Johannes Nugroho: The Lesser Appeal of the Written Word in Indonesia

Kids reading books a mobile library in Central Jakarta on Oct. 11. (Antara Photo/Sigid Kurniawan)

By : Johannes Nugroho | on 7:34 PM October 16, 2015
Category : Opinion, Commentary

In a recent commentary on the New Mandala website, Elizabeth Pisani highlights the often ineffectual “studi banding” or study tours conducted by Indonesia's public officials. As Pisani, the author of "Indonesia Etc.: Exploring the Improbable Nation," observes, there has been no shortage of gaffes incurred by these outings: the much-lampooned presence of the speaker of the House of Representatives and his deputy at a political announcement by the US presidential hopeful Donald Trump is just one example.

Yet study tours are by no means a monopoly of politicians. They are popular across all segments of Indonesian society since they satisfy the preference of most Indonesians for visual stimuli, as opposed to the written word. Most schools hold study tours for their students on a regular basis. It gives off the impression that the school has a hands-on curriculum. It usually assures the parents, too, even though they have to fork out more money to cover the expenses.

While these visual junkets may make more sense for kindergarten and elementary school pupils, they represent less significant benefits for the older students ─ and politicians compared to the more grueling method of reading and understanding the available literature on any given subject. However, given the choice, most Indonesians find the more academic approach less engaging.

The Indonesian public takes to films, soap operas and comics books, both domestic and foreign, with great facility but reading remains a pastime only for the few.

This week, Indonesia has been the guest of honor at the Frankfurt Book Fair, but the Central Statistics Agency (BPS) previously released survey data that reveal only 17 percent of Indonesians have any interest in reading while 91.68 percent said they preferred watching television to reading. Though the statistics don’t specify the types of books the 17 percent opt for, it certainly includes “comic books,” the viewing of which is considered a kind of reading in Indonesia.

The popular acclaim of comics throughout Indonesian history is another testimony to the triumph of the visual record over the written in the Indonesian culture. The first comics appeared in the 1930s as serial strips in various newspapers, already with local content such as "Put On" by Kho Wan Gie in the Sin Po newspaper and Nasroen A.S.’ "Mentjari Poetri Hidjaoe" ("In Search of the Green Princess").

The onslaught of American comics in the 1950s even produced local challengers through the creations of Indonesian comic superheroes such as Sri Asih, Siti Gahara and Garuda Putih vis-à-vis Wonder Woman, Superman and Batman. Even pseudo-historical accounts of the independence war against the Dutch"were serialized as comics, such as Abdulsalam’s "Kisah Pendudukan Jogja" ("The Occupation of Jogja:), a trend that has seemingly resurfaced with the 2015 release of the animation movie “Battle of Surabaya: There Is No Glory in War.”

Although eventually in the 1990s and 2000s the local comic industry suffered setbacks at the hands of foreign franchises, which included French cartoons such as the Tintin series and later Japanese manga, the popularity of comics and animation remained considerably greater than text-only books. Even today, apart from the mandatory school text books, the reading staple of the Indonesian public mostly consists of religious or self-help books.

There’s no doubt that the visual is important to the human experience. Indeed, any good writing should be able to evoke visual imagery in the mind of the reader as much as any good comic book, but there’s definitely more cerebral process involved in the former. Both the visual and the written media are valid expressions of the human proclivity to create and yet in terms of space and depth, the written word is by far the more comprehensive means of communicating ideas.

The lesser appeal of the written word in Indonesia may be attributed to the way social sciences and humanities subjects have been taught at school for the past 50 years. Instead of being dynamic, investigative and interpretative, subjects like history are delivered as didactic and rigid monoliths, often replete with state propaganda. As such, memorizing events and “facts” is the only path available to students, a thoroughly disillusioning experience unconducive to learning.

Given such history of first contact with the social sciences at school, it is perhaps understandable that generations of Indonesians have grown up mistrusting the written word, as it often stands for demagoguery irrelevant to the real world, and inadvertently reminds them of the traumatic and tedious hours of memorizing “standard” answers in preparation for examinations on National History and Citizenship Education.

In short, in Indonesia the written word has largely become an unimaginative tool of sharing one-sided truths and the pernicious agent of propaganda. One would need to sift through the superfluous cliches to arrive at the gist. For most, perhaps subconsciously, it is far from being the instructive, entertaining and imaginative thing it can readily be.

The truth is no great human civilization has ever treated the written word as trivial or even secondary. An ancient clay tablet found in a library in Mesopotamia, when translated, eloquently echoed a father’s disappointment in his son to us 4,000 years later. It is a potent reminder of the power of the written word and a lamentation of its diminished appeal in Indonesia.

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

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