Learning about Indonesian language, history, society and culture

Month: April, 2012

Review of Introductory Textbooks on Indonesian History

The last few posts have had a very specific focus: Ki Hadjar Dewantara and the Taman Siswa. So this week I wanted to broaden things out and write something more relevant to people just arriving to the study of Indonesia. If someone has read the English language Indonesian newspapers and wandered through the archives of Inside Indonesia and the Indonesia journal (each of which I have previously posted about), then general textbooks on Indonesia would be a natural place to look next.

Indonesia is now well served by a range of introductory texts providing overviews of Indonesian history. As they each offer slightly different things I thought it would be useful to offer a comparison of some of the best.

M. C. Ricklefs, A History of Modern Indonesia Since c.1200 (various editions)

This is the classic textbook, covering a broad sweep on Indonesian history from around 1200 up to the present in around 400 pages (at least in the latest editions). It synthesises a huge amount of material in a balanced and judicious manner. It is useful both as an introduction and as a reference text for looking up a certain event or person as you study Indonesia further. It also has a very useful bibliographic essay at the end, especially handy if you are wanting to find out how to find out further about a particular topic or period. On the down side covering such a sweep of time and space it can seem stretched a little thin at points, and it is not exactly light reading (although it is written in admirably clear prose).

A. Vickers, A History of Modern Indonesia

Vickers weaves the works of various Indonesian authors (and in particular Pramoedya Ananta Toer) into this account of Indonesia’s recent past. The use of Indonesian works in this way gives a real life to the work, with a more literary and biographical feel than Ricklefs’ work. It is also a joy to read. Vickers is highly sensitive to the cultural dimensions of change, but also gets into the grubby detail of politics, economics and social developments. The book contains a relatively brief but handy chronology at the front and some potted biographies of key figures at the back. I suspect that the publisher set a tight word count, as at 200 pages it is a relatively quick read, but also feels somewhat truncated. Very little attention is paid to developments before 1900, and it is here that Ricklef’s text has a real advantage, as even for readers whose primary focus is twentieth century Indonesia (or even contemporary social and political developments) an understanding of the broad sweep of history in the archipelago is extremely valuable.

J. Gelman Taylor, Indonesia: Peoples and Histories

A rich account taking a broad sweep of Indonesian history that makes a conscious effort to draw out lesser known characters and issues. It gives only very brief treatment to some politically and economically important events in recent Indonesian history (such as the fall of Suharto, the 1980s oil crisis, and the regional revolts of the 1950s). However, this is part of a deliberate attempt to explore some less well trodden paths and makes this work is a useful compliment to Vickers’ and Ricklefs’ accounts. Particularly fascinating are many of the ‘capsules’: text boxes of a page or two dealing briefly with a topic. Some of my favourites are the comparison of Kartini and Rahma El-Yunusiah, a discussion of medicine and colonisation, a history of the word ‘merdeka’ and an account of the short-lived Republic of the South Moluccas. However, it would have been nice if the sources for these boxes had been listed at the bottom of each one, rather than combined into the bibliography at the end, as I sometimes found myself wanting to follow up a particular fact and not knowing where to look.

R. Pringle, Understanding Indonesian Islam

A very helpful account of Islam in Indonesia, Pringle’s account is reasonable and well-informed. Some academic reviews have questioned some points of interpretation, but given the scope of the undertaking it is an impressive synthesis of the flowering literature on the topic. Given that this is an area where many specialist works are not very accessible to the general reader, and also one where the media tends to extreme simplification, Pringle has done Indonesian (and Islamic) studies a great service with this book. It is also highly readable and a quick read (at just over 200 pages) and at the end has a useful guide to further reading on Indonesian Islam. My greatest caveat would be that to understand Islam in Indonesia, it is crucial to understand Indonesian history and society as a whole. So even for those focused on Islam in particular, the other introductions listed here should still be very valuable.

A. Schwartz, A Nation in Waiting

A lengthy but highly readable account of post independence Indonesia. It combines Schwartz’s experience as a journalist with secondary literature. It is particularly strong on the nexus of politics, economics and ethnicity and provides crucial context for the events of the late 1990s. As well as penetrating analysis, there are memorable quotations galore. The version I read (the updated 1999 version) is now beginning to seem a bit further removed from current events, but it still provides invaluable context for the post-Suharto era.


Translation – Ki Hadjar Dewantara: Character (watak)

This is the last of my series of translations of works by Ki Hadjar Dewantara. It fleshes out a view of human psychology, the interaction of nature and nurture, and the interaction of conscious thought and the subconscious mind. It also lays out a course for channelling these multiple interacting forces into a positive result. This sense of an on-going tension between order and disorder is one that runs more widely through Ki Hadjar Dewantara’s thought, from education encouraging both ‘discipline’ and ‘independence’ to political thought balancing ‘democracy’ and ‘leadership’.

Just as some elements of Ki Hadjar Dewantara’s political thinking were drawn on as Indonesian politics became increasingly authoritarian from the later 1950, so his thinking about psychology and education was a source of inspiration. Under Suharto’s New Order ‘character education’ (pendidikan watak) became a tag line for moral indoctrination as part of the vague state ideology of pancasila. In post-New Order Indonesia, one still often reads or hears about the importance of ‘character education’. However, given the much greater openness of Indonesian society there is now a greater opportunity for  the vision of personal and political growth that Ki Hadjar Dewantara saw as intimately related to ‘character’.[1]

Character (Watak)

1. Watak or character is a synthesis of the entirety of human nature that persists to the point of becoming a special sign to differentiation one person from another.

An explanation: in the Greek and Latin languages, character originates from the word charassein, which means ‘carving a pattern that is persistent and indelible’. In the present it is called letterkarakter. Pay close attention to the use of the word character in naming aspects and types of the following phenomena: this house has a Batak[2] character, the pattern and colours of that picture have a Japanese character, the behaviour of those people is characterised by nobility, coarseness, self-sacrifice, cruelty, etc.

2. Character occurs because of the development of a foundation influenced by learning. The ‘foundation’ is the child’s resources for life (bekal hidup) or propensities that originate in nature before the child is born and have already become one with the nature of the child’s life (biologically). Whereas ‘learning’ means all the aspects of education and instruction beginning with the child in the mother’s womb until the coming of age, which can bring about a state of intelligibel – that is a character influenced by maturity of thinking.

We can compare this with the psychology lesson that says that the jiwa[2] of the new born child is like a sheet of paper on which has already been written with writing that is somewhat indistinct. Educationis obligated to thicken and clarify this indistinct writing with regard to good character, so that negative characteristics can be obscured and become invisible bas they stop developing.

3. The biological foundation of character, or that which is already unified with the nature of a person’s life, is very much related to the nature of heredity (erfelijkheid), the efforts of our ancestors to improve their descendants (eugenetik) and the conditions in their surrounding location.

We can compare this with the cultural lesson about the ‘preservation of the genetic line’ from our nation, which is still known in the words bibit, bebet and bobot when people choose a partner for their child. Bibit, or the individual must be decent and healthy. Bebet meaning good lineage (bebeting wong atapa, bebeting ratu, ksatria). Bobot meaning of substance materially and spiritually. This means that the spiritual and material condition of the person must of good quality.

4. In the jiwa, character is a constant point of reference between the internal life (kehidupan batin) and external actions. Because of this it is as if character becomes the lajer or pivot in a person’s life. Character also gives shape to aspects of temperament that are unique to each person.

For example, A has intentions that are always good and his deeds are always good. B has good intentions but because he is always influenced by other people, his actions are not always good. C also has good intentions, but because of his fears, he never brings his good deeds into reality. D’s intentions are also good, but his thinking is disordered, so his deeds are also chaotic. So although A, B, C and D all have the will to do good, they are always involved in various kinds of affairs. A is a responsible person, B is someone who is active and changeable, C is a coward, D is always confused etc. The constantly fixed comparison between the intentions and energies is the pivot, lajer or character, also known as the point sign or mark of each and every person.

5. Because character is the constant comparison between the internal foundation and actions, the positive and negative behaviour depends on the quality of the life force (kualitas kebatinan), that is a persons’ jiwa or the subject, and something outsides a person’s spirit that is always has an influence, that is the object.

Compare Spranger’s divisions of the character (de theoretische mensch, de economische mensch, de aesthetische mensch, de machtmensch, de religieusche mensch, de sociale mensch) with the divisions of the character according to Hindu philosophy (brahmana, ksatria, waisyia, sudra). They both emphasised the pull of the material thing or object toward the force of the subject. Also remember the word zeltbeheersching (self control) to measure a person’s character and the civility.

A person’s internal life (kebatinan) or jiwa is formed from the combination of thoughts, feelings and desires (cipta-rasa-karsa), whilst the maturity of the ciptarasakarsa is brings to realisation the maturity of spirit (kematangan jiwa).

A person’s maturity of jiwa will bring about wisdom (kebidjaksanaan/wijsheid). In the human spirit, wisdom is stored as onderbewustzijn, that is the part of the spirit with a life free from unconscius thoughts but always influence desires. So, wisdom also influences our character.

For example, a person sees an object, then occurs the thought that confirms the type of object, the use of the object, the way of making the object and so on. Then there appear feelings about the object (happy or unhappy) by themselves. Then there also appear desires from the influence of the thoughts and feelings to the point of becoming fixed desires. These desires are not yet certain to become energies that are in accordance with these desires. So, these desires still depend on something else. This something else is the character or the hue of a person’s jiwa.

An example of the influence of the subconscious (onderbewustzijn) is the choice of a person faced with something (food, clothes, reading books, friendship, a view and so on). Spontaneous reasoning is often seen as in accordance with and fitting all action and behaviour. In other words, this is in accordance with [one’s] attitudes and day-to-day behaviour. This means that there are people that are very straight forward, there are those that are very pure, there are those that are cheats, there are those that are coarse and so on. The good and the bad of all aspects of a person’s nature depend on the good and bad of the thoughts, feelings and desires (respectively and together as the trilogy ‘cipta-rasa-karsa’). That known as wisdom or wijsheid, is the maturity and perfection of a person’s nature, including the harmonisation of this trilogy of the internal life (kebatinan).

The quality of the jiwa, both analytic and synthetic, as a trilogy which is related closely to the subject, a person, and the objects outside the jiwa (pararaph 5 above), really depends on the quality of the senses i.e. the instruments that bring the image of the objects from outside to inside the jiwa.

We can compare the power of the human jiwa with the mechanics of photography: the photograph (that is the form of a person’s energy) that can become clear or indistinct, perfect or disappointing depending on the negative film. The ‘negative’ is the image’s pattern which is not yet visible, still on the negative film (onderbewustzijn). Whereas the ‘film’ is the human jiwa or the trilogy of cipta-rasa-karsa. If the negative image that is produced is good, the film, that is glass and the chemische stoffen (the concoction that makes the glass a photosensitive plate (gevoelige plaat)) must also be good (the quality of the subject). Conversely, even if there is a good quality film, if the image that is received from outside is dim or indistinct (because the lens is not good enough quality) certainly the negative will be bad, so the photo that is produced will also be bad. By lens is meant our senses. Even if the lens is good, if the user adjusts the lens imprecisely, certainly the results will be disappointing. By this is meant that the method of installing the diaphragm must take into account the sun’s rays, calculating the distance of the object must also be considered and so on.

Pusara 1933

[1] In this regard it is interesting to contrast the thought of Ki Hadjar Dewantara with the discussion of New Order indoctrination in cpt. 6 of Mysticism in Java by Niels Mulder.

[2] An ethnic group (or family of ethnic groups) indigenous to Sumatra.