Can Indonesian cultural products rival the Korean Wave?

Indonesian dangdut stars Zaskia Gotik, Elvy Sukaesih and Ayu Ting Ting in 2014. Photo by Julius Wiyanto for Antara.

Indonesian Twitter users had a lot of fun mocking Indonesian Minister for Tourism and Creative Economy Sandiaga Uno recently, after he encouraged Indonesians to consume less Korean television and music in favor of local cultural products.

“Watch less Drakor (Korean Dramas) and K-pop, watch more Drasun (Sundanese Dramas) and D-kop (dangdut koplo)!” he said in late August. “I’m optimistic that in five years, our creative economy can overtake Korea! Are you ready to do it…? “

Sandiaga has made it clear that he is not only concerned with promoting Sundanese dramas and dangdut koplo, but also the music and cultures of other parts of Indonesia. In an interview on 6 September, he said that Indonesians should also be encouraged to watch Balinese dramas, Batak dramas, and so on. This was an important recognition that efforts to promote local culture should not just focus on Javanese culture.

Sandiaga’s statements are a passionate defense of Indonesian cultures. He is clearly aware of the enormous K-pop fandom in Indonesia, and their famous loyalty, militancy and growing activism. It is true that dangdut koplo has recently been in the national spotlight but could it ever really overtake Korean culture?

Sandiaga claimed that Indonesia ranks behind only USA and Korea in terms of the contribution of its creative economy to national gross domestic product (GDP). The largest components of Indonesia’s creative economy are fashion, handicrafts and food. Sandiaga clearly believes that boosting Indonesian traditional and popular culture will help the country increase the creative economy’s contribution to GDP.

But the South Korean government has supported that country’s creative industries since the 1990s. That support has been a major factor in the ‘Korean Wave’ that has swept across Southeast Asia, including Indonesia. Indonesia has a lot of catching up – and spending – to do if it is ever to rival Korean cultural production.

Exporting Indonesia’s local cultures and traditions to the world would be a huge undertaking, but elevating them to promote economic growth is a more reasonable goal. But how does Sandiaga hope to make even this happen? Does he really want to boost local cultures, or is he just trying to boost his own image ahead of the 2024 elections?

Culture as the commander?

This is not the first time Indonesians have been asked to prioritise their own cultural products over influences from abroad. More than 60 years ago, President Soekarno did the same. During a speech to mark Independence Day in 1959, he said, “… and you, young men and women, who are certainly against economic imperialism and political imperialism – why don’t you also fight against cultural imperialism? Why do you still like rock ‘n’ roll, to dance the cha-cha, and listen to ngak-ngik-ngok music? ”.

Sandiaga’s appeal to Indonesians to decrease their consumption of Korean popular culture had echoes of Soekarno’s speech. Both sought to dictate patterns of cultural consumption to serve the agenda of the state.

But Soekarno had the backing of an authoritarian regime behind him, and, even then, his efforts to restrict western cultural influences were not entirely successful. Sandiaga, likewise, cannot stop the spread of Korean popular culture. The internet has greatly accelerated globalization and the dissemination of cultural products across the world. While Sandiaga might be able to support local culture, he will struggle to block influences from abroad.

Soekarno and his supporters used the phrase “politics as the commander” to refer to politically informed cultural production. A critical point about the first president’s cultural policies was that his primary concern was understanding how culture could be harnessed to support his political agenda. Examples of this include his support for the Mari Bersuka Ria dengan Irama Lenso album, and his promotion of the Serampang Dua Belas dance.

Perhaps an appropriate term for Sandiaga’s plan is therefore “culture as the commander” to refer to economic growth based on an understanding of local culture.

The problem is, Sandiaga seems to have only limited knowledge of the cultures he is trying to promote.

Certainly, he has expressed support for dangdut on a number of occasions. He used dangdut during his vice presidential campaign in 2019, and in early 2021 announced plans to propose dangdut to Unesco as intangible cultural heritage. He has apparently also held several discussions with “King of Dangdut” Rhoma Irama and the Indonesian Malay Dangdut Performers Association (PAMMI) to support this plan.

But at the same time, he has actively boosted the sub-genre dangdut koplo, with its suggestive lyrics and fast tempo. He even shouted “Everything will become koplo in its time” (Semua akan koplo pada waktunya) on the television program Koplo Superstar on 19 September. One wonders what Rhoma Irama – one of koplo’s most prominent opponents – thinks of this.

The tensions within the dangdut community are just one example of the many challenges Sandiaga faces if he is to monetise Indonesian cultures to grow the economy.

Calling for more support for local arts and culture is one thing, but convincing people to prioritise it over K-pop is a much greater challenge, to say nothing of the pipe dream of selling local Indonesian cultures to the world. That will take more skill than Soekarno could muster, let alone Sandiaga.

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