'Indonesia, Etc.' draws a skillful portrait of a complex nation

Indonesia is the world's most populous Muslim nation and the world's third-largest democracy, but writer Elizabeth Pisani says the country 'punches below its weight on the world stage.'

Indonesia, Etc. By Elizabeth Pisani Norton, W.W. & Company 404 pp.

Tomorrow Indonesians across the vast archipelago nation of 13,465 islands will head to the polls to vote for the country’s next president. They will choose between the charismatic, corruption-fighting governor of Jakarta Joko Widodo or Prabowo Subianto, a former army general accused of carrying out human rights abuses who is the former son-in-law of the country’s longtime dictator Suharto.

The juxtaposition between the candidates and their proximity in polling numbers shows the complexity of a nation that Elizabeth Pisani skillfully describes in Indonesia, Etc.: Exploring the Improbable Nation.

The “etc.” in the title comes from a line in the country’s declaration of independence from the Dutch in 1945: “Matters relating to the transfer of power etc. will be executed carefully and as soon as possible.” 

Pisani, a former Reuters journalist turned HIV epidemiologist, has worked on and off in Indonesia for the past 25 years. Part travelogue, part history and politics, and part exploration of what holds such a diverse group of islands together as a nation, Pisani’s work fills in a much-needed gap on literature about Indonesia. 

For a county with so many top ten rankings – the world’s most populous Muslim nation, the world’s third largest democracy, and fourth most populous nation (and I’m not even going to mention all the natural resource wealth rankings) – Pisani writes, “There’s no doubt that Indonesia punches below its weight on the world stage.”

For over a year, from 2011 to 2012, Pisani traveled mostly solo throughout Indonesia, in no particular order, from the northern tip of Aceh on the island in Sumatra to the Kei islands in the Banda Sea. Along the way she reconnects with old friends or interview subjects from two decades earlier. 

But the vast majority of the trip is spent with people Pisani meets while traveling on slow ferries or public buses who invite her to come stay with them. Pisani says “yes” without any hesitation almost every time and the strangers quickly become friends, opening their homes and lives. This allows for an intimate portrait of life across Indonesia in small villages off the beaten, oftentimes unpaved, path. 

Pisani is constantly being questioned, “Dari mana?” (“Where are you from?”) and she has to explain to unbelieving onlookers that she does not have children or a husband, often while sitting surrounded by large, extended families. As a foreigner, Pisani is able to gain access to many worlds. She interacts with women in the kitchen, peeling and chopping vegetables, and hears their version of events as well as going on outings with men, including whale-hunting on a leaky boat with an old engine. 

Every village and island brings a new, oftentimes fun, situation, including buying a chicken for a sacrifice and getting solicited for sex on Gunung Kemukus (she promptly declines). In Aceh she watches the dirty political campaign of a local election where she is offered a ballot because she simply asks – a disturbing look at Indonesia’s electoral process. 

In one particularly interesting and moving passage, Pisani finds a student, Hanafiah, whom she interviewed in 1990. Hanafiah had been beaten and imprisoned by the Indonesian military during its fight against separatists in Aceh and at the time Pisani noted that Hanafiah’s detention would “put the boy out of the running for almost any job or respectable marriage, probably for ever.” Pisani finds the exact opposite to be true, showing how over the past few decades, many dissidents have entered government while some former politicians have gone to prison.

Pisani doesn’t spare readers the negative aspects. She critiques the lack of ambition in certain regions and analyzes the impact of religion on development. She comes to the conclusion that “collectivist culture without the feudalism. Perhaps it should become Indonesia’s next etc.” At the same time, she notes that in Indonesia’s current system, “patronage is the price of unity.”

While Pisani does travel on the island of Java, where nearly 60 percent of the entire population of Indonesia resides, she decides not to spend much time in the sprawling, overflowing capital of Jakarta. She misses an opportunity to delve deeper into political and religious issues at the root of some of the big news events she describes over the period of her travels. 

At one point, after months of travel in often uncomfortable conditions, Pisani asks an Indonesian friend, “How will I ever make sense of this country?” Yet Pisani does and in some cases doesn’t, showing that Indonesia is an ever-changing, vast place that, like many countries, is hard to describe. But that’s the beauty of her book.

Lydia Tomkiw is a Monitor contributor.

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