Review of Indonesia, Etc. by Elizabeth Pisani
Originally published in the Asian Review of Books, 22/06/14
Indonesia is vast, stretching more than 5,000 kilometers from top to toe and home to almost quarter of a billion people. And yet for much of its recent history it has had an international media profile far smaller than its status as the world’s fourth most populous nation deserves. Newspaper readers in America, Europe, and even much of Asia could be forgiven for thinking that Indonesia is a place where little happens besides the occasional natural disaster. When it comes to English-language books, meanwhile, Indonesia has largely been the preserve of scholars and specialists. The last general travelogue about the country was probably John Keay’s Indonesia: From Sabang to Merauke, and that was nearly two decades ago.
But in the last few years there have been hints of a change. With its burgeoning middle class and impressive growth figures, some commentators have begun proclaiming Indonesia a rising economic superpower, set to take to the podium alongside India and China. If such a rise to prominence really comes to pass it may well prompt a rush of books attempting to explain the place to outsiders, and Elizabeth Pisani and her publishers have got in ahead of the field with Indonesia, Etc.: Exploring the Improbable Nation.
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At first glance Indonesia, Etc. looks like a book of the familiar sort in which a Western travel writer descends on a far-flung country for a few months to produce a “portrait of the nation” complete with potted history and pithy descriptions of grueling bus rides – and probably a certain amount of oversimplification. But unlike some travel writers of the past Pisani is exquisitely well-qualified for the task in hand.
Her relationship with Indonesia, the country she regards as her “bad boyfriend”, has been a long one. She first lived there as a Reuters journalist under Suharto’s New Order government, and then as an epidemiologist working on HIV for the post-New Order Ministry of Health. These qualifications, and her decision to draw inspiration from the epidemiologist’s principle that “the best way to get a picture of what’s going on in a large population is to draw a sample at random”, have enabled her to produce a formidably insightful and engaging book on Indonesia for a general readership.
Beginning at Sumba in the southeast, Pisani traced a meandering route north through Maluku and Sulawesi, onwards to Sumatra and Kalimantan, before finally descending on Java. She travelled hard and light, and in gloriously informal fashion, often boarding ferries with no particular destination in mind. She was on the road for just over a year, and along the way she took up any number of offers of a place to stay with chance-met strangers.
Pisani’s fluency in Bahasa Indonesia, the Indonesian national language, gives the encounters with village school teachers, fishermen and minibus drivers a depth that would be missing if they had to pass through the warping prism of English, and they form the foundation of the book. She uses these encounters to explore many facets of modern Indonesia – corruption; environmental issues; separatism; poverty and more – and she is able to bring to such topics the deep knowledge of someone who has worked within Indonesian government and society, but who retains the objective eye of an outsider.
Occasionally the blend of travelogue and critical assessment creates a slight tension: an armchair traveler might feel a little left behind by a lengthy discussion of political patronage, while a reader seeking serious insight might be rather nonplussed when the latter segues into a description of New Year celebrations with backpackers on the Banda islands. But for the most part Pisani’s brisk, journalism-forged prose—and her sense of humor—will carry readers from both sides of the coin happily from island to island. The descriptive passages on markets, landscapes and boat trips are thoroughly convincing, and she captures perfectly the peculiar mix of torment and pleasure that marks a five-day ferry trip through Maluku – with bad karaoke and perfect sunsets.
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Throughout Indonesia, Etc., Pisani adds helpful notes of caution to all the recent talk about the country’s economic ascendency, drawing attention to the new layers of corruption and inefficiency created by devolution of power to the districts, and highlighting the chronic infrastructure problems. She pulls no punches in criticizing Indonesia’s woeful educational deficiencies. This is a country with near-universal literacy—a legacy of the paternalistic New Order regime—and smaller average class sizes than the USA, but which routinely comes close to the bottom in international league tables of numeracy and reading skills.
She also highlights the phenomenon of credit-fuelled gengsi—a concept often translated as “face”, but which Pisani calls “showing off, keeping up with the Joneses”—in which Indonesians of the nascent middle classes lumber themselves with crippling debts to build ostentatious houses and buy the most fashionable motorbikes. It is, Pisani writes, “a habit that most Indonesians say they despise, and many engage in with great enthusiasm”.
A writer with a less intimate knowledge of Indonesia might miss these problems or shy away from addressing them – or alternatively descend to petty sneering. But Pisani deals with them clearly and honestly, without ever being patronizing or condemnatory.
While tempering hyperbolic predictions of economic glory on the one hand, Pisani also skewers prophecies of doom on the other. Indonesia, she convincingly argues, is unlikely to fragment, bound by many threads of collectivism, patronage, and migration.
Perhaps most refreshing of all is how little emphasis the book gives to Islam. Indonesia is the world’s most populous Muslim-majority nation, and some more hysterical foreign commentators have conflated the disparate phenomena of increasing public observance of Islam, the emergence of Islamist parties at the ballot box, and a smattering of suicide bombings against Western targets into a single sinister whole, proclaiming an inexorable slide towards intolerant theocracy. Pisani deftly dismisses all that, arguing, for example, that the PKS, the Partai Keadilan Sejahtera or Prosperous Justice Party, one of the most discussed of the Islamist parties, has been effectively stripped of its ideology by the nature of Indonesian politics:
The Muslim Brotherhood-inspired PKS ... has been thoroughly Indonesianized, its formerly idealist members woven tightly into the country’s deeply transactional political system. Patronage is proving an effective way of taming religious extremism.
Pisani also points out that the FPI, the Front Pembela Islam or Islamic Defenders Front, a sporadically violent rabble of Islamist activists, is really little more than a traditional Indonesian street gang under a Muslim flag of convenience. Islam in this book is for the most part simply a background fact of life—as it is for most Indonesians—rather than a dynamic political force.
Given the fact that Pisani leaves Java—the lodestone of Indonesia, home to its biggest cities and most of its population—to the very end of her journey, the island does become something of a brooding, unseen presence during the course of the book, the place from which all political power and television soap operas emanate. In this there’s a danger of giving credence to the simplistic notion of a “Javanese colonialism” dominating the country, but Pisani is careful to counterbalance this effect once she actually reaches the final landfall.
She also winds up on a note of quiet optimism, amongst the local collectives that have turned Surabaya—Indonesia’s second biggest city—into a remarkably “clean and green” place.
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If Indonesia’s economic advancement does continue, and if the attention it then receives does create a rush of explanatory books about the place, then Pisani’s excellent offering will provide a high benchmark.
On another level, meanwhile, the book also provides a model for “portrait of the nation” travelogues fit for the 21st-century, in which properly qualified authors like Pisani produce not tired misconceptions and glib generalizations, but authentic insight and real understanding.
© Tim Hannigan 2014