March 12th 2016


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Articles from this issue:

COVER STORY Several items missing from list of the big spend

CANBERRA OBSERVED Greens back Coalition in Senate voting reform

ENERGY Nuclear reprocessing feasible here: SA inquiry

HISTORY OF TAIWAN Fifty-year journey from poverty to prosperity

SPEECH IN PARLIAMENT Warning: wolves in anti-bullying clothing

EDITORIAL Turnbull ignores three elephants in the room

DOMESTIC AND FAMILY VIOLENCE Family portrait or ideological caricature?

OPINION Goebbels revisited: the attack on Cardinal Pell

FAMILY AND SOCIETY SSCA apologists try to shrug off media furore

EUTHANASIA Legitimate denial of choice at end of life (Part II of two)

NATIONAL AFFAIRS Welcome backdown on vaccinations

ENVIRONMENT Food bowl emptied due to conservationist myopia

MUSIC Much-loved concertos clouded with melancholy

CINEMA Spotlight in the darkness: Spotlight

BOOK REVIEW Governing Middle-earth

BOOK REVIEW A land of contrasts

LETTERS

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BOOK REVIEW
A land of contrasts




News Weekly, March 12, 2016

 

INDONESIA ETC.: Exploring the Improbable Nation

By Elizabeth Pisani

(Granta, London, 2015)
Paperback: 405 pages
ISBN: 9781847086556
Price: AUD$24.95

 

Reviewed by Jeffry Babb

 

Elizabeth Pisani has set out to explore the parts of Indonesia most people ignore; what the Indonesians in Java call the Outer Islands. For a travel book, that creates a problem. The reason no one much goes to the Outer Islands is that nothing much happens there. Taking Pisani from her comfortable home in Jakarta to explore the Outer Islands is like taking a hipster from Sydney and dumping him in a Queensland sugar town: not a good fit.

The reason the first two-thirds of the book is so lacking in interest is that just about everything in Indonesia happens in Java, which she avoids until the last third of the book. The preceding two-thirds are full of darling old ladies who take her in, young tearaways on motorcycles and dead-end projects. Some would argue that Jakarta sucks the money out of the provinces, thereby impoverishing them. This argument carries less weight now that local governments get top-up grants from the central government.

Government has been decentralised but, if anything, it has become more corrupt. Pisani is not backward in shining a light on the local governors and their scams. Yet taxing the lifeblood out of 250 million people does not seem to have hampered development. Quite the contrary. Over the last 20 years the Indonesian middle class has grown to the tens of millions. Even the inhabitants of the Outer Islands are prospering. True, most middle-class people are resident in Java, but most Indonesians do live in Java. Not only the Chinese are wealthy.

Indonesia is a syncretic nation. That is, it absorbs influences from outside and adapts them to the local culture. So, it is flexible. If, for example, wayang kulit plays (shadow plays) are deemed to be too long, add a comedian midway. The wayang is preserved and people get to bed earlier.

No one has matched Suharto as the dalang (puppet master) of Indonesian politics. No one has been so monumentally corrupt, either. Suharto’s lieutenants such as Benny Murdani no longer inspire the dread they once did. It is fair to say that most Indonesian elections, even if awash with money, are free and fair, which is a credit to the Indonesian people. The Army no longer mixes soldiering with regime maintenance, which under Suharto was called dwifungsi, or “two functions”.

Pisani is certainly courageous in her trip around the Outer Islands, taking overcrowded ferries, motorcycles and clapped-out buses in her yearlong peregrination. The people she meets are incredibly kind to her. The fact that a woman in her mid 30s was unmarried and childless confused the old ladies who took her in. She is obviously a tough nut; she rarely lets loneliness and suffering get the better of her.

She does not reveal, wisely, that she is an atheist. According to the Indonesian constitution, everyone must have a religion – Muslim, Hindu, Catholic, Protestant, Buddhist or Confucian. Being an atheist is both confusing and dangerous. Pisani’s parents were Catholic, but she did not keep that faith.

Pisani discusses the casualties in the communist rebellion in 1965. No one knows how many people died. The most commonly accepted figure is 500,000 deaths. Most likely many of the victims were “sons of the soil” who believed in versions of Islam, coupled with animism, Buddhism and Hinduism. Though many deaths were the result of “settling scores”.

Indonesia at that time had the largest non-ruling communist party in the world. Arguments that the generals who died in the “crocodile hole” were not the victims of a planned coup do not hold water. Suharto, who was commander of Kostrad, the Army reserve strategic command, survived through sheer luck.

Some parts of Indonesia have prospered more than others. Surabaya, the great port city on Java’s north-east coast, is a centre of communications and industry. It is actually clean! The city is also rescuing its historic centre from decay.

Pisani is a former correspondent for The Economist, the weekly news magazine. Her haunt is Jakarta – that is where decisions are made. Jakarta is a modern city – you can get a cappuccino, internet cafes are crowded. Her style is quite good, but it tends to be somewhat journalistic, which is hardly surprising.

However, her description of Indonesian life could be more explicit. For example, most Indonesians take a mandi four or five times a day. This is not a shower. People pour dippers of water from a tank over themselves. As she says, Indonesians are very clean people. A mandi is a good way to cool off. Similarly, a kris is not a dagger; a kris is a short sword with mystical properties that is handed down from father to son. Actually stabbing anyone with a kris is unusual.

As I have indicated, the first two-thirds of the book are dull, but the last third is interesting.


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