Their relationship was so close he called him ‘father’: Why a kin term can cause a stir

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Their relationship was so close he called him ‘father’: Why a kin term can cause a stir

By Novi Djenar

If you’re an Indonesian president, and male, people ordinarily call you (ba)pak, a kin term meaning father, followed by your title, presiden, or your name. For Indonesian speakers, there is nothing unusual in using kin terms to address persons in high office. But when an Australian prime minister adopted the practice in his dealing with an Indonesian president, it was both a cause for concern and for optimism, depending on the audience.

In 1995 Australia signed its first security treaty with Indonesia, a country it had previously fought as enemy. Indonesia was a major player in the Southeast Asian region and had never signed such a treaty with any nation, so the event was hailed as a major development in Australian foreign policy and defence. Australian newspapers reported that the achievement was due in no small part to the fact that Paul Keating, the Prime Minister at the time, had developed a close relationship with former president Suharto, and closeness was possible because he called Suharto bapak at first meeting.

Four years after the treaty, former Liberal senator Sue Knowles evoked the story in a parliament hearing to accuse Keating of having dealings with Suharto’s business partner in Australia and of committing tax evasion. Knowles said that Keating’s relationship with the president was “so close, he had taken to calling him ‘bapak’ or father”.

Journalist Peter Hartcher, writing for the Australian Financial Review (4/7/96), pointed out that Keating never actually used the term. He called Suharto president and Suharto reciprocated by referring to him as prime minister. According to Hartcher, the suggestion to use bapak came from Sabam Siagian, the Indonesian ambassador to Australia at the time.

But whether the story is true or not is not important. It has been circulated widely and remained a hallmark of Keating’s successful engagement with Indonesia. This is despite some people’s views that Suharto didn’t deserve the deferential gesture, and that it was, for Knowles, evidence of Keating’s business dealing with Suharto’s partner. For Indonesian diasporic community, to have the PM utter one word of Indonesian was enough reassurance that, after a couple of decades of tension over East Timor, Australia and Indonesia were finally friends again.

That the choice of term carries implications for the way social relationships are formed, enhanced or challenged is the topic of my forthcoming book, Signs of Deference, Signs of Demeanour: Interlocutor Reference and Self-Other Relations in Southeast Asian Speech Communities, co-edited with Jack Sidnell from the University of Toronto. The book will be published soon by NUS Press.

With contributions from linguists and anthropologists with expertise in Southeast Asian languages, we argue in this book that studying the systems and practices for referring to the self and the addressee in these languages provides a chance to deepen our understanding of the way language works as a mediating factor in social relationships.

The Keating story is but one example that illustrates the importance of paying attention to these systems and practices in our engagement with the region.

Dr Novi Djenar continues her discussion on choice of terms and social implications in Southeast Asian languages on the SCLR Podcast with Professor Nick Enfield, SCLR Director.

Listen here:

Associate Professor Novi Djenar is Chair of the Department of Indonesian Studies at the University of Sydney, and a member of the SCLR Languages of Asia node. 

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