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

Tuesday, February 11, 2014


Secrets of the kampong 


The kampong is the place foreigners seldom go without good reason and a local guide, though not because of violence.

The dark and pokey lanes, houses leaning into, over and against each other, the claustrophobia all combine to make those who value space feel unwelcome. 

To ignorant Westerners, kampongs seem to be the imagined dens of Eastern vice. For others, who only glimpse them in passing, the statue-flanked gateways celebrating freedom fighters and Pancasila pledges hint of robust communities deep within, united by nationalism and a shared history.

What happens beyond is a mystery for many, though not for Robbie Peters who spent a year in Dinoyo, a kampong of 10,000 on the flank of Surabaya’s ironically named Kali Mas (Gold River).  Maybe it glittered once; now it’s better known as Kali Coca Cola.

The Australian academic picked an ideal time to start his research as major social change erupted across the nation.

Fine for him, not the locals. The rupiah dived, prices rocketed.  Jobs vanished, and when they resurfaced they were different.

Fortress Soeharto was breached. There was violence in the streets.  For a while it seemed that no one could hold the country together. The new word was krismon, short for krisis moneter, no translation needed.

But Indonesia didn’t break down like Egypt or crash like Syria.  The gears grated, the engine coughed, but democracy kept edging forward and stayed on the road – a modern miracle of social change insufficiently acknowledged.

The streetscape scars remain.  The defining image of the Republic’s second largest city has been the rusting skeletons of high-rise developments where work abruptly halted when the banks went bust.

Now new glitzy hotels and air-conditioned malls are opening, giving short-term visitors the confidence to report modernity and prosperity despite the smog and traffic chaos.

The observers might be at ease with spreadsheets but know nothing about the claustrophobic kampongs where ordinary folk live and toil in their sprawling ‘informal industrial estates.’

Dr Peters does and it’s a pity that his Surabaya, 1945-2010 has such a bland
title and confusing cover, because this is more than a dissertation spruced up to earn a place on shop shelves.

Although the author has produced a useful book that goes beyond its narrow title to provide a broader picture of the nation’s development, there are flaws.

Many monochrome photos are so bland they hardly justify inclusion.  The in-text references annoy because they work like speed bumps. Even the most banal quote has been attributed. Right for a thesis, wrong for a book.

This isn’t just about Dinoyo; the micro is the macro. Through the kampong we see the nation. Developers crash, the powerless are crippled, then crushed again. Markets burn, malls rise.  The military triumphs, the masses are cowed – but just for a while.

The outside view is of an industrious and pious society.  That’s true, but the inside story includes corrupt administrators, exploiters, gamblers, prostitutes, drug-takers and the seriously slimy.  Then there’s the poor – around 40 per cent during krismon.

Surabaya is a great place for adventure, but a tough town to love.  It’s rough, messy, wretchedly hot, flat and featureless.  From the air the saw-tooth roofs of factories spread to the horizon.  At ground level the choked roads are so bereft of landmarks it’s easy to get lost.

Decay squats alongside development, much of it crass. But behind the fences of graffiti and rust are frangipani-shaded graveyards and mosques where ancient beliefs thrive.

On the adjacent boulevards the solid homes of the former colonialists now house top bureaucrats and business people who believe they run the city.

Surabaya has a heart and it beats in places like Dinoyo where Javanese and Madurese live so closely there’s no space left for the intolerant.  Proximity has created character and togetherness has molded society. 

In rows of houses with no backyards and windows opening straight into alleyways you can touch the wall opposite. One person’s dirty washing is everyone’s business.

Through Dr Peters’ observations, trawling of papers past and profiles of people like Rukun, the one-time guerrilla fighter in the war against the Dutch, we get insights into the lives of the wong kecil (ordinary folk) that continue to shape modern Indonesia. 

Rukun became a factory worker then a suspect communist during the 1965 post coup d’etat and went on the run.

Betrayed by other residents he was tortured and ‘electrocuted’, an editing error that should have been picked up by this scholarly publisher, for Rukun survived his ordeal to become a source for much history.

A key informant for Dr Peters was town planner Johan Silas who has been a major influence in cleaning up Surabaya, popular for advocating preservation of kampongs when the military administrators wanted demolition.

The men in uniforms sought control yet remained fearful of the masses that could easily over-run authority should their anger be aroused or despair become intolerable.

Dinoyo’s latest shift is to a suburb of boarding houses for workers in nearby industries.  Incompetent governments continue to seek the upper hand. Now toll road development threatens. 

Will the kampongs survive? They’ll evolve and have already started to go vertical.  Indonesians, with their splendid quality of stoic resistance need people and see safety in numbers.  That’s something few Westerners understand – unless they read this book.

Surabaya, 1945 – 2010 by Robbie Peters
NUS Press Singapore 2013

(Review first published in The Jakarta Post 10 February 2014)

1 comment:

Erik said...

C'mon, Duncan. Surabaya's a bit rough but I'd rather live here than in Jakarta.

I'll look forward to seeing the book.