Popular Myths & Madura

Oct 3rd, 2008, in Opinion, Society, by

Timdog on popular stereotypes about Madura and the Madurese, and the rumoured sexual prowess of the women.

Neighbours from Hell? Myths and Madura

Madura is the butt of a bad joke. Just mention the place in the company of most Indonesians and you’ll get a laugh. If those Indonesians are young men then the laughter will be accompanied by obscene leering – for let’s spell it out now to save coy insinuations later: Madurese women are reported to have a certain unique sexual talent involving, shall we say, internal contractions of some kind. Generally though, the sniggers will be of snobbish contempt shot through with the unmistakable symptoms of fear.

Madura & the Madurese

Madura is the long, low island that rides off the northeast coast of Java. It is almost as big as Bali, and with a population of 3 million. There is probably no other place in Indonesia with such a strange reputation, nor a people so subjected to negative prejudice – with the exception of the Chinese.

If antipathy towards the Chinese in Indonesia in many ways resembles old-fashioned British class resentment of “the posh bastards” of the upper classes, then the attitude towards the Madurese is unmistakably correspondent to British middle class terror of the “chavs”, the working class poor.

A thumbnail sketch of the Madurese in the eyes of many other Indonesians is something like this:

  • They come from a hot, filthy place.
  • They speak a spectacularly coarse language, riddled with swearwords, which sounds offensive even if you can’t understand it.
  • They know nothing of politeness.
  • They are aggressive, quick to anger, and potentially violent.
  • They are hard-working, but probably not in a good way.
  • They have criminal tendencies.
  • Oh yeah, and that thing about their women…

Transmigrants & Ethnic Cleansing

You don’t need to go to Madura to find Madurese: they form a significant part of the transmigrant populations of the archipelago. With all that aggression and swearing they do not, it is said, make good neighbours.

The most famous example of the difficulties migrant Madurese populations have with other people came in Kalimantan. Between 1996 and 2001 there were a string of violent conflicts between native Dayaks (and also, crucially but to a lesser extent, long-established local Malays) and Madurese transmigrants. The sparks that ignited the outbreaks of killing are shadowy, rumour-riddled, and frankly impossible to verify: reports of Madurese youths attacking or robbing Dayaks, Madurese harassing Malay women, interethnic fist fights at street parties, and so on.

But these flashpoints were irrelevant; the principle complaint of the Dayaks (and Malays) was that the Madurese were “impossible to live with.

And if people are impossible to LIVE with, then there is only one way to respond.

Despite their supposed capacity for ferocity, the Madurese fared badly in Kalimantan. It was less of a “war” than an ethnic cleansing. How many people were killed is disputed. It was certainly in the thousands. There are persistent reports of ritualised cannibalism. The Dayaks are said to have eaten the Madurese.

But ask many Indonesians where their sympathies lie in these events and they may mutter something about “an understandable response to provocation”.

The Historical Explanation

Some stereotypes about different peoples are actually true.

It would take the most deluded of “liberal bed-wetters” to deny that. But so much of the talk about the Madurese is eerily reminiscent of the vicious things that have been said in Europe about Jews and Gypsies that alarm bells start to ring.

If you want to accept the standard image of the Madurese, then surely you need also to conclude that all Gypsies ARE dirty thieves, that all Jews are dirty, GREEDY thieves, and while we’re at it, that all Chinese Indonesians are elitist, money-grubbing snobs with no commitment to the country. Oh, and we might as well concede that all bules are drunken paedophiles at the same time…

There have been many attempts to understand hostility to groups like Jews and Gypsies, “the other” within society. Some of the points are universal: we don’t like people who are identifiably different from ourselves. But much of it is specific.

The principle characteristic of hostility towards the Madurese, no matter how well disguised with contemptuous snobbery, is fear. A quick glance at history may go some way to explain that nervousness.

Madura is dry, with poor limestone soils. No one ever chose to go and live there from elsewhere (except, incidentally, some Chinese refugees from colonial era conflicts on Java). But many people came FROM the place in search of work and a better life – a perfect initial recipe for hostility (there are very close parallels between the Madurese experience and that of Irish migrants to mainland Britain in the 20th Century).

But the distinctive fear perhaps comes from elsewhere: it was not only economic migrants who crossed the Madura Strait, but also rebels.

Madura converted to Islam earlier than most of Java. A date of 1528 is often given, but legends in Sumenep put the first conversions of local rulers some two centuries before that, which, if true, would make it one of the very earliest bastions of Islam in the entire archipelago.

Even before these conversions Madura had proved a troublesome possession for nominal Javanese overlords. Arosbaya, the first leader to unite the entire island in the 15th Century, and others, were somewhat unruly vassals of Majapahit.

But it was Majapahit’s Islamic successors, the Mataram dynasty, who had the most trouble from Madura.

Most celebrated of the Madurese rabble-rousers was Trunajaya in the 17th Century. A Madurese prince, he seized control of the west of the island (theoretically under the rule of Mataram) in 1670s and then led an army of 14,000 rebels across the Strait and into the Javanese heartland.

For a decade this troublesome prince cloaked himself in a shroud of Islamic, mystical and Majapahit associations and rampaged through Mataram, eventually destroying the capital. He was finally killed in Kediri, but he was not the last of the Madurese rebels. Half a century later Cakraningrat IV of West Madura – still supposedly a Mataram vassal – led another attack, and again destroyed the Mataram palace.

On a smaller scale Madurese were often mercenaries and key figures in low level rebellions throughout Javanese history.

This all probably goes a long way to explaining Javanese (and therefore by default, Indonesian) nervousness of Madurese: they are people likely to come surging across the water to upset the balance of things. Attitudes such as this survive long after the memory of the initial events has faded, and it is not as fanciful as it seems to suggest that fear of modern Madurese has a direct link to the rebellions against Mataram.

And as for the alleged rudeness, could it not simply be cultural difference? Javanese culture is typified by (and sometimes mocked for) its obsessive politeness, its emphasis on hierarchy, its multi-layered speech and insistence on correct form. The Madurese are not necessarily rude in comparison to this; they are simply different. But living in such close proximity, awareness of this difference becomes pronounced and extended into hostility.

The Madurese are no ruder than say, the Timorese; it’s just that the Javanese haven’t been living next door to the Timorese for centuries, haven’t had a chance to crystallize that sense of difference into bad-mouthing hostility, and to export it, along with the rest of Java’s cultural dominance, to the entire archipelago.

Perhaps in Kalimantan alleged Madurese bad behaviour was purely incidental at a time of social, economic and political upheaval. In the past the Dayaks have attacked Kalimantan’s Chinese. Maybe if the Madurese hadn’t been there they would have done so again, or perhaps instead of teaming up for a bout of ethnic cleansing, Malays and Dayaks would have turned on each other.

But the Madurese were there, and bizarrely, rather than prompting sympathy, their fate only furthered their ill-repute as “neighbours from hell”.

The Real Madura

So, what is Madura really like? I think it’s a beautiful, peaceful place; drier than Java, but not stark or arid, and with a sharp oceanic clarity to the light that is missing in so much of Indonesia. It’s not dirty either, and it is far from the outpost of Islamic severity that many presume it to be (there is a big difference between places that have traditionally been relatively orthodox, and places that harbour newer pretensions to orthodoxy).

Sumenep, in the far east, is as refined a little town as anywhere in Java with royal courtly traditions and the “softest” Madurese dialect, typified the same linguistic hierarchy as “proper” Javanese.

Clinging to their insistence that the Madurese are horrible, many Javanese will whinge in response to this that “Sumenep is different, they’re ok there, but go to Bangkalan, that’s where they’re really bad…”

Well, I’ve been there too, and to every other town; no one swore at me; no one was rude. If I had to pinpoint one Madurese characteristic it would be a sense of humour rather than aggression.

Madurese people are well aware of their reputation, and often display a wry amusement at it.

On the topic of violence it is true that they all know how to wield a clurit (the trademark Madurese sickle), they say, but in the corn field more often than in battle.

And in a place with a lack of water and pronounced ideas about honour, conflict over women and irrigation were common in the past.

But Indonesia is a nation with a history of violence. Many people know that the Balinese took the national amok during the anti-communist pogroms of 1965-66 to uniquely frenzied levels that shook even the military instigators. But no one claims that the Balinese are a specially bloodthirsty and violent people. They’re not. And neither are the Madurese.

A Madurese friend once said to me that part of his people’s reputation was due to the way they respond when they leave their homeland. Laid-back and good-humoured at home, they are unsettled by the poverty and chaos they find in big cities, and harsh words and aggression are the response.

Perhaps, but I’m not so sure, because I find I like the Madurese outside of Madura too.

In Surabaya there may be a significant number of Madurese thugs and criminals, but some 15% of the city’s population is Madurese (and a disproportionately poor 15% at that) so it’s hardly any wonder. And the Madurese markets and kampungs I’ve wandered through are some of the friendliest, FUNNIEST places.

I’ve not seen too much of the Madurese populations in other cities, though I’ve met sate-hawkers everywhere from Timor to Sumatra. And I did once spend a few hours in the scavengers’ kampung not far from Plaza Senayan, just down the road from the Pizza Man statue in Jakarta. You can’t see it from the road; it’s behind a fence of corrugated aluminium.

There are goats and chickens and mounds of empty plastic bottles, and skyscrapers march away in jagged lines in beyond the fringes of the little village. Poor migrants from all over Java live there.

For a while I chatted with a quiet, dignified man from Cilacap who spoke softly, and respectfully. Then I went and joined a little mob of Madurese youths reclining in the shade. They were rather different from the man from Cilacap: all hearty laughter, back-slapping and jokes. To someone from a culture steeped in formality and control they might have seemed boorish and awful. To me they just seemed like a lot of fun.

On a final note however, before anyone asks, I must make it clear that I know nothing about their women…

39 Comments on “Popular Myths & Madura”

  1. itinerantman says:

    you have an excellent sense of history timdog-of india and indonesia. i know india-am discovering indonesia-have no incisive comments on indonesia yet but can comment on india-cheers

  2. ET says:

    re Madurese women

    A close relative of mine happens to be married to a woman of Madurese descent. She doesn’t fit the Madurese stereotype – as reported – at all. She is a soft spoken, very polite and patient woman but with a strong will and ready to make sacrifices to get what she wants. Keras kepala but very beautiful too. But I never heard any reports of the alleged sexual prowesses Madurese women are famous for. If so then it certainly has been kept a jealously guarded secret for the rest of our family. Next time I’ll see him I will ask casually about rumput patimah and watch his reaction.

  3. ET says:

    Leaving the fun and in fact the most humane part of timdog’s article aside, reading the rest of it as well as the subsequent comments one cannot help but wonder what goes on in the Indonesian – or should I say Malay – mind. Sectarian hate and tribal warfare – horrible as they may be – are one thing and may to a certain extent be rationalized. But why the terrible mutilations of the dead bodies and the sadistical disrespect for a slain opponent? Remember the video on YouTube about the killings of the Ahmadis in Cikeusik. Not only is this the case in large scale group or mob violence, the local newspapers almost daily report run-of-the-mill cases of murder for the most trivial of reasons followed by severe mutilations of the victim’s bodies. Last month in Bali a family of three – husband, wife and their 9 year old child – has been brutally murdered by their driver and his wife, apparently out of resentment or spite because their employers didn’t want them to stay in their house. The skulls of the victims were completely shattered by repeated blunt force trauma to their heads, while their daughter was found decapitated 10 meters away. Now what inspires people to take revenge on a 9 year old child in such an inhuman way because he/she didn’t get along with its parents?
    Your comments are welcome.

  4. timdog says:

    @Itinerantman – thanks! Glad you enjoyed it!

    @ET – I think we ought to be a little careful about making comments about the “Indonesian mind”, still less “the Malay mind” (good lord old chap, another peg, I say, and go and give the punkah puller a tickle with your Penang lawyer, the bugger’s fallen asleep by the looks of things – 2012, did you say? How time flies…)

    “Terrible mutilations of the dead bodies and the sadistical disrespect for a slain opponent” are pretty universal things, it seems, across cultures and across ages.
    Whites and natives – cowboys n injins – both did unspeakable things to each other’s corpses in the wild west; Muslims and Hindus and Sikhs debased themselves horribly in their treatment of one another’s remains as they passed east and west across the subcontinent in the late 1940s, and hell, American soldiers apparently like to piss on dead Afghans and collect their ears.

    Actually, in the Indonesian context it’s the first part – “Sectarian hate and tribal warfare” – that are more worthy of discussion, rather than what people start to do to corpses once those things are manifest. That stuff is a given.

    I mean, was there ever a restrained, respectful lynch mob anywhere?

  5. ET says:

    and hell, American soldiers apparently like to piss on dead Afghans and collect their ears.

    But do they also cut off children’s heads (remember Sulawesi)?

  6. ET says:

    … and get away with it with a ridiculously light sentence?

  7. Oigal says:

    and get away with it with a ridiculously light sentence

    Indeed and yet the counter reaction to alleged pornography, witness the nonsensical “Peter Pan” case would suggest a national case of Schizophrenia. Seriously, the pious rantings and moralizing is beyond rational discourse when it is common nay mandatory for every successful Indonesian to have a mistress or fling on the side. It is common knowledge some Indonesian Villages have turned this bizarre national obsession into a cottage industry.

    What causes this curious state of affairs where you bash a mans head in with a rock and be hailed a hero in your own village but can spend years in prison because some twat stole a private video of your and your girlfriend? Well I am not sure but the medical journals seem to indicate:

    Researchers and clinicians believe that dissociation is a very common and naturally occurring defense mechanism, which results from early childhood trauma and is characteristically a result of severe, and prolonged occurrences of physical, sexual, or emotional abuse.

    Certainly the defence mechanism bit fits as it must be pretty near impossible to justify the slaughter of innocents in the national mind so “Quick look over there, shiny thing and people having sex”

    Oh and speaking of slaughters, had some guests over on the weekend and played the movie “Balibo” talk about dissociation disorder.

  8. ET says:

    Whites and natives – cowboys n injins – both did unspeakable things to each other’s corpses in the wild west; Muslims and Hindus and Sikhs debased themselves horribly in their treatment of one another’s remains as they passed east and west across the subcontinent in the late 1940s, and hell, American soldiers apparently like to piss on dead Afghans and collect their ears.

    timdog, I guess you are right about mutilation of corpses in group related violence being a cross-cultural phenomenon. I only thought I saw a pattern here in SE-Asia. After all the Dayaks, the Bataks, the Moluccans and of course also the Papuans all had beheadings on their menu. Maybe I also read too many cerpen. Penggal kepala seems to be an often recurring theme in this kind of stories.

  9. timdog says:

    ET, I’m pretty sure it is a cross-cultural phenomenon – once the mob is formed, I don’t really think there’s much point in looking at what they do to the bodies as some kind of “cultural expression”, unless they are a bone fide “primitive tribe” with specific ritual practices.

    It seems that once we start killing people we rapidly invent our own “rituals” – cutting off ears, genitals or heads apparently being long-standing favourites. You could possibly even argue (and I’m not too sure about this myself; just putting it out there) that there’s a very faint echo of it in the practice of collecting “trophies” from killed animals).

    You could be forgiven for thinking this is some kind of “Indonesian” phenomenon, but then you could very rapidly come up with similar examples from all over Asia – OK, then, so it’s an Asian phenomenon. But we don’t have to go too far to find the same thing in Africa, the Americas, and, not too long ago, Europe

    It’s why the mob formed in the first place that’s the question, and the one that is relevant in the Indonesian case.

    Oh, and chopping off heads is a recurring theme in a certain kind of lurid pulp fiction, not just in Indonesia; it always has been. It seems, like cannibalism, to titilate something in us…

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