November 07, 2011 | by Yanto Soegiarto
What's So Wrong About a Singing President?
President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono waves as he arrives for a working diner on November 3, 2011 in Cannes during the G20 Summit of Heads of State and Government. World leaders meeting at the G20 summit on November 3 discussed boosting their funding of the International Monetary Fund to help resolve the eurozone debt crisis, Britain's finance minister said. (AFP Photo/Sebastien Nogier)
Dogged by widespread criticism and declining popularity in the public-opinion polls, President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono ended things on a high note last week with the launch of his new album, "Harmoni" ("Harmony"). Nipping off to France to attend a series of Unesco meetings in Paris and the G-20 summit in Cannes, the singing president left behind the finished album, which expresses his longing for political harmony in the country, to be launched in his absence.
Though well-received by fellow musicians such as Sandhy Sondoro, Joy Tobing and Afgan, the president's latest musical offering struck a bad chord with political opponents, who questioned his ability to balance statesmanship and a music career. They accused the president of neglecting state affairs in the pursuit of self-publicity. But Iwan Fals, Indonesia's top folk musician, commended the president's efforts in making such a good album at the same time as running the state.
Around the world, leaders throughout history have displayed a musical bent. Bill Clinton played the saxophone, American presidents Truman and Nixon played the piano, while President Jefferson played the violin. In other parts of the world, President Hugo Chavez sings, as did former Chinese President Ziang Zemin and a former president of the Philippines, Fidel Ramos; even former president Joseph Estrada could belt out a tune like Frank Sinatra.
In Indonesia, SBY is not the only leader with musical talent. Former President B.J. Habibie likes to sing his favorite tune, "Sepasang Mata Bola" ("A Pair of Eyes"), while former presidential candidate Gen. Wiranto is a very talented Javanese klenengan (traditional music) artist. Many of Indonesia's senior former military men are also closet songbirds — in the old days, nationalist sing-alongs motivated the spirit of the independence struggle.
SBY's love for singing dates back to long before he became president. Growing up in Pacitan, East Java, he always loved music, as well as painting and writing poetry. He played in a band in the 1960s. "I have to express my feelings through art. As an ordinary human being, I can't resist that. My collection of poetry is expressed in 'Rinduku Padamu' ['My Longing for You']," SBY said, referring to his first album, released in 2006. His second album, titled "Majulah Negeriku" ("Advance, My Country"), was launched in 2007 and the third album, "Ku Yakin Sampai di Sana" ("I Know I'll Get There"), was released last year.
The launch of the president's new album comes at a time when the nation is coping with huge problems of corruption, welfare, separatism in Papua, natural disasters and economic woes. Could strumming on the guitar or singing a song or two really hurt? President or not, SBY has every right to self-expression. For SBY, singing is his talent, pride, feelings and expression as an ordinary human being. That is a right which must be appreciated. A person who has a passion for art is a humanist, sentimental and caring.
Of course, while President Johnson liked singing "Raindrops Keep Falling on My Head," he also sang "Battle Hymn of the Republic" to escalate America's involvement in the Vietnam War. President Pierre Nkurunziza of Burundi sang and danced to celebrate his four years in power, while the president of Turkmenistan, Gurbanguly Berdymukhamedov, marked his 54th birthday by appearing on national television to sing a love song, having written the music and lyrics himself. Haitian dictator "Papa Doc" Duvalier liked music but still oppressed his own people.
Before he became president, SBY appeared at the invitation of a major television station to watch the final episode of the popular "Indonesian Idol" show. But that was not only because he had been invited. He came because he loved music. Other leading politicians, such as Megawati Sukarnoputri, were also invited, but decided not to attend.
When the Euro football final was shown live on Indonesian television in 2004, the presidential candidates at the time — Amien Rais, Megawati Sukarnoputri, Wiranto and Hamzah Haz — all appeared on TV at designated cafes. Megawati used her home to watch the final together with foreign ambassadors. The Euro 2004 final was an ideal publicity event. But SBY declined the invitation. He could have used that event for his campaign, but he preferred to stay at home in Cikeas.
The fact that SBY attended the "Indonesian Idol" final has been used as fodder by critics to attack him. They say the president must have been inspired by his appearance on the show to arrange his cabinet in the same way during the recent reshuffle, casting himself as Simon Cowell while Vice President Boediono and Kuntoro Mangkusubroto acted as the rest of the jury to evaluate the candidates for the posts.
But these same critics fell short of criticizing SBY on the musical front. Perhaps they realize that fools can criticize, condemn and complain but it takes character and self-control to express oneself artistically