inflammatory comment on Deddy’s instagram account, reading, “What’s the point of you [Chika] taking the umroh [pilgrimage to Mecca during the non-hajj season] when you still f…. the Christian Deddy Corbuzier? What a whore!”

Threatened with a lawsuit, Anton in the end apologized to both Chika and Deddy. While he was clearly in the wrong for making such a hateful comment, his public apology — at a widely covered press conference illustrates the difficult psychology of saying mea culpa in Indonesia.

To begin with, Anton would not have agreed to apologize publicly, had Deddy not prodded him into it with the prospect of multiple criminal charges for defamation and electronic hate speech. Far from being sincere, the apology had the impression of being forcibly extracted. Anton chose the lesser of the two evils: either face a legal battle with “socially and economically superior” figures or take the humiliating route of saying sorry.

The act of apologizing in Indonesia has always been associated with humiliation instead of humility. It entails a great loss of face, and worse there is a cultural perception that admitting one’s guilt amounts to admitting defeat.

The Anton versus Deddy-Chika saga was a good example of a typical Indonesian “forced” apology in which a ritual humiliation usually takes place. In various media reports, photos of a menacing Deddy coming face-to-face with the downcast Anton, a jabbing finger pointed at the latter’s chest are readily available. Deddy also told the press how Anton had been so cowed that he acted like he was having a “stroke.”

To recoup some of his humiliation, in his official statement Anton said that while he apologized profusely to both Deddy and Chika, he explained that his comment had been intended as a “joke.” When Chika confronted him, asking if his shaming her as a “whore” was also a joke, he even coyly replied that it had been meant to attract her attention only.

There is no question that Anton was morally obligated to apologize for his bile and serious lack of decorum, not to mention judgment, yet the fact it had to be obtained from him under threat made the whole thing hollow.

Instead of being an act of release for the guilty, his apology was the fruit of duress and was perhaps even traumatic for him. Unfortunately, though Deddy was patently the victim here, his body language and demeanor during the press conference reinforced the widely held perception among Indonesians that to apologize is to be exposed to humiliation as the “losing party.”

The victor, the person to whom the apology is owed, is entitled to fume his or her anger freely. It is possible, however, that Anton’s half-hearted apology drove Deddy to behave the way he did.

At the risk of generalization, it’s safe to say that most Indonesians would go to great length to avoid having to apologize, unless circumstances force them to do so. The trait is easily observed in everyday activities such as the refusal to say sorry when a person has accidentally grazed another’s vehicle on the road or collided against someone while walking at a busy shopping mall.

On a national level, it is perhaps this mind frame that has prevented us as a nation from apologizing for our own mistakes throughout the history of the republic. Naysayers against an official apology by the government toward the victims of the 1965-66 anti-communist purges often illogically argue that the Indonesian Communist Party (PKI) had provoked their own slaughter through their own behavior.

Our own sins during the Indonesian occupation of Timor Leste, formerly East Timor, are completely whitewashed by nationalistic arguments such as, “Well, we gave them their freedom. What more could they expect?” or worse, as recent irresponsible online reporting shows, “Timor Leste is already regretting its exit from Indonesia and wants to return to the bosom of the Indonesian Motherland.”

No remorse, except for how Timor Leste managed to secede. There was no apology either during President Joko Widodo’s recent visit to Timor Leste. Instead the highlight was the conferral of the nation's highest honor — Grande Colar de Ordem de Timor Leste — on Jokowi by his counterpart.

In stark contrast, as senior journalist Aboeprijadi "Tossi" Santoso who reported extensively on East Timor observed recently in a social media post, the German chancellor Willy Brandt in 1970 knelt in a gesture of humility and contrition before the monument commemorating the Nazi-era Warsaw Ghetto Uprising. Brandt’s mea culpa, known in Germany as Kniefall von Warschau, took many Germans by surprise at the time, with 48 percent of those polled expressing dismay as opposed to 41 in support.

Germany could have chosen the Japanese road of silence and semi-denial for its wartime record but the chancellor obviously thought otherwise. His gesture became lauded in later years as a gesture of nobility and generosity. While it may be culturally unthinkable now for an Indonesian high-ranking official to publicly kneel in penance for the nation’s past mistakes, examples such as Brandt’s show us the cathartic benefits of sincere apologies.

Johannes Nugroho is a writer from Surabaya. He can be contacted at johannes@nonacris.com and on Twitter:

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