in the midst of Indonesia's strained relationship with neighboring Malaysia, a children’s television show is proving to be a goodwill ambassador. Twins Upin and Ipin, the computer-animated stars of the hit show of the same name, may be the best — and almost certainly the most watched — ambassadors Malaysia has in Indonesia at the moment.
“Upin & Ipin” airs on Televisi Pendidikan Indonesia in the mornings and evenings, seven days a week, and on the premium Disney Channel throughout Asia. It follows the adventures of the 5-year-old Malay twins as they navigate friendship, tolerance and kindergarten.
The twins live with their older sister, Ros, and grandmother, Uda, also known as Opah, in a stilt house in Kampung Durian Runtuh (literally translated as the Village of Falling Durian), set somewhere in rural Malaysia. The siblings’ parents, sadly, are already dead.
Upin and Ipin hang out with a group of friends representative of Malaysia’s racial melting pot. There’s the Chinese girl, Meimei, the poetic Indian, Jarjat Singh, and a recent Idonesian arrival, Susanti.
Each episode is rich in moral lessons aimed at educating children about universal values such as responsibility, honesty and loyalty.
The series was created in 2007 by Les’ Copaque Productions and first broadcast on Malaysia’s TV9 channel as a six-episode Ramadan special designed to teach young viewers the significance of the Islamic holy month. A successful 3-D animated film, “Geng: The Adventure Begins,” featuring many of the characters, prompted Les’ Copaque to turn the franchise into a regular series.
The show debuted in Indonesia in 2009 and has since garnered a huge following, proving popular not only with kids, but also with adults.
According to Viny Felasiani, a media official with TPI, the show was the highest-rated program in Indonesia at one point in January, capturing almost 25 percent of all viewers during its time slot, according to data from ratings and trend-tracking agency Nielsen. It is currently the second-highest rated program on TPI and the highest-rated among the education channel’s numerous shows for kids.
Hanny Kamarga is among those who never misses an episode. The 54-year-old professor from the Indonesia Education University in Bandung also buys the DVDs and owns Upin and Ipin dolls, one of the many products including T-shirts, lunch boxes, comic books and knapsacks bearing images of the twins.
“I think the show has a high moral value,” Hanny said of her interest. “It is easy for children to get the point of the story without feeling that they are being preached to.”
She compared the show to the Indonesian children’s puppet series “Unyil.” Produced by state-owned film production house PPFN between 1981 and 1993 and broadcast on state-run television station TVRI, the show revolved around Unyil, a fifth-grader.
“I also liked Unyil, but he was too perfect, too kind. Upin and Ipin are a little bit naughty and it seems more realistic because all kids have that kind of naughtiness,” Hanny said.
Nuniek Sabriani, another adult viewer, also appreciates the show’s moral grounding, although she watches it mainly for its entertainment value.
“I like it because I think the stories are explorative,” said the 23-year-old bank employee. “For example, in the World Cup episode, Upin and Ipin want to become football players and they show how the athletes play, how they tackle the ball, things like that.”
She added that she has also become entranced by the characters’ Malaysian accents — “I think the way they speak is very funny” — and that her fondness for the show had also helped turn her sister and boyfriend, who were initially skeptics, into fans.
Nuniek compared the series to the Japanese manga-turned-cartoon “Doraemon,” which is also popular in Indonesia, and said she enjoyed how the twins and their gang followed their imaginations.
Some Indonesian viewers, especially the younger ones, also say they like the series because they can easily relate to the characters. Abdulrachman Nur Rafi, 9, said he particularly liked the character of Susanti because she was Indonesian.
Aside from shared nationality, it’s easy to see how some viewers might feel at home with watching the series. Upin and Ipin’s village setting is similar to many of the villages in Sumatra and may instill a sense of home better than shows set elsewhere.
“Of course, Indonesia and Malaysia are similar. They both have the same cultural roots, the Melayu culture,” said Hikmat Darmawan, a Jakarta-based film and pop culture critic for the Web site Rumah Film.
Hikmat said those shared roots had resulted in similarities in religion and speech, such as the Indonesian roots in modernized Melayu language.
Regardless of the political and diplomatic tensions between Indonesia and Malaysia, Hikmat said he gave “Upin & Ipin” two thumbs-up for its winning portrayal of the daily lives of Malaysians. “It automatically is close to Indonesian viewers as well,” he said.
Both Hikmat and Hanny said they believe the show’s main characters, who are far from perfect, were easy for all children to relate to regardless of race, religion or nationality.
“Indonesian children, who don’t have a sense of politics and state borders, will immediately be able to see themselves or their friends in the characters from ‘Upin & Ipin,’ ” Hikmat said.
He added that this also applied to their parents, who should be happy that there is a television show children that passes on cultural values.
But with tensions rising between Indonesia and Malaysia, even the charming twins have recently come under attack. Hikmat deplored the fact that House of Representatives Deputy Speaker Taufik Kurniawan recently called on the government to stop the broadcast of the series as part of a wider proposed boycott on Malaysian products.
“The government must deliver a serious political warning to Malaysia, including by banning the ‘Upin & Ipin’ series,” Taufik was quoted as saying by news portal Detik.com on Monday.
He said the series was an unwanted representation of Malaysia in Indonesia. “Change it with ‘Unyil’ to instill nationalism in our children,” he said.
Hikmat is of the view that a boycott of the show would be counterproductive and unhealthy. “That would only pull Indonesian children into a political rivalry,” he said.
Regardless of any controversy, the two countries are not likely to sever their cultural or economic times anytime soon. Third-grader Audy seems to understand this better than the adults. Although aware of the tension between the two countries after watching numerous news reports, the boy said that he was not too concerned about his favorite program possibly disappearing. “ ‘Upin & Ipin’ will be fine,” he said.
Upin and Ipin dolls have been spotted at recent protests against Malaysia, but the show has plenty of fans here.