Johannes Nugroho: Indonesia's Own Psychology of Fear

Is there correlation between Indonesia's predilections for horror films and its own societal fears? On so many levels, the Indonesian society works on fear. (Reuters Photo/Ueslei Marcelino)

By : Johannes Nugroho | on 10:26 AM February 03, 2017
Category : Opinion, Commentary

In her recent Facebook post, Hollywood actor Mila Jovovich thanked her Indonesian fans as the movie she stars in, Resident Evil: The Final Chapter, became number one at the box office in the country. While not too many people would fault Jovovich's acting skills, the movie's main appeal to the Indonesian audience may well be its thriller-horror genre.

A survey conducted in 2013 found that 70 percent of the Indonesian viewing public, for both television and cinema, liked horror films. 50 percent of its young also professed their penchant for the same genre. The most common reason respondents gave for their preference was that, "It's thrilling [to watch]."

While it is almost impossible to pinpoint one definite appeal of horror films to the human psyche, psychologists have conducted researches and offered diverse analyses on the subject. Cultural historian David Skal argued that the themes found in horror films often mimic societal fears.

Filmmaker and analyst John P Hess also once observed, "Looking at the history of horror you have mutant monsters rising in 50s from our fear of the nuclear bogeyman, Zombies in the 60s with Vietnam, Nightmare on Elm Street as a mistrust in authority figures stemming from the Watergate scandals and Zombies again in the 2000s as a reflection of viral pandemic fears."

So is there correlation between Indonesia's predilections for horror films and its own societal fears? On so many levels, the Indonesian society works on fear.

One notable political example is the Proxy War Doctrine first popularized in 2014 by the current Military chief Gen. Gatot Nurmantyo; under it Indonesia is portrayed as besieged on all fronts by foreign powers working through proxies to undermine the country’s sovereignty, with the final aim of looting its riches and enslaving its people.

Chief among Nurmantyo's concerns is the threat of Chinese migration. Given the adverse public reaction to the recent rumor of ten million illegal Chinese immigrants working in Indonesia − stealing Indonesian jobs − the Proxy War appears to be a theory with mass appeal. During his lecture at a private Christian university in November last year, Nurmantyo related a discussion with the Malaysian Defense Minister in which a future scenario of food crisis in China cropped up.

While he said that Malaysia would have no way of stopping "hordes of hungry Chinese," he boasted that since the Chinese would try to enter Indonesia by sea, "We would simply kill 10 cows and dump their carcasses into the waters to attract sharks. Then we would fire at their boats to sink them and all of them would be eaten by the sharks.” Unlikely as the scenario may be, his audience approved by thunderous applause.

China is not the only threat to Indonesia, according to the general's musings. "The United States and its allies are spreading their influence in the Asia Pacific region. They have just set up a military base in Darwin," he told a Muhammadiyah university students' association in late December.

He added that another Western alliance against Indonesia is the Five Power Defence Arrangements (FPDA) between the UK, Australia, New Zealand, Singapore and Malaysia. It is difficult to ascertain whether the general chose the FPDA deliberately as it would no doubt remind the Indonesian public of the 1960s "Konfrontasi" with Malaysia in which all the five countries opposed President Sukarno's attempt to frustrate the federation of Britain's former Malayan colonies.

In another bizarre tale, especially in the current age of drones and satellite imaging, Nurmantyo also confessed to having indulged in old-fashioned spying. "There are 1,500 [US] marines near Darwin, soon to be 2,500," he said in his speech to the Indonesianisme Summit in Jakarta last December, "so I pretended to be a tourist. I hired a boat to observe and saw two bases already up and running. Australia is a continental country so the buildup of marines is actually unnecessary."

According to the general, the recent rallies by Islamists against the alleged blasphemy against their religion by the Christian Governor of Jakarta Basuki Tjahja Purnama or Ahok were also evidence of the Proxy War. Foreign powers, he said in a speech during the National Coordination Summit for the 2017 Simultaneous Regional Elections (Rakornas Pilkada Serentak 2017) last week, are creating divisions between political elites, different ethnic groups and the military in order to foment "horizontal conflicts."

"We mustn't let protests against the government be turned into a jihad. Then we would truly be divided. (Following a civil war), foreign military intervention would follow under the guise of restoring order. Afterwards, Indonesia would be disbanded and split into smaller countries."

This scenario has a familiar ring to all who studied history in Indonesian schools. It is reminiscent of the modus operandi the Netherlands allegedly used during the Independence War (1945-1949): The cunning Dutch and its allies returned to Indonesia at the end of World War II under the guise of disarming Japanese soldiers. All the while they tried to restore Dutch rule over the country and destroy national unity through the creation of "puppet states" in the Federated States of Indonesia (RIS).

The Indonesia-under-siege theory, regrettably, continues to garner many supporters in the country. The paranoia also provides fuel for xenophobic nationalist strains. Imagined external threats become a favorite scapegoat for much of what goes awry in the country, so much so that introspection and self-criticism become unpatriotic. However, we must ask ourselves if constructing our patriotism on the foundation of fears will best serve the nation in the long run.


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