After India and China, Indonesia was the biggest new nation-state to emerge in the mid-twentieth century. Consisting of thousands of islands large and small, it sprawls roughly the same distance as that from Washington, D.C., to Alaska, and contains the largest Muslim population on earth. Yet, on our mental map of the world, the country is little more than a faraway setting for earthquakes, tsunamis, and volcanic eruptions. The political traumas of post-colonial Egypt, from Suez to el-Sisi, are far better known than the killing, starting in 1965, of more than half a million Indonesians suspected of being Communists or the thirty-year insurgency in Aceh Province. Foreign-affairs columnists, who prematurely hailed many revolutions at the end of the Cold War (Rose, Orange, Green, Saffron), failed to color-code the dramatic overthrow, in 1998, of Suharto, Indonesia’s long-standing dictator. They have scarcely noticed the country’s subsequent transfers of power through elections (there was one earlier this month) and a radical experiment in decentralization. The revelation that, from 1967 to 1971, Barack Obama lived in Jakarta with his mother, a distinguished anthropologist, does not seem to have provoked broadened interest in Indonesian history and culture—as distinct from the speculation that the President of the United States might have been brought up a Muslim.
Indonesia’s diversity is formidable: some thirteen and a half thousand islands, two hundred and fifty million people, around three hundred and sixty ethnic groups, and more than seven hundred languages. In this bewildering mosaic, it is hard to find any shared moral outlooks, political dispositions, customs, or artistic traditions that do not reveal further internal complexity and division. Java alone—the most populous of the islands, with nearly sixty per cent of the country’s population—offers a vast spectacle of overlapping cultural identities, and contains the sediments of many world civilizations (Chinese, Indian, Middle Eastern, European). The Chinese who settled in the port towns of the archipelago in the fifteenth century are a reminder of the great maritime network that, long before the advent of European colonialists, bound Southeast Asia to places as far away as the Mediterranean. Islam is practiced variously, tinged by the pre-Islamic faiths of Hinduism, Buddhism, and even animism. The ethnic or quasi-ethnic groups that populate the islands (Javanese, Batak, Bugis, Acehnese, Balinese, Papuan, Bimanese, Dayak, and Ambonese) can make Indonesia seem like the world’s largest open-air museum of natural history.
As Elizabeth Pisani writes in her exuberant and wise travel book “Indonesia Etc.” (Norton), this diversity “is not just geographic and cultural; different groups are essentially living at different points in human history, all at the same time.” In recent years, foreign businessmen, disgruntled with rising costs and falling profits in India and China, have gravitated to Indonesia instead. About half the population is under the age of thirty, and this has stoked excited conjecture in the international business media about Indonesia’s “demographic dividend.” And it is true that in Kalimantan, the Indonesian part of Borneo, once known for its ferocious headhunters, you can now find gated communities and Louis Vuitton bags. But the emblems of consumer modernity can be deceptive. While Jakarta tweets more than any other city in the world, and sixty-nine million Indonesians—more than the entire population of the United Kingdom—use Facebook, a tribe of hunter-gatherers still dines on bears in the dwindling rain forests of Sumatra, and pre-burial rites in nominally Christian Sumba include tea with the corpse.
This coexistence of the archaic and the contemporary is only one of many peculiarities that mark Indonesia as the unlikeliest of the nation-states improvised from the ruins of Europe’s empires after the Second World War. The merchants and traders of the Netherlands, who ruthlessly consolidated their power in the region beginning in the seventeenth century, had given the archipelago a semblance of unity, making Java its administrative center. The Indonesian nationalists, mainly Javanese, who threw the Dutch out—in 1949, after a four-year struggle—were keen to preserve their inheritance, and emulated the coercion, deceit, and bribery of the colonial rulers. But the country’s makeshift quality has always been apparent; it was revealed by the alarmingly vague second sentence in the declaration of independence from the Netherlands, which reads, “Matters relating to the transfer of power etc. will be executed carefully and as soon as possible.”
Indonesia, Pisani writes, “has been working on that ‘etc’ ever since.” To be fair, Indonesians have had a lot to work on. Building political and economic institutions was never going to be easy in a geographically scattered country with a crippling colonial legacy—low literacy, high unemployment, and inflation. The Japanese invasion and occupation during the Second World War had undermined the two incidental benefits of long European rule: a professional army and a bureaucracy. In the mid-nineteen-fifties, the American novelist Richard Wright concluded that “Indonesia has taken power away from the Dutch, but she does not know how to use it.” Wright invested his hopes for rapid national consolidation in “the engineer who can build a project out of eighty million human lives, a project that can nourish them, sustain them, and yet have their voluntary loyalty.” Indonesia did have such a person: Sukarno, a qualified engineer and architect who had become a prominent insurgent against Dutch rule. For a brief while, he formed—with India’s Jawaharlal Nehru and Egypt’s Gamal Abdel Nasser—a kind of Holy Trinity of the post-colonial world. But Sukarno struggled to secure the loyalty of the country’s dissimilar peoples. In the service of his nation-building project, he deployed anti-imperialist rhetoric, nationalized privately held industries, and unleashed the military against secession-minded islanders. He developed an ideology known as Nasakom (an attempted blend of nationalism, Islam, and Communism), before settling on a more autocratic amalgam that he called Guided Democracy.
By the early nineteen-sixties, Sukarno was worried about the military, which had been developing close links with the Pentagon, and he sought to establish a counterweight by strengthening the Partai Komunis Indonesia, at that time the largest Communist party outside the Soviet Union and China. But a series of still unclear events on the night of September 30, 1965, led to his downfall: several members of the military high command were murdered, provoking a counter-coup by a general named Suharto. The new rulers, Pisani writes, unleashed “a tsunami of anti-P.K.I. propaganda, followed by revenge killings.” The military zealously participated in the extermination of left-wing pests, and, as Pisani points out, “many ordinary Indonesians joined in with gusto.” Various groups—big landowners in Bali threatened by landless peasants, Dayak tribes resentful of ethnic Chinese—“used the great orgy of violence to settle different scores.” In Sumatra, “gangster organizations affiliated with business interests developed a special line in garroting communists who had tried to organize plantation workers.” The killings of 1965 and 1966 remain one of the great unpunished crimes of the twentieth century. The recent documentary “The Act of Killing” shows aging Indonesians eagerly boasting of their role in the exterminations.
This bloodletting inaugurated Suharto’s New Order—an even more transparent euphemism for despotism than Sukarno’s Guided Democracy had been. Suharto offered people rapid economic growth through private investment and foreign trade, without any guarantee of democratic rights. Styling himselfbapak, or father, of all Indonesians, he proved more successful than other stern paternalists, such as the Shah of Iran and the Philippines’ Ferdinand Marcos. One of his advisers was a close reader of Samuel Huntington’s “Political Order in Changing Societies” (1968). The book’s thesis—that simultaneous political and economic modernization could lead to chaos—was often interpreted in developing countries as a warning against unguided democracy. Suharto, accordingly, combined hard-nosed political domination with an expanding network of economic patronage. In effect, he was one of the earliest exponents of a model that China’s rulers now embody: crony capitalism mixed with authoritarianism. He benefitted from the fact that the massacres had not only disposed of a strong political opposition but also intimidated potential dissenters among peasants and workers. According to Huntington, the historical role of the military in developing societies “is to open the door to the middle class and to close it on the lower class.” Suharto, together with his relatives and allies in the military and in big business, pulled off this tricky double maneuver for more than three decades, helped by the country’s wealth of exportable natural resources (tin, timber, oil, coal, rubber, and bauxite).
During the nineteen-seventies and eighties, Jakarta expanded from the low-rise city of Obama’s childhood into a perennially gridlocked glass-and-steel megalopolis. But with economic growth came a revolution of aspirations and an increasingly politicized public. In 1998, after the Asian financial crisis exposed the fragile foundations of Indonesia’s economic gains, Suharto’s autocracy finally collapsed. His successors have cautiously permitted elections and press freedoms, but they have struggled to find a formula that can attract investors, who seek high quarterly returns on their infusions of capital, without alienating the poorly paid or unemployed masses. Stalwarts of the Suharto regime—both ex-generals and monopoly industrialists—have reinvented themselves as manipulators of electoral politics, and disillusionment with democracy runs high.
The country’s innate centrifugal forces have been strengthened by the abrupt decision, in 1999, to devolve political power from Java to the provinces. As Pisani puts it, “In the space of just eighteen months, the world’s fourth most populous nation and one of its most centralized burst apart to become one of its most decentralized. The center still takes care of defence, fiscal policy, foreign relations, religious affairs, justice and planning. But everything else—health, education, investment policy, fisheries and a whole lot more—was handed over to close to 300 district ‘governments.’ ”
Many of the new administrators in the provinces—popularly known as “mini Suhartos”—are adept at siphoning off the funds and resources at their disposal. The country’s old problems of poverty, inequality, and environmental despoliation have become more daunting amid the euphoria generated by faster economic growth and the enrichment of a tiny minority. The elections earlier this month revealed a deepening confusion over what kind of country Indonesia should be. One of the two main Presidential candidates was Suharto’s former son-in-law, Prabowo Subianto, a former general accused of committing many human-rights abuses in the nineties, who was backed by most of the political and business élite. Though he is an oil magnate these days, Prabowo tried to direct mass rage and frustration against foreigners who are “pillaging” Indonesia. His ultimately victorious opponent was Joko Widodo (widely known as Jokowi), who has enjoyed a spectacularly rapid rise since 2012, when he went from being the mayor of his home town to governor of Jakarta. Jokowi was the first Presidential candidate since Suharto to have had no ties to the dictator. The son of a carpenter, he has a record of supporting small businesses and the urban poor. The election results show the huge appeal of his call to a “mental revolution” and “bottom-up” governance among young Indonesians discontented with top-down modernizers.
Pisani is an exceptionally resourceful observer of the ongoing battle to define Indonesia. She first visited the country more than thirty years ago, as a backpacker; she returned as a journalist in 1988, just as public disaffection with Suharto was starting to bubble. In 2001, three years after Suharto was forced out, she was on hand to witness the country’s fumbling attempts at political reform, or reformasi, and stayed to see its first direct Presidential election, in 2004. Her book, a product of more recent and extensive travels, benefits from this long view, and also from her fluency in Bahasa Indonesia, the one language that most Indonesians can communicate in.
Seeking the unconventional and the little explored, Pisani seems to have deliberately ignored Bali, whose terraced rice fields, gamelan ensembles, and matrimonial opportunities were commemorated most recently in “Eat Pray Love.” Exposing herself to motorbikes and dingy buses on bad roads, leaky fishing boats and unreliable ferries, she traces a long, meandering route through the islands on the periphery—Sumba, Maluku, Sulawesi, Sumatra, and Kalimantan—before arriving in the old core of Java. She creatively uses the travel book’s discursive form, its built-in tendency toward the random. Her journey is structured by curiosity, and quickened by a sense of wonder and discovery. The information that a shaman was called in to catch a woman-eating crocodile on an island off the coast of Sumatra prompts a typical response from Pisani: “I resolved to go to Haloban to talk to the Crocodile Whisperer.” Such wanderlust can border on the masochistic in a country that is, as one of Pisani’s friends points out, “hard on the bum.” Pisani, however, is always game for fresh experience, whether watching votes being bought at a local election in Aceh or looking for the optimum distance between a twenty-four-hour karaoke bar and a smelly toilet on the five-day ferry to Maluku.
More remarkable, she never fails to situate her often meticulously ethnographic depictions of distinct peoples and cultures within a larger picture of a fast-changing country—one in which a system of patronage connects district officials and their local supporters to one another and to Java, and the modern capitalist economy is everywhere, raising incomes on the remotest islands while also despoiling them. Indonesians, Pisani finds, all partake of a collective life at various levels—family, village, neighborhood, region, and country—no matter how diversely they worship their gods or make and dissolve marriages. Indeed, much of rural Java still resembles the island that Clifford Geertz, Indonesia’s most astute American observer, saw in the nineteen-fifties. But the old bonds are fraying. Pisani writes, “This spirit of solidarity may not survive the pressures of the modern economy, much less the wholesale move to that other Java, the McDonald’s, Indomaret, toll-road, gated-community Java that is gobbling up the island, bite by bite.”
A much cited report by the McKinsey Global Institute claims that “around 50 per cent of all Indonesians could be members of the consuming class by 2030, compared with 20 per cent today.” It’s tempting to see Indonesia as a typical “traditional” society in which an increasingly individualistic middle class will bring about a secular and democratic nation-state. But Pisani’s knowledge of the country’s innermost recesses leads her to challenge the boosterish speculations of “pinstriped researchers at banks in Hong Kong, committees of think-tank worthies, or foreign journalists.” She counters McKinsey’s projections with some simple facts: “A third of young Indonesians are producing nothing at all, four out of five adults don’t have a bank account, and banks are lending to help people buy things, not to set up new businesses.” Meanwhile, the self-dealing activities of the country’s political and business élites—“raking in money from commodities, living easy and spending large”—do little to spur real economic growth.
She is equally dismissive of the ideologues who claim that Indonesia is in the ever-expanding evil empire of Islamic extremism. In much of Indonesia, religious practices are still syncretic. In Christian Sumba, she finds the islanders adhering to the ancient Marapu religion, “guided more by what they read in the entrails of a chicken than by what they read in the Bible.” Muslims show no sign of repudiating the wayang, the shadow-puppet theatre based on the Hindu epics the Ramayana and the Mahabharata. Though it’s true that orthodox religion seems increasingly attractive to urban Indonesians, this is largely because religion “is a visible badge of identity which suits the need to clump together, so very pronounced in clannish Indonesia.” A few fanatics attacking Christians and Muslim minorities, she argues, do not represent the majority, who seem indifferent to what other people believe. Religious political parties, faced with declining vote share, have moved pragmatically toward the center. However, a more hardheaded analysis would show that intolerance of religious difference has grown since the fall of Suharto and the advent of democracy. As Pisani admits, “Bigotry does produce votes.” In order to achieve electoral majorities, politicians have pulled all kinds of stunts—from rash promises of regional autonomy to legislation making women ride motorbikes sidesaddle and protests against Lady Gaga.
Indonesia’s political development has had other unexpected outcomes. In a country where once only an élite few could benefit from corruption, many more people are now on the take. Pisani argues that it’s possible to see widespread corruption as a kind of “social equalizer.” In Indonesia’s long-standing system of clan patronage, people look out for members of their extended family or village, awarding them money, contracts, or jobs. Decentralization has empowered many more people to do favors than was previously the case, which in turn gives them a greater investment in maintaining the political status quo. Thus, corruption plays a crucial role “in tying the archipelago’s mosaic of islands and disparate peoples into a nation,” Pisani writes. “Patronage is the price of unity.”
Coming from one of the mini Suhartos, this would seem a cynical rationalization. But Pisani recognizes, as Richard Wright did, that a collective project sustained by voluntary loyalty is crucial to an artificial nation-state like Indonesia, especially when there is a widening abyss between wealth and misery and only a weak national ideology. In Indonesia these days, as in many post-colonial countries, welfare is rarely conceived as a national project, as it was during the idealistic era of Sukarno, Nehru, and Nasser; it is every man for himself. Pisani fears that this new culture of global capitalism has rapidly hollowed out beliefs and institutions that once gave meaning and direction to millions of lives, and replaced them with little more than an invitation to private gratification. High economic growth sustained over several years might eventually help Indonesians aspiring to become free, self-motivated individuals in the modern world. As for the rest, she writes, “the deeply rooted village populations of Indonesia have always lived fairly close to subsistence and millions remain contented with that life.”
Pisani is adamant that not all Indonesians can be or ought to be committed to the modern adventure of realizing individual freedom through material success and possessions in the metropolis. Her experience among the premodern communities of Indonesia has made her alert to the painful and often futile sacrifices that their members make for the sake of an imagined better life: how “the all-encompassing security of a shared culture gets sold off in exchange for individual fulfillment.” A pragmatic conservatism also explains the lack of a sizable Indonesian diaspora in the West. Emigration to foreign lands looks too arduous when, “by drifting to another island, you can unlace the stays of place and clan, you can learn new dances and try new foods.” Pisani’s views are similar to those of Ann Dunham, Obama’s mother, whose anthropological field work among Javanese villagers made her argue for the economic viability of rural craft traditions among subsistence farmers, and against the bias in all modernizing ideologies toward urbanization.
Pisani hopes, somewhat wistfully, that Indonesia’s “next Etc.” may be a “collectivist culture without the feudalism.” This seems even vaguer than the country’s original declaration of independence, in 1945. Indonesia cannot avoid a reckoning with its present and future challenges by trying to retreat into its past. Of all the historical forces that have worked upon its diverse peoples in the past century—maritime trade, imperialism, development, and despotism—the economy and the culture of globalization may turn out to have the most profoundly ambiguous effects. Halfway through her journey, Pisani begins to worry that she is trying “to write a book about a country that has ceased to exist.”
Such uncertainty seems widely shared in many other post-colonial countries. Nationalist ideologies, forged to bring consensus to new heterogeneous societies, have long been in decay. Electoral democracy has lost its moral prestige. Old-style military despots are back in power in Thailand and Egypt. However brutal, they seem to lack the conviction and the resources to build a new national project. Authoritarianism itself has ceased to be a bulwark against disorder in many places, most dramatically in Syria and Iraq.
Indonesia is hardly immune to catastrophic breakdowns, as the anti-Communist pogrom showed. But, like India, it has been relatively fortunate in evolving a mode of politics that can include many discontinuities—of class, region, ethnicity, and religion. Indonesia can’t avoid or prevent severe conflict, but it can weather it without falling apart. The Indonesian archipelago is unlikely to descend into the violent secessionist anarchy currently on display in the Middle East and North Africa. However, what it still needs, as Geertz once argued, is a “structure of difference within which cultural tensions that are not about to go away, or even to moderate, can be placed and negotiated—contained in a country.” Such a reconfigured national consensus, or a way of doing without one, seems equally imperative in the case of Hispanic immigrants in America, Muslims in France, Palestinians in Israel, Tamils in Sri Lanka, Kurds in Turkey, and Tibetans in China. The old question—what is a country, and what is its basis?—has become menacingly relevant long after it appeared to have been settled. In that sense, it is not facile to wonder if we are all Indonesians now, facing the perplexities of a shattering old order. ♦