Learning about Indonesian language, history, society and culture

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Tan Malaka – Read All About Him!

Tan Malaka BooksThe Tan Malaka publishing industry seems undeterred by a flare up in anticommunist rhetoric

It is now just over a month since this year’s anniversary of the 30th September Affair, an abortive coup attempt carried out in 1965, it seems, by a group of military officers working with the leader of the Indonesian Communist Party (PKI) via trusted intermediaries. (Precise responsibility for the event is still hotly contested, but the above summary very crudely reflects the important analysis carried out by John Roosa; the Indonesian version of his book on the Affair can be downloaded for free at his blog).

As often happens around this time of year, the anniversary has seen an uptick in anti-communist rhetoric, this time compounded by political manoeuvring. It peaked with an ugly scene that saw a violent crowd gather and surround the building of the Legal Aid Foundation, where an event was being held that was supposedly about the PKI. Tear gas and a water cannon were needed to clear the protesters.

Yet whilst the anti-communist posturing has been ramped up, one can still find books relating to communism in some book stores. In particular, the image taken here is a recent photo from  a popular book shop and shows a series of books by or about the revolutionary (and at one time leader of the PKI, although he later fell out with the party) Tan Malaka.

The presence of these books points to the complex position of Tan Malaka in Indonesian history. His early break with the PKI, and his premature death in 1949 meant that he was distanced from the most controversial events that have become totemic in Indonesian political discourse about Indonesian communism’s alleged treachery: the Madiun Affair of 1948 and the September 30th Affair mentioned above. Indeed Tan Malaka was made an official National Hero in 1963.

Yet even the factors mentioned above could not free him from the taint of communism under the ferociously anti-communist New Order military regime that emerged in the wake of the 30th September Affair, and he was effectively un-made a National Hero, being removed from the National Heroes Biography Book used in schools (this point is made by Asvi Warman Adam in his essay ‘History, Nationalism and Power’ in Vedi R. Hadiz & Daniel Dhakidae)(ed.), Social Science and Power in Indonesia).

Since the fall of the New Order, the situation has become more complex. Tan Malaka now has his place on the official website of the Heroes Centre (under the auspices of the wonderfully named Directorate of Heroism, Pathbreaking, Comradeship and Social Restoration).

This is not to say that Tan Malaka’s status is uncontroversial: there has been continued debate about how he should be viewed and whether he should be a National Hero. Indeed, in 2016 an show about Tan Malaka was cancelled following pressure from the easily angered Islamic Defenders Front. Yet, as my recent book shop visit shows, Tan Malaka’s voice cannot be silenced that easily.


If you thought your viva was stressful, think again…

For a PhD student, the viva can elicit strong emotions.

A quick scan of online forums gives a taster, with one postgraduate student posting ‘I have my viva… and I feel physically sick’ and another that ‘I’m experiencing a really quite overwhelming fear over my PhD viva’.

However, if you are getting tense about your viva, spare a thought for Ali Sastroamijoyo. The future two time Prime Minister of Indonesia was, in the late 1920s, studying for a law degree in the Netherlands. He was also a political prisoner, having been arrested for activities related to his involvement in the Indonesia Association (Perhimpunan Indonesia). Yet this did not stop him sitting his oral examination. He describes the occasion in his memoirs, Milestones on My Journey: The Memoirs of Ali Sastroamijoyo, Indonesian Patriot and Political Leader.  The account is remarkable, bringing into stark relief the scholarly discussion of legal theory with the stark realities of colonial repression. Yet it is also remarkable for the impression that it gives, that the oral examination created an anxiety that seemed in some ways to exceed his concern about the prospect of a lengthy jail term:

On the morning of the examination I was taken to Leiden, accompanied by two members of the secret police, in a prison vehicle. When we arrived, the two guards and I went in through a back door into the basement of the university in Rapenburg, from where we went straight to the “sweating chamber”, a room near the examination room, where behind a green table the Faculty of Law professors who were concerned with “the Law of the Dutch East Indies” were already seated. All the professors who were at that time famous in Holland were there: Professor C. van Vollenhoven, Professor Hazeu, Professor Andre de la Porte, and Professor Scheltema. University examinations of this type were usually open to the interested public, who would be seated behind the candidate being examined. But in my case nobody was allowed to be present except for two secret police who were guarding me.

For approximately two hours I had to answer the questions put to me by the professors. I must explain here that from the questions and attitudes of the professors one could not even get the slightest indication that my status at that time was that of a political detainee. Their attitudes and actions were completely scholarly. This calmed me down a great deal and enabled me to concentrate completely on the examination. I forgot all about other things, I no longer felt even the watchful eyes of the two guards at my back. Without my being aware of it the examination passed quickly. I was asked to wait outside the examination room in order to give the professors an opportunity to make their decision. After a short wait, I was asked to come back in again, and the president of the faculty announced that I had passed and qualified for the degree of master of laws. I was filled with a feeling of relief, and full of sincerity I gave thanks to God. Now I would be able to concentrate more calmly on the accusations made against the four of us, and I felt as if I did not care whether I would be sentences to a number of years in prison as a result.

Stop Throwing Around the Label ‘the Donald Trump of…’


Calling other politicians ‘the Donald Trump of…’ obscures more than it clarifies

Since the election of Donald Trump, there has been a tendency in certain parts of the media to label anyone with the most superficial similarity with the US President as ‘the Donald Trump of…’. It has been used in the context of Europe, the Philippines, and Guatamala, to name but a few cases. Yesterday the BBC ran with a story Meet the Donald Trump of Indonesia about Indonesian businessman and politician Hary Tanoesoedibjo (often known in Indonesia as Hary Tanoe). This kind of analysis is really not helpful.

The point I am trying to make is not that Hary Tanoe has no connection to Trump. The BBC story details Hary Tanoe’s dealings with Trump, as a business partner and guest at Trump’s inauguration. A more nuanced story for the Financial Times points out certain parallels between the two men:

Both are aggressive dealmakers who express admiration for Russia’s Vladimir Putin; have run beauty pageants alongside their glamorous wives; and seek to marry business acumen with political power.

Yet this by no means makes Hary Tanoe ‘the Donald Trump of Indonesia’. An obvious difference is that Hary Tanoe is from an ethnic and religious minority, being Chinese-Indonesian and a Christian. There is a certain irony in likening him to Donald Trump given this given Trump’s history of discrimination against minority groups.

This points to another flaw in the BBC analysis, which describes Hary Tanoe as ‘known for his forthright and straightforward views’. Although outspoken in some regards, being a public figure from a minority background involves a challenging balancing act. Hary Tanoe’s visits to Islamic religious sites and establishments are well publicised, as are his links to the family of the late Abdurrahman Wahid, former President and leader of Indonesia’s largest Islamic organisation. He has also backed Anies Baswedan in the race for Jakarta governor. Anies Baswedan, formerly seen as a proponent of religious tolerance, has cosied up to the hardline Islamic group that has been at the forefront of an attempt to press blasphemy charges against the current governor, Basuki Tjahaja Purnama (often known as Ahok), who is Chinese-Indonesian and Christian. Earlier Hari Tanoe had expressed support for the police announcing Ahok was a suspect in the blasphemy case.

The above goes to show that Hary Tanoe must be understood on his own terms, in a particular context. It is over 60 years since the historian (and former colonial official) DGE Hall argued for seeing Southeast Asia as ‘worthy of consideration in its own right’ (though as has been argued, Hall did not necessarily follow his own advice). It is a shame that the argument still needs to be made.

All this is not to say that the comparative study of populism is not valuable, if one fully engages with the methodological and conceptual challenges such an enquiry poses. But to just call someone else ‘the Donald Trump of…’ is lazy and unhelpful.



The 1%

It is not exactly a cheery note to end the year with, but during my holiday I was listening to some back episodes of the podcast Talking Indonesia and was particularly struck by a statistic quoted by Dr Matthew Wai-Poi from the World Bank, in an episode about inequality in Indonesia. Based on a 2014 study it was estimated that the richest 1% of households owned 50% of wealth in Indonesia, one of the highest rates for any country where data was available. The report is available here and the relevant chart is on page 18 (using the report’s pagination).

Peaceful Indonesia?

A divisive campaign against the Jakarta Governor misappropriates the language of peace and unity

The ongoing efforts to have Basuki Tjahaja Purnama (also known as Ahok), the Christian Governor of Jakarta, prosecuted under Indonesia’s blasphemy law have a noticeable element of doublespeak to them.

Without going into the ins and outs of the case and the social and political dynamics behind it (these have been explored in a series of articles on New Mandala, for example), in this post I want to zoom in on one aspect, the inherent contradictions of mobilising the language of peace and unity whilst using divisive and inflammatory rhetoric. To take a specific instance, I have in mind the sermon of Muhammad Rizieq Shihab (also known as Habib Rizieq) at the mass rally held on 2nd December in Jakarta in support of the prosecution of Ahok.

It is a remarkable speech, both for the contradictions raised above and the fiery manner of delivery. It is available on Youtube (the below section starts at 31 minutes 45 seconds into the clip, and it is well worth hearing that section of the clip to get a sense of the tone). In it he calls for the whole country to submit to the Quran, and calls for the upholding of Surah Al-Maidah 51. It was Ahok’s statement about the alleged misuse of this Surah (he complained that some people were misleadingly saying that it meant that Muslims should not vote for him as a Christian) that is at the centre of the controversy. What’s more, whilst calling for peace and unity Habib Rizieq inveighs against liberals, sinners, ‘deviant sects’ (aliran sesat) and the LGBT community. So much for peace and unity.

‘…our struggle is not only to have Ahok detained or imprisoned, but must be more than that. Surah al-Maidah must be upheld in Indonesia, must be enacted in Indonesia. A country where the majority are Muslims, must submit to the noble Quran. There must not obstruction to the application of Surah Al-Maidah 51, brothers and sisters. We ask Allah that our steps in the future will be more steadfast, our unity will be stronger in upholding Allah’s law in Indonesia, this mother land of ours that we love. So let us defend religion, let us defend the country, let us protect Islam, let us protect the Unitary State of the Republic of Indonesia. Let us, brothers and sisters, let us respect all religious groups, it can’t be allowed that there is mutual insulting or abuse. Brothers and sisters, Indonesia is peaceful without the insulting of religion, Indonesia is peaceful without deviant sects, Indonesia is peaceful without liberalism, Indonesia is peaceful, brothers and sisters, without LGBT, Indonesia is peaceful without disobedience to God and sin.’

A transcription of the relevant section in Indonesian can be found below:

‘…perjuangan kita tidak hanya sampai kepada Ahok ditahan atau dipenjara tetapi harus lebih dari itu. Surat al-Maidah 51 harus diteggakan di bumi Indonesia, harus diperlakukan di bumi Indonesia. Bumi yang berpenduduk mayoritas Muslim harus tunduk kepada al-Quran al-Karim. Nggak boleh ada lagi yang halangi untuk menerapkan surat al-Maida 51, saudara. Kita mohon kepada Allah semoga ke depan langkah kita makin mantap, persatuan kita makin kuat untuk menegakkan hukum Allah di bumi Indonesia, bumi pertiwi yang kita cinta ini. Mari kita bela agama, mari kita bela negara, mari kita jaga Islam, mari kita jaga NKRI. Mari, saudara, kita hormati semua umat beragama. Tidak boleh kita saling mencaci atau mencerca. Saudara, Indonesia damai tanpa penistaan agama, Indonesia damai tanpa liberalism, Indonesia damai tanpa aliran sesat, Indonesia damai saudara, tanpa LGBT, Indonesia damai tanpa kemungkaran dan kemaksiatan…’


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.

Taking a Wider View on Corruption in Indonesia

Given the seemingly unending series of corruption scandals covered by the Indonesian press, it is easy to lose site of the bigger picture of corruption in Indonesia. That is why I was particularly interested to read the following articles by Jeremy Mulholland that look at the history of the KPK (Corruption Eradication Commission):

Particularly striking is the account of the constraints placed on the organisation by those at the centre of power, anxious to avoid family and allies being implicated by the KPK.

One section that sticks in the mind is the argument that:

‘the best analogy for KPK’s evolution and its relationship with successive presidents is Megawati as a mother who never wanted the ‘child’ (read- KPK), SBY as an abusive stepfather who lived through his child’s achievements, and Jokowi as the estranged and feeble uncle.’

Somber reading for those concerned with clean govenment in Indonesia (and judging by the polls that includes the vast majority of Indonesians).

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.

Indonesia by Numbers (with some help from The Economist)

I feel ambivalent about The Economist, but one thing I admire is its ability to condense lots of information into very succinct articles. What’s more, it has just published a special report on Indonesia. Given it’s penchant for statistics and concision, I hope  The Economist will forgive the below, where I have cherry-picked the most illuminating statistics from its special report to present Indonesia by Numbers:

255 million – Indonesia’s population

½ – proportion of the population under 30

2/5 – proportion of the population with a smartphone

41.2m rupiah – GDP per person per year in Jakarta

2.8m rupiah – GDP per person per year in Maluku

109 out of 189 – Indonesia’s rank on the World Bank’s Ease of Doing Business index

88 out of 168 – Indonesia’s rank on Transparency International’s Corruption Perception Index

60% – approximate proportion of Indonesia’s Exports that are commodities

$100 per tonne – drop in the value of coal since 2011 (when it cost $150 per tonne)

30% – drop in the value of the rupiah vs the dollar since mid-2013

26% – public debt as proportion of GDP (George Osborne eat your heart out!)

27m – number of registered taxpayers

10% – approximate tax revenue as proportion of GDP (again George Osborne eat your heart out!)

27% – estimated logistics costs as proportion of GDP

65 – number of planned dams (16 of which are under construction)

$23.1 billion – estimated cost of Trans-Sumatra toll road

2m hectares – conservative estimate of forest area burnt in in 2015

18.5m hectares – reduction in tree covered areas between 2001 and 2014

26 – number of online comments on The Economist’s leader article about Indonesia at time of writing

2031 – number of online comments on The Economist’s leader article about Donald Trump at time of writing

Indonesian Voices on the Massacres of 1965-6


A remarkable collection of Indonesian perspectives on the 1965-6 massacres in Indonesia is now freely available in English, collected in a special edition of the Bhinneka magazine.

The editor is the equally remarkable Soe Tjen Marching, whose personal experiences are also touched on in an Al-Jazeera article.