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
(The US cover, from Norton)

(The Indonesian cover, from Godown Lontar)

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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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Jokowi's first task: undermine dynasty politics

A Jokowi supporter paints his becak in the new  president's trademark check

A Jokowi supporter paints his becak in the new president’s trademark check

Tomorrow ushers in a new era for Indonesian politics. For the first time since 1957, when then president Sukarno did away with parliamentary democracy, the country will have an executive and a legislature that have different loyalties. But for the first time, too, there may be a chance of amputating the ageing hands that have so leadenly guided the nation’s political parties for the past decade and a half.

As I said in an essay in the Nikkei Asian Review today, incoming president Joko Widodo must first throw off the sclerosis imposed by his own party chairman. Of the news stories I read while in Indonesia recently, few were as shocking to me as a report from the PDIP headquarters after the party re-elected Megawati as chairman for a further five years. Here are some quotes from that Jakarta Globe story by Markus Junianto Sihahoho & Yeremia Sukoyo:

“The PDI-P still needs a glue; the PDI-P should not be cut off from Bung Karno’s blood line,” PDI-P secretary general Tjahjo Kumolo said on Saturday, referring to Indonesia’s first president with a Javanese honorific. The PDI-P secretary general clarified that his use of the term “bloodline” was meant literally.

“Other people [not of Sukarno’s bloodline] should just be a secretary general at most,” he said.

Megawati’s daughter, Puan Maharani, widely seen as the next leader of the PDI-P, denied her mother’s renomination evinced a failure within the party to regenerate.”

Indonesians are fond of joking that their (for-now) elected local government heads — the bupatis and walikotas that wield huge power over most aspects of people’s daily lives — have become like raja kecil, “little kings”. True, though the fact that they have for the last 10 years had to answer to the electorate has arguably made at least some of them less venal. But when the leaders of a national party talk quite literally of bloodlines, it is no joke. Ms. Megawati and her daughter would do well to examine the recent fate of India’s Congress I party. There’s no place for dynasty politics in a Republic.

It’s not just PDIP, of course, which is beholden to characters of a bygone age. Golkar, Gerindra, the Democrat Party and a few others bow still to political has-beens. Jokowi needs to engage in political horse-trading to stay alive in the shark-pit of national politics. But I hope that he’ll have the sense to start making those trades with a younger generation, with politicians who at least try to represent the tens of millions of want-to-bes in the Indonesian electorate.

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Indonesia Etc. enhanced eBook is out now!

Indonesia is one of the most visually compelling countries in the world: blue flames leap out of the side of sulphurous volcanoes, scarlet blood splatters into the dust between megalithic tombstones, the silvery eye of a giant tuna fish reflects the shining sea.

In Indonesia Etc: Exploring the Improbable Nation, I have tried to capture this kaleidoscope land in black ink on white paper. But technology now provides us with a new world, a world where a writer’s words can leap out of the book in the form of videos, slideshows and photos, a world where you can actually listen to those priests chanting in the moonlight.

I thought I’d try and take advantage of the possibilities of the electronic book by creating an enhanced edition of Indonesia Etc. with material that I collected on my travels. It contains a dozen videos, and rather more slide shows and still photos, as well as archival material and a bit if audio.

I was lucky enough to find two young men to help me with this dream. Gaetan Bernede, a student at Central St. Martins art school in London, helped devise a design in which the electronic elements would not ever get in the way of a damned good read. Then Darwin Lopena, a coding genius who doesn’t like the word “impossible” and regularly battles crap internet connections in the Philippines, dedicated many, many evenings and weekends to turning the design into a working book.

It’s taken longer than we planned, but it’s now ready to roll. There are 3 identical editions of the Enhanced eBook and they are sold depending on your geographical location.

If you are somewhere that Lontar can sell its books: — Indonesia, Singapore, most of Asia or Western Europe [though not the UK] — or you’re in Latin America or Africa, you can buy the enhanced eBook here (but see point 3 below).

If you are in the US, Canada, Philippines or US Territories, you can buy the Norton version here

If you are in the UK, Ireland, Australia, NZ or the Commonwealth, you can buy the Granta version here

There are a few things you should know before buying the enhanced eBook.

1) It is a VERY LARGE FILE, around 202 MB, and it can take a long time to download. You may want to plan on going for a coffee while you are waiting, and you may have to try more than once. Detailed instructions below.

2) This version WORKS BEST ON AN IPAD. The file is in ePub format, and it should also work on newer Kobos and Android tablets, as well as in computer-based e-Readers such as Calibre, which you can download for free here. However some elements may go squiffy on anything but an iPad. Videos will likely not be rendered in readers other than the iPad. Kindle requires a different file format and is not able to read embedded videos even when used on an iPad.

3) Elizabeth has made this file at her own expense. Because we are aware that there may be issues on different readers, we’ve priced it the same as the regular eBook, and we hope that the print publishers will do the same. We sincerely hope you’ll regard the enhancements as a bonus, and not be too upset if there are elements that don’t work perfectly on your device.

4) We APOLOGISE IN ADVANCE if things don’t work the way you expect. We’ve done out very best, but pioneers get arrows in their backs! If something disappoints, or if you have suggestions for changes or improvements, please let us know by emailing

5) The enhanced eBook has been a labour of love, but love doesn’t pay the rent. If you’d like to support our work, please consider sending us a donation of any amount. You can also use that link to meet the design team and learn more about their work. Thanks!

Download instructions

On an iPad running iOS or a Mac running Mavericks or higher: MAKE SURE YOU HAVE iBOOKS INSTALLED. If you don’t, download it here before you try to download the book.
If you buy from our Kagi store; there are various options.
1) Try connecting directly from your iPad. The better your internet connection, the more reliable this option is. Ideally, if you open your Kagi store receipt email and follow the link, the file will download to your iPad. It should then give you a “open in iBooks” option. Choosing that option will suck the book directly into your iBooks library.
2) On your desktop or laptop computer, open your Kagi store receipt email and follow the link. Save the file to your local hard drive. You can use any browser you like. You want to see a download figure of around 202 MB. Once it is downloaded to your hard drive, drag it in to the books section of your iTunes. Before you next sync your iPad, make sure that “Indonesia Etc.” is checked so that it will sync. This should load it on to your iPad.
3) If you are a Dropbox user, try saving to your Dropbox on your computer first. Then sync Dropbox on your iPad. You can then use the “Open in” option and choose iBooks.
4) If you are not using an iPad, just use the Kagi receipt email link and download the file locally. You can then transfer it to any device you like. Alternatively, you can download it directly to your internet connected reader and use your favourite eBook reading app. We like UBReader for Android and find it works nicely for the Nexus 7 tablet. As we noted above, however, videos do not play.

If it does not work first time, try again, preferably while you are not downloading anything else or otherwise using the internet. In rural Indonesia, I managed to download the book by leaving it running overnight. In urban Indonesia, I just went out and had some noodles, and when I came back, there it was. Please be patient, and if it doesn’t work after several attempts, let us know on We’ll do all we can to get it to you.
We also appreciate any feedback you have on the enhanced eBook. For us, it was a labour of love, but we know not everyone will love it and we welcome comments that will help us improve in the future.

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Undermining Indonesian democracy: last gasp, or a sign of things to come?

Deat of democracy

Tombstone by Yuda Pratama (and SBY)

So it has happened: Indonesia’s democracy has been undermined by the nation’s elected representatives. When I wrote a fortnight ago about the threat posed by parliament’s discussion of the local election bill, I was still hopeful. In a month of travel in Eastern Indonesia, everyone I met — coffee farmers, school teachers, ojek drivers, clan heads — spoke volubly and with next to no prompting about their RIGHT to choose their district head (bupati) or mayor. These are the people who have most to lose if the choice of district head is taken away from them and handed over to a small coterie of political party hacks in the local legislatures. Most of these voters have become so used to the idea that they can, at least once in five years, go to the polls and decide who governs them that they simply can’t believe the right to elect their leaders directly might be abrogated.

Urban Indonesians exposed to more media obviously felt otherwise. They are deeply cynical about the 560 members of the national parliament; many believe that MPs serve the interest of their political parties first and foremost. The MPs’ own back account comes a close second. It is only after those things are taken care of that they spare a thought for the constituents in far-flung places that they barely visit except during campaign season. Indonesia’s city kids organised though Facebook, Twitter and other networks to stage demonstrations against the proposed bill in a dozen major cities.

To no avail. The discussions in the national parliament last Thursday went on well past midnight. By Friday morning, we learned that the bill to undermine local democracy in Indonesia had passed in the most dramatic way. Legislators from the ruling Democrat Party walked out of the vote, withdrawing 124 votes that would have killed the bill and preserved democracy. They did this while Indonesia’s current President Susilo Bambang Yudhuyono, who happens also to head the Democrats, was out of the country. Since he had in the past supported direct elections for district head, this allowed him to express disappointment at an outcome that his party could so easily have reversed.

There’s a lot of speculation about if and why SBY allowed the walkout; whatever the truth of it, being associated with this democratic reverse is certainly is not going to improve his chances of getting the sort of high-profile international job he so craves when his term finishes late next month. It hasn’t done much for his image at home, either. #ShameOnYouSBY topped the Twitter board locally and internationally for over 24 hours.

Those political parties who support the shift to indirect elections say it will make politics more efficient and less expensive. They rarely mention that fact that we’ve been here before, that the first round of elections for district heads (mostly in 1999/2000) used the indirect system. The shift to direct elections was made because the indirect system was so thoroughly corrupt.

The real reason for the reversal is one the parties grouped in the coalition which lost the Presidential election are less likely to admit to: they are trying to resist what they perceive as a wave of civic empowerment which could sweep away the power of the Old Crocodiles who have for so long controlled party politics in Indonesia. The recent presidential elections have delivered victory to a man who came up through direct local elections and whose links with the established parties have been at best tenuous. Several of the more popular district leaders are also mavericks; some consider them a threat to the power of the national party structures.

Indirect local elections will allow parties to have a much greater say in who runs for office and therefore who wins as well as how they behave once they are in place. On the upside, it would allow party policies to be implemented more uniformly across the nation. This of course presupposes that parties actually have coherent policies — not something that was much in evidence during the last elections. On the downside, it will become virtually impossible to control collusion in local politics.

The new bill will certainly be challenged in the constitutional court, though since it simply reverts to an earlier system it’s not clear to me that there’s actually anything unconstitutional about it, only something undemocratic. I would expect that if the bill is upheld, Indonesians will take to the streets, and that the incoming administration will try to put the issue back on the legislative agenda rather rapidly. But since the incoming administration does not have anything like a majority in the new parliament, this may be an illustration of how precarious the next few years will be.

I draw hope from one thing: a small but not insignificant number of MPs from the Golkar and Democrat parties defied their leaders and sided with the parties that want to preserve people’s right to choose their leaders. Obviously, the Old Crocodiles still have the upper hand. But they must surely be aware that there are people within their own parties, as well as many millions more out on the streets of Indonesia, who are beginning to feel that they must be called to account.

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Where have all the oknum gone?


A couple of weeks ago, the weekly news magazine Tempo devoted several pages to a story about cops being involved in an on-line gambling ring; there was an editorial about the scandal, too, and it surprised me. The subject matter — crooked cops — was not remotely unexpected. What tripped me up was the language. The editorial began:

“Ditangkapnya dua pejabat kepolisian Jawa Barat….” (The arrest of two senior police officers from West Java…) That was strange to this long-time but sporadic reader of the Indonesian press because they used the word “pejabat” — senior official — rather than “oknum” — rogue.

For as long as I can remember, every time anyone in any way associated with the state has behaved badly, they have instantly been transformed into an “oknum”, a rogue element who is working outside the universally virtuous framework of the state. (Though obviously, as the authors of the many excellent essays in The State and Illegality in Indonesia point out, the framework of the state in Indonesia has never been in the slightest bit virtuous: (download the pdf here). Still, by consistently using the word “oknum”, both journalists and the people they quote undermine any sense of institutional responsibility. This effectively makes it difficult to discuss, let alone tackle, Indonesia’s structural and deeply institutionalised corruption.

I was reminded this week while reading Wars Within, Janet Steele’s interesting history of Tempo magazine, that “oknum” has served other political purposes, over time. General Benny Murdani used the word “oknum” to describe the firebrand leaders of the Moslem crowds that clashed with the military and looted Chinese shops in Tanjung Priok in 1984. At the time, with Suharto’s New Order government widely believed to be deliberately undermining political Islam at ever turn, it was a conciliatory use of the word. In the double-speak (or, more often, half-speak) of the Suharto years, the General was signalling that the government was not in any way blaming Moslems for the violence, the worst since the mid-1960s. The mob was provoked by rogue elements, rather than by a well-known and rather popular leader of the local Moslem community.

There are still oknum enough to go around. A quick search of the Kompas newspaper site has a rogue cop in Maluku killing four soldiers in a raid related to smuggling petrol; there are rogue officials in Palembang shaking people down to allow them to jump the queue for the haj; in Aru two rogue policemen are being done for drugs; rogue primary school teachers have been watching porn videos in Jember. Also in Jember, two rogue reporters were arrested for blackmailing a different primary school teacher, this time threatening to expose his infidelities. That’s all in the last week, and there are dozens more, too.

Still. Tempo is something of a thought leader in Indonesia. If Tempo’s editors start suggesting, by dropping the word “oknum”, that institutions may bear some responsibility for the abuse of power wrought by their employees, they are raising a small but important banner in president elect Joko Widodo’s much-hoped-for “mental revolution”.

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Now Indonesia's democracy really is in danger

Bupati's office, Sumba Barat Daya, October 2011

Bupati's office, Sumba Barat Daya, September 2014

When Joko Widodo was confirmed as Indonesia’s new president by the Constitutional Court late last month, there was a collective sigh of relief. Indonesians could, at least for a few years, stop worrying about a major threat to their democracy.* Not so fast. Parliament is currently discussing whipping away Indonesian’s right to elect the people who have the greatest impact on the daily lives of citizens: their mayors or district heads (walikota/bupati). The suggestion is to go back to the system in place before 2005, when district heads were appointed by the local parliament.

That system was abandoned because it was so corrupt. Local parliaments are small and often stuffed with scions of large local clans whose members expect great things of their representative in government. Parliamentarians used their power of appointment not to oversee the executive, as their mandate demanded, but to wring from the district head jobs and contracts for their supporters, as well as lots of money. Some of that money flowed back to the political party that the MPs represented.

Now some in the national parliament, in particular members of the parties that backed the losing presidential candidate Prabowo Subianto, want to reinstate that system. The reason they give, with no apparent tinge of irony, is that direct elections are expensive and lead to “money politics” and corruption. There’s no doubt that direct elections are highly transactional. But the transactions made and the deals done during direct elections have far more beneficieries. More important still, direct elections act as a cap on the worst types of corruption and graft. Indonesian voters are willing to accept a certain amount of distributional corruption, aka patronage; indeed they expect it. But a district head who goes too far in enriching him/herself and his/her cronies and who delivers too little to the voters will lose their seat at the next elections. Direct elections keep Indonesian politicians at least semi-honest.

The old crocodiles of the party machinery — and virtually all the heads of parties backing a return to indirect elections are old crocodiles — are painfully aware that direct elections for district head also open the door to new blood. As Jakarta’s Governor-in-waiting Basuki Tjahaja Purnama (aka Ahok) observed on Monday, incoming president Jokowi would never have been elected Mayor of the small city of Solo by the party cartels in the local legislature, much less Governor of Jakarta. Ditto Ahok himself: the ethnic Chinese politician won his seat as bupati of Belitung Timur because of the his reputation as an effective manager locally, not because of his party connections.

It happens that I spent Monday hanging around a district where direct elections haven’t worked so well: Sumba Barat Daya. The photos above might be taken as symbolic of what can go wrong with local democracy (I took the photo on the right three years ago, the photo on the left this week). As I sat in an outdoor canteen chatting with disillusioned bureaucrats, their new boss was being inaugurated as district head over a thousand kilometres away in Jakarta. That’s not the way things are supposed to happen. Normally, bupatis are chosen by the population and inaugurated by the local parliament. But the election in deeply tribal Sumba Barat Daya was disputed, many say stolen. The Constitutional Court, then headed by a man who has since been jailed for accepting bribes to overturn local election results, ruled against the incumbent and in favour of a candidate from a rival tribe. The hot-headed Sumbanese, who rarely leave home without a machete strapped to their waists, wrote their displeasure on their rivals in blood and flaming buildings; the rival clan reciprocated. The local parliament, still dominated by supporters of the loser, refused to inaugurate the anointed winner of the election, and the district has been without an elected head for a year.

While we were talking politics near the local parliament, three trucks packed to the gills with police and riot shields came past. Though the inauguration was in Jakarta, trouble was expected in Sumba. “Imagine, people dying over who gets to be bupati,” said one of my companions in disgust. I asked if indirect elections would solve the problem. “What difference would that make?” another asked. “The manipulation would just be at a different level. It doesn’t stop people getting their machetes out.”

It’s worth pointing out that Sumba (along with parts of Papua) is an exception. Indonesia generally has very low levels of election-related violence. I’ve written a lot about decentralisation, for better and for worse. But now that direct local elections are under threat, I have to agree with a young friend of mine, Lia. She lives in a high-roofed bamboo house on a hill-top in West Sumba, and she turned 18 on July 9th, the day of the presidential election. “It was a really special present, to be able to participate in democracy,” she said. When I asked what she thought of indirect elections for district head, she turned fierce. “They can’t do that. It’s our right to choose our leaders. They can’t take that away from us.” To the post-Suharto generation, and that’s now a LOT of the electorate, direct elections are a given.

I suspect even most older Indonesians now feel the same way; they know a great deal about the individuals who vie to run their district, who will make all the important decisions about health, education, road-building and much else, and they want to choose for themselves between the candidates. Interestingly, not one of the 20 or so people I have asked in the last two days has been able to name the member of parliament that is supposed to represent them in the national parliament in Jakarta, the very party political crocodiles who are currently plotting to remove the right to vote for district head. Perhaps a group such as Kawal Pemilu, which used a network of volunteers to defuse tension around the presidential election by providing a parallel but more rapid tally of the votes, should take on the task of letting people know how to contact their national MP. However they do it, I very much hope Indonesians make an effort to find out who their MP is, and to make their feelings about direct elections known in time to head the erosion of democracy off at the pass.

*Anyone who doubts that one man can hollow out a democracy single-handedly and in a few short years, should read Masha Gessen’s The Man Without a Face, about Vladimir Putin. The principal difference between Russia’s New Dictator and Prabowo Subianto is that the former looks better shirtless on horseback.

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