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Indonesia: Prabowo Subianto, swimming and mythmaking

Fulcrum - May 10, 2024

Taufiq Hanafi – Indonesia's President-elect Prabowo Subianto's passion for swimming is extensively documented in stories, images, and videos, reflecting his discipline and dedication throughout his long military and political careers. Recently, a podcast hosted by Deddy Corbuzier, a magician-turned 'political analyst' and Prabowo's most ardent supporter with a significant following on social media, delved into Prabowo's swimming habit.

The podcast discussion began with questions about Prabowo's limp, which had become a focal point of some negative campaigning during the 2024 presidential election. Prabowo named several incidents, including a leg injury during military training in Germany and a fall from a cliff during a field operation. According to him, these accidents, initially ignored, eventually led to debilitating pain and prompted him to start swimming daily every morning at four o'clock. He considers swimming a contemplative practice that sparks new ideas for the nation-state, similar to how swimming shaped Mao Zedong's persona.

Prabowo often recounts a specific swimming event. In his words: "When I was 22, 23, 24 years old, I was an officer in the army. I took my men to swim at Manggarai Swimming Pool (in Jakarta). While swimming, I noticed a marble wall covered in moss. Beneath the moss, I read the inscription: 'Honden en inlander verboden' [sic]. It means 'dogs and natives are not allowed to enter the pool'. This was in 1975." (Author's translation from Bahasa Indonesia.)

Prabowo has repeated this story at other forums, including at student gatherings, on television shows, and in his 2021 memoir, Kepemimpinan Militer: Catatan dari Pengalaman Letnan Jenderal TNI (Purn) Prabowo Subianto (Military Leadership: Notes from the Experience of Lieutenant General TNI (Ret.) Prabowo Subianto). By revisiting this claimed memory, Prabowo provokes nationalistic fervour and challenges his audience with the question, "How could my people (Indonesians) be considered as lowly as dogs?" Through such a story, Prabowo transforms his swimming habit from mere exercise into a metaphor for his resilience and patriotic duty. This mythmaking, as it were, cements his role in shaping historical narratives through his personal experience and leadership traits.

The Manggarai Swimming Pool, which did exist, opened on 3 March 1934. This venue was significant in nurturing local athletes such as Tio Tjoe Hong, Habib Nasution, and Ria Tobing, who won accolades in competitions in Jakarta. Beyond swimming, the pool hosted children's boxing tournaments and was a venue for swimsuit contests. However, it was also marred by tragic incidents, including the drowning of a teenager in 1955. By the late 1960s, the pool was closed and subsequently transformed into Bioskop Manggarai cinema, and later, into the Pasaraya Manggarai shopping centre by Abdul Latief, a close associate of former president Suharto (Prabowo's former father-in-law).

Prabowo's claim that a marble plaque with a Dutch inscription, "Verboden voor honden en inlanders" (forbidden for dogs and natives) has never been verifiably traced. Despite the prevalence of photography and independent journalist practices in the early 20th century, no proof of such a sign exists. As such, it is often dismissed as a myth in historical literature. It is further challenged by historical accounts that associate such discriminatory signs more with British colonial practices, not Dutch ones. While these elaborations do not negate the realities of Dutch colonial apartheid in Indonesia, they do challenge the validity of Prabowo's story.

The book Verboden voor Honden en Inlanders (1995) by Dutch author H.C. Beynon, often referenced by Indonesian scholars regarding the existence of Prabowo's supposed discriminatory sign, does not confirm the existence of the marble plaque either. It does include narratives from several Indonesians who claimed to have seen similar signs from the 1930s and 1940s. For example, one Mien Soedarpo Sastrosatomo recalled seeing a sign at a swimming competition in Fort de Kock (now Bukittinggi) when she was ten years old. Abdul Haris Nasution shared memories of a high school in Bandung with a pool that purportedly displayed the same inscription. Hoegeng Iman Santoso recounted an infuriating experience at Tjikini Swimming Pool in Jakarta, stating in Dutch, "Ik was boos. Waarom mogen de sinjos er wel in en ik niet?" (I was angry. Why are the Indo-European boys allowed in, and not me?).

Hoegeng, who was a close friend of Prabowo's father, the famed economist Sumitro Djojohadikusumo, suggests a possible inspiration for Prabowo's narrative on the plaque. Hoegeng's encounter with such a discriminatory sign at Tjikini Swimming Pool and his close relationship with Prabowo's family might have influenced Prabowo to borrow and adapt this story. By changing its setting to Manggarai and linking it to his military past, Prabowo's mythmaking stirs nationalistic sentiment.

This is reminiscent of Indonesian propaganda films like "Janur Kuning" ("Coconut Leaves", 1980), "Serangan Fajar" ("Dawn Attack", 1982), and "Pengkhianatan G30S/PKI" ("Treachery of G30S/PKI", 1984), specifically produced to enhance Suharto's image and were highly successful. Despite historical inaccuracies, these films embedded Suharto's patriotic image, charisma, intelligence, and political skills in public memory.

Prabowo produced a documentary in 2014, "Sang Patriot" ("The Patriot", 2014), the first time he ran for president. The documentary aimed to elevate his stature by linking him to historic national heroes such as the Sultan Agung of Mataram and Pangeran Diponegoro, while glossing over controversial episodes, particularly his involvement in the May 1998 riots in Jakarta.

As Prabowo prepares to assume the presidency in October, the importance of distinguishing a leader's claimed facts from crafted or even false narratives becomes paramount, regardless of his indisputable swimming prowess. It is imperative for Prabowo to focus on factual integrity to ensure transparent and effective leadership. In light of his established pattern of mendacity, it falls upon Indonesians to champion their freedom of expression. To this end, fact-checking mechanisms advocated by the Indonesian Alliance of Independent Journalists (AJI) and Tempo.co, a prominent investigative reporting outlet in Indonesia, could prove instrumental.

[Taufiq Hanafi, a postdoctoral researcher at the Royal Netherlands Institute of Southeast Asian and Caribbean Studies (KITLV), is interested in cultural politics, particularly the production and regulation of literary texts. His recent Ph.D. thesis examines knowledge production in Indonesia during the New Order period and associated state censorship.]

Source: https://fulcrum.sg/indonesia-prabowo-subianto-swimming-and-mythmaking