By Manneke Budiman
New Order euphemismBahasa Indonesia underwent a period of “inflation” in the New Order era, especially in the political arena, through the overuse of euphemism. Euphemism is a linguistic device that serves to soften the meaning of an expression that would otherwise be deemed too sensitive or harsh if communicated literally. It is not clear how euphemism became the New Order’s dominant political communication strategy, although it could have been an influence from Javanese, in which civility (keadaban) and courtesy (kesantunan) are prioritised in social communication.
The New Order political elite used euphemism not only to hide the truth for the sake of being polite or civil. Euphemism was part of the regime’s crisis-management strategy – deployed whenever the state had violated people’s rights or officials’ wrongdoings were revealed to the public by accident. The objective was to restore public confidence in the state during times of crisis, rather than pencitraan (image-making or branding).
In the New Order, euphemistic terms were coined to sugarcoat the violent nature of reality. They included oknum, for a state official who broke the rules (which helped to avoid discussion of any serious institutional problems), penyesuaian harga (literally, price adjustment) for price hikes on basic goods, diamankan (literally, secured), for being arrested or detained, or kekurangan pangan (food shortage), for starvation. In the years since the collapse of the New Order, euphemism has not completely gone but its usage is less frequent. This could be partly because of the introduction of concepts such as transparency and accountability into public discourse. Now the term oknum is rarely heard, and officials acting illegally are usually described more bluntly, for example, as koruptor.
While the New Order period was marked by the heavy use of euphemism, a different style of unclear speech has become more common in the 18 years since Soeharto fell. Since then, Indonesia has seen the increasingly conspicuous and promiscuous use of borrowed, complex words formed by the heavy use of affixes, by almost all segments of society. Often the formation of such words blatantly ignores existing spelling or grammatical rules. These words never have clear and definite meanings and can be used in different contexts by anybody for whatever intention they have in mind.
Academics should be held partly responsible for this trend of anti-grammar and anti-meaning in Bahasa Indonesia today. In the late 1990s and early 2000s, as Indonesia was falling into a deep multidimensional crisis, social science academics increasingly appeared on television talk shows to explain what was actually happening. A gang of academic celebrities emerged, speaking to the public using the idiosyncratic and esoteric jargon from their fields of study. This perhaps occurred because of the complexity of the situation and the difficulty they had in finding better words to explain it. Or it might have simply been a matter of wanting to impress viewers with unfamiliar terms.
Politicians took notice. In the democratic era, they have learned that acting intelligent is just as important as being intelligent. The same phenomenon is behind the widespread accumulation of fake university diplomas by lawmakers, who quickly learned that pain is not necessarily a prerequisite to gain. And one way in which people try to look smart is by using buzzwords, speaking in gibberish, and producing as many derivations as they can, hoping that the public will be captivated by the performance.
Take for example, terms coined in the political domain, such as politisasi (politicisation), deparpolisasi (the declining relevance of political parties to voters) and inkracht (from the Dutch, but meaningless unless it is used in full, as in kracht van gewisjde, meaning a court decision that is legally binding and final). There are many more: aplikatif (applicative), solutif (an adjectival form of solution), koruptif (prone to corruption), inspiratif (inspirative, meaning inspirational), sinergitas (synergicity), or enerjik (energic, meaning energetic).
Through this same process, in 2013, a con artist named Vicky Prasetyo stole the show from academics and politicians and, in the process, introduced his own personal vocabulary of buzzwords into Bahasa Indonesia.
Vicky-isms and ‘Vicky-bulary’Vicky Prasetyo was 29 when he proposed to popular dangdut artist Zaskia Gotik and subsequently appeared on a celebrity gossip television program (link is external). Vicky was the picture of a successful young entrepreneur, well groomed and confident in front of the camera. But what made his interview immediately go viral was the way in which he eloquently produced strings of terms seemingly borrowed from English with added prefixes and suffixes, rendering them practically meaningless and unintelligible. Zaskia sat next to him, listening seriously to what he was saying, apparently trying to make sense of what it meant.
Tetapi di usiaku saat ini, 29 my age, aku merindukan apresiasi karena basically aku juga suka musik. Kontroversi hati aku, konspirasi kemakmuran yang kita pilih, kita belajar harmonisisasi dari hal terkecil sampai terbesar. Kupikir kita tak boleh ego pada kepentingan dan kudeta yang kita inginkan. Dengan adanya hubungan ini bukan mempertakut atau mempersuram statusisasi kemakmuran keluarga dia, tapi menjadi confident. Kita menyiasati kecerdasan itu, untuk labil ekonomi kita tetap lebih baik. Aku sangat bangga.
A free translation of this passage would be as follows: “But at my age, 29 years old, I long for appreciation because basically I also like music. My restless heart, (my) chosen ways to gain economic success, we learn to harmonise them, from the smallest to the biggest things. I think we mustn’t be selfish regarding our interests and plans. This relationship is not meant to frighten them more or threaten her family’s prosperity, but to gain confidence. We smartly use this skill to improve our economic situation. I am proud of that.”
Vicky became a laughing stock on social media. Just four days after the interview was published on YouTube, it had been watched more than 500,000 times. Vicky mixed Indonesian and English, but he also created his own vocabulary: kontroversi hati, konspirasi kemakmuran, harmonisisasi, mempertakut, mempersuram, statusisasi kemakmuran, labil ekonomi. His sentence construction defied not only the rules of syntax but also semantic conventions. His speech was founded along the paradigmatic line – which in linguistics relates to the substitution of words with a similar meaning – without concern for grammar or meaning. Although Vicky was universally trashed by netizens, they were also strangely drawn by his neologisms and began to imitate him. A “Vickynisasi” process took place.
What academics started in the late 1990s and early 2000s, and was then picked up by politicians, has now been taken over by ordinary citizens like Vicky Prasetyo. They do not belong to the elite yet they feel that they also have the right to partake in democratic upward mobility and, more specifically, the language of the elite.
In a second interview, Vicky was pushed to explain (link is external) why he spoke using ungrammatical and meaningless expressions. He claimed: “We live on a free land, not on a colonised land. With language, we are free to use any language, for whatever appreciation we’d like to have”. He spoke with confidence and even gave the impression of having a sense of mission.
Vicky appointed himself as a representative of the post-New Order generation that has seized the opportunities provided by democracy. This generation has also suffered from the excesses of the democratic experiment: an expectation of instant success with relatively no pain. Vicky wanted to imitate the elite to try to become one of them. His mimicry was motivated, however, by personal ambition and self-interest rather than by nationalism. His dreams are probably shared by other young people in his generation, who are presented with the ladder to success yet see no way for climbing it in the increasingly competitive atmosphere of globalisation. We may not see another eccentric youth like Vicky Prasetyo in the future, but “democracy” in the use of language (as he has advocated) is likely to continue to spread.
Mannake Budiman is a visiting scholar at the University of Melbourne, where this article appeared on 27 July 2018 on their website.