Indonesia Etc.: complexity and development amongst cultural and temporal diversity


Is it possible to build a nation as complex as Indonesia before fully understanding its complexity? What is holding Indonesia together despite its diversity? Is decentralization good for Indonesia? These are some of the questions that were asked last week at the Habibie and Ainun Library in South Jakarta during the presentation of the new book by Elizabeth Pisani, Indonesia Etc.

Elizabeth Pisani has had a busy few of weeks presenting and discussing her book at various events around Jakarta. At the Habibie and Ainun Library she was joined by Endy M. Bayuni, senior editor of The Jakarta Post. Indonesia Etc. has attracted a lot of attention internationally and, besides Indonesia, has been in the US and the UK. The Guardian has published a positive book review ( The book is born out of Elizabeth Pisani’s idea to take 2011 off and travel for a year around the archipelago using mainly boats and roads. In doing so she has covered most regions and has been to parts of the country which also Indonesian do not know well. She speaks fluently Bahasa Indonesia which has helped her to chat, speak and learn from the people she met during the long hours on ferry boats and the visits to cities and villages.

The Etc. in the title of the book is derived from the independence declaration of Indonesian read by Sukarno at 10.00 a.m. on 17th August 1945, the Proklamasi. It is a 24 words statement as if the founding fathers (including Sukarno and Mohammad Hatta) and the country were in a hurry to start the journey of independence and could not spend too much time to think about the details and the implications. Indonesia has been independent for 69 years. Has it succeeded?

Elizabeth Pisani and Endy M. Bayuni agreed that is too early to say whether the ideals of the founding fathers have been realized or not. Etc. means that Indonesia is pretty much work in progress. An important question in the discussion as well as in the book is whether Indonesia is a nation. In Jakarta the assumption is that everybody in the country is on board on the idea of a unified nation. However, this is not what Elizabeth Pisani has found during her journey. Indonesia is an incredibly diverse and culturally rich country. People are extremely attached to their local cultural roots. They provide the true sense of identify. To be Indonesian comes only second. As Endy M. Bayuni said, Indonesian is something that is just written on our ID cards or passports. Is this multifaceted sense of identity a threat to nation building?

Past presidents have pushed in one way or another for a unified (a Javanese?) Indonesia but without much apparent success. This does not mean that the country, as many thoughts at the beginning of the decentralization remover launched in 2001, has fallen apart. ‘So,’ asked one participant to the discussion at the Habibie and Ainun Library, ‘what is holding Indonesia together?’

1) An (unfinished) decentralization process which gives different regions some degree of autonomy about how they want to go about plans and the implementation of their development. Decentralisation is work in progress in Indonesia and is good for democratization.
2) The bureaucracy mundane which is made by civil servants (many of whom are from Java) spread all over the country in line agencies, government offices, schools, health centres, etc.
3) Bahasa Indonesia as the language which is spoken almost everywhere
4) The massive expansion of tertiary education which to some extent contributed to bringing people together
5) The Post Offices with their distinctive orange signs which Elizabeth Pisani has found to be almost everywhere in the country and which are becoming more and more central to the system of cash transfers to people living in poorer and more remote regions.

There may be few other things, but the list is certainly not long. Yet for Elizabeth Pisani the country is together and evolving through a constant process of inventions and consolidation. There is a plan, but it not a detailed one. It is made of lots of etc., etc., etc.

What about development? Elizabeth Pisani worked at some point in the Ministry of Health in Jakarta on a health project. As other (national and international) colleagues she was under the assumption that what is done in a ministry would somehow trickle down through the bureaucracy to the local level. Her trip around Indonesia has confirmed that this is not the case. What she has observed is the huge disconnect which exist between what is happening at the national and local level which is not recognized enough. Another interesting discovery from her book is that generally speaking the people she has met are all engaged with political developments and discussions. People in remote areas may not feel a connection with Jakarta but they are aware of what is going on in terms of politics and see the links between the politics in the capital and the area where they live.

In terms of evidence for and from development, the decentralization process has contributed to the produce a huge amount of data. What is missing is the capacity and systems to analyze the data. The problem is that analysis and the communication of the results of the analysis takes time which may not sync well with the policy process. In terms of using data from policy and programmes, decision makers in Indonesia face the challenge of a country that has not only big cultural and social and economic differences, but also temporal differences. At one extreme there are the modern high rising and flashy malls of central Jakarta. On the other the communities that live in deep forest of Papua and sustain themselves from the products that the forest is willing to give them as shown by photographer Sebastião Salgado in his last project, Genesis.

The conclusion of the discussion at the Habibie and Aninun library and from the book is that Indonesia is an evolving amalgam of different countries. There is no need to be afraid but to accept it. While some remote areas may fear the colonization from Java through decentralization, Elizabeth Pisani has found that people living in urban areas in Java fear to become like Jakarta and lose their local traditions. I guess fear and worries are part of the process of development and progress which is ultimately a journey into the unknown.

Interesting discussion. Good speakers. Very good book.

I left the Habibie and Ainun Library with my bicycle and hit the afternoon rush hour on Jalan Rasuna Said. The road packed with cars, motorbikes and busses almost at a stand still. I pushed my bicycle. Rode it for a bit. Then walked again until I reached the crossing to Kebayoran Baru. I proceeded very slowly protected by my bike mask and helmet amongst the traffic jam, the exhaust fumes, the stuck motorbikes, the buskers jumping off busses holding their old guitars and rushing to the next bus to earn some Rupiah with their music, old men pushing small carts where they have collected plastic bottles and tin cans. Among all that I thought that the Indonesia described by Elizabeth Pisani reminded me of my own country. Italy is also a nation in the making after 150 years from being unified. Is it a nation? Not yet. Italians have a very strong local identify which comes always before being Italian. We have regions with special autonomy. We have an administrative deconcentration. We have local elections. We have rich local cultures. We have many dialects and a common language, Italian, decorated by different accents which immediately disclose from which part of the country we come from. We have high level of corruption, organised crime, and a general mistrust of politicians and the political system. When I got home I took a shower to get rid of the pollution. The sat at my desk and switched on my laptop to browsed to the Amazon website. I was looking for a book that I put in the Wish List a couple of years ago after reading some reviews in the Guardian. David Gilmour: The Pursuit of Italy: A History of a Land, its Regions and their Peoples. All of a sudden, listening to Elizabeth Pisani, reading her book and feeling how deeply she cares about Indonesia, I felt the urge to read what a foreigner has to say about the history, culture, and politics of my own country. Funny, isn’t it?




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