Author: Gemintang Kejora Mallarangeng

Co-Author: Nadya Laras Ayu


Recently, a mural of President Jokowi's face that had his eyes covered in the sentence "404: Not Found" caused quite a stir. Law enforcers almost immediately covered the mural for being unlawful. This sparks the debate of whether or not our government is anti-critique or anti-protest.

Those in opposition argue that the act of erasing the mural is excessive. During the pandemic, the people need to be creative in protest simply because an actual protest is impossible. On the other hand, the government insists that they are not anti-critique and are simply upholding the law. After all, a mural in a public place is vandalism, so their actions are justified.

Now, I choose not to scrutinize the peculiarity of the case itself. Despite the fact that artists such as Banksy have shown that murals can be a powerful tool for protest and that many other murals that do not contain critique are left alone, I am here to talk about the people.

This mural is simply what many would call a symbol. For many, symbolism is the only way to convey a message. Now symbols can be made in many forms—a mural in this case, in other cases in the form of a joke. I noticed an odd trend going on in social media for quite some time. Have any of you noticed that whenever anyone posts any form of criticism towards the government, the comment section would have at least one person saying, "Beware of the Tukang Bakso with a walkie-talkie."

For those of you who do not understand the reference, the "Tukang Bakso" or food meatball stall merchants here refers to a government intel that would disguise themselves as food stall merchants. Their covers are said to be extremely obvious because what kind of merchant brings around a walkie-talkie? 

Now it is unclear when exactly this joke started. Some sources said it started from an anecdote given by an ex-intel who was disguised as a merchant in order to unfold a gambling ring. Although that story was debunked by Kominfo (Indonesian Ministry of Communication and Informatics) in their website.

Regardless of all that, to me, this friendly joke going on in social media sounds like something straight out of an Orwell book. Except, instead of Big Brother, Tukang Bakso is watching you.

Now, I am not saying that there are actual food stall merchants out there actually watching everything you do. I would prefer not to be suspicious of Pak Kumis, a meatball merchant I often visit. However, it is quite distressing to me what this ongoing joke reflects upon the state of my country. "Beware of the Tukang Bakso" is a warning that shows: if you utter anything that is against the government, you can get thrown into jail or worse.

This looming threat of what protesting or criticism can do to you renders speaking up a privilege instead of a right. If jail is on the table when you critique, then those with a family to provide, those with responsibilities, or those with no means to defend themselves can never afford it. The only thing the unprivileged can do is then hide behind a warning: "Beware of the Tukang Bakso."

This whole ordeal reminded me of a quote by Cesar Cruz that was also used by Banksy that said, "Art should comfort the disturbed and disturb the comfortable." If this is true, then the warning "Beware of the Tukang Bakso" is nothing less than art. It is a form of comfort for those worried about their own and other's safety. After all, when Indonesians say beware or "hati - hati," it implies that danger is lurking and you should take care.

The second half of Cesar's quote, however, bothers me the most. Does this disturb those that are comfortable? I surely hope so. Because to me, being disturbed means you have a conscience. You are able to understand that something is wrong and feel empathy. So if those in comfort are not able to be disturbed, then we are all bound to ruin. Though evidently, seeing as how the government chose to handle the mural incident indeed shows that they are disturbed. Disappointingly, instead of understanding and empathy, the only thing I read from them is panic.

On another note, upon drafting this article, I tried my best to receive a critique for it. A counter-argument is good for us all; it helps us grow. The most common counter, however, leaves me unconvinced. It goes something like, "this country protects their people's right to critique. The government is not anti-critique; the president himself said so. Those that are caught must have violated some sort of law. They should know better. Criticism is fine, but people should do it politely."

To that I say, your country is not protecting your right to critique if you are still afraid that you will go to jail after you do so. It is not protecting you if a comment, mural, joke, or any form of critique is met with "Beware of the Tukang Bakso." If your urge to critique is constantly hindered by paranoia and fear, then those who tell that you have freedom are lying.

If there is any silver lining to this situation, I guess it would be that the people are conscious. The murals and the jokes are simply indicators that we are aware of the problem deep down, and the first step to solving it is indeed awareness. So, a message from me to all the "Tukang Bakso's" watching, know this, we are watching you too.