Articles by Elizabeth Pisani

Rediscovering Sumba (and a working slideshow)

I was first invited to take tea with a corpse in Sumba, in southeastern Indonesia, some 23 years ago. It was also in 1991 that I first attended a pasola, a wonderful jousting match which aims to secure a good harvest by spilling human blood. During that visit to Sumba, my friend Enny and I both photographed a boy wearing primary school uniform shorts and the head-dress of a jouster. He was too young to go riding out, but his “don’t mess with me” look advertised his intention to become a warrior to be feared….

Sacrifice in Sumba: Indonesia Etc enhanced eBook preview

Indonesia Etc goes to the printers this week. That ought to mean I’m done, but I’ve been working on an electronic version of the book that will include embedded video, audio and photos as well as the full text. Here’s a taster video: The photos and things won’t get in the way of the text — they’ll be signalled by very analogue icons like this in the margin: but they will mean that readers can get closer to the sights…

The democratic dividend: Trickle-down corruption in Indonesian elections

Indonesian Presidential candidate Gita Wirjawan is talking up the “democratic dividend”. It’s a pun on the “demographic dividend” so beloved of the foreign analysts who write hubristic reports about Indonesia’s glorious future. This particularly laughable example from McKinsey, mostly based on interviews the then Trade Minister Mr. Wirjawan and his like, pimped the wonders of Indonesia’s demographic dividend just a few months before the economy (and the rupiah) went into a nosedive….

Indonesia vs the UK: who’s more cosmopolitain?

Dari mana? Where are you from? It’s the first question most rural Indonesians ask. To simplify things, I just say England. Twenty years ago, there was only one response: Wah! Inggris! Lady Di! Now, there are two: Wah! Inggris! David Beckham! and Wah! Inggris! Manchester United!

Why won’t my Indonesian friends watch The Act of Killing?

It’s easy to be snobby about the Oscars, but just sometimes, they put a spotlight on a film that deserves, indeed demands, to be more widely watched. The Act of Killing, for example, which has just been nominated for Best Documentary. If you are interested in how societies process their own history of mass murder, Josh Oppenheimer’s extraordinary film is a must-see. For more than a year, I have been carrying a copy of the film around on a USB…

And the other 215 million Indonesians?

2014 seems to have begun with a burst of excitement about “Indonesia” in the foreign media. BBC Radio 4 this morning ran an excellent analysis of the country’s prospects by economist Jim O’Neill, the bloke that invented the term BRICS to describe the boom economies of the 2000s. He proposes the MINTs for the 2010s (Mexico, Indonesia, Nigeria and Turkey), though now he’s going around visiting them all, he seems less sure that they are poised to take over the…

Java, inventive since the 10th century

Wandering through the Southeast Asian galleries at New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art over Christmas, I was struck by the glory of the bronzes produced in Java more than 1,000 years ago. And of their prescience. This depiction of the Shakyamuni Buddha suggests that in 10th Century Java, the Gods were already playing with their Blackberrys.

Can Indonesia do better than Obamacare?

So 2014 will be an exciting year for Indonesia. Mostly, of course, because of the elections. But also because, if things go well, a national health insurance scheme will be expanded to cover all Indonesians. It’s an incredibly ambitious plan. But in a wonderful report on BBC radio by Claire Bolderson, Health Minister Nasfsiah Mboi is optimistic. Asked if the government can achieve a target that appears to elude even the mighty United States, she replies “Inshallah, by 2014, we’ll…

Another inflamatory headline: A nation of dunces?

Many people took offence at the title of my earlier post about Indonesia’s appalling performance in maths and science in the internationally standardised PISA test. Those who also read the article rightly pointed out that the headline, which called Indonesian students “stupid”, did not match the contents of the post, which was about the failure of Indonesia’s educational system to prepare children for the needs of a modern economy. I apologise for any offence caused, but am glad that the…

Indonesian kids don’t know how stupid they are

Every three years, Indonesia’s education system goes through the ritual humiliation of the PISA tests, comparing the performance of 15 year-olds in 65 countries in reading, maths and science. Indonesia has more teachers per student than most much richer countries, and an amendment to the constitution guarantees that 20 percent of the national budget is spent on education. And yet the 2012 PISA results, released this week, show that Indonesia ranked at the bottom of the heap in maths and science, and did only marginally better in reading….