Learning about Indonesian language, history, society and culture

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Another Podcast of Interest: ‘New Books in Southeast Asian Studies’

Last year I posted about podcasts on Asian politics, but recently I have also been enjoying the New Books in Southeast Asian Studies podcast. As would be expected from the title, each episode takes the form of a discussion about a new book on some aspect of Southeast Asia, whether crime in Thailand, sport in Laos, political reform in Burma/Myanmar or Catholicism in Vietnam.

The ones that I have listened to so far consist of an interview with the author and last about an hour, allowing time for a reasonably in depth discussion around the book’s content an implications.

Plenty of food for thought here.


Asia Politics Podcasts

My pick of the podcasts focusing on Asian politics

In a previous post I discussed the ‘Talking Indonesia’ podcast coming out of the University of Melbourne. Since then I have been finding out about maritime law whilst doing my laundry, listening to the latest Vietnamese diplomatic wrangling whilst doing my grocery shopping, and pondering on Australia’s submarine purchasing whilst staring out of the train window. In short, I have entered the world of Asia politics podcasts. So I thought I’d share what I’ve been listening to:

The Diplomat – Asia Geopolitics. The name says it all really. Coming out approximately weekly, it generally takes the form a 20 minute or so conversation between Ankit Panda and another member of The Diplomat‘s Staff or another expert. Recent highlight’s include ‘How can Asia’s Navies Learn from the Era of the Mighty Battleship?’ and ‘Can the Afghan War be Won in 2016’. The episodes mentioned are nice examples of covering topics that would otherwise only be covered in very specialist publications (e.g. naval history) or issues that have receded from the mainstream press (e.g. war in Afghanistan).

CSIS Podcast and CogitAsia Podcast from CSIS – The Centre for Strategic and International Studies produce a series of podcasts. Although CogitAsia is dedicated to Asian affairs, quite of a few of the episodes on the broader CSIS Podcast also focus on Asia. Given the CSIS was co-founded at the height the Cold War by a retired admiral and a future Regan advisor, the CSIS unsurprisingly has very close ties to US government. This is reflected in the outlook of the podcasts, which sometimes even slip into using ‘we’ to refer to the position of the US. A recent highlight for me was ‘A Dormant Conflict Erupts’ about conflict in Nagorno-Karabakh. If you haven’t even heard of Nagorno-Karabakh, here’s your chance to find out more.

Asia News Weekly – Run by Steve Miller, a wonderfully enthusiastic VOA broadcaster, with a format generally based on Steve phoning up experts to chat about current events across Asia. Covering several stories per episode, this is less in depth than the others listed here, but it is a nice way to keep up with the latest stories coming out of Asia.

Asia Rising – A fortnightly Podcast from La Trobe University, hosted by Professor Nick Bisley, who talks to experts, often from La Trobe or other Australian universities. It tends to be a bit less focused on the international relations angle and a bit more interested in the internal workings of Asian societies than say, the CSIS or The Diplomat podcasts mentioned above. For example there is a very interesting episode on North Korea’s emerging middle class, including discussion of the Rason Special Economic Zone, an area in the Northeast of Korea where trade with Russia and China has been encouraged (for more on Rason see One blip was the episode ‘Why Australia Will buy Submarines From Japan’: in the end Australia ended up buying them from France.

Talking Indonesia

Indonotes welcomes the arrival of a new podcast from the University of Melbourne

It has been said that we are entering a ‘golden age’of podcasting. On a personal level I have found myself listening to podcasts increasingly often – for example some of the best coverage of the US election has come from the elections podcast of So when I recently came across a new podcast from the University of Melbourne called “Talking Indonesia” I was delighted, and thought I would try and spread the word by posting about it.

One of the things I enjoy about podcasts is that they allow for a more discursive format, with a slightly less formal, more conversational tone. This strength is particularly evident in the episode of Talking Indonesia when Ken Setiawan discusses her experience visiting Buru Island with her father, who was earlier held there as a political prisoner during the period under the New Order when the island acted as a prison camp. Not only was this podcast full of interesting information (I had no idea, for example, that a significant number of former prisoners decided to stay on the island even after their release; or that Jokowi recently visited Buru to laud it as an agricultural centre, but did not meet with any of the former prisoners) but also conveyed a deeply personal experience, with some of the emotional resonances delicately articulated in the conversational tone of the podcast. As Ken says during the episode, ‘the personal is political’. And the podcast format seems to convey that particularly well.

Some alternative perspectives on David Cameron’s Visit to Indonesia

David Cameron (from Wikimedia Commons, Photo by Remy Steinegger, shared under the Creative Commons Attribution/Share-Alike License)

Despite being largely ignored by the British press, there was an outpouring of comment online from Indonesians in response to David Cameron’s visit to Indonesia. An analysis of the debate reveals a mixture of pride and scepticism.

David Cameron’s visit to Indonesia on 11th April as part of his Asian tour was rather overshadowed by his trip to Burma/Myanmar. When the British press did pay attention to Indonesia, some reports stuck largely to the official line, with David Cameron highlighting the economic opportunity Indonesia represented, and treating Indonesia as an example of the possibility of the coexistence of Islam and democracy.[1] More critical accounts tended to juxtapose Cameron’s praise of Indonesian democracy with some of its problems, including oligarchic rule, corruption, limitations on religious freedom, and an unaccountable military.[2] Based on these perspectives they had rather different views on news of a deal between the Indonesian airline Garuda and Airbus and Cameron’s promotion of British arms exports to Indonesia.

So what of Indonesian perspectives? There were some efforts made in the mainstream British press to incorporate Indonesian perspectives, but these were really quite limited. The Guardian included a couple of responses from students who saw Cameron’s speech.[3] The Independent covered a speech by the Indonesian President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono in which he argued, somewhat uncomfortably for David Cameron, that in Indonesia a symbiosis of government and industry had helped recovery from economic crisis.[4] In the Guardian Deborah Orr worried about Cameron’s praise for Indonesia tainting it in the eyes of Islamic extremists.[5]

Yet although Indonesian views on Cameron’s visit were almost an afterthought in British press accounts, the proliferation of Indonesian online newspapers and the dynamism of the Indonesian blogosphere mean there is ample material available for analysis. Indeed, David Cameron’s speech at Al-Azhar university described Indonesia as ‘a country where more people use Twitter more intensively than any other nation on the planet’.[6] Those attending the speech were encouraged to ‘tweet your favourite line’.[7]

In this context, Twitter provides an interesting entry point to the wide range of responses to Cameron’s visit to Indonesia. Tweets that I came across (I translate a selection below) indicated a mixed reaction, combining pride with a decent degree of scepticism:

Public lecture by British PM David Cameron at Univeristy Al-Azhar Indonesia has finished. Knowledge he conveyed was really good

British PM David Cameron has a public lecture, issue of terrorism yet again 😐

Watching ‘stale’ lecture from Mr Cameron at Al Azhar University. #phony (gombal)

David Cameron public lecture as Al-Azhar, using lots of Indonesian in sentences praising Indonesia. When thing are complex like this have to take a subjective perspective.

British PM.. David  Cameron gives a public lecture at Al Azhar University, Jakarta @Metro TV pretty likeable.. and [in English] I’m proud of Indonesia.

There are limitations on how representative Tweeted responses will be of wider sentiment in Indonesia. Those Tweeting are likely to be younger and better off than most. However, Indonesia is full of Internet cafes (warnet) and you can get access for an hour for around the price of a glass of tea, meaning even those on modest means in urban areas can easily get online. In addition, as the speech was broadcast (with subtitles) on a national television channel, it had the potential to reach a wide audience.

Beyond Twitter, the diversity of responses also came through in the Indonesian language online press and blogosphere. Some Indonesian sources echoed Cameron’s message.[8] There was also appreciation of the ‘Indonesia mampu memimpin dunia’ (Indonesia can lead the world) motif in Cameron’s speech as well as Cameron’s care to avoid the impression that extremism was synonymous with, or exclusive to, Islam.[9]

However there was also a good amount of scepticism, expressed with a range of ways. Ismail Hasani of the Setara Institute argued in the liberal English language Jakarta Globe ‘Of course it was lip service, they know Indonesia’s reputation on human rights…  In terms of political liberties, we are doing OK, but our civil liberties are going nowhere.[10] Cynicism about Indonesian politics was sometimes combined with  a nationalist suspicion of western politicians. One blog argued that ‘‘Behind his praise, David Cameron touched on problems that may obstruct Indonesia’s development’, listing terrorism, conflict with minorities such as Ahmadiyah, human rights abuses and corruption. The blogger concluded that foreigners praise the Indonesian governmentbecause ‘it is profitable for them’.[11] One more radical blog derided Cameron as a ‘stooge (kaki tangan) of neocolonialism’ and lamented that Indonesians  ‘still inherit our genetics as slaves from our grandparents’, listening to Cameron ‘lecture’ Indonesians ‘as if he has forgotten’ that he was not leader of this country.[12] A more self-consciously Islamic response was offered by Muhammad Ismail Yusanto, spokesman for Hizbut Tahrir Indonesia. He criticised the UKs relationship with USA and involvement in foreign interventions. He also contrasted democracy as popular rule as opposed to Islam, the rule of Allah. Yet many of his points echoed other, less self-consciously Islamic critics. Yes, Yusanto conceded, there has been a transition from the Suharto era, and there are now elections, but the change that occurred has not been ‘substantial’. Corruption, social conflict, poverty, disillusionment with the legal system are moving Indonesia away from a ‘just society’. Cameron’s words were ‘empty praise’, the ‘praise of a salesman to a prospective customer’  that if not watched out for will ‘lull us all’, and ‘close our eyes to facts of a number of very striking failures’.[13]

The scholar Benedict Anderson, drawing on the words of the Filipino nationalist Jose Rizal, used the phrase ‘the spectre of comparisons’ to capture the somewhat disorientating sensation of seeing the same thing from two different perspectives: ‘simultaneously close up and from afar’. There is definitely something of this sensation in reading British and Indonesian sources on Cameron’s trip to Indonesia. However, there is also a sense of standing  amid a cacophony of sometimes mutually unintelligible voices. My aim here has been to record a bit of that cacophany.

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.

Sources of information on Ki Hajar Dewantara and the Taman Siswa

Last week I discussed some aspects of Ki Hadjar Dewantara’s life and works. This week I have collated some of the most important English language materials relating to him and the Taman Siswa movement.

The good news is that three of the most important articles can be accessed free from the Indonesia journal site:

Ruth T. McVey, Taman Siswa and the Indonesian National Awakening, Indonesia. Volume 4 (1967), 128-149. (Locates the Taman Siswa in the broader political and cultural dynamics of a developing Indonesian national consciousness.)

Ki Hadjar Dewantara, Some Aspects of National Education and the Taman Siswa Institute at Jogjakarta [a translation], Indonesia. Volume 4 (1967), 150-168. (Translation of a key work by Ki Hadjar Dewantara).

Lee Kam Hing, The Taman Siswa in Postwar Indonesia, Indonesia. Volume 25 (1978), 41-60. (Provides analysis of the Taman Siswa’s development after Independence, including the relationship between the Taman Siswa movement and the Indonesian Communist Party (PKI))

The next two articles above are not specifically about Ki Hadjar Dewantara and the Taman Siswa but give some important context, emphasising the plurality of political traditions in the archipelago and the reshaping of political traditions in different contexts.

One is available online at

Adrian Vickers “Asian Values in Indonesia? National and Regional Identities“. Sojourn: Journal of Social Issues in Southeast Asia. 26 Jan, 2012.

And an article covering some similar ground will be available through many libraries with extensive academic journal subscriptions

Anthony Reid, ‘Political “Tradition” in Indonesia: The one and the Many’, Asian Studies Review, Volume 22 (March 1998)

For those wanting to go into more depth, the following specialist texts will probably only be found in academic libraries with large Asian collections

Kenji Tsuchiya (Trans. Peter Hawkes), Democracy and Leadership: The Rise of the Taman Siswa Movement in Indonesia (Honolulu, 1987). (In depth analysis of the cultural and political context for the development of the Taman Siswa movement up to the 1930s).

Savitri Prastiti Scherer, Harmony and Dissonance: Early Nationalist thought in Java (M.A. Thesis, Cornell University) (A comparative treatment of Ki Hadjar Dewantara, Cipto Mangunkusumo, and Sutomo).