The Year of Essential Reading
An election year doesn’t just bloom politicians – it also fertilizes a flowering of books. So far this year two excellent additions: Elizabeth Pisani’s Indonesia Etc [review published in The Jakarta Post 4 August 2014] and Australian journalist Hamish McDonald’s Demokrasi.
The books are different yet complementary. One is an anecdotal tour of the archipelago using the micro to illuminate the macro, this one a crisp, more formal historical, social and political state-of-the nation account. Both are essential reads for anyone interested in this complex and curious country.
McDonald was a foreign correspondent in Jakarta between 1975 and 1978. In 1980 he earned his reporter’s Medal of Honor by being banned for writing Suharto’s Indonesia, a book reviewed at the time as ‘solid, well-written and balanced … a combination that is rare.’
The same qualities are present in Demokrasi, making it an ideal resource except for one crippling omission – no chapter notes. This is strange because McDonald is now with the Australian National University; academics are ferocious about referencing, however notable the writer and lucid the writing.
McDonald, a mite bashfully, explains Demokrasi is “a quick overview …and in some aspects has been streamlined for ease of reading.” Possible translation: We’ve cut references to keep costs down. Suggestion: Put the sources on a dedicated website.
This book was written before the inauguration of President Joko [Jokowi] Widodo but remains current with much background on him and his failed rival, Prabowo Subianto. This includes the allegation that Prabowo once told ethnic Chinese businessman Sofyan Wanandi, that he was ready ‘to drive all the Chinese out of the country, even if that sets the economy back 20 or 30 years.’
Sofyan, also known as Sofjan, helped start the anti-communist think tank Centre for Strategic and International Studies [CSIS] in 1971, and offered advice to the Soeharto government till 1988.
McDonald wrote this book helped by a fellowship and room at the CSIS in Jakarta, but also spent time in the provinces, including four days in West Papua, though restricted to the capital Jayapura.
A stupid decision by the military because it meant the author had to rely on the views of others who believe a slow genocide is underway through warfare and transmigration from Java, making the Papuans a minority in their own land. Had McDonald been allowed free access he might have come to different conclusions.
This is a book to help fit together the complex pieces of the sleazy and corrupt jigsaw of Jakarta politics. For example, it reminds that Vice President Jusuf Kalla was mired in vote buying during the 2004 Golkar conference.
President Jokowi was helped to become Jakarta Governor by Prabowo, which partly explains the old general’s surly opposition. McDonald reports that despite Jokowi’s “perceived disregard for political guile … [he] paid careful homage to entrenched power groups”.
These included the Special Forces unit Kopassus; when soldiers were accused of breaking into a jail in 2013 and killing four prisoners, Jokowi visited their headquarters as “a gesture of support.”
Nothing is quite what it seems in Indonesian politics where candidates jettison principles according to the wind direction, marry into each other’s families like medieval European royalty and go party shopping; if rebuffed they just start their own fiefdoms and tack on the word ‘democratic’.
Western palates are not always appropriate to savor this noodle bowl of power. In commenting on the Muhammadiyah organization McDonald writes: “Labels are difficult: Orthodox does not necessarily mean conservative; ‘progressive’ or ‘modernist’ can also look orthodox and revivalist.”
So let’s add a new word to English: ‘Demokrasi’ - the Indonesian way of doing democracy.
The chapter on religion opens with a marvellously contradictory image – pious young men reading the Koran before a suggestive portrait of the goddess Nyai Loro Kidul, the so-called Queen of the South Sea.
This synthesis of traditional beliefs with an imported faith has helped create a largely tolerant society, though pockets of hate remain. Strangely Indonesia’s position as the largest Muslim nation by population “is not matched by its authority on religious or Middle East questions. It remains a receiver of wisdom from the Arab world, rather than a messenger of multi-religious tolerance.”
Why? That’s a question for another book.
The challenge facing Western writers is to find the genuinely positive aspects of Indonesia. It’s easy to focus on the negatives - appalling neglect of the infrastructure, corruption that corrodes everyone’s lives, a dysfunctional public service, persistent and debilitating poverty and an absence of basic services. Just one figure tells much - 14 per cent of urban dwellers don’t have access to toilets.
Though McDonald doesn’t shy from the faults and flaws he’s usually optimistic, even amidst illegal land clearing, the despair of conservationists everywhere: “The picture is a familiar one; good intentions and policies at the top undermined by a lack of enforcement capacity on the ground and by the corruption of the agencies supposed to monitor and guard the forests. Still the approach [mapping to determine protection zones] cannot be written off.”
Indonesia hasn’t fallen apart. It’s not Egypt. It’s not Thailand. Terrorism has so far been contained. The media is so free some outlets publish manufactured stories. Democracy seems to have survived. Despite the bitter election campaign and fears of blood in the streets, the election and inauguration went well.
McDonald wraps up his book with “an old Jakarta saying: ‘Anyone who thinks he understands the situation is sadly mistaken’.” He’s right. For outsiders the Indonesian journey is serpentine. It scales peaks and crevasses. It diverts. It is never ending.
Some of American poet T S Eliot’s verse could have been written for Indonesia: ‘We shall not cease from exploration, and the end of all our exploring will be to arrive where we started and know the place for the first time’.
Demokrasi – Indonesia in the 21st Century
by Hamish McDonald
Published by Black Inc, Melbourne
(First published in The Jakarta Post 10 November 2014)