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)

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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!

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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.

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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…

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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.

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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.

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Best of 2014 lists underline Indonesia (Etc.)'s diversity

Wall Street Journal Best non-fiction books of 1014, Including Indonesia Etc

Forgive this brief post from the Department of Self Promotion, but I can’t help being a little pleased that The Economist, the Wall Street Journal and the lovely Longitude books have picked Indonesia Etc. as one of the best books of 2014. I’m thrilled, too, that I’ll get to talk about Indonesia at the glorious Asia Society in New York on Monday December 15 (if you’re in town, please come along).

What’s especially fun about the “Best ofs” is that they suggest that the book is as unclassifiable as Indonesia itself. While the Wall Street Journal says it is one of the ten best books of the year in the broad category of “Non-Fiction”, The Economist chose it as one of the nine best books about politics and current affairs.
The Economist Best Books of 2014, including Indonesia Etc.

Longitude, on the other hand, thought it was one of the ten best travel books of the year, and since they specialise in great books about places and journeys, that’s a compliment indeed. (It happens that The Financial Times agreed with them while picking it’s best Travel reads in the summer.) I’m hoping that the different views reflect the kaleidoscopic nature of the book, as well as of Indonesia itself. But enough bragging from me: its for readers to decide what manner of beast this is.

For readers who are interested in the look and feel of Indonesia, good news: US publisher Norton has made the enhanced ebook available on iTunes/iBooks in the States and Canada. (If you are anywhere else, or want an ePub version that you can read on a non-kindle tablet, you can find links here.)

The multimedia (“enhanced”) ebook contains videos, slideshows, photos and some odds and ends that I cam across that I thought would amuse readers. I’m not the world’s best photographer or video editor, I admit, but Indonesia is so visually compelling that it makes up for my inadequacies. Here’s a taster video that mixes travel and politics. At three and a half minutes this is the longest of the videos embedded in the multimedia version of Indonesia Etc. I somehow just couldn’t squeeze this story of decentralisation, cultural reinvention, Big Man politics, campaigning transvestites, dancing cops and edge-of-the-archipelago eccentricity into anything shorter.

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Is corruption really such a bad thing?

Indonesia: Corruption Heaven, says this cartoon

Heaven for Corruptors! The banner gives stats for the length of prison terms for those convicted of corruption. Thanks to komikjakarta.


Today was International Anti-Corruption Day. Staff of Surabaya’s prosecutor’s office gave out stickers that read: “Don’t feed your family on dirty money” and the boss of Indonesia’s national airline Garuda promised to show anti-corruption films on all flights. Meanwhile, the world was presented with a lot of fuzzy claims about what corruption does, though very little clarity about what it is.

Here’s an example from the International Business Times, UK Edition:

Corruption affects all countries, undermining democratic institutions, stunting economic development and contributing to governmental instability. It is the single greatest obstacle to economic and social developmental in the world…

Moreover, corruption leads to weak governance, which fuels organised criminal networks and promotes human trafficking, arms and migrant smuggling and other practices detrimental to human rights.

The article doesn’t define corruption or gives any sources for its claims, but perhaps no-one expects better of the International Business Times, UK Edition.

UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon gives us a similarly sweeping statement, again without much in the way of facts or any definitions:

Corruption is a global phenomenon that strikes hardest at the poor, hinders inclusive economic growth and robs essential services of badly needed funds. From cradle to grave, millions are touched by corruption’s shadow.

Again, perhaps our expectations are not high. I confess, though, that I hoped for better from the World Bank. The Bank is often slow to catch on to what’s going on in the real world — their 2015 World Development Report, published last week, has only just reached the staggeringly obvious conclusion that humans are not robots running software that responds only to rational economic choice models. (You can find an 18-minute version of the same idea in a TED talk I gave five years ago, which itself built on something that all humans other than economists have known since the dawn of time.) But once bank staff do latch on to an idea, they often think quite sensibly about it.

Not, however, when the idea is that corruption is not, necessarily, all bad. I was excited to see that The World Development Report’s first two-page “Spotlight” was called “When corruption is the norm” (pdf). I thought it might give a more nuanced view of the difference between what I call “extractive corruption”, aka graft, and what I call “distributive corruption” (broadly speaking, patronage). As I tried to explain very briefly in a talk at TEDx Ubud earlier this year, it’s an important distinction in massively diverse democracies such as Indonesia. Most Indonesians I have talked to are pretty clear about the difference; they hate graft and throw people who steal for their own comfort and pleasure out of office. But they tolerate and even expect patronage; it’s the basis of most social structures in Indonesia as it is in very many countries. There’s little stomach for the hyper-individualistic social and economic organisation that would criminalise you for helping to get a good job for your cousin once you’ve done well yourself, especially when your cousin’s parents helped pay your college fees. Though the World Bank talks of socially embedded corruption, it still sees patronage as something wicked, something that can and should be eradicated with the help of Twitter campaigns. I disagree.

None of this is to say that old-fashioned graft does not flourish in Indonesia. It does, especially in the judiciary and the police force — I learned a great deal about the latter from the wonderful Jacqui Baker, who spent long, patient months just sitting in a cop shop in Maluku, figuring out who was giving how much to whom for what.* Many types of graft and other abuses of power really are vastly damaging to society. But lumping them together with common patronage is the equivalent of treating advanced cancer in the same way that we treat the common cold, simply because both are “illnesses”. We need better diagnosis of different types of “corruption”, and of the different social, economic and political roles each one plays. That would allow us to attack the cancerous forms more effectively, while finding ways to institutionalise, legalise or otherwise tame the forms that act more like primers to the social immune system.

*Jacqui described what the cops get up to in this discussion with me and others at the Ubud Writers and Readers Festival. I also urge you to listen to her radio documentary about extrajudicial killings by the Indonesian police, Eat, Pray, Mourn. And as I’m on the subject of Jacqui’s work, I might just add a link to her delightfully written review of some recent books on Indonesia.

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Indonesia today: No adult supervision

Illustration by Lilo Acebal Neu, from Indonesia Etc.

Illustration by Lilo Acebal Neu, from Indonesia Etc.


Watching Indonesia from far away through the filter of the Twittering classes and foreign news coverage, it’s hard not to be mildly despairing that new president Joko Widodo’s promise of a Mental Revolution has melted so quickly back into playground politics.

I could list the kerfuffle about police virginity tests, the race to the lowest common denominator in education, the Vice-President’s suggestion that mothers shouldn’t be allowed to work so much and — my personal favourite — the effort that Indonesia’s sportsmen put into cheating (something that we also saw during the Olympics, and that I’ve written about before in the context of schoolkids).

But all of this nonsense pales by comparison with the Islamic Defenders Front (FPI)’s latest charade: the thugs-with-prayer-mats, cross that the can’t seem to intimidate no-nonsense Jakarta governor Basuki Tjahaja Purnama (aka Ahok), have simply decided to “inaugurate” a governor more to their liking, according to the Jakarta Post.

Fahrurozzi was “sworn in” by the head of the Betawi Brotherhood Forum (FBR) and member of the Jakarta Saviors Presidium, Luthfi Hakim, who stated that Fahrurozzi, coordinator of the Jakarta Community Movement (GMJ), would begin his duties as Jakarta governor effective immediately
….
“If anyone [other than Fahrurozzi] claims to be the governor of Jakarta and visits your neighborhood, you must reject him because Jakarta’s true governor is now Fahrurozzi Ishak,” he said confidently.

The FPI has never been very grown-up, and it would be really easy to dismiss this as just more of their nonsense. But they are more or less duplicating the equally childish behaviour of the government. MPs belonging to the minority ruling coalition, disappointed that they didn’t get any of the key posts when the spoils were handed out in the new parliament, just decided to create a fantasy parallel structure. The bickering in the playground subsided for a while after the bully-boys in the majority opposition coalition agreed to give away some of the (smaller) sweeties. Inexplicably, the president then set the sulking off again by telling his ministers not to show up if summoned by parliament. There was some perceived interference in the internal affairs of Golkar, the largest opposition party, which is engaged in its own squabble-fest, and now no-one is talking to anyone else and government is more or less at a standstill.

When my brother and I bickered as children, my long-suffering mother would occasionally explode: “If you two don’t stop that, I’ll knock your heads together!” It didn’t happen often, and it shut us up right away. The trouble in Indonesia now seems (through the long-distance filter of the Twittersphere and the Jakarta-centric press) to be that everyone is involved in the bickering; there’s currently no adult supervision at all. If this goes on for too much longer, there’s a danger that a self-appointed “adult” will step in and start forcibly knocking heads together. An “adult” who, in his recent presidential campaign, has made no secret of his preference for a return to the iron-fisted political discipline of the Suharto years, for example. It is a consummation devoutly to be guarded against.

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In the name of God [bad things happen]

A gold-dombed mosque rising between two churches in Bajawa, in largely Catholic Flores

A mosque rising between two churches in Bajawa, in largely Catholic Flores

Does it matter to the police what religion I profess? Or to the people who are processing health insurance cards, or to the airline staff checking that I match the name on my ticket? Yes it does, is the implication of Indonesia’s rule that a citizen’s religion must be stipulated on their ID card. Actually, not just any religion, but one off a menu of six: you can be Protestant, Catholic, Moslem, Buddhist, Hindu or — the most recent addition — Confucian. There’s no “Other”, where Jews, Rastafarians or the practitioners of the dozens of faiths dismissed in Indonesia as “folk religions” might find refuge. And there is certainly no “None”, since atheism is excluded by the first principle of the state philosophy, Pancasila: Belief in One Supreme God. Indonesia’s Hindus — overwhelmingly concentrated in the single island of Bali — have convinced the bureaucrats that there’s a Supreme Leader among their many Gods. I’ve met adherents to other religions who opt for “Hindu” on their ID cards because its pantheism is closest to their own beliefs, those that put the forces of nature and many ancestors at the core of their spiritual life.

The new government appears to want to reinforce religious pluralism, though in a particularly low-key, Indonesian way: by just allowing people to leave the entry for religion blank. (I prefer the Egyptian response to the same issue: Egyptians have been covering the religion line on their ID cards with “none of your business” stickers.) Even a blank, however, is too much for religious hardliners. Correction: for Sunni Moslem hardliners. Because everyone who has objected to dropping religion from the ID card is a member of Indonesia’s overwhelming religious majority.

This raises an interesting issue. Catholic and Protestants have been known to fight senseless wars that undermine the very principles of their faith, especially in the UK and Ireland. But they are both branches of the Christian religion. Indonesia for some reason feels the need to recognise the plurality in the Christian church. But it refuses to recognise the plurality in its majority faith, Islam. Overwhelmingly the greatest victims of religious intolerance in Indonesia are members of minority branches of Islam: Shia and Ahmadyiah in particular. These are the groups most often victimised and killed by the good, Wahabi-trained gentlemen who have appointed themselves Guardians of the Faith in Indonesia.

For the last decade, these Thugs in God’s Name have got their own way on most things. Still now, they are exercising their petty powers, recently by shutting down a workshop that aimed to help youngsters avoid internet grooming as fundamentalists. The worst of the the thugs, the Islamic Defenders’Front or FPI, have just bulldozed their way into an area of East Java that tried to keep them out. They can do this because the local authorities let them. The workshop in Yogyakarta was actually shut by the police, not the thugs. Neither the police nor legislators in the East Java district of Tulungagung would join residents in taking a stand against the new FPI branch office. This passage, from the Jakarta Globe, is instructive.

Adj. Sr. Comr. Bastoni, chief of Tulungagung Police, confirmed that he had no grounds to bar the FPI without evidence of the group breaking the law.
“If they start performing anarchy, radicalism, violating the law and hampering police work, we will take strict action,” Bastoni said.

Anarchy, radicalism, breaking the law and making life difficult for the police are, however, all activities that are close to the collective heart of a mob that hit headlines most recently for a riot in Jakarta that badly wounded several police officers.

Nurkholis, the acting head of FPI Tulungagung, said the organization had long been misunderstood. … Nurkholis said that his men would only trespass on business premises if the police ignored their letters asking that establishments in violation of Islamic law be closed.

“In violation of Islamic law?” But Indonesia is not an Islamic state, and does not espouse Islamic law (though local governments can impose such laws — and often do, in areas where they think it will squeeze support from religious leaders (pdf).

Is the spineless response to religious bullying about to end? It might, for two reasons. One is that the acting governor of Jakarta Basuki Tjahaja Purnama (aka Ahok) is taking on the bullies. Ahok, a man with balls bigger than the egos of most Indonesian politicians* — which is saying something — is under constant threat from the FPI; they don’t want him to govern Jakarta because he is Christian and Chinese. Ahok has formally appealed for the FPI to be banned on the grounds that spreading sectarian hatred is forbidden by many laws, including the constitution. The very fact that Ahok is demonstrating that the state has more power than the thugs should stiffen the spines of authorities in other parts of Indonesia.

The second reason is that the police, which helped birth the FPI as a counterweight to pro-democracy demonstrators in the late 1990s,(see Ian Wilson’s brilliant paper “As Long as It’s Halal: Islamic Preman in Jakarta”) seem to be getting a little fed up with them, not least because the FPI injured 16 policemen in a recent demo. If politicians, who have been frightened of the FPI, and the police, who have been protecting them, both turn against the religious gangsters, the name of Allah will be less frequently abused in Indonesia.

*If you speak Indonesian, I urge you to watch the equally fearless Andy Noya’s interview with Ahok.

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Is Twitter a substitute for activism, or a platform for corruption?

Having spent plenty of time observing corruption first-hand in Indonesia, I’ve recently started to read more about what the boffins say. By boffins, I mean institutions such as the World Bank who write prescriptions for countries sick with corruption, and the academics who analyse such prescriptions and point out why they don’t cure the patient.

In the latter group is Roberto Laver. He points out that the corruption medics have essentially confined themselves to prescribing two things: institutional reform and “social accountability” — more citizen oversight of the bureaucracy. Mirroring real medics, they tend to overlook the role that culture plays in entrenching corruption. I think Laver’s might himself do well to think more about the role that culture plays in defining corruption — maybe the medics are diagnosing and pathologising forms of patronage that are not actually that harmful socially. But I agree with most of his points.

It’s certainly fashionable to believe that more engaged citizens will undermine corruption by demanding better services from their politicians and by tolerating less in the way of corruption. “Social Accountability Works!” screams a recent paper from the World Bank. Social media, it’s commonly held, are the key to this new activism. Certainly, Twitter and Facebook are great organisational tools. But might they also UNDERMINE activism? Hip young urbanites vent on Twitter, sometimes even go so far as to make YouTube videos in support of the cause. Then they put it out there, and go off for a frapuccino. Take this protest by Eka Gustiwana against the law rescinding the right to elect district heads directly in Indonesia:

It's cute, it's funny, it's been watched over 100,000 times. But as Merlyna Lim points out in her paper Many Clicks But Little Sticks, it’s not a substitute for real action, for the deep political affinities and commitment that are built while organising mass movements face to face. The latter involved day to day exchange of ideas and development of common platforms that remains at the heart of real political change (for an interesting exploration of this idea, keep an eye out for Zeynep Tufekci’s talk at TEDGLobal, which I hope will be posted soon).

Worse that thinking you’ve done your bit by sending a tweet, is knowing you’re actively doing damage by sending a tweet. Indonesian police yesterday arrested a man they believe to be a serial malicious Tweeter. While the headline of the story describes him as an anti-corruption vigilante, the texts suggests that it’s just as likely that he’s being paid to run smear-campaigns on social media, or worse still, blackmailing people who want him to stop churning out damaging or even defamatory tweets.

In other words, social media can become a platform for mud-slinging and the perpetuation of corruption just as easily as they can be used to spotlight graft and prompt formal investigation. Some of these campaigns will have real-world consequences, others will be drowned out by more interesting cyber-chatter. For Lim, successful social activism depends on the interaction between the online and offline worlds; I’m guessing that her analysis of what makes a campaign take off is as true for anti-corruption vigilantes as it is for shysters and blackmail-artists.

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