“Is there a future?” A Poetic Observation of 1960’s Indonesia by Angelina Fajardo


(From Indischistorisch.nl) A picture of President Sukarno and his successor, Suharto.

At A Glance

Indonesia is a country that experienced severe political turmoil for the past century or so. From a peaceful community of Muslim inhabitants, to a colonized territory for the Netherlands, then a puppet under Japanese rule during the World War II, and finally suppressed people under a local military regime before gaining their complete independence/freedom in the late 80’s in tackling other various issues. It could be said that at the turn of the modern century, Indonesia underwent an intense revival in the social, economic, and political sectors. A very shaky one actually. And this could be seen in major literary themes produced during this period. Let us examine a poem by one of Indonesia’s prominent poet, Willibrordus S. Rendra.


“Suharto is appointed President of Indonesia at a ceremony, March 1968.” (From Wikipedia.org)

This poem, titled “Song of the Cigar”, captured a micro-perspective of the state of Indonesia after they officially gained their independence from the Dutch in 1945. Published first in 1968 in Horison magazine, the first literary magazine of the New Order, and later compiled in State of Emergency in 1980, translated by Henry Aveling, it was one of the works that criticized the problems of the Sukarno government particularly the lousy, economic development of the state. It is important to note that things during this period were not going well for the newly independent state as Sukarno, recognized as Indonesia’s first president, failed to provide a substantial economic that would help the country progress at a much faster rate. Too many figures and their vested interests worsened the condition. Together with the increasing powers of the PKI (Indonesian communist party) , the army, and religious groups which all vied for state control, the people themselves were put in a state of turmoil. The degree of this failure translated into poverty, unrest, and ultimately, questions of identity and nationhood. It was heightened and continued in the next presidency of Suharto when he executed an extended use of military might to prevent further collapse. Political and social ideologies became increasingly violent throughout the archipelago that reached its peak during the 1997 Asian financial crisis.


A young W.S. Rendra

W.S. Rendra (1935-2009)

Controversial, blunt, and daring, W.S. Rendra is considered a poet and theatrical activist. He’s known for his controversial plays that tackled the very issues, which no one dared to bring up, that Indonesia was facing at that time. Coming back after studying theatre in the U.S., lived in the poor district of Jakarta at that time as he organized a theatre group of his own. He was one of the people who experienced firsthand the effects of these issues. Several themes in the poem include the effects of worsening poverty, a lack of empathy for fellow countrymen, elitism and their wrong social commentary, etc. Let us  take a closer look at his poem:

As I smoke my cigar,
I watch Indonesia
and hear 130 million people.
In the sky
a couple of carpetbaggers squat
and shit on their heads.
The sun rises.
Dawn comes.

In the first few lines of the poem, Rendra’s observation of how Indonesian politics worked at that time. Carpetbaggers, a term referring to opportunistic politicians, were taking advantage of the bad situation in relation to Suharto’s reign. Instead of giving the Indonesian people hope to alleviate their problems, these carpetbaggers gave something else, and as Rendra put it, equal to excrement. Maybe the prominence of the carpetbaggers were due to the fact that elections during this time were short, so in order to win, they had to hasten their campaign sacrificing sympathy for the people in the process. What’s interesting is that this happens even before the day starts. In the next few lines, Rendra further described what his observations were:

I can see
Eight million children
who will not go to school today.
I ask why,
and my questions bounces
against the idle desks of the bureaucrats
and the empty blackboards of their teachers.
No one gives a damn.
Eight million children
facing a long road,
with no alternatives,
trees, resting places,
or future.

This observation implied that little care, or apathy, was evident towards the welfare of the Indonesians. And it’s not just the politicians or the government, but teachers as well. The situation was bad enough that the children themselves are affected. it seemed that the question of why is answered by an apathetic reply.  Rendra concluded that without the guidance of the higher authority, these 8 million children are subject to endless wandering towards a bleak future which have been waiting them. In the following stanza,  the sense of smell alerts the readers that there is the breaking of an important foundation:

As I breathe
the deodorised air,
I see unemployed graduates
labouring in the streets;
I see prostitutes queuing for their pensions.

Here, the poem delves into the heart of society and what is happening to it. Due to the state of the economy,  less and less work were available especially for the newly graduates. We are given the image of them being out in the street working whatever is left of the jobs. Less work means it was harder to earn enough money to go by and this was explicitly shown as prostitutes were seen lining up to get their financial assistance. The odor, rather, the fumes of problem in the economic situation deodorized the atmosphere of living. It’s not just economy that has a problem, but social issues as well. Further into the poem, it goes back to the image of the sky, but instead of the carpetbaggers, the technocrats are seen:

In the sky
the technocrats tell us
that we’re the lazy race,
that we ought to be more advanced,
that we ought to be upgraded,
that we have to be adjusted to the new technology.

Here, the poem presents a great disparity of society. There is the image of the elite individuals who have access to the world’s most advanced technologies, criticizing “us” of their material usage urging them to adjust to the culture of technology. But then, we have seen in the earlier stanzas that the situation of the 130 million people were not so good. They could not afford to earn enough money to make a living much less invest on newer technology as criticized by these technocrats. This technical incompetency was, for the technocrats, a sign of laziness. And it would seem that the people would accept this judgment and tried to live it with it, as seen in following stanza:

The mountains stretch
into the multicoloured evening sky.
I can see men burying their resentment under their beds.
I ask why,
and my questions bounce
against the pulpits of the salon poets,
as they sing of wine and the moon,
ignoring the injustices around them
and the eight million children who won’t be going to school,
who kneel adoringly
before the goddess of art.

Here there is a merge of the images presented to us in the previous stanzas as well as additional occupations of the 180 million people. It is the end of the day and the people are not feeling good. They have resentment, but to whom? And why? Given that education was practically uninteresting to the 8 million children, and that those who have graduated could not afford to get a job, and much less for the men to go to the brothels, it is no wonder that society felt this way. Rendra expressed this emotion as he added the following:

(Bunga bunga bangsa tahun depan
ber-kunang kunang pandang matanya,
dibawah iklan berlampu neon.
Ber-juta juta harapan ibu dan bapa
menjadi gelbalau suara yang kacau,
menjadi karang dibawah muka samodra.)

The meaning is translated in the following stanza:

The hungry children,
flowers of the future,
can barely see,
despite the brightly lit billboards.
The hopes of millions of parents
turn into a confused jumble of voices,
turn into underwater coral.

Throughout the poem, we have seen how people responded to the situation they are in, that is, instead of trying to solve the problem, they chose to ignore and live their merry way. They became part of the problem and Rendra in the following lines gave a bold statement regarding this problem:

We must stop importing foreign methodologies.
Rote learning gives only empty formulae.
We must learn to describe our own world.
We must go out into the streets,
out into the villages,
write down the symptoms we see
and define the real problems.
These are my poems.
A pamphlet for a state of emergency.
Art is meaningless
when it is separated from the suffering of society.
Thought it meaningless
when it is separated from the problems of life.

The last section encouraged people to cling to whatever amount of dignity and wisdom they have left to try to embrace the thinking that the well-being of others is the well-being of the country. It is to realize that this an artistic endeavor. Nationalism seemed to be a lacking sentiment of the people in this poem. To be active in changing the current circumstances they face, they have to look within themselves, their society. The problems require someone to solve it, it will not solve itself.


Through this poem, Rendra tells us of the demise of his people. He saw how the problem of the failure to increase economic development, revealed greater problems. The ignorance mentality, as he saw it,  lead to a dishevelment of the values, beliefs, and culture of the Indonesian people. It seemed as though they let their circumstances define who they are and what they will be-without a future. They forget that although independence was gained from the Dutch, it did not mean complete liberation from the past problems. Instead, these problems would continue to pile up to the next generation unless it is solved.  What the poem is concerned is that , it is not so much the problem dealing with the what of things, rather it should be on the addressing of the why. [ Why are people not doing anything to fight this? Why are they accepting this as their future? ] Rendra  knew it best to have continued the efforts of the previous literary warriors- Pramoedya Toer and Chairil Anwar-to fight not just the centuries worth of eradicating material poverty but at the same time to develop a national consciousness. For Rendra, Suharto’s reign merely magnified those problems.

Disclaimer: The analysis and interpretation of the poem are views expressed by the author of the post. It is by no means correct as  intended by the original author of the poem.

Works Cited:

Rendra, W.S. “Song of the Cigar“. Trans. Henry Aveling. State of Emergency.Wild & Woolley, 1980. Web. 19 Mar. 2016.

Hill, David, T. “Journalism and Politics in Indonesia: A Critical Biography of Mochtar Lubis (1922-2004) as Editor and Author“. Routledge, 2010. Google Books Search. Web. 20 Mar. 2016.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s