Learning about Indonesian language, history, society and culture

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.

Cartoon Villains

The heavy handed treatment of a popular cartoonist draws the world’s attention to Malaysia’s disregard for freedom of expression

Zulkiflee Anwar Ulhaque, a well-known Malaysian cartoonist better known as Zunar, faces trial for 9 offences under the Sedition Act. If convicted he faces up to 43 years in jail for posting 9 tweets criticising the decision of the Malaysian Federal Court to uphold the conviction of opposition politician Anwar Ibrahim for sodomy. A recent Human Rights Watch Report points out that this is part of a broader pattern of the ‘government’s use and abuse of a range of broad and vaguely worded laws to criminalize peaceful expression, including debates on matters of public interest… [and] a disturbing trend of abuse of the legal process…’

In Zunar’s ongoing legal battle his next day in court will be 8th December, but in the meantime there has be growing international attention on the case. Zunar has appeared on the BBC and ABC and met with elected officials in the US, UK and Australia. Zunar’s plight was again in the spotlight on 25th November when he received an International Press Freedom Award.

In addition to Zunar’s profile and personal energy, and the visual impact of his cartoons which gives his story an immediacy that appeals to the international media, an important role has been played by an international network of advocacy organisations. In addition to Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International have also taken up the case, as have Malaysian groups such as Lawyers for Liberty, and Bersih.

Yet despite this attention, Western governments been tepid in their support for human rights (and anti-corruption efforts) in Malaysia, balancing professions of concern with their pursuit of other priorities, whether the US effort to counterbalance China, or the UK’s trade and security emphasis.

As ever, Zunar skewers the hypocrisy with a caustic pen:


Fairly Prepared

The preparations for Indonesia’s turn as Guest of Honour at the Frankfurt Book Fair reflect both the excitement and frustrations of contemporary Indonesia.

This year Indonesia is to be the Guest of Honour at Frankfurt Book Fair, the largest book fair in the world. This is a great opportunity for Indonesian literature to be the centre of attention on the global stage.

For those interested in Indonesia and Indonesian literature this is an exciting time. Indonesia’s appearance at the fair is an opportunity to celebrate the cacophony of voices in Indonesian literature that have contributed to the vibrant public sphere that has emerged since the fall of Suharto’s military dictatorship.

A recent issue of the online magazine Inside Indonesia reflects this sense of excitement, as is conveyed in the subtitles of the articles it carries:

Pam Allen – Young Indonesians are leading trends in Indonesian writing and publishing

Meg Downes – ‘Fragrant literature’ is giving way to a diversity of literary voices and identities

Hendrik M.J. Maier – The story of Indonesian literature is a fragmenting journey from national myth to bewildering multiplication

Details of those attending the Book Fair suggest that at least some of this diversity will be on show. Among the list of publishers one that stood out to me was Mizan, a publisher with an Islamic slant, which has published (besides much else) some very interesting books on the relationship between Islam and Politics. Another is Marjin Kiri, a left wing publisher whose representatives seemed to have had a very productive time networking at the fair in 2014 according to their account in Indoprogress. Yet another is Lontar, who have done amazing work in translation of Indonesian literature.

However, an endeavour on this scale was never going to be free from the tensions of contemporary Indonesia. One issue has been bureaucracy, with Goenawan Mohamad, chairman of the National Committee, decrying the ‘bureaucratic absurdity in the funding system’. There has also been squabbling over the selection process for authors going to Frankfurt. The leaking of the list of authors attending, before it was announced in Indonesia, did not give the impression of smooth organisation. Moreover, whilst the official theme is ‘17,000 Islands of Imagination’ others have pointed to the stranglehold of Jakarta (and Java more widely) in the publishing industry, with one publisher lamenting the underexposure of authors from Eastern Indonesia. Yet another point of tension is the legacy of the political violence of 1965-6, with controversy over the degree of prominence given to authors of works related to these events at the fair.

However, whilst there were always going to be problems and complaints, this should not obscure the positives I mentioned above. Moreover a recent study found that only 4-5% of the poetry, fiction and drama published in the United Kingdom (my home country) was translated from another language. There is a whole other literary world out there that Britain is largely missing out on. If Indonesia’s appearance as the Guest of honour can lead to the greater dissemination and accessibility of translations of Indonesian works then it is to be celebrated.

Cruel Seas

In the past weeks the news has been full of migration ‘crises at sea’ – whether in the Mediterranean or the Rohingya in Southeast Asia. In attempting to grapple with the terrible human toll of these events, politicians and journalists have been reaching for historical precedents. The Italian Prime Minister has come under fire for calling people smugglers ‘the slave traders of the 21st century’, and the FT has argued that ‘Rohingya boat people are becoming the Jews of Asia’. Radio 4 reflected on the ambivalence of that migrant nation Australia about those seeking refuge.

By coincidence I happen to have been reading Joseph Conrad’s Typhoon, in which a storm strikes a ship under the Siamese flag, staffed by British sailors, and transporting Chinese coolie labourers returning to their homeland after ‘years of work in various tropical colonies.’ Reading the story set me thinking about the ties of power, money, hope and suffering that have stretched across the seas of Asia and Europe in this century and before, as well as the stereotyped ways in which these have been presented in the mass media. There is a sophisticated reading of the story by Douglas Kerr of the University of Hong Kong available online, drawing out various contexts and meanings to the story. However the raw text, from which I have pulled and rejigged a few quotations below, speaks powerfully for itself:

The Nan-Shan was on her way from the southward to the treaty port of Fu-chau, with some cargo in her lower holds, and two hundred Chinese coolies returning to their village homes in the province of Fo-kien, after a few years of work in various tropical colonies… every single Celestial of them was carrying with him all he had in the world—a wooden chest with a ringing lock and brass on the corners, containing the savings of his labours: some clothes of ceremony, sticks of incense, a little opium maybe, bits of nameless rubbish of conventional value, and a small hoard of silver dollars, toiled for in coal lighters, won in gambling-houses or in petty trading, grubbed out of earth, sweated out in mines, on railway lines, in deadly jungle, under heavy burdens—amassed patiently, guarded with care, cherished fiercely…


He could perfectly imagine the coolies battened down in the reeking ‘tween-deck, lying sick and scared between the rows of chests. Then one of these chests—or perhaps several at once—breaking loose in a roll, knocking out others, sides splitting, lids flying open, and all these clumsy Chinamen rising up in a body to save their property. Afterwards every fling of the ship would hurl that tramping, yelling mob here and there, from side to side, in a whirl of smashed wood, torn clothing, rolling dollars. A struggle once started, they would be unable to stop themselves. Nothing could stop them now except main force. It was a disaster. He had seen it, and that was all he could say. Some of them must be dead, he believed. The rest would go on fighting. . . .


Rancorous, guttural cries burst out loudly on their ears, and a strange panting sound, the working of all these straining breasts. A hard blow hit the side of the ship: water fell above with a stunning shock, and in the forefront of the gloom, where the air was reddish and thick, Jukes saw a head bang the deck violently, two thick calves waving on high, muscular arms twined round a naked body, a yellow-face, open-mouthed and with a set wild stare, look up and slide away. An empty chest clattered turning over; a man fell head first with a jump, as if lifted by a kick; and farther off, indistinct, others streamed like a mass of rolling stones down a bank, thumping the deck with their feet and flourishing their arms wildly. The hatchway ladder was loaded with coolies swarming on it like bees on a branch. They hung on the steps in a crawling, stirring cluster, beating madly with their fists the underside of the battened hatch, and the headlong rush of the water above was heard in the intervals of their yelling. The ship heeled over more, and they began to drop off: first one, then two, then all the rest went away together, falling straight off with a great cry…

Whilst the crew do make efforts to save them from the worst of the harm, at the same time there is a strong sense that the Chinese are viewed as somewhere between human and animals/cargo. From the reference to a Brit’s ‘racial superiority’ to the explanation that ‘Had to do what’s fair, for all—they are only Chinamen. Give them the same chance with ourselves—hang it all.’

As some of the sailors complain at one point.

What the devil did the coolies matter to anybody?

Sobering indeed.

“What the hell is the ideal Islamic woman anyway?” – Dina Torkia

This was the pointed question asked by the popular British Islamic fashion vlogger looking back on her experience taking part in World Muslimah, a global Muslim beauty pageant hosted in Jakarta and Yogyakarta, as part of a documentary for BBC3.

One such point of contestation is ideas of female modesty in Islam, with Torkia exlpaining in a Guardian interview that through the experience she had come to see ““how the hijab is worn in so many different ways based on different cultures, not religion”” One might add politics to that, with controversies about, and differing understandings of, the headscarf in Indonesia featuring in a series of articles in Inside Indonesia.

The film also raises broader issues of identity – how does a universal religion deal with cultural differences and national identities? Interestingly participating in a global Islamic event seems in some ways to heighten Dina’s sense of difference and national identity, saying:

“Our cultures are so different, and for me that makes it pretty much impossible for any competition to judge who’s a good Muslim and whose not. I’m so British next to these girls. I don’t know what it is but it’s in me. I really didn’t realise how British I am. My British side just came roaring out of nowhere.”

The Ambivalence of an Executioner

With global attention directed at Indonesia’s use of the death penalty, the Guardian carries a revealing piece about the ambivalence felt by a member of official firing squads:

“I don’t make conversation with the prisoners. I treat them like they are a member of my own family,” he explains, “I say only, ‘I’m sorry, I am just doing the job…’”

“I am bound by my oath as a soldier,” he said. “The prisoner violated the law and we are carrying out a command. We are just the executors. The question of whether it is sin or not is up to God…”

“I hope that I won’t have to keep doing this indefinitely. There are some 50 people on death row so it could be my turn to execute again,” he says. “I’m not that happy doing it … If there are other soldiers, let them do it.”

Indonesian Cartoonists Respond to Charlie Hebdo Killings

Yeksa Sarkeh Chandra, Secretary General of the Association of Indonesian Cartoonists, was quoted by the Antara news agency as saying that the organisation:

‘Strongly condemn this inhumane action… setting aside from ideology and doctrines adhered to by these cartoonist, we as Indonesian cartoonists express our condolences concerning these events.’

However the most eloquent response I have seen coming out of Indonesia is the cartoon tweeted by Indonesian cartoonist Toni Malakian, which I repost here. This adds to a worldwide response by cartoonists.



*Update May 2017, I have updated this post by linking to Toni Malakian’s cartoon from January 2016 commemorating one year since the killings. 

Studying the Indonesian Massacres of 1965-6

In a post about the film The Act of Killing I noted a range materials providing some further context for the events of 1965-6. Since then I have come across some more useful materials available online, so thought I would jot them down here for future reference.

Abstracts from a NUS event re-evaluating the 1965-6 killings

Helpful summary article on the with bibliography by Katharine McGregor

And another by John Roosa and Joseph Nevins

Online edition of Tahun Yang Tak Pernah Berkakhir (In Indonesian) (The Year That Never Ends), a collection of essays based on an oral history project carried out by the Indonesian Social History Institute (ISSI). Plus a few snippets of the content in English in Inside Indonesia.

An article by John Roosa on the use of oral history in the study of the massacres

Thesis by Andrew Marc Conroe on the social process of remembering 1965 and its aftermath.