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Indonesia, Etc.: Exploring the Improbable Nation Paperback – June 22, 2015
"Neverworld Wake" by Marisha Pessl
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“Exuberant and wise…Pisani is an exceptionally resourceful observer of the ongoing battle to define Indonesia.”
- Pankj Mishra, The New Yorker
“Beautifully written, richly entertaining.”
- The Economist
“A rollicking good adventure…To read Indonesia Etc. is to grow rather fond of both author and country.”
- Pallavi Aiyar, Los Angeles Review of Books
“For anyone about to visit the place, [Elizabeth Pisani’s] book is an essential companion.”
- Misha Glenny, Guardian
“Intrepid and passionate…Profound, lasting, a masterpiece of its genre―and so much fun!”
- Amy Wilentz, author of The Rainy Season and Farewell, Fred Voodoo
About the Author
Elizabeth Pisani has lived in Indonesia at various times over the past twenty-five years, originally as a journalist and later as an HIV epidemiologist. The author of The Wisdom of Whores and Indonesia Etc., she is based in London.
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She speaks fluent Indonesian, used to drive around Jakarta riding a motorcycle and now in this book she travels around Indonesia - from NTT, to the eastern islands around Maluku, to the big islands of Sulawesi, Sumatra, Kalimantan then the "main island" of Java - visiting the remotest regions, blending-in with the locals, even participating in numerous hard-labour works and various local festivals along the way (I'm still curious on what she did with that "request" in Mount Kemukus).
In every part of the nation that she visits, she describes the local customs, social hierarchy and economy in great detail. She also elaborates on the many problems facing with every single village, island and province - from corruption, exploitation, poverty, inequality, to transportation, infrastructure and even cultural problems.
And between the fascinating local stories she also give various facts, statistics and history of this great country to give us the bigger picture ("The ties that binds" chapter, in particular, is world class), and shows how the Indonesia that we thought we always knew, and the Jakarta-centric (and java-centric) one we see daily in national TV, is perhaps just 1/10th of the actual country.
Unlike any other western books on Indonesia - like special chapters in John Pilger's New Rulers of the World, Naomi Klein's Shock Doctrine, John Perkins' Confessions of an Economic Hit Man, and even Andre Vltcheck's Indonesia: Archipelago of Fear - who tend to have a brilliant but one-sided view, Elizabeth Pisani can show both the good side and bad side of nearly everything Indonesian and then elaborate in great detail on how it work out in reality.
For example, the many corruptions in the country are rightly seen as a bad epidemic by many, but Pisani also acknowledged it as one of the unlikely ties that weirdly binds the nation together, as a "new normal" way of life, whether we like it or not. Furthermore, like many authors before her Pisani portrays founding father Soekarno as a great charismatic leader, but she also pointed out the messiness of his presidency later on that led to a hyperinflation. She also portrays the "32 years dictator Soeharto" as a great leader that brilliantly tied the diverse nations together for the first 20 years of his presidency, but started to look "dictatorial" (with every stereotypes that come with the label) after his kids grew up.
Indeed, reality is a hard-to-swallow concept for a complex country like Indonesia, where the line between right or wrong, and taboo or normal are often blurry. And in this book Pisani taught us that we need to see the many different issues facing the country from many unfiltered angles to really understand what the country is all about. The underlying truth about Dayak-Madura ethnic conflict in Kalimantan, the "religious" violence in Maluku, and the birth of Police-backed extremist group FPI, for instance, are different compared with the way the mainstream media are describing.
With that in mind, this book is truly an eye opener, a well-balanced Rosetta Stone for my Western-educated train of thoughts and values, which often struggles to understand the complex reality of my own country. Not anymore.
No run-of-the-mill travel writer
Pisani is no run-of-the-mill travel writer. She lived in Indonesia for three years as a reporter for Reuters (1988-91) and returned for another four-year stay a decade later after training as an epidemiologist specializing in AIDS. (Today, Pisani runs a public-health consultancy in London.) It's clear from context in the book that she is fluent and comfortable in the lingua franca of the islands, Indonesian. Equally important, Pisani is one tough lady. Even as a youngster, I wouldn't have dreamed of subjecting myself to the rigors of her 13-month odyssey.
Colorful and engaging anecdotes
Indonesia Etc. is full of colorful and engaging anecdotes of the sort that will be familiar to anyone who has traveled extensively in the Third World. There is, for example, a hilarious tale of a Crocodile Whisperer, a shaman who presented himself as able to persuade the crocodiles in one region to identify and shun the one beast in their midst that had eaten a local woman. In other tales, Pisani recounts her experiences wearing the wrong batik design to the coronation of a local sultan and with a Koran-reading contest. "Koran-reading contests are as popular in Indonesia as visits by Manchester United's touring team."
Then there was her effort to travel from small island to another. "'Is there a schedule for the boat to Lonthor?' I yelled across to the boatmen. 'Of course!' they yelled back. 'When do you leave?' I bellowed. 'When the boat is full!' came the reply."
Pisani emphasizes again and again the warm hospitality and sense of humor she encountered everywhere in Indonesia. After casual meetings on boats or buses, local people unhesitatingly invited her to live with them in their homes and share their food for days on end. Just imagine that happening in New York or Los Angeles!
Indonesia's blood-soaked history
In Indonesia Etc., Pisani delves deeply into the history, politics, and economics of Indonesia. Amid her tales of days spent in tiny settlements or on leaky, slow-moving boats from island to island, she explores the history of this extraordinarily diverse and rich nation. Most of the time since the country gained independence from the Dutch in 1945 Indonesia has been dominated by two men whose legacies remain evident to the present day: Sukarno (1945-67) and Suharto (1968-98). Pisani recounts their years with rich detail about the tumultuous times during which they presided over the nation.
One event stands out: the massacre that brought Suharto to power. In the course of three years, at least half a million, and as many as three million Communists, ethnic Chinese, and alleged leftists were brutally murdered. Hundreds of thousands more were raped, driven from their homes, or saw their businesses destroyed.
As Pisani writes, "The carnage wiped out a whole generation of socially committed activists and pulled up the roots from which they might regrow. It crippled the development of political debate and made Indonesian citizens wary of political allegiance." For decades afterward, the Indonesian military ran rampant through the breakaway provinces of East Timor and Aceh as well as other regions that sought independence for themselves.
Indonesia today: one of the world's most decentralized nations
From Pisani's perspective, Sukarno and Suharto followed radically divergent political paths. Sukarno moved to centralize government, imposing rigid control from the country's most populous island (Java) on the rest of the country and launching a satellite to carry news in the Indonesian language throughout the archipelago. Suharto initiated decentralization, devolving power onto local government.
"At a stroke," Pisani writes, "the world's fourth most populous nation and one of its most centralized burst apart to become one of its most decentralized. The centre still takes care of defence, fiscal policy, foreign relations, religious affairs, justice and planning. But everything else—health, education, investment policy, fisheries and a whole lot more—was handed over to close to 300 district 'governments,' whose only experience of governing had, until then, been to follow orders from Jakarta."
In myriad ways, Pisani shows how the move to decentralization has been a disaster for Indonesia. When she wrote her book in 2012, the number of district governments had grown to 509, virtually every one of them a fiefdom for the local elite and rife with corruption. ("'Papua's wealth used to be stolen by Jakarta. Now it's stolen by the Papuan elite.'") Yet, as Pisani takes pains to point out, "No other nation has welded so much difference together into so generally peaceable a whole in the space of less than seventy years."
Indonesia's endemic corruption
As the author explains, "A small fraction of jobs in the bureaucracy are awarded based on competitive exams. But most of the jobs that are not given out to political supporters get sold . . . The minister in charge of the 'state apparatus' recently said that 95 percent of Indonesia's 4.7 million civil servants didn't have the skills they needed to do their jobs." Many Indonesians attribute their country's endemic corruption to the legacy of Dutch colonialism. Compared to the English, the Dutch provided few educational opportunities for their subjects. However, Indonesia has been independent for seven decades. Blaming colonialism is a bit of a stretch.
An "improbable nation?"
Pisani subtitles her book Exploring the Improbable Nation. She makes clear that Indonesia's unmatched diversity, island geography, and complex history could well have resulted in many different countries rather than one. There's no disputing this. However, to a somewhat lesser degree, the same might be said of many of the European countries that are generally regarded as the most stable and logical nation-states in the world: Italy, Germany, France, Spain, even England. Dig beneath the surface in any one of these countries, and you'll find the nation-building that occurred in centuries past was anything but an inevitable outcome. All these countries are rife with regional differences in culture, history, and even language. To be sure, the regional differences are by no means as stark as they are in Indonesia, but it would be a mistake to assume that the emergence of these countries as unitary political units was foreordained.
She travels through the backwoods and centers of Indonesia. Years of inside knowledge, personal contacts, language skills, historical, social, and political insights go into the narrative. Memories from earlier trips add a time axis to the trip.
I recommend the book. The agenda is determined by a healthy skepticism against religions and politicians, by a commitment to conservation causes, and by sympathies for the underdogs. I assume the book is most valuable to people who have some knowledge of Indonesia. It is not an introduction for novices.
For the question that moves most people (which role will political Islam play in the future of the country?), the book gives information that can improve our understanding. The author is not an alarmist, but she is not crazy enough to deal in prophecies. On key environmental issues like deforestation, she is not optimistic.
Many chapters about different parts of the country touch the subject of past outbreaks of violence, be it between religious or ethnic groups, or the big outbreak of murder lust in the 1960s. A subject with many explanations, but beyond comprehension.