Book review: Indonesia etc by Elizabeth Pisani

June 18, 2014
For many, Indonesia is a mysterious place of shadow puppets and spice islands, though perhaps for viewers of the recent film The Art of Killing the brutal anti-communist pogroms of the 1960s might also loom large. A more coherent picture emerges, however, from Elizabeth Pisani’s lucidly analytical but affectionate new book. Indonesia, with over 13,000 islands and 360 ethnic groups, has the fourth largest population in the world, and embraces an astonising variety of religions, from Calvinism to Animism, but more significantly Islam and Catholicism. Though a colourful and entertaining travelogue in form, Indonesia etc has an instructive organising theme: the struggle to create a single nation from such diversity. This project, in multifarious variations, has been the story of many postcolonial states; the common plot being the transition from top-down modernisation in the 1950s and 60s to greater decentralisation since the 1990s. In Indonesia’s case Javanese imperialism (leftist under Sukarno and rightist under Suharto) gave way to extreme localism.

Pisani is fully alert to the high costs of such “democracy through anarchy”—in particular patronage, corruption and inefficiency. The advantage, she argues, is that from the false unity of central-state fiat, a more organic sense of common identity is emerging. Some may be sceptical about the long-term viability of a nation based on clan and kinship networks, but Pisani’s central metaphor—of a society no longer content to just observe politics from behind a screen, as in a shadow puppet play, but determined to face its complex realities head on—is persuasive.