The third in an occasional series ©Jakartass 2010
There are a number of controversial figures in Indonesian politics today and few more so than Tifatul Sembiring, the current Minister of Communication and Information in SBY’s Second Cabinet.
Anxious to understand just what makes him tick, your correspondent was fortunate to be granted an interview with him at Soekarno-Hatta airport following his meeting with Barack and Michelle Obama in midweek.
J. As-Salāmu `Alayka , Your Holiness. Thank you for agreeing to meet me at such short notice.
(Note: my pronunciation, taken from this wiki page, may not be perfect, but TS seemed perfectly happy to greet this infidel with the traditional two-handed 'handshake'.)
I think we have time; my flight is delayed thanks to the hellfire and brimstone from Gunung Merapi. Allah is still grumbling about our sins.
J. Are you going home for the weekend?
TS. Yes, I haven't seen my family for a couple of weeks and I really miss them.
(Note: TS is married to Sri Rahayu and has seven children, Sabriana, Fathan, Ibrahim, Yusuf, Fatimah, Muhammad and Abdurrahman Sembiring. Although he is reputed to practice polygamy, I didn't wish to pry too much.)
J. I understand that your mother is a Minang (West Sumatra) whilst you take your father's lineage, a Batak Karo (North Sumatra). As my wife is also a Batak, from Tapanuli Selatan, I'm interested to know how your family managed to reconcile the two very different cultures – Batak society being patrilineal and Minang society is matrilineal, at least in terms of property ownership.
TS. I'm happy that you've studied Indonesian culture, Pak J, but you surely know that both ethnic groups have now adopted Islam ….
J. Sorry to interrupt you, but Karo Bataks are religiously pluralistic, practicing Christianity, Islam, and animism …
TS. That's true, but my clan, Sembiring, adopted Islam. As you undoubtedly know, the Sembirings are Merga si Lima, one of the five Karo clans, with cross-cousin marriages as the stated ideal so as we can perpetuate the wife giver (kalimbubu) and wife receiver (anakberu) relationships among clans. It is also a tradition among us that if we marry someone of a different religion, then the wife's extended family adopts the husband's religion. This has been the tradition for generations.
J. Your wife is from Java ….
TS. That is also true, and I was born in Bukittinggi (on 28 September 1961). I wanted a better future for my family and looked further afield … (laughter) … if you'll excuse the pun. My mother is my greatest hero; she is still alive, Allah be praised, and I looked for someone who would nurture our children as my mother has always nurtured me. And Ibu Sri and I have known each other since university. (Note: He has a degree in computer engineering from Sekolah Tinggi Ilmu Manajemen Informatika dan Komputer – the Information and Computing Management School in Bekasi, in east Jakarta). She is the best wife a man could have.
J. That's nice to hear, but if it's not too personal a question, why have you got seven children? When you started your family, Suharto's New Order regime with its slogan Dua Anak Cukup (Two children are enough) was saying that the country needed to curb its population growth if it was to meet development goals.
TS. Good question …. Like the Pope, I believe in traditional families and the rights of the unborn child. Again, like him I consider homosexual acts to be intrinsically disordered. Men should be men and fathering children and supporting them is only natural and has been since time immemorial.
Besides, Soeharto was not a good Muslim, so you could say that having a large family was an act of rebellion … (laughter)
Seriously, though, we males are in danger of extinction …
J. Eh, sorry …?
TS. Oh, haven't you seen the documentary called The Disappearing Male? It's all about the chemicals in our food, such as Indomie, which cause all kinds of brain imbalances in boys which can lead to homosexuality and HIV/AIDS.
J. Erm ….
TS. Yes, it's true … here, I've got the video on my i-Pad. (He starts to rummage through his luggage…)
J. That's OK, Minister, I'll try and log on to the internet later. But that might be a problem, and that leads to my next question.
Although you recently tried to ban access to pornographic sites, an impossible task as you now know, you must be aware that there are very few citizens in Indonesia with access to broadband internet (*see comment), largely due to the penetration of mobile phones which yield greater profits to telecommunications companies for a much lower capital investment. And who in their right minds would be turned on by a tiny pic or grainy video on a handphone?
TS. Oh, come on, Pak J, surely you know that if you ban something then everyone and their dog is going to try and get it. I'm all in favour of freedom of speech and thought; not only is it in line with the 1945 Constitution but it is also part of my job description as Minister of Communication. It's also why I tweet so much. Just look how much media coverage my pearls of wisdom have generated. Better still, Indonesians are now learning how to express themselves. In this age of reformasi that can only be a good thing!
J. But so many have criticised you.
TS. I don't mind that. The criticism of public figures is a necessary evil in a democracy, but I do wish some of my critics would be more polite. Why, some of them call me a goat!
J. I wouldn't worry about that, Minister. I've been called worse.
TS. Really? Such as ..? Hey, do tweet me @tifsembiring.
J. That leads to my next question about some of your more controversial tweets. Firstly, your statement, first made last year and now repeated this past month in the wake of the Merapi eruption and Mentawai tsunami, that unfaithful nations will be cursed.
TS. Ah, that was taken out of context.
J. Perhaps that's because you can only tweet 140 characters. May I suggest that you keep a blog like several noted commentators such as Desi Anwar, Wimar Witoelar, Julia Suryakusuma and I do. Anyway, perhaps you could expand your statements for me now.
TS. Certainly, and thanks for the opportunity. What I am trying to draw attention to is global faithlessness and greed. Disasters occur in almost every part of the world; Europe, Asia and the America’s have all suffered recent volcanic eruptions often with catastrophic results – you can just google it if you need examples. The natural and unnatural disasters are a result of the earth’s ongoing evolution, albeit in some cases helped by mankind’s greed and ignorance.
J. As I've already written, I can but agree with that.
TS. In some cases the majority of the victims are Muslim; we ought to consider that and what Allah is trying to tell us. Perhaps he wants to assert fundamental beliefs or perhaps Allah wants Islam to progress and modernise and move towards harmony? If we believe the Mayans, perhaps this is the beginning of the end of days…. 2012 is not so far away now. Whenever, this should be a time for reflection and peace.
J. Did you expect such outrage when you tweeted a quote from Adolf Hitler? I wasn't happy either because my father and his generation fought against him and as a kid my playgrounds in London were bomb sites.
TS. I respect that, but I was quoting from Mein Kampf which has been translated into Indonesian and can be bought freely here.
J. But the quote – "The union between two children, when both of them complete each other, this is magic" – seems to allude to underage sex and could possibly encourage paedophiles.
TS. Actually, I have no idea what Hitler meant, but it is rather poetic, isn't it?
J. When you joined SBY's government you resigned your chairmanship of the Prosperous Justice Party (Partai Keadilan Sejahtera – PKS), but you obviously continue to be a major influence over the cadres who control local legislatures..How do you view such controversial decisions as the banning of St.Valentine's Day and New Year celebrations in Bukittinggi, and that karaoke bars were shut in Depok?
TS. Well, in Bukittinggi there were shameful scenes of public depravity, such as couples smooching and cuddling. In banning such public affection we ensured that such excitable behaviour would only be conducted in private. I'm pleased to note the high birthrate among teenagers around September and October.
As for the closure of the karaoke bars, we have received numerous tweets thanking us from local residents who had heard enough badly sung renditions of Cara Saya (My Way).
J. Yeah, me too. Karaoke should be restricted to bathrooms which have better acoustics.
I think that's your flight being announced, so there's one final question I must ask. I'm referring, of course to what is possibly the most famous handshake ever.
TS. Ah, Michelle ma belle, sont les mots qui vont tres bien ensemble. I love the Beatles and all I can say is don't do as I do, but do as I tweet.
With that, the Twittering Simplefool was escorted through a back door and on to his flight.
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