Indonesia, etc

Elizabeth Pisani, Indonesia Etc: Exploring the Improbable Nation

New York & London: W.W. Norton & Company, 2014. Pp. viii, 408; maps, glossary, resources and suggestions for further reading, index.

Reviewed by Jim Della-Giacoma.

Begini, bu. Indonesia …. it’s complicated.

Early in her more-than-year-long “random sampling” of Indonesia, Elizabeth Pisani returns to the eastern island of Sumba, twenty years after her first visit. It is on this poor and remote island, the antithesis of Jakarta, that she opens Indonesia Etc. by recalling an unusual encounter two decades before. As she was walking down a dusty road, a young man invited her to meet his granny and she politely accepted. It turned out the elderly woman had died the previous day and as is the custom would be receiving guests until her funeral four days later. “Indonesia is full of such improbable moments,” she writes (page 1). This book is a collection of the best of them, gathered as its author roamed the archipelago in 2011-12 in a way everyone wishes they had time to do.

It would be easy to make much fun of such quirky encounters as the one on Sumba. While her language is often colourful, for the most part Pisani does not. While stress-tested by friendly academics to ensure she has got it right, this is not a dour book. It is her impish humour that is infused throughout that will draw readers in and keep them going. This is a page-turning story of her “Bad Boyfriend”, a country that keeps her coming back for more even though her love is often not reciprocated. As a Reuters journalist she was asked to leave by the military in 1991. A decade later, and after reformasi, she came back retrained as an epidemiologist to help the health ministry track the spread of HIV. It was “an epidemic [the ministry] would have preferred to ignore among people that it wished didn’t exist: drug injectors, transgenders, women and men who sold sex, gay men, prisoners” (page 5). Her 2008 work The Wisdom of Whores and TED Talk on this subject expose her frustration. They also show that the rational actors making evidence-based decisions are not always found in the bureaucracies of the world.

Indonesia has been thoroughly studied and dissected under a microscope by academics of all disciplines, but good popular writing on it in English is rare. This explains why Pisani can quote Lippo Group’s heir apparent John Riady as saying that “Indonesia is probably the most invisible country in the world” (page 3). For such a large and populous country, it does have an unnaturally low profile. It is a difficult place to travel and it receives far fewer visitors than English-speaking Malaysia and Singapore. It is often impenetrable and poorly marketed. Its first president Sukarno scared most of the outside world; the next five successors, including his daughter, never did a good job explaining its wonder. Soeharto was a quiet achiever who killed too many people; Habibie and Gus Dur had the flamboyance but were not in office long enough. Megawati Soekarnoputri and Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono acted more like royalty than as heads of marketing, thus allowing the brand to fade. With this book Pisani, fluent in Bahasa Indonesia and a compulsive adventurer, seeks to redress this neglect.

The author wants to make Indonesia, with all its ambiguities, accessible for novices and fresh for expert readers. She wants those who pick up the book to be amazed that this improbable nation actually works. Built through trial and error, it is underpinned by the openness, pragmatism, and relaxed attitude to life of its people. The etc in the title comes from the abbreviation used in the declaration of independence in 1945. “Matters relating to the transfer of power etc. will be executed carefully and as soon as possible,” it said of the handover from then Japanese occupiers. Pisani uses the term to suggest that Indonesia almost 70 years later remains a work in progress.

Some of what Pisani finds may well be strange enough to be thought of as fiction by the unacquainted. Parts of it read like an anthropological version of Ripping Yarns, with her most distinct characters having compelling back stories. This book is meticulously reported and written without many of clichés that stick to news dispatches from Indonesia. It is told with great fondness for the water, land and its people. As with the speechless t├кte–├а–t├кte with a decaying corpse, the author lets the living to speak for themselves; she refrains from putting words in the mouths of the dead. It is in the retelling of this meeting that the tone of the book is set, as its author embarks on the quest that covered tens of thousands of kilometres of travel across this vast archipelagic nation on planes, inter-island ferries, and motorbikes.

The journey is fuelled by curiosity. As with the invitation to meet the young man’s deceased grandparent, Pisani sets out to always say “yes”. In Sumba in 1991, she could have easily have walked on; many tourists and travellers would have not understood such an advance or rebuffed it as another scam. Had she done so, Pisani would have been ignorant of what she had just missed. It is such risk-taking and random choices that led to her being immersed deeply into the lives of strangers. She goes to previously obscure villages that only now through her writing might be introduced to Google. Her itinerary was intended to shine a light into some odd corners of the archipelago and she tries to stay a while. When she gets there she seeks to understand rather than rush to judgement, resisting the temptation to shoot at easy targets.

Pisani sets out to find the “red threads” (page 7) that hold Indonesia together, but there are two strands that are interwoven throughout her narrative and that make this book more than just a collection of short travel stories. The first is that the voices of women are strong and nuanced; her characters have real names and universal human dilemmas. The second is decentralization; it is omnipresent, and supposed to be a good thing, but is it?

This book should have long shelf life because of the quality of its storytelling. Pisani first starts to show her literary gift when she draws the reader into the lives of women. Back on Sumba, in 2011, the conversations with living grandmothers as well as their daughters and granddaughters is where the true flavor of the book first comes out. This island was chosen as her first stop because she remembered from her first visit in 1991 that it was a forgotten corner of the country, the antipodes of Jakarta. After laying down a solid foundation stone of general history in the first chapter, she heads to Nusa Tenggara Timur (NTT) province in the second. Her itinerary immediately gives the narrative the feeling of Alfred Russell Wallace’s classic The Malay Archipelago, distinguishing it from more modern worthy airport must-reads of political economy, as Adam Schwarz’s A Nation in Waiting once was. But rather than adopting Wallace’s focus on collecting flora and fauna, Pisani studies the ecosystem of people. A serial stalker, she follows people home or gets invited back; sometimes, to the reader’s benefit and her discomfort, she overstays her welcome.

Chapter by chapter this story zooms in and out as each anecdote or vignette is placed into the larger mosaic that is carefully constructed over the course of the book to describe Indonesia as it is today. Pisani talks her way into the lives of the women, seemingly by accident, but undoubtedly using something of a well-developed professional talent. It creates a bias, of sorts, as this “girl talk” is often much richer than her conversations with men.

As I sat and shelled beans, I learned that in the language of Tarung’s Loli tribe there’s one word for rice, for a machete, for a head-tie when these things are in the village, but their names change when they are taken into the forest with parties of men hunting wild boar for ritual sacrifice. The sacred spear lives in this house, the sacred gong in that. Women are allowed to weave on this veranda but not on that one. To my endless ‘Whys?’ I always got the same answer: ‘Ya, adat memang begitu’: ‘That’s our adat’. (page 65)

Her women are the keepers of the adat or traditional culture, the hubs of knowledge and wisdom in their communities. Their lives are complex social webs that thrust them into the middle of village politics and globalisation. These women are neither isolated nor powerless; finding time to listen, Pisani reveals that life has made them remarkably worldly. A jet-setting international consultant by trade, she neither pities them nor puts them on a pedestal. She reveals their thinking about the difficult choices of their lives. Mama Lina from Adonara, for example, recalls her four years as a housemaid in Malaysia, where she made good money, but prefers the “work-life balance” of being a poorly paid part-time village teacher on a small island in NTT.

As a foreign woman, Pisani is exempt from many of the usual rules that apply to her Indonesians sisters. This means that she gets to hang out with men too. Highlights include joining a male friend’s forlorn campaign for mayor of Lhokseumawe in eastern Aceh as he runs as an independent against the Partai Aceh (PA), coming fifth out of eleven candidates. “The highest of those who didn’t play money politics,” his campaign manager said encouragingly (page 245). In Jambi’s Bukit Duabelas National Park, not sharing a common language with the orang rimba or indigenous people means the stories of this community is told vividly through the two men who guide her through the destroyed forest; the jungle women, unusually for this book, just watch from the sidelines.

While following in the literary footsteps of Joseph Conrad, Francis Drake, and Wallace, Pisani’s bottom-up approach and ability to talk with almost everybody has led her to capture a part of Indonesia that is fundamentally different from that described by a seventeenth-century explorer, an eighteenth-century naturalist or a nineteenth-century seafaring novelist–or by most foreign correspondents today. The range of interactions that she has with men in this predominantly Muslim country may surprise those readers with prejudices resulting from never having visited Indonesia. It is her attitude, training and language skills that allow her to act the part required; one moment she defies her gender, and the next she’s capitalizing on it. But there are limits and sometimes the male bonding can be too close for comfort. She retracts her own invitation to go tuna fishing for four days off Sangihe Island after she thinks twice about the privations involved on a two-man boat; the suggestion from an allegedly pious PA fixer to visit a romantic hilltop also goes unrequited. A young admirer solicits her for sex at a Javanese temple with an erotic tradition; she gets thrown off the hunt for man-eating reptile by a Crocodile Whisperer who blames the foreign woman for bringing him bad luck.

Women do have some of the best lines in this book. Pisani has a knack for waiting around long enough for them to speak their minds. There she is joking with her Sumba “sisters” about how much they might earn when they “sold our girls” or negotiated their dowry (page 80). Traditional culture or adat, we are told, dictates that a daughter of a good family must be worth at last as much as her mother. The woman at the centre of this discussion, a mother of four daughters, was reputedly worth one hundred buffaloes. This would make her potentially a very rich old lady.

We all laughed, but Delsi quickly came over all sensible. ‘Actually, it’s a real headache.’ And she was right. Because really, who wants to pay one hundred long-horned buffalo for ‘modern’ girls, girls who have studied in Kupang, who read books, who think that slaughtering buffalo is a waste of capital? And yet if they don’t pull in a bride-price, the girls will be betraying the clan which supported their expensive, modern education. That would bring shame on Mama Paulina herself. (page 80)

Pisani carefully uses the words of her characters to make larger points and keep her big story on track. The dialogue, while often light and always readable, serves a higher purpose. In Delsi’s case, the author uses her intervention to illustrate what she calls the central dilemma of modernisation in collective societies: “the all-encompassing security of a shared culture gets sold off in exchange for individual fulfilment” (page 80). Life in twenty-first century Indonesia is complicated, even for those seemingly living in those parts of the archipelago that can be marketed as having the aesthetics of rural idyll. On the island of Savu, east of Sumba, Pisani stops to ask what turns out to be a deaf old woman about whether she had woven the classic flowered pattern sarong she was wearing. The unheard question is answered by her daughter.

‘What, all that tying up cotton and dropping it into colours over and over and then eventually it comes out a flower or a bird?’ she said, when I asked about ikat weaving. ‘Who has the patience for that any more?’ (page136)

Often there are no simple answers to all Pisani’s questions. For the young, the practices of adat that make such memorable photographs often pull in the opposite direction of education, economic opportunity and satellite television. “Adat is adat. What can you do?” (page 91). Pisani’s is an epic journey of limited duration, and she must not lose momentum. But many of the young people she writes about are undoubtedly going nowhere. She documents a few cases where the best and the brightest do move on, get an education or find jobs in Java. But tragedy makes for better storytelling. The tales of lives restrained by fate are more poignant parts of her narrative than the handful of success stories.

One technique Pisani uses is to go back and find people featured in her Reuters stories of two decades ago. Her reunion with Ibu Hamidah in the remote Acehnese village of Tangse, in a chapter entitled “Misfits” is a poignant example. Through this woman she first met while covering the Free Aceh Movement (Gerakan Aceh Merdeka, GAM) rebellion, we learn about two struggles: the one for independence and that of those families living with the disabled. Peace came to this remove village after the 2005 Helsinki agreement, but no resolution is in sight or support forthcoming for their personal burden. It is as much a battle against prejudice as against an ill-equipped bureaucracy.

The next day, a group of ladies were teaching me to make Acehnese cakes. [Hamidah’s daughter] Yufrida watched me trying ham-fistedly to copy their rolling and squeezing of dough, and laughed. I asked her what I was doing wrong. ‘Too thin,’ she said of my scrawny attempts. A neighbour with a face like a horse wrinkled up her long nose and spoke over Yufrida. ‘She’s handicapped,’ she said, as though this might have escaped me. ‘She has to be spoon-fed, and you think she knows how to make cakes!’ I opened my mouth to respond, but Ibu Hamidah cut in, low voiced, icy: ‘She’s not mentally handicapped.’ Horse Face looked shocked, as though the distinction between physical and mental disability was something entirely new to her. She made her excuses and left. ‘She’s not mentally handicapped,’ Hamidah repeated, as her neighbour walked out the door. (page 262)

As this name-calling shows, Pisani does not like every Indonesian she meets. The thugs, touts, and petty bureaucrats have a talent for irritating her at each stop. She encounters the mediocre, lazy, and poorly educated, who are trapped in the limbo of small towns with neither the wherewithal nor money to get on, up, or out. Decentralisation has not served those without ambition well, whereas elected officials seem to have reaped the greatest benefits. This bleak picture left me empathizing with the youth of Indonesia’s regions, even for characters that Pisani disliked. They are trapped by the system that educated them poorly as much as by their own inadequacies. Pisani should know that, as at one point she becomes a relief teacher in a Sulawesi school with almost no educators on duty. In North Maluku, she meets an angry lad whom she calls Weasel Face. He has a drinking problem and vents his frustrations with attacks on the adjacent Weda Bay Nickel operation in Lelilef. Decentralisation is making many rich, but development, even under Soeharto, also left countless others like him behind.

The boys at the dinner table were certainly engaged. The drunkest of the bunch, a lad with a weaselly face and leering eyes, complained that only the grunt work went to locals, all the good jobs, ejining, architing (he broke down on the multisyllabic words of the engineering professions) were going to outsiders. ‘That’s why I was right in there with the demos, burning the speedboats and that. We got to show them who’s boss’. I asked what skills he had. ‘Getting drunk!’ replied another of the louts. A third young man, a softly spoken lad who had been to school in Java, looked embarrassed. ‘You want good jobs and you burn speedboats. It’s just a way of shooting yourself in the foot.’ (page198)

The second red thread of Indonesia Etc is its contribution to understanding about the state of decentralisation. The country is decentralised not just politically, but ethnically, culturally, religiously, and linguistically.

Indonesia’s diversity is not just geographic and cultural; different groups are essentially living at different points in human history, all at the same time. In the early twenty-first century, some parts of the country are hyper-modern. In other areas, people spend their days much as their ancestors would have done. Often, more-or-less ancient and relatively modern coexist in the same space; farmers get to their rice-field on a motorbike, villagers film a ritual sacrifice on their mobile phones. (page 72)

In this cultural mishmash, Pisani argues, there is surprising unity. It is all held together in a way that might not be always readily apparent if viewed through the lens of one academic discipline. The glaring omissions from the book are the megacity of Jakarta, which with more than 25 million inhabitants is a country in itself, and the over-visited island of Bali that many tourists do not even know is part of Indonesia. She passes in and out of the capital and quotes Balinese friends, but the decision made to avoid them does leave two large holes. If we’re lucky, she will fill these holes in at some point in the future.

Her months of travel leave Pisani with the impression that Indonesia’s collectivism is woven through not just how clans and villages work, but through its omnipresent bureaucracy. Citizens are also united in their dislike of corruption and aversion to planning. They share a generosity of spirit and tolerance of difference that often cannot be captured in a single news report but for which room can be found in such a book as this one. In pulling this all together, Pisani relies heavily upon happy accidents. In Savu, she stops to talk with a man on the phone beside an incongruously surfaced road in the middle of the island. He was waving her down to warn her that the sealed road was about to abruptly end.

This gentleman was, it turned out, the youngest MP in the local parliament, and a member of the public works committee. He had received the project completion report for this section of road from the public works department, and had come out to have a look. He found that the contractors had grown tired of digging the drainage ditch; it ran out a hundred metres before the tarmac did. The asphalt was neither bedded nor edged. This meant that the road would slide gracefully over the side of the hill at the first real rains. ‘They may as well have just painted the dirt black,’ he said, angry. He tried his phone again, but the contractor was no longer taking his calls. (pages 137-138)

Pisani travels many roads in various states of repair, the most ironic case being the almost impassable journey to the Buton asphalt mine. With each of these journeys she reveals more about pemekaran or “blossoming”, which is the creation of new administrative areas. There are many side effects of post-Soeharto decentralisation, including the revival or reinvention of local traditions as well as the resurrection of long-dead sultanates. Decentralisation has created a “war of egos” (page 217) that means much of the needed large-scale infrastructure is never built.

Individual districts can’t afford huge investments in things like ports or railways, so they need to club together. But no bupati wants to put his own district’s money on the table for a port which provides jobs and bragging rights for some other district, and provincial governors can’t bribe them to, because they’ve got so little cash of their own to bring to the table. (page 217)

What gets constructed by pemekaran is fancy new office buildings for all these new local government officials. Funded by the centre, this flow of cash is a centripetal force holding the country together. The culture of the “project” that allows the distribution of patronage through contracts is all part of the allied effort to buy people off and co-opt them by giving them access to the teat of Jakarta money–including in Aceh and Papua, where the centrifugal forces pulling the unitary republic apart were once strongest.

[T]he integration-by-bribery makes a lot of Papuans resentful too. In the same way that a small handful of Dutch-educated Indonesians had a lock on power at independence, so a small handful of Java-educated Papuans now control most of the area’s resources. ‘There’s been a straight switch. Papua’s wealth used to be stolen by Jakarta. Now it’s stolen by the Papuan elite,’ a preacher in the Papuan capital Jayapura told me. In his view, they got away with it for two reasons. ‘One: most Papuans are so used to blaming the Javanese for everything that they don’t even look at what is really happening. Two: the elite has been very clever at co-opting anyone who might object.’ (page 234)

The spoils are something worth fighting for and they explain why elites at all levels, from national down to the village, go into debt to try to win public office. Indonesians, she writes, are unified by their dislike of corruption but those who want to get elected also share the experience of having to use the same dirty tools to compete. While her old friend in Lhokseumawe tried to run a clean campaign, not everyone does. A new acquaintance in the Gunung Kidul village of Nidoredjo outside of Yogyakarta highlights the prevalence of money politics, but also its great cost and the fact that most gambling with this tactic lose.

Pak Wardi is obviously a True Believer in the PDIP’s nationalist platform, such as it is; he was disappointed that these days voters responded to money rather than ideology. ‘The party rules don’t even allow vote-buying,’ he said. ‘But if the others all play that game, we have to play it too whether we like it or not.’ He shrugged. ‘The system is rotten through, what can you expect?’ (pages 370-371)

Failure to get elected has dire consequences for Pak Wardi and his family. He put himself in debt in the hope of gaining access to power and patronage. Instead, he lost land and status, but he was not defeated in life. After his loss at the polls, he found a job pumping petrol and started a small business. The fatalism and resilience that he represents are reflected in many of characters in this book. These are hard lives. You need friends and family to be there to catch you when you fall. There is no government safety net, although decentralized government units are trying to develop one.

At this point in the book, after her visit with Pak Wardi, Pisani could have ended her journey on a sour note. There is much cause for pessimism in what she writes, but she also resists this easy target. Her last stop is in Surabaya and Indonesia’s second city has been re-invigorated by a female mayor from Pak Wardi’s own party. It is here that the book’s threads of women and decentralisation are woven together.

It is hard for someone who has not visited Indonesia to feel the full impact of those last five words: Surabaya is virtually litter-free. It is hard, too, to explain just how pervasive garbage is in this country. It is one of the strongest red threads binding the nation, and it is woven from the detritus of the commercial brands that get micro-packaged into sachets and find their way into every kiosk in the land. (page 377)

Pisani has produced a book on Indonesia that is as fresh for the novice as for those who have a lifetime of experience in the country. The book is scheduled to be published locally by the Lontar Foundation’s English language imprint, and there is good cause to have this translated into Indonesian, as Pisani has seen more of the country than maybe 99 per cent of its citizens. There are still many “Indonesia’s” out there to get to know, but for those without the time to do it themselves, I suspect that Indonesia Etc will stand for some years as the most enjoyable quick fix. Researchers and writers are compelled to slice and dice Indonesia to fit the demands of their academic disciplines, clients’ wishes, or editors’ word limits. No doubt Pisani’s publisher cut many an anecdote in making her book a fluid read of just over 400 pages. No one publication, except maybe a census, can provide a comprehensive snapshot of a country. But sampled by serendipity, Indonesia Etc paints a rounded character of the nation within an acceptable margin of error. It is endearing and messy, and it does not always make sense. But what can you expect from 240 million people living together? ‘Ya, begitulah Indonesia, Bu!’ said the barista at the Soekarno-Hatta International Airport as Pisani heads home to write. “That’s Indonesia!”

Jim Della-Giacoma is a Visiting Fellow in the Department of Political and Social Change, School of International, Political, and Strategic Studies, ANU College of Asia and the Pacific.


Pisani, Elizabeth. The Wisdom of Whores: Bureaucrats, Brothels and the Business of AIDS. London & New York: Granta and W. W. Norton, 2008.

Schwarz, Adam. A Nation in Waiting: Indonesia in the 1990s. Boulder: Westview Press, 1994.

Wallace, Alfred Russell. The Malay Archipelago: The land of the orang-utan, and the bird of paradise. A narrative of travel, with sketches of man and nature. London: Macmillan, 1869.