Learning about Indonesian language, history, society and culture

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.

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.