Learning about Indonesian language, history, society and culture

Category: Reviews

Book Review: Pankaj Mishra’s From the Ruins of Empire

A recent account of anti-imperialism both intrigues and frustrates

In From the Ruins of Empire, Pankaj Mishra examines a range Asian responses to the shock induced by the integration of Asia into a political-economic system dominated by western imperialism – whether in the form of formal colonies, or informally through the forces imposition of ‘advisors’, trade agreements, indemnities or extraterritoriality.

In this he follows several thinkers, Jamal al-Din al-Afghani, Liang Qichao and Rabindranath Tagore, in their journeys (intellectual and physical) across Asia and beyond. In doing so he argues that their ‘passionate enquiries appear in retrospect as a single thread, weaving seemingly disparate events and regions into a single web of meaning’. He explores what he has elsewhere described as a ‘cosmopolitan moment’, with Asian thinkers crossing borders, borrowing, rejecting and reformulating ideas from the west and each other in an attempt to meet the political, economic and spiritual challenge posed by imperialism.

This is at once a challenge to the triumphalism of some western historians (particularly Niall Ferguson’s Empire: How Britain Made the Modern World) as well as nationalist narratives defined by the imperialism-nationalism opposition. By exploring the connections, debates and differences between the figures he examines, he demonstrates the dynamism and curiosity of thinkers in Asia as they responded to the dramatic changes in the world around them.

For someone engaged with the history of Indonesia this brought to mind the pergerakan (movement) that took shape in the Netherland Indies in the early twentieth century, where ideas about regional cultures, Islam, nationalism and communism jostled, mingled and competed.[1] The tensions Mishra examines between cosmopolitanism and nationalism can also be fruitfully explored in an Indonesian context. One might think of the very different perambulations of the radical Tan Malaka and devout Muslim and first Indonesian Foreign Minister Haji Agus Salim. Or indeed the complex international connections of Ki Hajar Dewantara who studied in the Netherlands but whose educational movement had links with the Santiniketan school founded by Tagore.

Yet although suggestive and stimulating, From the Ruins of Empire is not without its problems. Mishra sometimes makes generalisations that obscure as much as they reveal. For example, he argues that ‘The West has seen Asia through the narrow perspective of its own strategic and economic interests, leaving unexamined – and unimagined – the collective experiences and subjectivities of Asian peoples’. It is certainly true that strategic and economic imperatives have shaped perceptions of and learning about Asian societies, but this does not mean that the experiences and subjectivities of Asians have been unexamined or that narrowly strategic interests can fully explain this scholarship.[2] Mishra himself highlights on more than one occasion the links between orientalist learning and Asians’ perceptions of themselves. Moreover, the bibliography shows Mishra’s indebtedness to scholarship produced by western academia.

Some of the book’s strengths and weaknesses are exemplified by the treatment of Japanese imperial expansion. The combination of excitement and disillusionment among Asian intellectuals surrounding Japan’s rise is a salutary reminder of how news echoed around the globe, with its reverberations having a local inflection. I was reminded of certain parts of Pramoedya Ananta Toer’s novel Child of All Nations (Anak Semua Bangsa), where the protagonist, Minke, considers Japan’s expansion and growing status. When the Dutch raised the legal status of the Japanese in the Indies, he thinks ‘How proud must the Japanese be… I could only sit, mouth agape, in wonderment’.. With Japan’s victories in China ‘I had never dreamed’ that the Japanese ‘could become so highly respected among the international community of advanced nations. Their warships patrolled all the world’s waterways. The mouths of their cannons gaped out at both sky and sea. How proud any Asian would be to be so respected, never having to crawl and kowtow to some foreign power.’ However, he realises that Japan’s rise is coming at the expense of Chinese suffering: ‘What I was feeling then was that Europe had obtained its glory from swallowing up the world, and Japan from overrunning China. How strange it was if every glory was obtained only at the cost of the suffering of others.’

However, in describing the impact of the Japanese occupation of Southeast Asia, the breadth of Mishra’s brushstrokes are apparent. He emphasises the psychological impact and the loss of western prestige as important, for example citing Lee Kuan Yew as recalling ‘The scales had fallen from our eyes and we saw for ourselves that the local people could run the country’. There is certainly some truth in this, but the impact of the Japanese occupation was highly varied. For example, when Mishra quotes the Filipino ambassador announcing it was time for Filipinos to ‘discard Anglo-Saxon civilisation… and recapture their charm and original virtues as an oriental people’ this should really be contextualised. The Philippines had long been on course for independence (under American neo-colonial tutelage), had an oligarchic elite with close ties to the US both before and after the war, and had a determined anti-Japanese resistance movement. The previous quote takes on a rather different complexion when juxtaposed with the thoughts of the Filipino guerrilla leader who recalled: ‘We were pro-Filipino and definitely anti-Japanese. We just wanted the Americans to come back [so we could] win the war, and go back to college.’

In summary, From the Ruins of Empire is suggestive and stimulating but the breadth of the subject sometimes means variations and subtleties get glossed over.

[1] The sense of dynamism and fluidity is brought out wonderfully in Takashi Shiraishi’s An Age in Motion: Popular Radicalism in Java,1912-1926.

[2] David C. Engerman, ‘Social Science in the Cold War’, Isis, Vol. 101, No. 2 (June 2010), pp. 393-400.


Mochtar Lubis, Twilight in Jakarta and Indonesian Communism

The depiction of communism in Mochtar Lubis’ Twilight in Jakarta sheds light on elites’ fears during the Cold War.

I’ve been reading Twilight in Jakarta, probably Mochtar Lubis’ best known novel. The first Indonesian novel to be translated into English, it is rich in its social and political commentary on Indonesia in the 1950s. Amongst much else it tackles corruption, the plight of the urban poor, the problems of the party system, as well as regional, religious and social tensions.

The story of its publication is also interwoven with Indonesian politics. Having been arrested then held without trial in 1956, Mochtar Lubis began work on the novel in late 1958 whilst under house arrest. An English version was published in 1963 with the help of the Congress for Cultural Freedom, an international cultural organisation which received funding (at the time unbeknownst to Mochtar Lubis) from the CIA. It was not until 1970 that an Indonesian version was published.[1]

Given the Cold War dimension of the circumstances surrounding the publication of Twilight in Jakarta, its depiction of communism takes on particular resonance.

Mochtar Lubis’ anticommunism comes through in telling exchanges between the communist Achmad and the Muslim reformer Murhalim. On the one hand communism is anti-democratic, standing against the values of independent thought and expression.

‘Brother Achmad has forgotten that human beings are not machines that can be ordered to become parts of a production system… [He] wants an economic system wholly controlled by the state, one hundred percent.  Such a totalitarian system must, of necessity, control the lives and thoughts of people, because without such absolute control and authority it would be impossible to attain what brother Achmad wishes for.’[2]

However, there is a more visceral fear, a fear that hung over the politics of Southeast Asia (and beyond) throughout the Cold War. This was the fear of manipulative communists unleashing the masses in destructive, explosive fashion. Thus Achmad explains to the Muslim reformer Murhalim, as they watch a communist-orchestrated mob demonstrate:

‘Look at that.’ He [Achmad] pointed at the crowd that kept moving forwards relentlessly, like a stream of lava blazing with heat, like some howling animal pawing the ground and filling the air with frightening noises. ‘Isn’t that,’ said Achmad, ‘a beautiful sight?… Listen to what they’re shouting – “The Little People Must Eat! The Little People Must Win! Down with the Capitalists!”

Murhalim steps in to prevent the ‘half-maddened mob’ ransacking a little food stall, only to have Achmad turn the ‘half-dazed and frenzied crowd’ crowd on him. The becak (trishaw) driver who kills Murhalim is in turn shot by a policeman.[3]

The descriptions of the crowd as animal-like, frenzied, half-mad stick in my mind. They speak to deep fears among political, military and intellectual elites that help explain the ferocity of the response to communism in Indonesia in the mid-1960s. The description is all the more significant for being written by someone who, as evident in Twilight in Jakarta, was able to empathise with the plight of the urban poor and was acutely aware of many of the failings of the political system as it existed.

The bitter irony was, despite this fear of an animalistic, maddened poor being manipulated by communists, the left itself was ultimately destroyed in the most violent manner, with the massacres and mass imprisonments of 1965-6. And the military-led ‘New Order’ built upon this bloody foundation would be no more democratic than the communist rule it claimed to have prevented.

[1] The circumstances surrounding the publication of Twilight in Jakarta are detailed in David Hill’s Biography of Mochtar Lubis, Journalism and Politics in Indonesia: A Critical Biography of Mochtar Lubis (1922-2004) as Editor and Author, pp. 76-8.

[2] Twilight in Jakarta, Mochtar Lubis (trans. Claire Holt), Oxford in Asia (1983 edition), p. 54.

[3] Twilight in Jakarta, pp. 238-45

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.