Reading the Signs With Bisindo

By : Sylviana Hamdani | on 2:03 PM November 30, 2014
Category : Life & Style, Community

Indonesia’s hearing impaired have been struggling for a long time with the national sign language SIBI, which users say is too complex. (JG Photos/ Sylviana Hamdani) Indonesia’s hearing impaired have been struggling for a long time with the national sign language SIBI, which users say is too complex. (JG Photos/
Sylviana Hamdani)

When seen from above, some people say that Indonesia looks like a string of emeralds on the equator.

That description seems more than apt as the country consists of 17,504 islands, each with their own traditions, culinary offerings and even its own dialect.

It was indeed a blessing then that our founding fathers decided upon Bahasa Indonesia as the nation’s official language, bringing together over 250 million people and facilitating an easy and quick transfer of information and knowledge throughout the archipelago.

However, there are still some people in Indonesia that have not enjoyed the full benefits of one common language.

Among the deaf in the country, there are two types of sign languages, which are the Indonesian Sign Language System (SIBI) and Introduction to Indonesian Sign Language (Bisindo).

Heart of the matter

“People outside the deaf community wouldn’t be aware that there are two sign languages in the country,” said Marianne Admardatine, managing director of Ogilvy Public Relations and head of corporate communications and business development for Ogilvy & Mather Indonesia. 

“And they wouldn’t understand the complications that come from them.”

SIBI was developed by the Indonesian ministry of education and culture in the early 1990s, at which point it was established as the official sign-language of Indonesia and used in schools, offices and public services.

“But SIBI was developed by those with perfect hearing,” said Juniati Effendi, chairwoman of the Indonesian Association for the Welfare of the Deaf (Gerkatin), through a sign-language interpreter. 

“It’s too grammatical and complicated for us, the deaf. We find it highly ineffective to communicate with.”

Gerkatin is the main association for the deaf in Indonesia which was established in 1981 as the amalgamation of a number of organizations in the country.

Today, Gerkatin has over six million members across the country.

Many years before SIBI was established as Indonesia’s official form of sign language, Gerkatin and its members had already developed system of communication: Bisindo.

As demonstrated in the press conference, Bisindo is very visual and easy to understand, even by those with perfect hearing. One sign may represent two or three words in Bahasa Indonesia at once.

On the other hand, SIBI may require two or three signs to describe one verb, depending on whether it is active or passive action word.

“There are prefixes and suffixes in SIBI, which of course, makes it very long and complicated for us,” Juniati said.

This complication, she added, hampers the flow of communication.

Sign-language tutor, Panji Surya Putra (Surya), who is also deaf, echoed Juniati’s sentiments.

“It’s hard for us to properly express ourselves by using Sibi,” said the youngest son of legendary Indonesian singer, Dewi Yull. 

“Some meanings often get lost in translation.”

Due to the complexity of SIBI, many young students who are heading impaired feel discouraged to pursue a higher education, which makes finding a job an even greater challenge for them, according to Surya.

“Those who are less educated and living in remote areas, mainly communicate using Bisindo, which feels more natural to them,” he added. 

“But if they have to deal with the police or government officials, they would experience difficulties as public servants only recognize SIBI.”

Seeing these problems, Gerkatin and its members decided to approach the government. However, after multiple letters and public rallies, their requests were ignored.

“The government believes that since SIBI has been established as the country’s official form of sign language, we should simply learn to adapt,” Juniati said. 

“They make no attempts to understand the difficulties faced by the deaf.”

When the Indonesian government ratified the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities into law in November 2011, Gerkatin again brought the matter of SIBI versus Bisindo to the House of Representatives, who vowed at the time to examine the issue. 

Unfortunately, nothing has been done until this day.

Upon learning of the government’s lack of interest on the matter, Ogilvy decided to lend a hand in the struggle to inspire any form of action.

“Now we have a new president in place,” Ogilvy’s Marianne said. 

“There is a new hope for deaf people in Indonesia.”

The organization established the website, where visitors can reach out to President Joko Widodo via his Twitter account @jokowi_do2, with the hashtag #dukungBISINDO (Support Bisindo).

The website also allows people to spread the news about the campaign to their Facebook and Twitter accounts.

“We aim to have one million people Tweet Jokowi on this matter,” Marianne said, referring to president with his now globally known nickname.

Upon achieving this target, Ogilvy plans to meet the president and discuss the matter with him directly.

Both Ogilvy and Gerkatin hope Joko will then push the House into declaring the more practical Bisindo as the official sign language for Indonesia’s hearing impaired.

“The deaf have been fighting for this [change] for 33 years, so we’re hoping to get one million supports as soon as possible,” Marianne said.

But the road to one million Tweets may be a long and arduous one; so far, only 1,817 people have offered their support to the cause.

Public support

Fortunately, the campaign has attracted the attention of several public figures. Among them, is local TV personality and activist, Melanie Subono.

“By failing to even acknowledge Bisindo, I think the government has denied the rights of the deaf to express themselves, learn and pursue better lives,” Melanie said.

“Maybe they [have ignored the issue] because they don’t understand the heart of the matter,” the 38-year-old said. 

“Which is why we want to make [government officials] see that there is indeed a problem with SIBI.”

The singer/presenter pledged to encourage her fans, Facebook friends and Twitter followers to visit the website and tweet the president on this matter.

Actress and singer Dewi Yull, an active figure in Indonesia’s deaf community in support of her son Surya, has long been a staunch champion for Bisindo,

“Bisindo’s signs are as simple and graceful as dance movements; it’s easy to use and understand,” Dewi said.

The 53-year-old actress, who has raised two deaf children, believes that with an effective system of communication, the country’s hearing impaired will have the opportunity and skills to make  significant contributions to their communities.

“The deaf are just like us — normal people,” she said. 

“When given the chance, they too can excel at what they do — make significant contributions to society and make their parents proud,” she added, pointing to her son as an example.

On a partial scholarship, Surya is currently studying to be an English teacher at Universitas Siswa Bangsa Internasional (USBI) in Jakarta.

The young tutor also had the privilege to be invited by Britain’s Queen Elizabeth and Prince Philip to the Leonard Cheshire Disability’s royal reception at the Saint James Palace in England.

Leonard Cheshire Disability is on of the UK’s leading health and welfare charities, of which the Queen has been a patron since 1980. 

Surya was one of two Indonesian students selected to represent the archipelago.

“Surya is extremely confident, even in spite of his deafness,” Dewi said with a beaming smile. 

“And it all started with good education and support from the people around him.”

An easy yet effective form of communication can be the beginning of a journey for Indonesia’s hearing impaired to realizing their true potential. But for that first step to be possible, Bisindo must be declared Indonesia’s national sign language.

For more information and to participate in Ogilvy’s campaign, go to

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