Preman, the freelancer
Preman is known as Indonesian thugs, originated from a Dutch word vrijman meaning free man. Preman was used in many contexts, with a broad meaning of a freelancer.
Preman is translated as Indonesian gangster or, more appropriately thugs. It means a member of an Indonesian organized gang, from street level thugs to organized criminals. Preman was depicted as a “confluence of state power and criminality”. They are street hoodlums involved in extortion, debt collecting, and worked as parking attendants, and nightclub bouncers.
Preman originated from the Dutch word vrijman, meaning free man. In the thug context, it was interpreted as a man who can do whatever he wants.
But the original meaning of preman in colonial times is a free person, not attached to any company or work.
In Deli tobacco plantation, Ladislao Szekely describes in Tropical Fever:
There is a great difference between one worker and another. The contract coolie, the so-called orang kontrak, who is imported from China or Java, hires himself out for years at a stretch, receives an advance, draws a cross under a piece of paper and, from then on, ceases to be a free man. He is now an orang kontrak, a despised, excommunicated pariah. He has no freewill now and may not leave the plantation for a single second. …
But with the free coolies enrolled in Sumatra the case is different. Such a coolie is a free man, orang preman, he does occasional work. If it does not suit him, he can clear out; he cannot be compelled to work.
Orang preman here means not a contract coolie, not bound by the company and no longer looked down by others.
The term preman or prèman is commonly used during the Dutch colonial era. It was used in Java as early as 1810.
The following are some of the definitions:
In Het Maleisch in den dagelijkschen omgang (1905) Malays for daily interaction:
prèman, particulier, iemand niet in dienst v.h. Gouvernement.
meaning civilian, someone not employed by the Government.
Similarly, in Maleische taalcursus: grammatica, oefeningen, woordenlijst (1914), the translation of Dutch word particulier is prèman.
An example of the word use is
saya minta sediakan pakean preman.
meaning prepare a civilian clothes for me.
In Het Maleisch in de kazerne (1904) (Malay for Baracks), Malay words and expressions used in the barracks in front of non-European soldiers, it also refers to civilian or commoner (burgers), with an example:
Orang prèman (vrij-man) tidah boleh masok tangsi.
In Modern Maleisch zakelijk proza (1934), the example used means a freelancer:
Bagi doctor dan insinjoer preman jang hendak memilih seboeah negeri, dimana jang baik ia tinggal boeat mentjari kehidoepan. Tentoe sadja dipilihnja tempat2 jang ramai, jang banjak teroetama bangsa Éropah, Tionghoa dan bangsa lain2 yang sanggoep membajar doctor atau sanggoep menjoeroeh memboeat roemah kepada insinjoer.
In Militaire ziken (1919) (Military affairs), it was defined as as militia (schutterij):
Barisan préman (schutterij), pasoekan pembantoe dan segala pasoekan-pasoekan bersendjata pada semoewanja jang boekan masoek bilangan balatentara, jang ada didalam daérah jang soedah dalam hoekoem-perang, disijapkan dan dimasoekkan teroes kebawah perintah koewasa militér; maka koewasa itoe wadjib memperhatikan keten toean-keten toean dalam reglemén pasoekan itoe.
The general meaning of preman is civilian, or more broadly a freelancer, someone not attached to the government or a contract.
Another common use is “mobil preman”, meaning civilian car.
According to Loren Ryter, up to in the early Orde Baru, preman referred to undercover soldier or policeman in civilian clothes as in the satire Langit Makin Mendung (1968):
Si copet banyak menghajarnya ramai2. Si copet jatuh bangun minta ampun, meski hati geli menertawakan kebodohannya sendiri: hari naas, ia keliru njambret dompet kosong milik kopral sedang preman.
It seems the current connotation of thugs was derived from the militia context. During the struggle of independence in 1946, preman (or casual workers) were employed for the nationalistic cause. Youths and gangs of all sorts including hoodlums and bandits were gathered. Thus fellons, bandits, robbers, and “fighting gangs of all sorts” join the movement. These preman are more interested in criminal activities. Mohammad Radjab, a reporter from Java, who went to Medan in 1946 first described these bold men were no more than coffee shop braggarts and heroes of the rearguard. (Rifle Reports, A Story of Indonesian Independence, Mary Margaret Steedly).
Preman, especially in Medan, arose from criminals supported by the military, gangs, and youth organizations. Initially the militia pemuda group was recruited by the Dutch KNIL and the Japanese Heiho. It then morphed into youth organizations, and initiated the social revolution in east Sumatra. It was then formed as a militant, mass-based youth organisation and used for slaughtering suspected communists in 1966.
Preman was interpreted as freedom to violate the law, in fact it just means a freelancer.