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Punk, pop and protest:

the birth and decline of political punk in Bandung

Joanna Pickles

Economic globalisation and technological advancement have enabled

popular cultures to circulate internationally, transmitted by the media,
the internet and culture industries. This cultural flow has in turn
generated both cultural fragmentation and cultural fusion. Indonesia’s
underground music scene has its origins in the cross-cultural
fertilisation arising from globalisation. Punk culture, in particular, owes
much of its global spread to the invention of new information
technologies and the growth of multinational corporations that
support the movement of ideas, images and products.
Evolving from the socio-economic context of England
during the mid to late seventies, punk became popular in Indonesia
almost two decades later. From the early 1990s onwards, major label
bands like the Sex Pistols, Rancid, and neo-punks such as Green Day,
had a growing following. The adoption of Western-origin popular
cultures has been labelled cultural homogenisation. This article
challenges that idea by considering how punk in Indonesia has enabled
the production of locality. Young Indonesians have used punk to
respond to the pressures of their political and cultural environment.
They have adapted punk collective identity and given punk style and
music their own meaning.
This article contributes to the study of music and identity as a
social force by examining the beginnings of activist punk culture in
Bandung during the early Reform era, specifically between 1998 and
2001. The Reform era is a historical category, the origins of which lie
in the civil unrest that led to the demise of the New Order
government. Its beginnings were generally viewed as a renaissance in
social and political thinking as the departure of President Soeharto

Review of Indonesian and Malaysian Affairs, vol. 41, no. 2 (2007), pp. 223–46.
224 Pickles
triggered the widespread emergence of social movements that
struggled for change.
Eagerly exploring this expansion of ideological horizons, the
activist punks of Bandung were only one group within the broader
punk subculture. Their relationship with other members of the punk
subculture was restless. The terms ‘radical punk’, ‘activist punk’ and the
‘punk movement’ are used here to differentiate punks with aspirations
for social change from other punks who did not share this worldview.
The terms ‘punk subculture’ or ‘punk scene’ have been applied to
describe the whole community, including both political and apolitical
factions. These terms are not used to indicate the greater authenticity
of one group over another. As Melucci (1994:124) warns ‘people are
not what they are but who they choose to be.’
The punk collective activity that spiked in Bandung during the
early Reform era was a new expression of punk culture in the city of
flowers. Within a few years the movement had begun to recede, falling
victim to a rising commercialism, growing apathy within the movement
and the life passage and progression to which youth cultures are
vulnerable. Punk activism in this period was not limited to Bandung,
but its growth and decline there was pronounced and worthy of
Punk: pop or what?
The spread of punk culture is one effect of the modern media
technologies that have facilitated communication and exchange around
the world. Likewise, it is no coincidence that a political punk culture
matured in Bandung at the same time as the mushrooming of cheap
internet cafes throughout the city. The internet provided young people
with instant access to the outside world. In this regard, Bandung punk
fits current definitions of popular culture, but is it appropriate to view
activist punk culture through the lenses of popular culture theory?
Many observers regard popular culture solely as a product of
commercial engineering, marketing and mass production, and in this
scenario, followers of popular culture trends do little more than ingest
the schemes of culture-industry chief executive officers. More recently
there has been considerable academic discourse qualifying the mass
Punk, pop and protest 225
commodity model. In this paradigm popular culture adherents are
shown to exercise personal power in the choice to buy and also to
transform cultural products to suit their own personal styles. The
significant point here is that while capitalistic enterprises may try to
control the use of music, they cannot determine the meanings derived
by the audience (Lockard 1998:41). Consumer defiance of the concept
that popular culture is a top-down-only phenomenon manifests itself
in the utilisation of these cultural forms for personal and often political
From the mid 1990s it became increasingly commonplace to
see dyed mohawks, patched pants and ex-military boots worn by a
wedge of Indonesian young people. Baulch (1996a) correlates the
development of Indonesia’s underground movement with the
alternative music revolution of 1996. In January 1996, The Foo
Fighters, Sonic Youth and Beastie Boys performed at the Jakarta Pop
Alternative Festival. A month later Green Day also performed in
Jakarta. Like other popular cultures, punk in Indonesia owes its
beginnings to the machinery of the mainstream music industry. It was
the commodification of punk that prepared the ground for a home-
grown punk rock subculture to grow.
This was a reversal of punk in the West which saw a fringe
music style being coopted to become the ‘alternative mainstream’.
Ironically, the major labels that spearheaded the popularisation of punk
would later become an enemy against which activist punks would unite
and channel their vexation. This, however, endorses Bennett’s (1986)
thesis that popular cultures are sites of continual transformation and
negotiation where dominant and oppositional values and ideologies
meet. This definition of popular culture is a more appropriate
description of cultural processes in contemporary societies, for it
emphasises that power does not flow solely from above to below.
Punk concerts, for example, are moments of audience and
performer collaboration. Often almost as many people end up on stage
as in the energetic mosh pit below and so the divisions between the
performers and the audience are fluid; audience members jump on
stage then fling their bodies into the whirling pit, momentarily
becoming performers. Likewise, band members regularly jump off the
226 Pickles
stage, in mid-performance, blurring the line between the band and the
audience. In pogo-ing the boards, punks exercise power in currents that
diverge in a multitude of directions.
The appropriation of punk culture by young people around
the world underlines that punk is not owned by a particular ethnic
group or tradition. Rather, it is open to the global mass. And in
Indonesia, punk has enabled young people to create a new vision of
social relationships not dictated by dominant social categories such as
class or occupation. University students, unemployed youths, school
students, workers and street kids ‘hang out’ together as punks,
unbound by religious, ethnic, or class distinctions. New social relations
are enacted as members create close community networks outside the
family. It is through their community, not the family, that punks secure
their place in the modern world.
Like other popular cultures, punk is both produced and
consumed (Strinati 2000:251). Its rallying against the mainstream and
unique consumption patterns, however, modify standard definitions of
popular culture. Over the years punk-like styles have sporadically risen to
popularity on the catwalks of the haute couture fashion world. It is
arguable that this is an instance of the popularisation of one aspect of
punk identity. Unsurprisingly, this phenomenon was not something
embraced by Bandung’s radical punks who united in opposition to
mainstream popular culture. To quote the Bandung zine,2 Kontaminasi
Propaganda (1) (1999:5) ‘punk is and must be a revolutionary form, and if
you don’t agree, now is the time to shift from your hardcore cassette
collection to glamorous pop CDs that are available at large record stores.’
In fact several points of the punk ethic jar with accepted
definitions of popular culture. Popular culture products according to
Lockard (1998:9) are ‘designed and made less from the creative drives
within the artist than for the tastes and needs of the audience.’ Punk
rock denies this statement. Its rough edges and maximum volume
elevate artistic expression over expertness. Thempak, vocalist for
Bandung hardcore (HC) punk band Jeruji (iron bar), a band renowned
for exhibiting raw anger and frustration, has acknowledged that ‘Jeruji’s
loud music is representative of the energy that I want to put forward’
(Ripple Mag (2) 2000:30).
Punk, pop and protest 227
Punk music is accessible and cheap to produce, requiring only
a drum set, guitars and a strong loud vocalist. It does not require
training or education to produce punk’s notoriously loud thumping
drum beat, rapid-fire vocals and no-frills guitar riffs. Laing (1989:83)
has dubbed the sampling, distortion and feedback in punk rock as
‘rhetorical incompetence’, meaning that punk amateurism is stylistic
rather than actual and that the underlying message to listeners is that
anyone can ‘do-it-themselves’ and make a record.
This ethos of doing it for themselves and not the audience
instils individuals with the belief that they must initiate action in order
to inspire change. Implicit in this is rejection of the prevailing capitalist
system, the same system that has carried punk to many corners of the
world. This tension does not deny the classification of punk as a
popular culture. Instead, it highlights that popular culture is a diverse
realm of ‘ongoing improvisation’ fashioned by individual and group
interaction with each other and their environment (Liddle 1997:4).
Youth and music in the New Order
The spread of Western-origin youth cultures has been posited as
indicative of the Westernisation. Interpretations of punk culture
throughout the world, however, contradict such a proposition. Epstein
(2001), for example, has shown that Korean punks, who largely direct
their criticism at the Korean formal education structures, do not
replicate the resistance and rebellion of monarchy and Establishment-
opposed punks in 1970s England. Similarly, radical punk in Bandung
was not simply a re-run of past movements in the West. Individuals
may have appropriated a cultural-form that originated from another
society, but this was then modified to suit local conditions and so new
meanings were given to borrowed icons. Radical punk in Bandung was
the response of certain Indonesian youths to their social, political and
economic surrounds. To understand why political punk rose to
prominence in the early days of the Reform era we first need to
examine the Establishment against which Bandung’s political punks
voiced their protest.
The removal of young people from the sphere of political
activity during the New Order has been extensively studied. The terms
228 Pickles
pemuda (youth) and generasi muda or angkatan muda (young generation)
stood for political concepts in Indonesia’s struggle for independence
from colonial rule (Anderson 1967). After Indonesia attained
independence, the image of heroic young freedom-fighters was used
by the anti-colonial state as a symbol around which the newly created
nation-state could rally. The vigorous participation of youth groups in
the revolution, however, also posed a problem for the advocates of the
new status quo. While youth was a good nationalist symbol, Ryter
(1998:58) argues that, ‘too much emphasis on the role of pemuda left
open the possibility of an undesirable repeat performance.’ One way of
depoliticising youth was to change the terminology of the category
(Siegel 1986:224). In Jakarta during the late 1980s and early 1990s,
young people were not referred to as anak (children), murid (pupils),
mahasiswa (students), or revolutionary pemuda, but remaja (teenager). By
describing young people as remaja, their potential to become political
actors was restricted (Ryter 1998:58).
Incidents such as Malari, the anti Japanese riots of 15 January
1974, followed by student protests and mass arrests prior to the general
elections of 1978, justified the New Order bureaucracy’s dismantling
of the political infrastructure within institutions of higher learning.
Through the campus normalisation policy (NKK), university student
organisations were either disbanded or made reliant upon campus
bureaucracy. Fear tactics kept the policy fresh in the minds of would-
be activists (Heryanto 1993). In addition, New Order cultural policy
worked to strengthen, construct and promote a distinct facet of
Indonesian-ness as the hegemonic national identity. The Pancasila —
the group of five principles at the philosophical base of the Indonesian
nation-state — was the central tenet of New Order cultural policy.
Pancasila principles provided a blue print for behaviour, the defence of
which meant being ‘Indonesian’ (Bourchier 1997:158). Through
promoting a national standard language, Soeharto asserted his
aspirations for orderliness and homogeneity upon the national
conscience (Hooker 1993:272).
Western-origin cultural forms were positioned as an enemy in
both the New Order and its predecessor the Old Order.3 Henschkel
(1994:55) notes that the West, whilst often seen as modern and
Punk, pop and protest 229
developed, was also viewed by the mass media as a source of
corruption and materialism. Many statements from high-ranking
government officials printed in news reports during this period
focussed on the incompatibility of heavy metal music with Indonesian
culture. Instead, the ‘music of the people’ dangdut, was offered as the
citizen friendly alternative (Thompson 1993:5). Siegel (1986:216)
provides insightful commentary on the popularity of foreign music
styles in the face of sharp anti-West propaganda: ‘the significance of
the “West” is that it is outside national boundaries and thus a
convenient source of what is not yet Indonesian, of what is new.’ This
sentiment is echoed in the testimony of young alternative rocker Bayu
a member of the Yogyakartan alternative rock band, I Hate Mondayz:
‘Western music gives us inspiration ... The climate overseas is like that.
If there is something new, it’s valued. Here, maybe not’ (Eddy 1997:70).
The New Order state’s manipulation of its people’s behaviour
involved the use of both passive and aggressive measures. The appeal
of punk to young Indonesians becomes understandable when
considered in reaction to this. Dissent in the form of subcultural
expression became urgent as the New Order prescribed norms by
informal non-legislative means. Placed in this context, punk style was
clearly a symbolic inversion of Pancasila regimentals. The disorder of
these youths ‘showed up cracks in the attempts to control cultural
production and create “cultural order”’ (Sen and Hill 2000:164).
When asking how and why punks were attracted to punk rock,
the overwhelming majority of responses suggested that at first most
punks were attracted by the loud angry music and image. For radical
punks, over time a political awareness grew. In its embryonic stage
during the New Order, political aspirations were rarely expressed
overtly as the repressive nature of the government meant
characteristically punk, anti-establishment political views were best left
whispered rather than yelled. On a few occasions resistance against the
bureaucracy was spoken more blatantly. Due to the administration’s
anxiety over crowds, military and police vigilantly monitored concerts
featuring loud and heavy music.
Yet even under that kind of surveillance, in 1996 a provocative
band from Yogyakarta’s still small punk community rose to the stage,
230 Pickles
hanging behind them a banner painted with the name of their new
song, ‘I Wanna Fresh President’ (in English). Ramet (1994:5) asserts
that such a symbiosis of alternative culture and alternative politics is
inevitable in systems that define culture in political terms. Thus, the
cultural activism that lay at the heart of the punk movement in the
Reform era, rose in response to the Indonesian nation-state’s
continuous intrusion into civil society. Policies enforced by tough
militarism resulted in the politicisation of culture, forcing everyday life
to become a field for political expression.
Punk and dis-Orderly
The subversive adoption of foreign fashion styles by Indonesian young
people is not unique to punks. Brenner’s article on the adoption of the
veil (jilbab) by young urban Muslim women — against the wishes of
their parents and at the risk of receiving criticism from neighbours and
friends — looks at a group of Indonesian youths drawing on foreign
cultural practices to express local concerns. Brenner sought to
understand why these women are drawn to adopting traditions from
abroad, a practice portrayed by the discourses of the New Order as
At first, drawing a comparison between punk style and the
jilbab seems comical; however, certain similarities in the symbolic
meaning of these fashions are evident. Brenner (1996:677) shows that
the adoption of foreign fashion marks one as ‘different’. Punk style, as
a marginal practice, also elicits mainstream rejection and, because it is
culturally alien, the punk aesthetic in Indonesia is immediately
controversial. It therefore has immediate repercussions for an
individual’s relationships with others in a community where conformity
has long been the order of the day. This statement was echoed in an
interview held with the vocalist of the Yogyakartan industrial punk
band Teknoshit:
As a result of Soeharto, and the New Order, society has been taught
to value appearance ... If there is someone with dreadlocks, body
piercings, tattoo’s, mohawks, wearing boots, they are viewed
suspiciously, they have to be watched carefully, controlled — [People
think] this person is up to no good, they will make trouble.
Punk, pop and protest 231
Reports published in the mass media echo this sentiment. The tabloid
rag Adil (1999b:7) discussed the punk movement in Bandung in a feature
article on ‘Bandung’s Sea of Gangs’. Its response to punk style was:
Respectable people would be scared to see this gang. Most would cross
the road rather than bump into them. Eeeek ... what kind of people are
these? said Nunung, a young mother from the outskirts of Bandung.
Brenner speculates that adoption of the jilbab is a symbolic rejection of
western models of modernity. Zipping on punk costume, on the other
hand, achieves quite the opposite effect. It suggests aspirations towards
the liberalism, participatory democracy, and individual autonomy that
have been long associated with punk movements in other parts of the
world. The debates of Bandung’s activist punks, however, modify these
aspirations, with rejection of the greedy, hedonistic, individualistic and
capitalistic values also long connected with the West in Indonesian
While the jilbab is donned to hide away hair, punks
provocatively manipulate their tresses. One popular hairstyle, widely
referred to by the local term durian, consists of the whole head of hair
being twisted into numerous dead straight spikes. Expert stylists manage
to momentarily defy gravity even with hair as long as 20cm. The durian
hairstyle confronts New Order requirements that school pupils’ hair be
neat and orderly and not extend beyond ear length. Through knotting
dreadlocks, twisting spikes, fixing mohawks and soaking strands in
vibrant colours, hair is transformed into a symbolic statement (Mercer
1987). When I asked a member of Bandung punk band Keparat
(bastard) why he had modified the strip of hair running over his scalp
from the base of his skull to the peak of his forehead to stand at
attention, dead straight and fluorescent pink, he responded by saying, ‘I
wear a mohawk to create a reaction, so that people ask me why my hair
is this way. Then I tell them it is punk, and that punk for me is about
struggling for change — changing society and changing perceptions.’
The visual statement expressed through punk style contests
and ridicules the conventions of respectable society. The penetration
of civil society by the military during the New Order finds its response
in the punk movement’s subversion of bureaucratic and militaristic
systems.4 Punks appropriate icons of military uniforms, sturdy black
232 Pickles
boots and khaki army pants. Turning uniform into costume, the
should-be neatly pressed pants are left unwashed and are often torn
on purpose. This visual statement is completed by the erratic
placement of coloured patches, screaming angry slogans, over the
ragged cloth. In symbolic terms the military order elevated by the state
is undermined.
Punk spectacularity also serves to reinforce the punk collective
identity; style functions to designate who are ‘in’ and exclude those who
are ‘out’; style therefore helps to forge communal solidarity.
Body art is another borrowed cultural-form that has been
given local meaning. It is no longer uncommon to see full colour
images etched into skin or indelible words inscribed on young bodies.
By asserting a shared ‘body art language’ an individual is linked to a
social group as an insider, as opposed to the non-tattooed ‘stark naked’
outsiders Baker (2000). The process of tattooing itself contributes to
this sense of solidarity as the person being tattooed renders a portion
of his or her body to a friend to permanently ink.
The popularity of tattooing among the current generation of
young people reflects dramatic changes in recent Indonesian history. In
Indonesia, tattoos are a sign of subversive powers (Marianto 2000:16).
Tattooing connotes the primitive and the tribal. By inscribing their skins
with tribal marks and motives, punks depict their identification with
sidelined indigenous groups, a position which necessarily rejects state
discourses of modernity and development. Furthermore, during the
New Order, the mass media regularly stereotyped tattoos as a mark of
criminality. With each new victim of the 1983 petrus (mysterious
shootings) assassinations, close-up photos usually featuring the tattooed
corpse appeared in the local paper (Bourchier 1990:186). The legacy of
this discourse continues to be delivered to the Indonesian public
through the numerous Cops-styled reality television programs such as
Buser, Sergap and Brutal Siang where cameras routinely zoom in on the
tattoos of criminals who have been ‘caught red-handed’. Despite, or
perhaps because of this history, body adornments, such as piercings and
tattoos, are an important part of being an Indonesian punk. Activist
punks used this art form with personal experience and knowledge of its
history and with the motive of changing normative values.5
Punk, pop and protest 233
In the scene’s literature, textural in-codes were used to disguise
identities. Individuals are referred to by their email addresses, chat room
names, or pseudonyms created for a particular purpose. In the zine Sub
Chaos, members of a Bandung ‘anarcho-pop’ band that grew out of the
activist punk movement were referred to as ‘Ebola’, ‘Tuberculosis’ and
‘AIDS’. By metaphorically conceiving band members as diseases
spreading malady, the scene is contrived to cast a shadow over healthy
everyday life and social norms. These figurative masquerades, while
serving to shroud the identity of movement members from unwanted
surveillance, enforce the idea that punk is a fringe-dwelling secret society.
Language is also used by the punk subculture to claim cultural
territory and carve out cultural space for the community. Like most
young urban Indonesians, Bandung’s punks mix a heady cocktail of
language, including Indonesian, English, slang and the local language,
Sundanese. In punk rock songs it is not uncommon for the thick and fast
drumbeats to disappear in sections, so that an oration can be heard and
understood. In a song entitled ‘Destroy’ by punk rockers Blackboot, the
chanted lyrics in English — ‘fuck about your hair/ fuck about your jacket
... if you punx, fight hierarchy/ if you punx, destroy military’ — are
interrupted by a forceful recitation, in Indonesian, which declares punk
a form of rebellion against the system, not just fashion and style
(Blackboot 2000).6 While the fast tempo of the song accents the gravity
of the song’s message, the use of Indonesian recitatives ensures that
message is conveyed.
English lyrics remain popular due to the perception that English
is more expressive than standard Indonesian. English lyrics are
sometimes paraphrased in Indonesian on album covers to ensure that a
band’s intent in performing a song is conveyed. The meaning of one
song, ‘Disorder’ by Bandung punk band Keparat, is summarised by a
statement in Indonesian printed below the English lyrics: ‘prove that
punk is more than just fashion, make it a threat to the oppressors.’ Use
of Indonesian here is out of necessity; its use does not signify respect for
the value systems disseminated within the New Order’s language
development programs.
Spontaneously coined in-terms are also popular. For example,
the reasonably common slang word for cannabis, cimeng, was dubbed cir
234 Pickles
by a group of punks sharing a joint one evening. Cir quickly spread and
became popular within the subculture where cannabis use is frequent.
Such creation of a new vocabulary enables members of the subculture
to establish alternative and exclusive communication. This ability to
understand the newest slang terms creates ‘in-ness’, while
simultaneously denying understanding to those on the ‘out’ (Chambert-
Loir 1990:87).
Punk identity is neither stable through time nor in the present.
Like all identities, punk is relational. That said, being punk does not
necessarily prohibit the transition into other roles. I remember going to
celebrate Idul Fitri with a punk friend. Knocking on his door at 8 a.m.,
I was greeted by my friend still dressed in the male prayer clothes, a
checkered cotton sarong, the Islamic male headdress (peci) and a clean
pressed white shirt. My host shrugged off the disbelief my face must
have expressed. I had lived in close proximity to him for several
months and all through the fasting month, Ramadan, yet he had never
before exhibited signs of Islamic devotion. As we moved from house
to house paying our respects to neighbours, asking for forgiveness, he
explained to me that being a son, being a punk and being a Muslim
could coexist. The punk identity that determined so much of his
lifestyle did not prevent his movement into other roles and costumes.
Does the fact that identities are appropriated, adopted, may be
multiple and change through time imply false representation? I support
Lipsitz’s (1994:16) belief that dilemmas of real as opposed to imagined,
or authentic versus false, are not appropriate for an outsider to enter
into. Nevertheless, the question of authenticity becomes pertinent
when asked by members of the movement itself.
While young women mobilised themselves across Indonesia to
adopt the jilbab, a similar situation does not appear to be occurring with
punk style. Of the few women who were active in the punk movement,
most felt it unnecessary to flaunt a punk image. The editor of the
femzine, Puncak Muak, describes how punk, for her, has nothing to do
with fashion, but rather revolves around lifestyle and personal outlook:
Many [people] laugh when they find out I am a punk ... Perhaps
because my hair isn’t multi-coloured, it is straight, black and long. Or
maybe my clothing style is neat and girlish, not funky masculine. My
Punk, pop and protest 235
piercings are only two, my left and right ears. I don’t have a tattoo, I
have never smoked, never drunk and never taken pills. Crazy, so what
is it that makes me punk? My soul. My lifestyle. My thinking. All of these
are very punk (Puncak Muak 2001:1, emphasis in original).
Brenner’s discussion of young women appropriating the jilbab suggests
that women are willing to seek out foreign cultural-forms to construct
their identities. So what, then, precludes punk from being a desired
style for young women?
Murray (1991:4) asserts that the New Order borrowed from
Islamic imagery and elite class traditions to construct its vision of
women’s roles in society. She reveals how this led to women’s exclusion
from the public sphere; their roles were to be played out in the
domestic domain. To demonstrate this, Murray deconstructs the
Kodrat Wanita, the guiding principles of Dharma Wanita (Civil
Servants Wives Association) and the associated family welfare system
(PKK), which she argues ‘functioned to entrench the dominant
“gender belief system”’ (Murray 1991:4). These principles describe the
state-sanctioned positions which women could assume: a wife and
companion, manager of the household, producer of the nation’s future
generation, mother, educator and citizen (Murray 1991:5).
In the same study, Murray reinforces the distinction between
what was allowable for men, in contrast with the limits placed on
women. Giving the example of youth communities in urban Jakarta,
Murray distinguishes the different social perceptions of male
brandalan (delinquency) as opposed to females conducting similar
Brandal behaviour is acceptable or fairly normal for unemployed or
underemployed males but not for females and I was often ‘warned’ not
to associate with certain girls (Murray 1991:104).
The jilbab visually asserted devotion to Islam, a move deemed
provocative considering New Order sensitivity to Islamic revival. While
not denying the resistance implicit in this act, women adopting the
jilbab were still operating within the imagery and norms dictated by
gender roles as set by New Order. Their resistance can be seen as a
hyper-obedience to the dominant discourse. Punk lifestyle, on the
other hand, contradicts almost all norms set for women during the
236 Pickles
New Order: punk style is masculine jantan (bold), not the stereotypical
feminine lembut (meek); punk operates in the public sphere and not the
private; punk is symbolic of emotional frustration, not of feminine
restrain; and punk rejects the domesticity and hierarchy of the family
for life on the streets. For many females active in the punk scene,
resistance falls within the realm of what is culturally permissible.
Too punk to buy
‘Lifestyling’, as coined by Gerke (2000:137) in reference to Indonesian
lower to middle classes, is the exhibition of middleclass-ness through
‘symbolic’ consumption by which Gerke means the display of an
unaffordable standard of living. Punk inverts this upwardly aspiring
practice described by Gerke. The group under study here pride
themselves in establishing alternative systems of consumption,
involving not only shopping and buying but also the selling, swapping,
making and pooling of goods. By changing themselves, Bandung’s
activist punks believed they were taking the first step towards changing
society. Bandung punk corroborates Beng-Huat’s (2000:28) proposal
that, for youth in Asia, consumption can be a means of escape and
resistance to the domination of both their elders and often
authoritarian governments.
In fact, Baulch (1996b) perceives the spread and evolution of
punk rock and punk culture in Indonesia as largely due to the efforts
of scene members and local event organisers. In describing the
exhausting collective efforts required to get concerts like Bandung’s
Underground II off the ground in 1996 she states that ‘holding little
hope of attracting big bucks from sponsors the organising committee
— mostly university students — have pooled their time, labour and
money to get this gig off the ground’ (Baulch 1996b). For the activist
punks at least, if a concert was not independent then it was neither
‘truly punk’ nor worth going to. The zine Submissive Riot (3) (1998:1)
called for a boycott of the event, Sunday Ska, held on 9 August 1998.
The article declared to all readers that, ‘real punks wouldn’t spend a
cent to support this enterprise’ as the event was deemed to be a purely
money-making venture. For political punks, consumption choices
became a statement of authenticity.
Punk, pop and protest 237
Live shows are the moments where nearly all Indonesian punk
bands establish their identity and reputation. Recordings are generally
self-funded and therefore erratically produced, and as some bands may
never have the resources or inclination to hire out expensive recording
studios, their musical existence lives solely in moments captured on
stage and in rehearsals. When an album finally gets to a recording studio,
friends with artistic talents are often called upon to contribute through
designing album covers or making promotional posters. Punk albums
are bought either directly from the band or through community-based
distro (merchandise distribution stores) and cost recovery, rather than
profit, is the main purpose of sale. Zines announce to the wider
community the release of a new album. To borrow Gerke’s thesis
(2000:147), consumption is thus one way in which group membership
is demonstrated as the production, distribution, reciprocation and
exchange of punk cultural products serve to strengthen bonds within
the community. These systems of alternative consumption dispel older
conceptions of consumption as a passive activity and emphasise the fact
that consumers actively negotiate their daily life.
Punk dress also reflects the subculture’s fiercely independent
do-it-yourself ethic. A few years ago, it was not uncommon to see punks
wearing piercings that had been handcrafted out of plastic from a clear
Pepsodent toothbrush. The lower stem of the brush had been bevelled
into a thick, curved conical shape and then polished until smooth. The
jewellery was then inserted into place, using small rubber bands,
originally from watch parts, to prevent the ‘piercing’ from slipping out
of the earlobe. The resemblance between such products and similar
body piercing jewellery that can cost as much as 25 Australian dollars
was remarkable, yet to make this version cost around Rp. 3000 (less than
fifty Australian cents).
Needless to say, constant compromise is inherent in opposing
the capitalist system, while being reliant upon that system for survival.
This contradiction was recognised and debated by activist punks. An
informally produced essay, Kontra Kultura Manifesto, states: ‘It is not
possible for us in the Counter Culture Collective to chase after our goal
without simultaneously betraying this goal, when we challenge the
system, we replicate the system.’
238 Pickles
Indeed the culture of making, swapping and selling
underpinned the growth and expansion of distro throughout Bandung.
These tiny stores began as street side stalls disseminating zines, selling
albums and a few items of clothing. Distro slowly developed into a
network of independent clothing and music stores, a few of which
achieved international success. Their lucrative and widespread
popularity was a contributing factor to the decline of the punk
movement as formerly active political punks became preoccupied with
the business of distro — selling punk style and music to the next
generation of punks. This in turn creating strong rifts in the scene as
politically minded peers denigrated the move into capitalism.
Rocking the boat

The anticipation of radical change in a post-Soeharto Indonesia

inspired some of Bandung’s punks to believe that they could rise up
against oppressive social structures and create new alternatives. They
no longer relied solely on hairstyles and spikes to express their
resistance to the social, political and economic systems that they
considered to be oppressive and unjust. Instead there were calls for a
new phase in Indonesian punk history with the formation of a
movement that extended beyond offering an alternative way of living
and making music to struggling collectively to inspire change:
This is the time to admit, that in whatever form we are punk, we hate
the current social order of society and we want a new world ... We will
make punk a threat again. (Kontaminasi Propaganda 1 1999:7)7
The popular empowerment that followed the fall of the New Order
encouraged the conviction that the social order could be contested.
Collectivity seemed the ideal way to work towards this revolution.
In order to legitimise efforts to raise consciousness within the
wider punk subculture, political punks used the histories of punk
movements in other parts of the world. The undated flier, Counter
Culture, circulated by Riotic Papers in Bandung, provides a potted
history of punk activism. It is a history that is told to highlight the
appropriateness of punk as a culture of resistance to the context of
Indonesia, as is succinctly depicted in the closing statement:
Punk, pop and protest 239
the concept of resistance which is offered by Punk/HC culture is very
relevant to be applied in Indonesia, remember an authoritarian system
is still in power in this country, and it is already the time for us as the
young generation to open our eyes, thoughts, hearts and ears to
struggle for what we believe in, and fight for what is right ... THIS IS
Radical punks engaged in written and verbal dialogue to thrash out
their world-view. Members defended a range of left-wing ideologies.
Some supported the notion of creating an anarchist society. Others
described themselves as social democrats and others still looked to
socialism or communism as the solution for Indonesia’s inequities.
Their literature portrays Indonesia’s bureaucratic and economic
systems as discriminative, dehumanising, unjust and heavily influenced
by feudalistic notions of hierarchy. Their world vision promoted a
revolution in which the existing systems are replaced by leaderless,
egalitarian, participatory democracy — a democracy based on
autonomous groups, linked by intricate networks of association and
mutual cooperation.
Riotic Records/Distro was the first Bandung-based group to
begin political agitation within the punk subculture. Riotic Papers, the
publications division of this group, produced Submissive Riot, the first
Bandung zine to focus primarily upon social and political issues,
rather than the music scene. The zine covered a wide range of issues,
from debates within the underground movement, to more far
reaching topics, such as the abuse of animal rights, corporate
oppression, and racism in Indonesia. Submissive Riot was first
produced in mid-1998, with editions published on a monthly basis for
roughly ten months.
As not all the founders of Riotic Records agreed with this new
political agenda, a rift emerged at Riotic which lead to the withdrawal
of the activist punks. As a result, the Anti-Fascist Front (FAF) was
conceived and established in May 1999 as the first Bandung punk
organisation with a political charter. A statement which was posted by
FAF on the A-Infos8 website described FAF as ‘a revolutionary punk
organisation that mixed anarchist and socialist ideas’ (A-Infos, 1999, 13
May). FAF was short-lived but highly active. Members instigated
240 Pickles
collective action in the form of film screenings, discussions, strikes and
solidarity marches on a range of issues from rising fuel prices to state
military spending. FAF activities had the dual goals not only of raising
awareness within the punk community, but also of stimulating debate
and action within a broader social context.
FAF collaborated with political punks on a trans-local level
through the Nusantara Anti Fascist Network (JAF Nus). Ratified on
the final day of its first congress in Yogyakarta from 25 to 27 February
2000, JAF Nus was the result of an alliance of activist punk groups
from urban centres of Java. The founding members included AFRA
(Jakarta), RI Boots (Semarang), the Last Palm Community
(Yogyakarta), the Anti Oppression Front (BAP, Surabaya), the Forum
for Unified Concern (Fokber), Red ‘n Anarchist Skin Heads (RASH,
Bandung), Freepass, Cilacap Against Oppression (CAP, Cilacap), and
FAF. JAF Nus was conceived to enable collectives, closely connected to
local concerns, to be linked into a national network of solidarity, with
the further aim of facilitating simultaneous collective actions
throughout the archipelago.
After only a year of activity, structural problems and the
emergence of informal hierarchies led to the collective decision for
FAF to disperse in mid-2000. Various groups and collectives formed in
the vacuum left by FAF, although none were to match FAF in the
breadth and scope of their activities. One such collective was the
Utopian Front, which described itself as a ‘front of several libertarian
grass-roots organisations in Bandung’. It placed itself within a network
of locally based movements, acting in solidarity, on global issues, like
holding demonstrations in conjunction with the anti-globalisation S26
(26 September 2000) protests in Prague. Through actions like this, it is
evident that the community imagined by Bandung’s activist punks
stretched beyond national borders, an attribute Mato (1996) considers
to be common among social movements in the information age.
Activist punks continually redefined their collective identity in response
to an ever-changing socio-economic and political context. In other
words, ‘acting punk’ refers to a script that will never be set and secured.
Over time the punk movement has felt an increase in military
surveillance and interest in their activities, and to make a point about
Punk, pop and protest 241
military surveillance, protest styles dramatically evolved. During a
demonstration about labour rights on 1 May 2001, hundreds of punks
from several different collectives gathered to hold a united march
through the streets of Bandung, eventually ending up at the city’s
administrative centre, Gedung Sate.9 The protest created a provocative
scene as everyone participating in the action pulled on black balaclavas
or wrapped cloth around their faces to mask their identities. The
‘terror’ created by the military is reciprocated by a protest performance
containing terrorist-like iconography. The armed forces militancy was
answered by a people’s militancy, which was without structured
organisation, leadership or rigid order. In addition, the military’s
capacity to monitor and survey the action was undermined; the
protestors’ masked faces made it impossible to document exactly who
was participating in the action.
Recent interviews with members of the scene indicate a
gradual decline in punk activism in Bandung from its heyday with FAF
to a current state of low level simmering. Reasons given for this
reduced activity vary, but include: apathy resulting from
disappointment with the leadership of all four post-Soeharto
presidents and the lack of change in the Reform era; responsibility
brought on by new family pressures; falling out with other groups in
JAF-Nus; entanglement of members of the scene in the criminal
justice system; drug addiction; and general ennui with the repetitive
nature of the scene causing members to search for something new.
Punk culture empowers young people by enabling them to
create new identities, modern selves free from traditional divisions of
class and ethnicity. Given the systemic forces that reached into young
peoples’ personal lives during the New Order, the defence of identity
became an area of conflict. Bandung’s radical punk movement arose
within this setting. When Indonesia’s activist punks produced and
displayed punk cultural products, they fought upon a symbolic terrain
to expose and challenge contemporary forms of power in a way not
possible for conventionally structured social movements. They seized
opportunities to express themselves and to challenge the system, be it
through performance, tattooing, hairstyles or clothing, by asserting that
punk is political and, as power is omnipresent, resistance can also be
242 Pickles
exercised in material, everyday struggles. They redefined consumption
patterns as a way of resisting the current social order.
The collective identity of Indonesia’s radical punks expressed
their localised resistance to the modern world. Punk activism in
Bandung signified that the previously accepted social order was under
question. Furthermore, their collectives represent that young people
were searching for new ways to structure society and inspire change.

Joanna Pickles is a post-graduate student in the Faculty of Asian Studies at the

Australian National University. Her email address is:

1. See also Lipsitz (1994), Lockard (1998) and Weinstein (1994).
2. The term zine, a popular shortening of ‘fanzine’, refers to informally
published booklets. The zines of Bandung’s activist punks generally contain
interviews with local bands, reviews of albums, opinion pieces, summaries
of influential leftwing intellectual’s works such as Noam Chomsky and
Errico Malatesta and cartoons. This format for expression became
increasingly popular within the Bandung activist punk scene after the
production of the first politically-focussed punk zine Submissive Riot, in mid-
1998; however, Baulch (1996b:32) notes that zines have been part of the
underground music scene in Bandung since at least 1996.
3. In the 1959 Political Manifesto, Soekarno criticised the popularity of
Western rock in Indonesia’s youth, stating that such music was ‘anti-
nationalist’. His contempt for rock led to the incarceration of the Koeswoyo
Brothers (an Indonesian Band playing music similar to the Everly Brothers).
Sen and Hill (2000:167) conclude that the Koeswoyo Brothers ‘turned a
combination of apolitical lyrics and rock tunes copied from the West into a
symbol of political radicalism.’ In contrast to ‘bad’ Western musical forms,
suitable ‘Indonesian’ musical genres were promoted. (See also Farram’s
article in this issue.)
Punk, pop and protest 243
4. Murray (1993:36), in her study of urban Jakartan youth subcultures
describes a similar phenomenon: ‘the terms and acronyms used in
military/bureaucratic discourse are parodied. For example the
“commander” of a group of perek (loose girls) is called danrek (komandan
5. The vocalist from one of Yogyakarta’s longest standing political punk bands
and a skilled tattoo artist in his own right, described watching family
members attempting to remove their tattoos with hot irons, a result of their
fear of falling victim to a mysterious gunman.
6. Blackboot were formed in Yogyakarta, though several of the band’s
members were from Bandung and had close links to the Bandung political
punk scene.
7. Literature from abroad was translated and published to stimulate debate
within the Indonesian punk movement. For example the first edition of
Bandung zine Kontaminasi Propaganda (1) (1999, 4–7) includes a translated
excerpt from the book Making a punk threat again: best cuts of Profane
Existence (1989–1993) — a compilation of column pieces and articles from
the long running American political punk zine Profane Existence.
8. A-Infos is an anarchist Internet news service.
9. The local popular name for the regional government building in Bandung.

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Punk literature
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Kontra Kultura Manifesto, no date, informally published manuscript
Puncak Muak 1, April 2001, informally published zine, Bandung.
Ripple Mag 2, 2000.
Sub Chaos 3, 1999, informally published zine, Surabaya.
Sub Chaos 4, no date, informally published zine, Surabaya.
Submissive Riot 3, August 1998, informally published newsletter, Riotic
Papers, Bandung.