Donate


How to
Buy
the Book


Cover of UK edition of Indonesia Etc.: Exploring the Improbable Nation by Elizabeth Pisani from Granta
(The UK cover, from Granta)

Cover of the US edition of Indonesia Etc: Exploring the Improbable Nation by Elizabeth Pisani from WW Norton
(The US cover, from Norton)

Cover of the International edition of Indonesia Etc: Exploring the Improbable Nation by Elizabeth Pisani from Godown Lontar
(The Indonesian cover, from Godown Lontar)


Subscribe via the RSS Feed Subscribe via the RSS Feed


Subscribe to new post by email

My dynasty's bigger than your dynasty: Indonesia beats the US at patronage politics

New Yorker article about dynasty politics in Indonesia, by Elizabeth Pisani

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.

Share Indonesia Etc.

Too much testosterone: can women save Indonesia?

Elizabeth Pisani essay on women in Indonesia, Nikkei

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.

jokowi_salam_sama_mega

Share Indonesia Etc.

Indonesia gets noticed (not in a good way)

New Yorker comment about Indonesia's execution of drug dealers by Elizabeth Pisani

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:

LA Times page 3, Indonesia coverage
LA Times Indonesia storty, dateline Johannesburg

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.

Share Indonesia Etc.

Indonesia's alcohol ban makes me thirsty. Come drink in Brussels, LA, London

Alcohol bottles for recycling in Indonesia

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.

Share Indonesia Etc.

Whose word counts? A hierarchy of Indonesian justice

indonesian-justice

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.

Share Indonesia Etc.

The truth about Indonesia? See for yourself: Free eBook taster


Free sample chapter for the multimedia eBook

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!

Share Indonesia Etc.

Bad language is bad for Indonesian business

Be Careful of Landslide

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:

Hustle-free Garuda

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.

Bad English from Garuda Indonesia

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.

Share Indonesia Etc.

Jokowi needs to learn the difference between popular and populist

On Wednesday, Joko Widodo will serve his 100th day as president of Indonesia. Though he has achieved some important victories, things are not going well for him right now, and some of the decisions he is making are likely to make things worse in the future. I’ve described why in the Nikkei Asian Review:

Elizabeth Pisani reviews Joko Widodo's first 100 days as Indonesian president in the Nikkei Asian Review

(Read the rest of the Nikkei piece here. I conclude that Jokowi’s need to appear decisive in the wake of a handful of grave political blunders has led to some very poor policy-making.)

The appointment of Budi Gunawan as police chief has turned up the volume on a chorus that sings doubts about the president’s political independence. As I said in the essay, that there are only two likely explanations for his attempt to appoint a man widely suspected of corruption to head the national police: either Jokowi is bowing to the demands of the political Old Guard, or he is grossly incompetent. On the evidence of this interview given on his 98th day at the helm (which I had not seen when I wrote the Nikkei essay) I would have to agree with Daniel Ziv that the Indonesian president is not currently in charge of his own faculties, let alone the country.

It’s almost painful to watch Jokowi’s performance during that interview, the more so because it seems so tragically reminiscent of the once grandiose Sukarno’s speech when he formally handed over power to his successor Suharto, who had essentially kept the father of the nation under house arrest for over a year. Interestingly, while footage of Sukarno’s inauguration is all over Youtube, it is very difficult to track down the film of the broken president’s handover to his very decisive successor. (I think I saw the heart-breaking archival footage of that scene in Curtis Levy’s documentary about Indonesia, Riding the Tiger.)

I hope Indonesians will be able to temper their inevitable impatience with the weakness Jokowi is now showing. Let’s not forget that while his opponent Prabowo Subianto would certainly be more decisive and forceful, he would very probably force through things that are a lot worse than the we’ve seen from Jokowi so far, despite his alarming missteps. It’s worth noting, too, the total absence of Vice President Jusuf Kalla from the current scene. Anyone might think that he was trying to distance himself from the president while biding his time for the inevitable takeover…

Share Indonesia Etc.

From Indonesia's Department of You Couldn't Make It Up

Indonesian forces sink a Vietnamese fishing boat, December 2014.

Indonesian forces sink a Vietnamese fishing boat, December 2014. Photo: Immanuel Antonius/Antara

The department of You Couldn’t Make It Up has been working overtime in Indonesia lately. The president has nominated a corruption suspect to head the police, and is also busy blowing up boats based on some decidedly fishy statistics.

On Thursday, parliament whisked through approval of a man credibly accused of entrenching systemic corruption to head the national police force. My favourite quote during the hearings comes from an approving lawmaker from the opposition Gerindra party, headed by failed presidential candidate Prabowo Subianto.

“Your status as a suspect by the KPK is not out of the ordinary,” Great Indonesia Movement Party (Gerindra) politician Desmond Mahesa told Budi during the confirmation hearing. He cited several instances in which public officials continued to carry out their official duties despite being charged for graft.

I don’t know that many honest cops in Indonesia, but all the ones I do know complain bitterly how hard it is to get promoted to decent posts without paying massive bribes. President Joko Widodo’s sole nominee for police chief, Budi Gunawan, was a particularly enthusiastic head of the police Career Development Bureau from 2004 to 2006, the period during which his bank account ballooned so much that it drew the attention of a force set up to combat money laundering. He has been consolidating his reputation since, and has been under formal investigation by the Corruption Eradication Commission, the KPK, for at least six months. He once served as adjutant to former president Megawati Sukarnoputri, Jokowi’s boss in the PDIP political party, though party spokespeople say that did not in any way influence Jokowi’s choice of Budi as the nation’s top cop.

Not content with nominating potential convicts to head law enforcement, Jokowi has set himself on the pathway of enraging his neighbours. When the new president pulled a sudden vision of a Great Maritime Nation out of nowhere in his inauguration speech, I thought it might gently fade away as he tackled more important issues. But he seems determined to pursue his vision. Most particularly, he has decided that he is going to pull Indonesian fishermen out of poverty by blowing up foreign ships. He has repeatedly quoted “data” from the national audit authorities about the value of fish stolen from Indonesia waters: 300 trillion rupiah’s worth a year — around 25 billion dollars, he says. But can that really be? The Fisheries Ministry, which publishes very comprehensive statistics, put the value of the entire marine catch of fish and shell-fish in for 2013 Indonesia at 77 trillion rupiah, around US$ 7.5 billion at 2013 exchange rates, US$ 6.5 billion today. Export earnings are about half that. In other words, Jokowi believes that foreign fisherman are stealing over three times more fish than Indonesian fishermen are catching. Only one seventh of the “real” value of Indonesia’s fish exports is going to Indonesians.

Is that really likely? I’d like to know a lot more about the source of those data: how do you even estimate the value of a stolen catch? And however large the theft, would sinking boats be the best way to increase welfare among the poorer of the 2.6 million Indonesians who go to sea in search of fish? The Indonesian fishermen I spoke to in Sangihe, up close to the Philippines, didn’t seem to think so. In fact, many of them confessed to “stealing” fish themselves, motoring 17 hours over open seas in small outriggers to sell tuna in the Philippines because there is less red tape and much better infrastructure. Imagine, they even have cold storage over in the Philippine port of General Santos, as well as cargo planes that fly direct to Tokyo, while if you ship through Indonesia, your fish will be sitting for a couple of days in a styrofoam chest surrounded by little plastic bag of ice made in the freezer compartments of locals’ fridges. Better infrastructure means fresher fish, and that translates into higher prices for fishermen.

If Jokowi really wants to do something for fishermen, he should invest in infrastructure and in cutting through export restrictions and other red tape. Sinking foreign ships makes for great photo ops, but apart from raising tensions in an already politically fragile seascape, it won’t do a thing for most Indonesian fishermen.

Meet some of the fishermen of Sangihe here. This is one of the videos included in the enhanced eBook version of Indonesia Etc.

Share Indonesia Etc.

Indonesian art lives, though not in overseas museums

Balinese painting, c 1800

Two Figures Conversing Beside a River, from the Freer Gallery of Art and Arthur M. Sackler Gallery

Unless they are credited to someone else, most of the images in these blog posts are photos I took myself and let’s face it, they don’t really do justice to the visual glories of Indonesia’s many cultures. So I was delighted to learn that the Asian branch of the Smithsonian museum, the Freer/Sackler galleries, have made images of the objects in their collection available for non-commercial use. The originals are in very high resolution, so that you can zoom right in and rejoice in the gentle scratching of time at the magnificent artworks of the past.

Close-up of a Balinese noble in conversation

Close-up of a Balinese noble in conversation

The Freer/Sackler collection of Asian art provides digital access to around 40,000 works of art, including paintings, manuscripts, ceramics and sculptures. On discovering this treasure trove I, of course, rushed for the Southeast Asian collection and searched for works from Indonesia. There are a total of eight. Not 8,000, or 800: eight, and one of those is a modern fake of an old Vietnamese piece. That compares with 3,503 pieces from Thailand and 111 from tiny Cambodia.

I’d been vaguely aware of the paucity of Indonesian pieces in collections in the US and the UK after searching for the archipelago in the Metropolitan Museum in New York and the British Museum and the V&A in London. In each, the arts of the islands are scattered in dusty corridors connecting artistic geographies that are considered more worthy of attention, though when you find them they are well worth a look. On the one hand, I guess one should be pleased that Indonesian art is under-represented, because it suggests that less of it has been carried off to foreign shores to sit, under-appreciated, in “rape and pillage” museums to be suffered by parties of schoolchildren more likely to find wonder in a PlayStation animation of an amulet than in the real thing.

On the other hand, Indonesian museums are not noted for being good guardians of the national treasure. When four important pieces of Javanese gold were stolen from the National Museum in September 2013, officials fessed up that the CCTV system, installed in the early 1990s and never updated, had been on the blink for over a year, and the alarm system had been down for at least two months. In central Java, museum curators have been busted for stealing religious statues and replacing them with fakes. The caretaker at a museum I visited in the former Sultan’s palace in Buton handed me a golden helmet that looked like it came out of a kid’s Halloween gladiator costume kit. Expecting featherlite plastic, I was surprised to find it leaden. It was a 16th century original left by a Portuguese soldier, and had been spray-painted gold for a tourism festival a few years ago. Jakarta’s main art museum hangs paintings on walls so mildewed that the artworks smell positively mossy, and of course very little is displayed at all engagingly.

That cannot be said of foreign collections. Last summer, when I was whiling away time in the Yale University Art Museum, I stumbled into a room uninspiringly marked “Indo-Pacific Gallery”. There I found one of the best collections I’ve ever seen of art from the archipelago, an eccentric mix of high-faluting Javanese gold and more “ethnic” carved objects largely from the Eastern islands, together with some exquisite textiles. The collection really underlined for me the fact that the display of art and artefacts is an art in its own right. There’s stuff in that museum that looks a lot like things I have kicking around in the bottom drawer in my kitchen, waiting to be used to serve vegetables at my dinner table. Would it look that good if I took it out of the spoon draw and suspended it, spotlit, in a glass case lined with grey velvet? Perhaps. But I’m even more pleased to think that Indonesians use their beautifully carved spoons just as I do. They continue to live and breathe their art, to integrate it into their lives, not to calcify it, however prettily lit, in hushed galleries for the admiring few.

Take an exquisite gold mamuli ornament, for example. Mamulis are worn as earrings or pendants. No girl of good family can get married without a mamuli in Sumba, and though they were once exquisitely wrought, the finer work necessarily suffers as they are stored in the soot-encrusted treasure chest that hangs above the hearth of all Sumba clan houses, and when they come out for funerals or important festivals such as the one pictured here that celebrates the end of the holy month of Wullu Podu.

Two women display their gold jewelry during the Wullu Poddu ceremonies in Sumba, Indonesia

For three days my friend Asti and her aunt wore these precious items as they danced around in the dust, flirted with the warrior boys, had their futures read in the entrails of a chicken and served food to their clan’s hundreds of guests. When, two decades ago, I added a mamuli to my own rape and pillage collection, I thought I was giving it a relatively good home. Then I saw the one in the Metropolitan Museum’s collection, immortalised here by a professional photographer. I guess you can tell which is which; the one I like best is still the one hanging around Asti’s neck.

A mamuli marriage ornament from the collection of the Metropolitan Museum of ArtA mamuli marriage ornament from the collection of Elizabeth Pisani

Of course if you want to see Indonesian art and can’t see it in its living form, the next best place is The Netherlands, which did a fair amount of rape-and-pillaging in its time, and which has spectacular collections from across its former colony. The curators in Dutch museums have tread carefully over their nation’s past in the islands, and the result is instructive. Amsterdam’s Tropenmuseum, gives a good account of the Netherlands East Indies. More neutral (and stronger on artefacts and presentation than on narrative) is the Museum of Ethnography in Leiden — less than 25 minutes door to door from Schipol airport. They have a fascinating set of dozens of carved dolls made for Dutch Queen Wilhemina when she was a child, each representing a different ethnic group from across the islands. Like the 27 provincial costumes in the atlases of the Suharto years, they are all tidily dressy; no bare breasts or kotekas for the Queen.

Leiden has always been a particular centre for scholarship about Indonesia, and it has strengthened that commitment by acquiring a large part of the Tropenmuseum’s collection of maps, documents and manuscripts, which were up for grabs because the Dutch Foreign Ministry no longer wanted to pay for their curation. Some have gone to Alexandria, but many have shipped up in the fabulous new Asian Library at Leiden. Again, much of the collection is digitised and available on line in very high resolution, including many fabulous maps. Because this will probably be my only arty post this year, I leave you with part of a map of Semarang, showing all the poulders that once stopped that beautiful city from sinking.

A map of the Indonesian port of Semarang in 1914

Semarang, 1914. Map courtesy of the East Asian Library, Leiden.

Share Indonesia Etc.