The substantive and the salacious

Patrick Guntensperger, Jakarta
Dec. 21 Jakarta Post
(this link will take you to another story in 20 hours, at which time you'll have to search the archives!)

A quick look at the news these days shows us that the concerns of Indonesians do not revolve around critical domestic issues of a struggling economy, a stalled war on corruption, a hostile investment climate, or even the Lapindo-caused mud deluge; they do not focus primarily on global issues like the possibility of further wars in the Middle-east, the coming changes to the UN, or the degradation of the world's ecosystems.

No, what dominates the headlines and airwaves is the in-depth reporting of the details of a tawdry affair between a national legislator and a dangdut singer and the second marriage of a popular Muslim cleric.

It is perhaps symptomatic of a population that is giving up hope for real improvement. Frustrated by impotence with respect to the broader global issues and tired of worrying about domestic problems that could easily be managed if the political will to change things really existed, the people turn to the salacious and away from the substantial.

This is a different dynamic from the international furor that highlighted the second half of the Clinton presidency. In the U.S at the turn of the century, the impeachment and trial of the U.S president over his sexual indiscretions and his subsequent denial of them was a purely political phenomenon, driven by ruthless and vindictive political enemies.

In the case of Yahya Zaini and his electronically recorded romp with Maria Eva, it seems to be the public's fascination with all things sexual that is driving the continued coverage. This is a story that the man or woman in the street can deal with.

Absolutely everyone can have an informed opinion and everyone has an opportunity to position him or herself on the sliding morality scale by the strength and stridency of that opinion. Unlike the issues of substance that the public can resign to the back burner while this tiresome little soap opera plays itself out, this story is within everyone's grasp.

And yet perhaps we should not disdain the value of this crass and rather banal tale. After all, it opens some far more valuable discussions while it exposes some predispositions on the parts of some commentators.

The other story of fascination to the public at the same time, of course, is the reporting of and commentary upon Islamic cleric Aa Gym's taking a second wife. As the two stories hold the attention of the public, much energy and ink is consumed in discussion and analysis of their broader implications. While the stories themselves are relatively insignificant on their own (except that they both involve public figures and they both contain a sexual element), out of those broader implications, some worthwhile insights emerge.

In The Jakarta Post on Dec. 14, Azimah Soebagijo, General Chairman of something called Society Against Censorship (MTP), writes in a letter that the press should be prevented from the "unnecessary" dissemination of news regarding the politician and the singer. The substance of his letter is open to debate among the pro and anti-censorship people, of course, but he states as an underlying premise that the press "should also perform the function of information and morality control". Now that is a scary thought! It is obviously of value that the discussion has exposed such a fascist point of view.

The Aa Gym story has also sparked some valuable discussion. T. Cotton, in a letter of the same day, addresses the polygamy issue with some useful observations. Among other things, he suggests exploring the option of women having multiple husbands. In our society, the idea is so radical that those reading the letter will assume that Cotton is using ironic humor to make a point.

Perhaps, however, the most telling point to emerge from the polygamy discussion came from Vice-president Kalla. When he addressed the question of why there is a ban on polygamous marriages among civil servants, we were all fascinated to hear what Kalla sees as a justification: with the added expense of additional wives, civil servants would find it necessary to steal twice as much as they do with only one wife; the state can't afford that additional level of embezzlement.

Absurd though it is that the country should be so fascinated by minor stories that should really be private family matters, as a springboard to more substantial discussions, the salacious has no rival.

What starts as mere voyeurism and an unseemly obsession with sex and scandal sometimes blossoms into a fruitful airing of ideas. It is actually encouraging to see these two stories that were really only entitled as news to a couple of paragraphs in the middle of the paper, generate real discussions on issues as serious as gender and sexual equality, the function of the press, the nature of pornography, and the country's acceptance of a culture of corruption.

The writer is a Jakarta-based political risk analyst and a social commentator. He may be reached at