An easter treat: Catholic kitsch from around Indonesia

There are just seven million Catholics in Indonesia — a drop in a mainly Moslem ocean. Yet they have managed to make their mark aesthetically, with an astoundingly wide variety of statues, murals, graveyards and churches that range between Kitsch and High Kitsch….

More Moslem than expected: the real surprise of Indonesia’s polls

Commentators on Indonesia’s parliamentary elections have been surprised by the relatively poor performance of front-runners PDIP (see the FT, the Jakarta Post, the Jakarta Globe for examples). But the real surprise is surely the much better than expected showing by Islamic parties. Islamic parties have seen their share of the vote slide steadily over the years. Just last week, the New York Times predicted that the PPP, the oldest Islamic party, would fail to make the threshold for parliamentary seats…

Is Indonesia more democratic than the UK?

Indonesians love to complain about politicians, about parliament, about political parties. But they are much more enthusiastic democrats than citizens of many other nations. More than seven out of ten of Indonesia’s 171 million registered voters showed up at the polls in the last national parliamentary elections in 2009, compared with fewer than two thirds in the UK and a lamentable 40 percent in the US in 2010. Most expect a high turnout in today’s elections, too. Indonesia is also…

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….

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…

Welcome to, continuing the Portrait Indonesia journey

Welcome to Indonesia etc, the new face of Portrait Indonesia. It’s over two years since Portrait Indonesia went on the road. Portrait went quiet for several months as I hunched down over a computer, trying to pin Indonesia’s riotous diversity to the page. The book that will emerge in June 2014 will be called Indonesia Etc: Exploring the Improbable Nation. It will be published in the UK by Granta, in the US by WW Norton and in Indonesia by Godown,…

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.