On Tuesday night, I went to the opening ceremony of the Frankfurt Book Fair, where Indonesia is the Guest of Honour. True to form, Indonesia worked its last-minute magic and the ceremony was delightful; the highlight for me was the speech by Education Minister Anies Baswedan. I’m not given to enjoying formal speeches by Indonesian Ministers (or by any ministers, for that matter). But Bpk Anies managed to go beyond the platitudes of these occasions, to make a point that was both timely and important. Referring directly to the hundreds of thousands of refugees from different cultural traditions who are besieging the borders of Europe, he spoke of what the world might learn from Indonesia: that diversity is a source of strength, not of weakness. Indonesia, he said, specialises in managing differences. He acknowledged that there had been bad times, including in the 1960s. But overall, the “imagined community” of Indonesia has stood over time as a solid monument to the strength that can be derived from diversity in a tolerant society. His speech made me really proud, and I wasn’t the only one. I even tweeted to that effect once I got connected — for all their expertise in engineering and software manipulation the Germans live in the dark ages when it comes to social media and connectivity.
Then came the news of the burning of a church in Aceh, which must have taken place just a few hours before Bpk Anies made our hearts swell. And the news of the displacement of hundreds of people, seeking refuge from religious-inspired violence, just like the Syrian refugees the minister talked of. It seems from locally-constructed chronologies that the violence was not unpredictable, and indeed the police said it was premeditated. Malay-speaking Aceh Singkil is both the most mixed district of Aceh and the part of Indonesia in which I witnessed most violence myself — including two spectacular catfights between women, complete with jilbabs torn off and handfulls of hair being pulled out. Perhaps we can hope that this is no more than a random incident, that it won’t spark any greater conflict. But having felt so warm and fuzzy about Indonesia’s (generally remarkable) example as a manager of differences, I now feel that Bpk Anies needs to persuade some of his cabinet colleagues to start managing those differences a bit more actively.
You can watch Bpk Anies’s speech here.
Trying to cut words from a headline? Replace “study tour” with “junket”. Most Indonesians think of study tours, or “studi banding” as a politician’s way of going on an overseas holiday at the taxpayers’ expense. There are exceptions, of course. Over a decade ago, I took the then vice-governor of Papua province, Konstan Karma, to Uganda to see what a generalised HIV epidemic looked like. One morning, we visited a clinic at a university hospital in Kampala. It was overflowing with people, waiting patiently to be seen by a doctor. Bpk Karma chatted happily with many of them.
After a while, not wanting to appear impatient, he took me aside and asked quietly: “When are we going to meet the AIDS patients?” Uuuuhhhhh…. “These are the AIDS patients, Bpk,” I replied. He looked at me, eyes wide, then looked around, then looked at me again. There must have been about 300 people crowded in to three small rooms and overflowing into the courtyard. “But it can’t be. All these women, all these children…” He was on the verge of tears. Then he went back to chatting, now with greater concern, asking questions, patting kids on the head. When we left the clinic, he reached in to his pocket, pulled out a hundred dollar bill, and gave it to the doctor on duty. “I’m sorry it’s not more,” he said. After that visit, Bpk Karma tried very hard to convince fellow politicians in Papua to take HIV more seriously. His success was questionable, but it was clear that seeing the future with his own eyes persuaded him to try, at least, to avert that future.
Contrast that experience with this story from the Jakarta Globe, about Jakarta politicians on a three day “study tour” to Bali. Thirty two Jakarta councillors felt the need to learn from Bali, and eight staffers went to dance attendance on them. This one paragraph says it all:
The main program on their itinerary, though, was a meeting with their counterparts at the Bali provincial legislature, which failed to take place. The Jakarta officials showed up at the council building on Thursday, only to be told that the very people they expected to meet had themselves embarked on a study trip to Yogyakarta.
This phenomenal waste of money and opportunity jars especially because I happen to be doing some work on the history of the HIV epidemic in China. Foreign study tours of up to two months, during which technocrats attended classes or went on site visits every day, were the key which unlocked an eventual response. The study tours sparked a lot of home-grown experimentation by a small but dedicated group of Chinese researchers and civil servants. It took a while for China’s leaders to give a damn about HIV, but once they did start to care, those foreign-inspired technocrats had tried out different models at home, knew what was likely to work, and were ready to roll. If Indonesia’s public servants did more studying and less touring, the country might be better off.
Seventy years ago today, Sukarno and Mohmmad Hatta were frog-marched to a radio station by students hungry for independence. There, they declared the formation of the republic of Indonesia. Both the text and its original presentation in Sukarno’s handwriting (pictured above, rescued from the waste-paper basket) tell us much about the country. It translates as:
We the people of Indonesia hereby declare the independence of the Republic of Indonesia. The details of the transfer of power etc. will be worked out carefully and as soon as possible.
Representatives of the people of Indonesia
The date is taken from the Javanese calendar. The crossings-out reflect the imprecision of the Malay language in which it was written. Though Malay was adopted as the national language, it was not the mother tongue of any of the founding fathers; perhaps they struggled to find just the right word for this momentous declaration. The content — and especially the Etc. of which I’m so fond and which I used as a title for my book — reflects the imprecision of the very nation itself. At the time of the declaration, the nationalists were not even agreed on what territories it covered, and most other nations took four years to agree that it even existed. My personal favourite, however, is the way the last word, Indonesia, gets squished down into a little curly tail: forward planning has never been the nation’s most obvious strength.
The last six decades have seen many Etc.s: riotous multi-party democracy (centralised), “guided democracy” aka dictatorship under Sukarno, a “New Order” aka dictatorship under Suharto, and many stripes of “reformasi” aka riotous multi-party democracy (decentralised). There will doubtless be many more to come. Indonesia is a nation that will live always in interesting times.
I wish the nation and its people very many happy returns. A propos of nothing, so does Google, which for some reason pleases me.
Earlier this year, Indonesia’s national parliament passed a law that tried to curb dynastic succession in politics. This was frankly a little surprising. The chairwoman of the largest party in parliament, Megawati Sukarnoputri, is the daughter of Indonesia’s first president. Though she never did manage to get elected herself, Megawati did spend some time in the top job after her boss President ‘Gus Dur’ was impeached. After a bit of political arm-twisting, her own daughter now sits in the cabinet. It’s hard to imagine either of these woman getting their jobs on their own intellectual merits, which are generally agreed to be slender. The same is true of a number of the wives, sons, nephews, sisters-in-law and other sundry relatives of former provincial governors and district heads who have been elected to replace their loved-ones in important executive posts around Indonesia — over 50 of them in all.
In some areas of Indonesia, prominent families are entrenching themselves in power so effectively that the archipelago is looking a lot like it did before the Europeans arrived five centuries ago — a necklace of quasi-independent but interlocking Sultanates in which power and bloodlines were synonymous. Lawmakers at the national level are worried enough about this that in March they made it illegal for anyone to step straight into a district head, mayor or governor’s seat if they are directly related to them by blood or marriage. Parents, children, siblings, spouses and in-laws would have to wait until at least one (five year) term had passed before they could be elected to replace their relative. That was before the constitutional court had its way. Ruling earlier this month on a case brought by the munchkin son of the head of Gowa district in South Sulawesi, the court said the restriction violated every Indonesian’s right to run for office. The munchkin’s uncle, “Komandan” Syahrul Yasin Limpo, looked on with satisfaction from his post as Governor of South Sulawesi.
In this essay in The New Yorker, I muse on why political dynasties are more dangerous in Indonesia than they are in the United States. It boils down, I think, to the lack of an independent judiciary that might provide an effective constraint on the octopus reach of family connections into all of the institutions which are supposed to provide checks on the local executive. There’s something else at play too, though — the networks of patronage which both produce and benefit from dynasty politics are simply more deeply embedded in many of Indonesia’s cultures than they are in the United States. I’ve been thinking about this a lot in the weeks that I’ve been happily ensconced as a visiting fellow at KITLV, or the Royal Netherlands Institute of Southeast Asian and Carribean Studies in Leiden. I’m especially fascinated by the work of Ward Berenschot, who is actually trying to quantify different levels and patterns of patronage politics across Indonesia. He’s found, not all that surprisingly, that what he calls clientilism runs thicker in clannish areas of Eastern Indonesia than it does in Java (with the exception of Banten, where Ratu Atut Chosiyah has established herself as Grand Misstress of patronage politics). I look forward to seeing more of the results of his work as they emerge.
When comparing notes with male foreigners who have travelled to remote parts of Indonesia, I often find that we have quite different perceptions of village life. That’s in part because I have the extraordinary privilege of being able to spend time in the kitchen with the women as well as in the coffee shop with the men (this strange, white beast being allowed to tread where local women wouldn’t). This means I hear different stories about all sorts of things: politics and history, culture and family life. While men clearly dominate the public sphere throughout Indonesia, I’ve become increasingly convinced that at the level at which the business of society really happens, about which decisions are made about family and social investments, about who goes to which school and whether to buy a TV or a sewing machine, it’s Indonesia’s women who are in charge.
As the boxing match between the KPK and the police rumbles on, Jokowi seems to have thought, too, about the potential for Indonesia’s women to quietly get on with the hard work of putting a stop to the fisticuffs. He’s appointed an all female panel to choose the next anti-corruption commissioners. It’s dispiriting that this is such a hard task. The Jakarta Post reported former KPK commissioner Busyro Muqoddas saying that members of the selection team should be mentally prepared to deal with people offering them bribes to select one anti-corruption commissioner over another.
The reactions to the all-female panel have been mixed, though perhaps none more extreme in it’s misogyny than this extraordinary rant from a university lecturer in law. (And we wonder why Indonesia’s legal system is so roundly despised by most citizens…).
Other commentators have said that Jokowi is reaffirming women’s place in Indonesian politics: he has eight female cabinet ministers. In this commentary in the Nikkei Asian Review, I argue that the female panel will probably do a good job of selecting commissioners because they are less tied in to patronage networks than men are. That’s a good thing for the nation, obviously. But it’s the result of women being denied access to the public sphere, and thus having to survive on their wits and their talents rather than their connections.
I’d be curious to know what readers think about this. But before you point out the exceptions to the rule that women in Indonesia tend to be carried forward by talent rather than connections, let me do it for you. It’s certainly something Jokowi is aware of.
Several times over the last months, I’ve been asked to comment on the impending execution of convicted drug dealers. I’ve always refused, largely because I thought I’d just be fuelling hysteria about something that wasn’t actually going to happen. Then, just a few minutes before I was about to speak on a panel called “Death Sentences” at the University of California Irvine, I heard that Indonesian police had indeed pulled the trigger on eight people, one of them mentally ill. On the panel with me were two extraordinarily talented journalists, Amy Wilentz and Erika Hayasaki, both of whom have written movingly about death in different contexts. The topic was a grim pun signalling the challenges of writing compellingly about disease and death; the events in Indonesia made it a lot more topical than I had hoped.
The following day I was scheduled to give a talk at UCLA about Indonesia. It’s not an easy sell; even in a university with a strong Southeast Asian studies department there are only a handful of people working on Indonesia. So it was with mixed feelings that I noted at breakfast that Indonesia had made it to page 3 of the Los Angeles Times. Then I looked at the dateline:
The story was written by an LA Times reporter in Johannesburg. That’s how much attention the world’s fourth most populous nation merits even in one of the more Asia-facing cities of the world’s third most populous nation. As I said in this piece I dashed out for The New Yorker, it seems to be only the sound of tsunamis, bombs and firing squads that brings Indonesia to the attention of the world. What’s puzzling to me is that seems at the moment to be a source of pride to many Indonesians.
We know that Indonesia advertises the death penalty for drug dealing, and we know too that as a nation, it feels very strongly about its sovereignty. We know it hates being preached to by holier-than-thou neighbours, especially when, as with Australia in this case, they are themselves guilty of (lesser but more frequent) abuse of the rights of marginalised individuals in pursuit of political goals. Australia’s hysteria about uncontrolled immigration is just as irrational as Indonesia’s hysteria over drugs. We know that Jokowi is deliberately overstating the drug catastrophe that threatens to engulf the nation. Indonesian readers can find the executive summary of BNN’s
survey of drug user among young Indonesians here; loosely comparative data from Europe and the US are here. To summarise, drug use among young people in Indonesia does not reach a tenth of the levels that it does in many richer countries. It’s hardly going to wipe out a generation.
What I didn’t know was that Jokowi would not take the high road. I expected him, at the last minute, to make a big public showing of how magnanimous he (and by extension the civilised and ultimately humane nation of Indonesia) really is. Apparently, his own position is now so weak that he felt the need to grasp for the support of Indonesians through fair means or foul. I do not question Indonesia’s RIGHT to carry out the death sentence in accordance with the law, except in cases where the defendant is clearly mentally ill, or where the law may have been mis-applied by judges of dubious probity. In several of the cases which ended with bullets on Thursday, in other words. What I do question is Indonesia’s DESIRE to kill low-level drug mules. Some 86% of Indonesians approved of the killing in one poll. (Over 50% also wanted to see people put to death for corruption, which would certainly hollow out the government and the political parties; Indonesians are more indulgeant towards terrorists, however, with only 2% supporting their execution.)
To me, the most depressing thing about Jokowi’s desperate grasp for popularity at home is that it may just work.
For the record: Following edits, The New Yorker piece suggests that the US is doing better than Indonesia at harm reduction. Actually, it’s a toss-up. Indonesia has better laws but arguably worse practice. In the US, federal law remains antediluvian, but some cities and states do quite well in practice at helping injectors stay safe.
Starting last week, Indonesia banned the sale of beer in convenience stores. (It’s the first time since the tsunami that I remember “Muslim-majority Indonesia” making it into the Daily Mail.) Worse still, parliament is proposing to jail people for up to two years for drinking alcohol. Despite ministerial assurances that this is unlikely to happen, it makes me thirsty. If you’d like to come and raise a glass with me, there will be a few opportunities to do so over the next few weeks, in Brussels, LA and/or London. (Talking about corruption, bad boyfriends, disasters, sex and drugs makes me thirsty, too, so the more drinking partners I have, the merrier.)
If you’re in any of those places and would like to catch up, you’ll find details of where to find me on the Events page.
In pre-colonial times, the law in most areas of what is now Indonesia was doled out at the whim of the local ruler. Then along came the Dutch: they imposed several overlapping legal systems. Dutch law, with trained judges and prosecutors operating under a clear legal code, applied to Europeans (who from 1899 included the Japanese as well as “gazetted Europeans”: favoured “natives” whose names were published in the government gazette). Indigenous islanders were subject to local courts staffed by untrained clerks for criminal matters; for cases relating to the family, marriage, inheritance and much else they were judged either under religious law or according to local and ill-defined “adat” or traditional law. The religious law was of course mostly sharia law, which itself enshrines the idea that some people’s word (men’s, mostly) counts for more than other people’s. “Foreign Orientals” — Chinese and Arabs mostly — went to European courts for business-related cases, and local courts for everything else. In short, the concept of equality before the law simply did not exist.
Though Indonesians have governed themselves as an independent nation for 70 years, inequality in the face of the law seems still to be the norm. A couple of recent cases have underlined that in pretty upsetting ways. One: a woman has been jailed because in a private Facebook chat she told a friend that her husband was abusing her. Her husband, snooping around in her private correspondence (itself a pretty good indicator of abuse) found the comments and reported his wife to the police. Did the police investigate him for invasion of privacy? No. Did they try to find out whether the allegations were true and provide any kind of protection for the woman? No. They helped prepare a defamation case which has landed the woman in jail. While that tells us something general about how men’s word is valued over women’s it also tells us something about the absurdity of Indonesia’s legal system.
The other deeply dispiriting case of the last few weeks has been the 10 year jail sentence handed down to two school employees (Neil Bantleman, a Canadian, and Ferdinand Tjiong, an Indonesian) for allegedly sodomising three schoolboys with the help of a magic stone and some disappearing dungeons. The mother of one of the boys, who was also involved in an earlier case at the same school, is demanding US$125 million in damages. She seems vindicated in her belief that Indonesian judges would believe the children’s Harry Potter fantasy as long as the accused were the sort of push-button villains that Indonesian courts like to demonise. Right now, expatriates working in Indonesia seem to fall into that category. (For many other examples, mostly from the business sphere, see Ari Sharp’s book Risky Business.) The poor and less educated make good villains, too. In the earlier case, also at Jakarta International School (now renamed Jakarta Intercultural School) six janitors were accused of abusing Magic Stone Boy, then five years old. The five janitors that did not die during questioning in police custody are now in jail. The police say the sixth man committed suicide; they did not explain how or why he bruised his own face before killing himself during a break in questioning.
I think that children’s voices should be heard in court. I think that allegations of abuse should be taken seriously. But when medical reports, virology and the early testimony of the children themselves all point to no abuse, we should follow the evidence and common sense. Hard, in this case, since the trial was held in secret, the accused were subjected to gag orders, and the judge set arbitrary time limits on questioning of defence witnesses (though prosecution witnesses were given all the time they needed). It’s hardly surprising that commentators on news of the verdict are happy to believe widespread rumours that the accusations, the evidence-free convictions and and the huge compensation claims are all part of an orchestrated campaign to shut down the school and grab the valuable campus land.
I’m depressed that the judge couldn’t even be arsed to introduce any logic into her ruling. She listed six factors that pushed her to hand down 10 year sentences. I quote from Tempo:
First, the defendant never admit the harassment act that he committed. Second, the defendant never stated that he regretted his act. Third, the defendant never apologized to the victims’ family for what he had committed. Fourth, the defendant is considered to be uncooperative during the trial by giving convoluted statement in the court. Fifth, the defendant formed a public opinion by giving explanation about the case to the press, before and after the trial, whereas the trial is actually a closed hearing… And finally, the sixth, Bantleman was seen as a worst example of a professional teacher by burdening his students with psychological burden instead of protecting them.
In other words, the (foreign) defendant MUST be guilty because he maintains his innocence.
On recent evidence, women, foreigners and the 110 million Indonesians who live on two dollars a day can’t be blamed for thinking that not everyone is equal in the eyes of the law in Indonesia.
Free sample chapter of the multimedia eBook
Download a trial chapter of the new Multimedia eBook for free
There’s nothing Indonesians love better than a success story involving their compatriots. When Indonesian schoolkids scraped the bottom of the international league tables in maths and science, many were quick to point out that this sample of several thousand could not be representative, because, well, look, we did well in the Wizards at Mathematics International Competition in Lucknow. So the national media was all a-flutter recently to learn that an Indonesian kid was captain of Real Madrid’s under 15 team. Despite their wild enthusiasm for football, Indonesians don’t exactly excel in international competition in the sport, so the news was doubly welcome. Too good to be true, almost.
And indeed it was. A little due diligence by citizen journalists found that the Indonesian was in fact at the pay-to-play Real Madrid Foundation, where the only selection criterion is the thickness of your father’s wallet. Even there, he wasn’t captain. Ho hum.
But could the original story have been true? Absolutely. Indonesia is so vast, so varied, so full of the absolutely improbable, that virtually anything could be true. I bring this up (in an only slightly prickly way) because a few readers of Indonesia Etc. have questioned some of my descriptions. Is it really that chaotic on the deck of a cargo ship? (video) Do families really live bare-breasted in oil-palm plantations? (slideshow) For doubters, and for anyone who wants to discover Indonesia in more dimensions, I’m really pleased to offer a re-designed multi-media version of Indonesia Etc. With the help of early readers, programmer extraordinare Darwin Lopena has made the new version simpler to use, with much better display of photos, slideshows and videos. We’ve also added translations of letters from generals and ads for penis enlargement. So if you think any descriptions in the book are just too unlikely to be true, well, you can check out the visual evidence for yourself. Buy the glorious improved eBook here.
If you want to try it out first, you can download a trial chapter for free. [29 MB, best to hit this link from your iPad, be patient, then open in iBooks. Other download instructions here.] I’ve given you chapter 6, which talks about patronage and corruption, and includes videos of child brides of senior politicians, rice farming and other stuff. It works best on a iPad. It’s fine on most Android tablets too, especially if you use the free Namo Pubtree reader. Sorry, it doesn’t work well on Kindles.
If you enjoy this and want to help me pay the two young men who helped me make the multimedia book, we’d really appreciate a donation of any amount. Thanks!
On a fleeting visit to China, I find that my hotel is warning of the danger of landslides in the bath. It’s funny, but also a little ridiculous. Someone diligently trawled the internet, found the graphic of someone slipping, copied the accompanying text, sent it off to be engraved onto little brass plaques, then cemented them in to the hundreds of bathrooms in this monstrous provincial government-owned hotel, an otherwise dead serious temple to shabby bling.
Indonesian hotels probably wouldn’t go to so much trouble. But even companies that really do care about their international image, such as the new-look flag-carrier Garuda Indonesia, make themselves ridiculous simply because they don’t want to shell out for a native English speaker to read their copy. A couple of examples from their recently relaunched website:
Of course I’m delighted that Garuda offers hustle-free travel, but I sort of assume that the national airline isn’t going to shake me down. Hassle-free travel in Indonesia? Now that really would be a bonus…
I’m thrilled, too, that the web designers pay so much attention to detail. Acceptable grammar is not, however, a detail if you are repositioning yourself as a competitor for high-end Asian airlines serving the European market.
Why can’t Garuda afford a native English-speaking copy editor? Perhaps because that’s a job usually performed by native English-speaking teachers at weekends and during school holidays. But Indonesia is making it all but impossible to employ native English-speakers in language schools. To teach English as a foreigner in Indonesia, you have to have a degree in English (nothing else will do: philosophy, history, education degrees are not acceptable, even if they come from Oxford or Harvard). After that you need to spend five years teaching somewhere else. Only then can you apply for a job that pays around US$ 1,200 a month.*
Of course if you are Indonesian, you need none of these qualifications to teach English. The result is that places like the amazing Kampung Inggris (“Englishtown”) in Central Java, which boasts over 180 English schools, has not even a handful of native English-speakers among its teachers. As one student said to me, in English: “The teachers, they do not speak English too.” It is hardly surprising that 44 percent of business owners surveyed by the World Bank across Indonesia identified a working knowledge of English as a gap in the skills of their managers. That’s higher than the 36 percent who had no real computing skills, and the third who lacked basic thinking skills. No comment.
Indonesia’s bureaucrats are making it harder for Indonesians to acquire the skills they need to compete internationally (and domestically too, especially from the end of this year when ASEAN is supposed to embrace the free movement of skilled labour). At the same time — no coincidence? — they are making it harder for businesses to hire outsiders to make up the deficit, by requiring foreigners to be proficient in Indonesian before they even arrive in the country *. I actually think that any intelligent person planning to spend more than six months in Indonesia should invest in learning Indonesian, and I have no problem at all with any country requiring that prospective citizens learn the national language. But a tit-for-tat response to the requirements made of the unskilled workers that Indonesia exports by the million to the Middle East hardly makes sense in this context. If you think it’s hard to find a decent native English speaking teacher in Pontianak or Palembang, try finding a decent native Indonesian speaking teacher in Manchester or Bonn. In the meantime, you could look back at my lessons in essential Indonesian in under five minutes, written for expat lawyers in Indonesia.
*These details are remembered from a Jakarta Globe story, which I read some days ago. The link should take you to it, but for reasons known only to the Great Firewall of China, I can’t access the story from Beijing, so apologies if I’ve mis-reported any details.