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Books & Arts

Will Indonesia be great?

4 December 2014

Two new books capture the diversity of Indonesia, writes Jacqui Baker. But does something get lost in the detail?

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Caught in a blur: a train journey gets under way in Jakarta. Jesse Marks/Flickr

Caught in a blur: a train journey gets under way in Jakarta. Jesse Marks/Flickr

Indonesia Etc.: Exploring the Improbable Nation
By Elizabeth Pisani | Penguin | $29.99

Demokrasi: Indonesia in the 21st Century
By Hamish McDonald | Black Inc. | $29.99


What is Indonesia? And how should those who know it represent it? After all, contrary to the current Kardashian age, Indonesia is famous precisely for not being famous. “Indonesia… is that a new name for Thailand?” wonder Elizabeth Pisani’s bright young things over London cocktails. More damning than no knowledge is a pinch of it, and for anyone equipped with just a few facts Indonesia is easy to typecast. Muslim country. Poor country. Terrorist haven. Indonesia’s advocates have gone on the offensive debunking stereotypes in a series of flashy mantras. Indonesian Islam is syncretic and tolerant! In fact, Indonesia is the world’s largest Muslim democracy! Indonesia is poor but its flourishing middle class are the world’s biggest tweeters!

But Indonesia is also a slippery beast. Just as you think things are going along swimmingly for your small “l” liberal sell (Democracy is consolidated! Minority rights are protected! Indonesian Islam is syncretic and tolerant!), the country slaps you in the face with a communal riot or a political regression. The stereotypes rub up uncomfortably against the soundbites. Between jihadi terrorism and Bali hedonism, Indonesia is a mash-up of contradictory signifiers that defy easy categorisation.

Elizabeth Pisani and Hamish McDonald attempt to rectify the country’s global invisibility with books released on the eve of Indonesia’s four-month electoral marathon earlier this year. For Pisani, Indonesia is a “bad boyfriend.” He doesn’t call, he dates other girls, he says one thing but means another; and yet, inexplicably you find yourself back in his arms, hang the stubble rash on your chin. Indonesia can be the kind of crappy date that makes you look like a liar or, worse, an idiot in front of your friends. It’s hard to extol his virtues when he’s sulking in the corner or marauding through the town attacking minorities or caning women for the length of their skirts. That’s Indonesia: prone to flip the bird to any synthetic attempts to pin him down. You know you love it.

To navigate Indonesia’s thorny politics of representation, Pisani and McDonald resolve to take another course, committing to a more sophisticated project of showcasing Indonesia’s extraordinary diversity and complexity. If Indonesia resists attempts to make him cuddly to Western audiences then what about fuelling interest in the mad improbability of his existence as a single entity?

Pisani is no stranger to the country, having served thereas a Reuters journalist back in the 1980s. After retraining as an epidemiologist, she returned as a consultant on health and HIV issues in post-Suharto Indonesia. The need to keep returning to his chaos and possibility itches at her, the way it does all of us sitting on orderly shores. At the heart of Indonesia Etc. is the question: what is Indonesia and what holds it together?

Demokrasi also kicks off with a narrative of exile and return. McDonald, an old Asia-Pacific hand, spent the late 1970s in Jakarta as a foreign correspondent for the Sydney Morning Herald. Here, he found a second mother (in the form of his housekeeper) and a second home in Kediri (her home and his field-site), which produced his first book, Suharto’s Indonesia. McDonald is not boasting when he says it became something of a primer in Indonesian politics. The book was well-regarded by pretty much everyone except the New Order government, which promptly banned him for nine years, during precisely the period when Pisani was cutting her Jakarta teeth. Like Pisani, McDonald feels a pull to return. Amid the hyper-exclamations of the Asian Century, he wonders whether this emerging economic and political powerhouse will fulfil his potential as a “great but gentle” nation.

Newly returned, the two authors embark on quests of understanding. Both open their books on familiar ruminative ground, mulling over the curiosity of these crooked islands strung together in a vast national project called Indonesia. Sukarno declared them unified in the Republic of Indonesia on 17 August 1945, after mutual animosity for the Dutch flowered into a sudden nationalism. The islands that become the republic had only a recent, patchwork history of scattered Dutch rule to bind them. Trade and travel routes had never integrated the archipelago’s eastern and western flanks, which remained separate poles of economic orbit. At the centres of colonial rule in Java and Sumatra, the indigenous intelligentsia had just lobbed their last insults of ethnic, linguistic and religious superiority. And yet, despite all of this, across islands that had never truly known each other, an underfinanced, ragtag guerilla army of communists, Islamists, nationalists, street urchins and professional hard men was cobbled together, fighting locally but imagining nationally.

Pisani brilliantly observes the power and the fragility of the Indonesian dream of unity, fraternity and solidarity in Sukarno’s declaration of independence: “Matters relating to the transfer of power etc. will be executed carefully and as soon possible.” It’s that diligent, impossible “Etc.” that is referenced in Pisani’s title, and it’s the search for the stuff of that “etc.” that pushes her out on a sea voyage that starts in the east, traverses Sumba, Flores, southwest Maluku and the tiny islands south of Papua that sprinkle the Arafura sea, steers resolutely past Java, then takes a northern arc back through Indonesia’s western islands. Pisani has included maps throughout the text to guide her readers, and the glossy trifold map of the archipelago that spills out on the third page smacks of old-world exploration and the promise of exotic discovery.

Travel writing as a genre has acquired something of dirty name. Mix orientalism and its handmaiden colonialism with a few generations of shoddy writing (D.H. Lawrence’s insufferable moaning about Italy, for instance, or endless navel-gazing en route – yes, I’m looking at you Paul Theroux). Add cheap flights, eternal connectivity and reddit travel, and you get a genre in decline. Even William Dalrymple, whose In Xanadu marked him as fresh travel talent in the late 1980s, today refers to himself as a historian. But Pisani breathes new life into the brand by eschewing any indulgent parallels between the journey and her own interior states (aside from the odd comment about the condition of her underwear) and keeping our eyes firmly fixed on Indonesia’s political and social landscape.

Pisani’s vividly peopled route is rich with humour and sharp observation, like the smell of Christmas that wafts off Ambon’s shore or the Acehnese election campaign with its rent-a-poet, loafing his way through recitals, too lazy even to change the names of the running candidates. Her writing is often so vivid and visceral that it was hard for me to separate my own mental pictures from her descriptions, as if my own memories of Indonesia had suddenly resurfaced. I saw the scaly peel of Sumatran salak curled on the shaky bus floor and the beads of sweat gathered on the powdered upper lips of the pompous civil servant wives settled in their green plastic seats.

This is precisely what good travel writing does. It makes the mind’s eye part of the labour of writing and interlaces the writer and reader in a landscape at once exotic and deeply familiar. To Geertzian “thick description”, Pisani adds an encyclopaedic knowledge of the country (serving up everything from the price of garlic to the TV ads that ran during the 1980s) and even the odd journal citation in the footnotes to shape the contours of a travel writing for the contemporary, connected age.


Hamish McDonald’s exploration of the “etc.” starts in a likely place: Taman Mini Indonesia – the Beautiful Indonesia in Miniature theme park – east of the capital. As the name suggests, Taman Mini allows its visitors to tour the country in a neat line of island-themed pavilions, from its northwestern-most tip in Aceh’s Sabang island to the southeastern-most city of Papua Merauke. To be honest, I don’t actually know many Indonesians who visit Taman Mini, but certainly it has something of a side trade in academics (myself included) going there to ruminate publicly on the brittle nature of the Indonesia project.

McDonald gives serious and detailed attention to the problems of the “etc.,” so serious in fact that despite his promise of examining Indonesia of the twenty-first century, McDonald starts his exploration of “Indonesia” in AD 683 with the Sriwijaya empire. From there, for around one hundred pages, we hump through the major events in the archipelago’s history – from Portuguese colonisation and Raffles’ Java to the 2004 tsunami in Aceh. The section comes in a hot rush of names, dates and places but, unlike Pisani, who’s something of a scholarly bowerbird, picking out everything from Francis Drake to current anthropological findings, McDonald presents a historical survey that is mainly a synthesis of the major scholarly works in the study of Indonesia. All the academic greats are here, and McDonald manages them expertly.

For an informed audience, McDonald’s overview of the literature will add depth and weight to residual knowledge and serve, as the back cover promises, as an “essential overview.” But for many, me included, the events, facts and names come so hard and fast that they begin to blur. McDonald is skilled and comprehensive, but to what end? Without an overarching narrative or a central question to guide the historical inquiry, Demokrasi’s opening courses are heavy on the digestion, like the dozen curried platters of a West Sumatran padang breakfast.

As Demokrasi moves into the present day, the pace changes. McDonald structures his observations thematically, and this generally proves less unwieldy than Pisani’s geographically bound musings, which often jump awkwardly through space and time. Dealing in this way with the military, money, oil, Islam, corruption, Papua and the environment gives McDonald sufficient space to explore deeply and broadly.

In the chapter on “Capital,” for instance, McDonald interweaves a historical overview of ethnic Chinese domination of the private sector, cronyism under Suharto and the financial crisis with an account of the rise of the new indigenous moneyed elite in the post-authoritarian age. He observes the new money washing through the regions after Indonesia’s big bang decentralisation in 2000 and gives us the curious spectacle of rickety bridges in Banjarmasin groaning under the weight of the gleaming Hummers that traverse them.

In “The Burning Question,” he looks at Indonesia’s rapidly degrading physical environment. Agricultural megaprojects, fire and palm oil plantations have depleted the country’s rainforests, our global “lungs” and home to over a fifth of the world’s biodiversity. Dealing with cross-sectoral environmental problems is hampered by Indonesia’s stagnant and territorial bureaucracy and the country’s rampant corruption. McDonald expresses hope for re-wilding as Indonesia’s working age population abandons the countryside and flocks to the cities, but even there ground water is contaminated, children have lead in their bloodstreams and poor air quality kills thousands a year.

Pisani and McDonald both traffic in a kind of detail that will thrill audiences who already know the country. And yet there is something about the ambition of these two books that troubles me. This less a criticism of the authors than a sign that they have fallen into an established way of writing about the country – the addiction to scrupulous documentation that implies the country can’t possibly be condensed further. It’s a practice that comes with many annoying quirks: the insistence on confusing the audience by using Indonesian words, often without translation. The compulsion to use the bureaucratic terms and explanatory structures peddled by Indonesia’s mystifying bureaucracy. And don’t even start me on the acronyms. All of this is part of an incessant squirrelling of knowledge that grows and grows in size but doesn’t sharpen the analysis.

Cast a comparative view, and you’ll find that this is not the case in the contemporary literature on equally complex Asian tigers like China or India. Which raises the question: why, even in the moment of Indonesia’s revelation, do the people who know him best simultaneously render him uniquely untranslatable? If the country is invisible on the global stage, then we have to share in that blame. Perhaps it’s ultimately a case of bad boyfriends being too thrilling to be shared.

Nonetheless, despite the commonalities in ambition, Demokrasi and Indonesia Etc. are vastly different enterprises, and those differences can’t just be chalked up to the contrasts in Pisani’s conversational sprawl and McDonald’s spare and considered style. They chart different geographies at different tempos, with different ideas about the nature and meaning of evidence. McDonald, ever the newsman, has written something of a summary of the headlines for the past decade, making his book a useful guide to contemporary Indonesia. For all of its fascination with names and dates and big-man politics, Demokrasi is sparsely peopled. McDonald has reduced the chatter of 250 million people to one or two select voices, the best and the brightest in contemporary Indonesia thought. He’s also a shy author. It’s not until he laments his heavily curtailed travel pass to Papua, with just a sliver of the book to go, that it becomes evident that his observations are born of his personal travels through the country. McDonald’s reticence lends an emotional distance to the book that, for me, detracted from some of its authority, but will likely, for others, amplify it.

With such different approaches, it would be no surprise if the authors ultimately came up with two different Indonesias. But the country’s chaos and contradictions ultimately overpower the authors’ different methodologies to stand stark on the pages. McDonald and Pisani reveal an overwhelmingly diverse Indonesia filled with dreamers, scammers and survivors, held tenuously together by the ragged, accommodating forces of a bloated civil service, proyek (dodgy projects), central government infusions and the sheer romantic strength of a ‘unified’ ideal.

Pisani is sometimes eye-wincingly forthright in her sociological observations about a nation that loves rubbish, that retches queasily into its own seas, a country held together by a kind of unseemly patronage that Westerners would call corruption. But she also gives us an Indonesia of possibilities: the wide-eyed eastern teenager who dreamed of “Java” and who forged a life there, the lawyer cum environmental activist working to save the lives and livelihoods of the Rimba people, even the fishermen who fish for days on a little saucer and haul tuna to sell across the seas. Will Indonesia be great? It kind of is already. •

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How can we help? US president Barack Obama and Chinese president Xi Jinping at last week’s G20 Summit in Brisbane. Pablo Martinez Monsivais/AFP Photo/Pool

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