By Reme Ahmad , The Straits Times/Asia News Network
JAKARTA – Indonesians will go to the polls on April 9 to pick candidates for the national parliament, along with provincial and district assemblies. After two weeks in the country, I have noticed some big differences between the campaigning here, and the ones in Singapore and Malaysia that I have attended over the last two decades. First, the Indonesians, it seems to me, are more fun loving and relaxed even in such matters as politics. I feel entertained — yes, entertained and happy — at the end of two big rallies of the nationalist parties in the past week. And why not? They began and ended with dangdut girls singing loud songs while swaying their hips on stage, and male singers crooning racy songs, while also dancing away. Dangdut is fast-paced music that sounds like a mix of Indian, Indonesian and Arabic tunes. The fun comes in seeing hundreds of people in the crowds joining the vigorous dance while waving big flags. At a Golkar rally last week, some of the candidates for the national parliament, provincial and district elections did some dangdut dances too after being introduced. Sure, there are serious messages tucked between the song and dance. In Singapore, the People’s Action Party or Workers’ Party tend to strike a serious, earnest tone whether defending the government’s economic record or calling for more checks on the ruling party in Parliament. To be sure, elections are a serious matter but with less gifted public speakers, one could sometimes find one’s mind drifting. In Malaysia, Umno rallies are full of race baiting, and those by Parti Islam SeMalaysia have overt Islamic-law-is-good-for-you tones. I can imagine how Singaporeans would show a big thumbs-down if Singapore political parties were to have dangdut or K-pop dancing at their political rallies. And if Umno or PAS were to import this fun Indonesian stuff, an array of ulama (Muslim clerics) would condemn it. Second, in Indonesia, the Big Bapak soon enough joins in the festival of democracy. By arriving in a helicopter, no less. Tycoons Aburizal Bakrie of Golkar, Prabowo Subianto of Gerindra and Hary Tanoesoedibjo of Hanura arrive at big rallies in buzzing helicopters, circling the sites first to show that “I have arrived,” in more ways than one. I can’t imagine Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong arriving in a helicopter to avoid the traffic at a Bedok rally. Or Prime Minister Najib Razak or opposition chief Anwar Ibrahim doing the same when attending a ceramah or talk in, say, Alor Setar. There would be a lot of tsk-tsking, and they and their parties would be slammed all round for rubbing their privileged lives in the faces of the voters. And who, someone is sure to ask, funded the rental of the helicopters? In Indonesia, once the Big Bapak has arrived at the scene, the rally proper starts. Third, I love the fact that T-shirts and big flags are distributed well in advance, so that most of the crowd come dressed in the bright yellow of Golkar, for example, or the red-and-white of Gerindra. Yes, there are indeed whispers that some in the crowd get money and food to attend these rallies. But to me, that is no big difference between this and the crowds sometimes bussed to PAP and Umno rallies. The sea of a single color for the day at Indonesian rallies adds to the fun and gaiety of the political gatherings. Lastly, do not for one minute think that this fun-and-game attitude means the Indonesian voters do not take their politics seriously. They do. They know exactly who to vote for, and who they want to represent their aspirations. A decade and a half after the fall of the dictator Suharto, they know that democracy alone does not feed the people and that jobs do not grow on trees. The country has to pick the correct leaders, and everyone must work hard. But from the way I see it, to Indonesian voters, the journey should be just as interesting as the destination.