The shape of the world a generation from now will be influenced far more by how we communicate the values of our society to others than by military or diplomatic superiority. William Fulbright, 1964

Wednesday, January 11, 2006



Life was much easier for observers of Indonesia in the bad old days of Suharto and his authoritarian Orde Baru government.

We could write with confidence about politics and forecast election outcomes with accuracy. Year in and out, the same players and predictable issues. Economic indicators were forever onwards and upwards. All critics could be dismissed as communists.

And now? Every day is an astonishment and all seers suspect. Comments have a use-by date, and in modern mercurial Indonesia that’s often just a matter of days – sometimes hours; Britain’s Sunday Telegraph newspaper splashed a story about Bali’s recovery on the weekend of the second blast.

In trying to explain it all to the mildly interested, the easy solution is to play safe, record the past and raise gentle questions about the future, letting the reader develop answers: “Given the enormous social and economic changes that have occurred in recent decades, does politics still retain the same degree of autonomy from cultural influences?” asks Dr Ian Chalmers.

This unanswered question is from the Australian academic’s new book Indonesia: An Introduction to Contemporary Traditions, which tries to bring Indonesian Studies students up to speed on events in the past decade.

To the great dismay of all who are mesmerised by this country, Indonesian Studies has slumped in Australian schools and universities since the first Bali bomb. Chalmers, who helped organise last year’s successful conference of the Australian Society of Indonesian Language Educators, has been busy trying to reverse this trend.

So there was some hope that this book would boost his campaign by enthralling the next generation with the quivering danger and delight that’s Indonesia today. This is a nation dancing with democracy on the lip of the caldera, and it’s a spellbinding performance.

Instead we have a sober, constrained, fact-filled text, a good glossary, fine index and enough notes to stump the most pedantic. This is all well and good if you think Indonesia should only be debated by stern scholars and political analysts.

Relations with Indonesia are the most significant item on Australia’s foreign affairs agenda, too important to be left to academics and policy-polishers in Canberra. Indonesia is people in all their confusing complexity. More than anything else this makes the country so appealing to those dismayed by logical, organised, smug Australia.

The book covers all the required bases – history, anthropology, culture, religion, economy and politics - and does so competently. It’s littered with on-the-page references which add authenticity but make reading a bumpy experience. Endnotes avoid this hazard. The monochrome pictures do nothing to lift the text or appeal to the “interested general reader” Chalmers is trying to reach.

Consequently it lacks the electricity that might jump-start young Australians making their educational choices and now sadly opting for European tongues rather than the language and culture of the people next door.

Being populist and serious is a big ask, though journalist Bruce Grant pulled it off with Indonesia. First published in 1964 it survived into a third edition 32 years later.

Grant communicated the smell and sweat, fun and throb of Indonesia, and turned many towards the north. Chalmers’ influence was the late Herb Feith, a respected scholar with a passionate concern for Indonesia and human rights.

Privately Chalmers shares that ideology, but seems to have set it aside in the interests of maintaining academic aloofness.

Most Indonesianists agree that since Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono became the sixth president, government-to-government relationships with Australia are the best they’ve been. That’s not the situation at the grass roots level because of Islamic terrorism, travel warnings, poaching and other irritations, though better than during the 1999 East Timor referendum.

Comments Chalmers: “It is perilously difficult to make accurate predictions about the likely course of events in a country as large and diverse as Indonesia.”

But this is what we want, and Chalmers has the experience and knowledge to take a stab, or let Indonesians have their say. Others have done it and consequently have helped clarify our understanding. Adam Schwarz’s 1994 book A Nation in Waiting is still a valuable read, even though it’s been eclipsed by the economic crisis and the fall of Suharto.

Chalmers doesn’t take that risk, so we have a bloodless book that won’t be overtaken by events, but won’t inspire. Serious students of the country with a university career in mind and seeking a compact reference will not be disappointed.

Who will be? Undecided and confused Australians, wondering why their government gives a neighbour so much foreign aid, then warns against visiting. There has to be something else about this country they need to hear if we’re all to live in peace: The voice of the people.

Chalmers, Ian: Indonesia. An introduction to contemporary traditions. Oxford University Press, Melbourne. 341 pages.

(First published in The Sunday Post 8 January 2006)



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