By John MacDougally
Indonesia probably uses more acronyms than any other country in the world. Have a child under five? He or she is a balita, from bahwa lima tahun. Want to take this child for a ride on your motorbike? Not a problem, as long as you have a SIM (a surat ijin mengemudi or driving license), a STNK (a surat tanda nomor kendaraan or registration), a BPKB (bukti pemilikan kendaraan bermotor or vehicle ownership certificate) and enough money to buy some fuel at the SPBU (stasiun pengisian bensin umum or filling station). But if you LBH (lupa bawa helm or forget your helmet), you'd better have the number of the LBH (Lembaga Bantuan Hukum or Legal Aid Foundation) or your ATM card because if the POLANTAS (the traffic police) pull you over and hit you with the KUHP (kitab undang hukum pidana or criminal code book), you might feel tempted to KUHP (kasih uang habis perkara or give money to make the problem go away).
The 1994 Indonesian-language Dictionary of Acronyms, Initialisms and Abbreviations contains 33,500 entries. Most of these seem to have been generated by civil servants with too much time on their hands. Indeed there seems to be an unwritten rule that to be eligible for continued government funding, each division of Indonesia's vast bureaucracy (each of these, of course, complete with its own acronym) must come up with a set number of new acronyms per year. No government endeavor is launched without an acronym and keeping track of them keeps the paperwork flowing and the bureaucracy collecting overtime.
It is rare to meet an Indonesian who is not familiar with at least several hundred acronyms. It is rarer still to find a person who knows exactly what long strings of words these acronyms reference. Although acronyms should, theoretically, make it easier for people to communicate succinctly, they often lead to confusion when people can't remember what obscure policy or program they stand for. Another problem is that there are only so many catchy combinations of letters available, thus the same acronyms often refer to different things. For instance, the community service required of all university students before they can graduate is called KKN (kuliah kerja nyata, literally real world course, the same as the popular post-Suharto acronym KKN, for korupsi, kolusi and nepotisme (corruption, collusion and nepotism). Similarly, the GPK (Gerakan Pemuda Kabaah or Kabaah Youth Movement) is a Yogyakarta-based youth movement out to rid the world of idolatry, alcohol and immoral discos. But GPK (gerakan pengacau keamanan or movement destabilizing of safety) is also a term used by the Indonesian military to stamp social movements as being subversive of national stability. The fact that this particular youth movement has accepted assignments to guard certain government officials, whose careers are based on the eradication of subversive movements, is, some might say, one of the more ironic risks of acronymism.
But despite the confusions acronyms may cause, most people still love them, for they provide fodder for one of Indonesia's most popular amateur sports: language games. For every hundred official acronyms churned out by the government bureaucracy, there are a thousand parodic versions of what these terms really mean. For instance, a rumah BTN or BTN house refers to a home purchased by making regular installment payments to a government bank called Bank Tabung Negara (BTN). But because developers often cut costs against overvalued properties and produce poorly built housing units to turn a greater profit, BTN has been given the popular translation Bangunan Tidak Normal, or Abnormal Construction.
Acronyms also provide a popular vehicle for political commentary. The term ABG (anak baru gede, literally barely grown children) refers to Indonesia's "new kids on the block who hang around the malls speaking a mixture of MTV English and Jakarta slang and pay little mind to their more political peers, Indonesia's student activists. But ABG also refers to those post-Suharto politicians whose political missions were driven by the mantra asal bukan Golkar (ABG) as long as it's not Golkar referring to Suharto's political party (itself an acronym for Golongan Karya or functionary group).
Acronyms can also be reworked to create more pointed political critiques. In the mid-1990s after swallowing official acronym after acronym, people started calling Suharto's golden boy and one time Minister of Information, Harmoko, hari-hari omong kosong (Literally: "Talks Bullshit Daily"). But strangely enough, even to this day, Suharto himself never fell victim to such acronymic ribbing. For to many people, his name was already an acronym: In Javanese "Su" means luwih or "great quantities" while harto means wealth.