Current Edition Sun, 20 Apr 2014 17:43:28 GMT FeedCreator 1.8.0-dev ( Cosmopolitan Indonesia Cosmopolitanism is a magnificent ideal for a world torn by divisions and it exists in Indonesia in some surprising places. But how deep does and can it go?

Gerry van Klinken

Image 1 - Affandi  Self portrait with pipeAffandi, "Self Portrait with pipe", 1977 – Affandi Museum, Yogyakarta

‘Outside Indonesia’ – that could be the title of this edition. Cosmopolitanism is the idea that human beings belong to a single community and share a common morality. Its attractiveness grows when chauvinistic nationalism or traditional religion is at its most damaging. But an ideal is one thing, reality another. As for ‘actually existing socialism’, we might ask: what does ‘actually existing cosmopolitanism’ look like? This edition of Inside Indonesia aims to find out.

Readers of Inside Indonesia might be forgiven for thinking there are no cosmopolitans in Indonesia. Not just because we often write about the most un-cosmopolitan Indonesians – such as Islamic Defenders Front (FPI) thugs attacking non-Sunni Muslims or human rights activists. But also because we have often portrayed ‘real’ Indonesians as being ‘inside’ Indonesia, living out their unique culture. Rarely have we highlighted Indonesians who travel and learn - transnational activists; wealthy Indonesian entrepreneurs living in Los Angeles; cruise ship crewmembers; or even villagers who watch foreign TV.

Besides celebrating surprisingly cosmopolitan Indonesians, this edition also asks some uncomfortable questions. Isn’t cosmopolitanism just another word for globalisation and westernisation? Aren’t cosmopolitans simply members of a globalised upper-class, out of touch with their less fortunate fellows tied to a workshop and a piece of dirt? What does ‘solidarity’ mean to the cosmopolitan? Is it even possible for an artist to be both Indonesian and cosmopolitan?

As this edition emerged from the usual chaos of great ideas squeezed between busy schedules, it became clear to me the answers were not straightforward. David Reeve is impressed with the self-confidence of Indonesian over-achievers in Germany, Japan or Australia. For them, the world is their opportunity. They want some respect in Indonesia but don’t want to give up their citizenship elsewhere. Alexandra Crosby’s interview with the footloose media activist Enrico Aditjondro similarly depicts someone who no longer knows what ‘being Indonesian’ feels like, ‘because there’s always something you miss elsewhere.’ Land rights activists can be just as much ‘brothers and sisters’ if they are in Cambodia as in Papua. He admires friends who practise religion in the plural.

So far so good. But then we learn that it is precisely this easy familiarity with different religions that disturbs the rural religious teachers about whom Julian Millie writes. They regard urban cosmopolitans with distaste. They don’t mind living with people whose convictions differ, but the idea that there can really be more than one religious truth is a horror. Cosmopolitan intellectuals and rural religious elites call each other names. Julian Millie wants to break through with some creative dialogue.

Michele Ford and Lenore Lyon suggest in their piece on the residents of Batam Island that such a dialogue might in fact be possible, even for working and lower middle-class Indonesians. Borders mean little when they find it easier to travel to Singapore than to other parts of Indonesia. Dockside sex workers and hustlers, traders, and housewives know pretty well how Singaporeans live, even if they don’t necessarily want to imitate them. On the other hand, travel does not always broaden the mind, as Pam Nilan and Luh Putu Artini show in their article on exploited Indonesian cruise ship workers. Young Indonesians dream of seeing the world when they sign up. But years of backbreaking, humiliating work later they often return to their village not one iota richer, whether in their bank accounts or in their minds.

Sue Ingham’s thoughtful essay on the Indonesian artists who exhibit at the world’s biggest contemporary art show sums up the central dilemma well. The art they showed at the Venice Biennale was presumed to represent Indonesia. But how could it communicate across international borders and still remain true to a realistic interpretation of home at the same time?

In asking such questions, this edition of Inside Indonesia ultimately confronts us, as readers, with ourselves. Who are we, and what does Indonesia mean to us?

Gerry van Klinken ( is senior researcher at the Royal Netherlands Institute of Southeast Asian and Caribbean Studies (KITLV) in Leiden, and Southeast Asian history professor at the University of Amsterdam.

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]]> (Gerry van Klinken) Mon, 27 Jan 2014 08:54:33 GMT
Defining the Nation? Indonesia at the Venice Biennale, 2013

Sue Ingham

Image 2 - Heri Dono at home detailHeri Dono with his work, "Watching the Marginalised People"

Indonesia’s participation in the Venice Biennale in 2013 sought a place for Indonesian contemporary art within the international dialogue of cosmopolitan art exhibitions. The Indonesian pavilion proved to be popular with visitors and was deemed a success. Yet the works were supposedly representing Indonesia raised difficult issues of identity.

In simple terms, cosmopolitanism means being ‘a citizen of the world’, exchanging ideas and sharing values. Yet closely associated with this concept is another term, globalisation, which can have a darker side. As with economic globalisation, developments in technology and communication have influenced the visual arts and internationalised the exhibition and sale of art. Art practitioners, theorists and institutions have expanded their networks and influenced each other, creating an international language of art now called ‘contemporary’. Indonesian artists have shown they are familiar with the forms of international exhibitions and have worked with performance, installation and other contemporary media. Their works share a number of concerns with the rest of the world, such as damage to the environment, violence and discrimination against minorities. If, on the one hand, Indonesian contemporary art is similar to international art in both form and content, how is a sense of local identity retained? On the other hand, if artists simply apply traditional and familiar forms such as wayang puppets or Balinese dancers as symbols of being Indonesian, they ignore the complex issues of living in the modern society that is Indonesia today. To negotiate cosmopolitan art circles and find a voice in the dominant global art dialogue, Indonesian artists needed to find ways of expressing their local experience without the use of trite symbols.

Venice Biennale

The Venice Biennale was the first regular survey of international contemporary art. The City of Venice chose the Biennale in 1895 as a ceremony to mark the historic unification of Italy and the Biennale continued in order to raise the profile of the city, attract tourists and finance restoration projects. Venice has become the template for the international exhibitions, biennales and triennials that are so prevalent today. They tend to share similar aims, such as international recognition for their culture and to stimulate economic and diplomatic ties, while participating artists gain exposure and validation of their work.

Belated recognition

Awareness of modern and contemporary art inside Indonesia had been slow in coming. The Suharto regime suppressed cultural experimentation and favoured the traditional arts, considered of greater value for tourism and commercial purposes. Indonesian participation in the Venice Biennale was rare before the end of the 20th century. But the Eurocentrism of the Biennale itself was a contributing factor and even though Asian art is now regularly exhibited, the majority of the national pavilions in the Giardini, the Venetian public gardens used for the Biennale, are still European. Before the 1990s, Affandi was the only Indonesian modern artist to achieve true international recognition. In 1954 he was invited to participate in the Venice Biennale where he was awarded a prize. It was to be nearly fifty years before another Indonesian artist was invited again.

Image 1 - Affandi  Self portrait with pipeAffandi, "Self Portrait with pipe", 1977 – Affandi Museum, Yogyakarta


In 2003 the Biennale Director, Francesco Bonami, and the Curator, Hou Hanru, invited Heri Dono to participate in the section titled Z.O.U. or Zone of Urgency for the 50th Biennale of Venice. By then Heri Dono had established a career as a globetrotting contemporary artist, the first of his generation to do so. His career began in 1990 with an opportune residency in Switzerland, when there was little outlet for his work in Indonesia. This was followed by residencies in Britain, Australia and other countries. He became the epitome of the cosmopolitan artist, with the skills to navigate the requirements of international shows, such as speaking English, the language of globalisation, and being able to address a curatorial brief.

While biennales favour local identity and the exhibition of art according to the country of origin, there is a contradictory pressure to have works conform to a universal standard of contemporary art. Heri’s work seems to have found a precious balance between local identity and the language of global art by addressing an international issue while retaining an Indonesian point of view. His work in the 50th Biennale of Venice was titled Trojan Cow and was a mixed media painting beside a large cow-puppet. The painting depicted George W. Bush as Superman in cowboy gear alongside Tony Blair as Batman shooting at an oil can with Saddam Hussein’s head on it. It was presented as a shadow play drama performed for the people, here represented by the dumb cow. Heri disguised his criticism of the invasion of Iraq with humour, using a surreal combination of Indonesian wayang figures and internationally-known comic strip characters. The hybrid references are a bitter joke, a technique to express the unpopularity of the actions of the international powers, but doing so in a very Javanese way that avoids confrontation and conflict.


While Heri was invited by the Biennale organisers and exhibited in the Arsenale, one of the official exhibition areas, another group of Indonesian artists were mounting an exhibition at a venue elsewhere in the city. Since the late 1990s some Indonesian artists had been participating in a few of the many independent satellite events that accompany the Biennale. Most were privately initiated and largely self-funded with little, if any, assistance from the Indonesian government. According to the curator of this 2003 satellite exhibition, Amir Sidharta, the Indonesian Ministry of Tourism and Culture was enthusiastic when approached and agreed to provide the airfares for exhibiting artists. But somehow the money ‘disappeared.’ Some artists withdrew, including Mella Jaarsma, and those who attended had to fund themselves or organise sponsorship. Arahmaiani, for example, was funded by the Ochs and Preuss gallery that represented her in Berlin. This has remained the pattern for Indonesian art in international exhibitions - exposure overseas is nearly always the result of individual effort and private sponsorship, not government support.

In 2013 Indonesia, as a country, was invited for the first time by the Biennale Foundation to mount a national pavilion in the Arsenale. It was a significant step, but once again initiated by private sponsorship. The driving energies behind the project were Restu Imansari Kusumaningrum, director of the arts consultancy Bumi Purnati Indonesia, and Carla Bianpoen, an independent art journalist. Carla co-curated the exhibition with Rifky Effendy, an independent curator, and they were assisted by a number of Indonesian as well as Italian advisors. It was a long and arduous process to convince the Indonesian government that it was important Indonesia be represented in Venice. The Ministry for Tourism and the Creative Economy eventually allocated money for the rent of the Arsenale space, the first serious funding involvement by the government. But rent is a small portion of the budget and funding for the project has remained a major problem.


Five visual artists - Albert Yonathan Setyawan, Sri Astari Rasjid, Eko Nugroho, Entang Wiharso, Titarubi - and the musician Rahayu Supanggah were selected to mount works in the pavilion around the central theme of Sakti. Sakti is a traditional Hindu concept of regeneration and female creative energy that, according to the curatorial essay, had a contemporary meaning in ‘the creative struggle inherent in Indonesian art and life’. Themes are considered necessary to connect disparate works and gain support for such projects. But the concept that Indonesia’s ‘rich cultural heritage’ would be given meaning in ‘contemporary art practice’ as also stated by the curators, met with varying degrees of success. Some of the works derived a sense of Indonesian identity from traditional references to temples and the Queen of the South Seas while other works belonged almost entirely to the vocabulary of international art with barely a recognisable Indonesian reference, apart from the notes accompanying them.

3 inghamIn Venice: L – R: Albert Yonathan, Sri Astari, Carla Boenpoen, Achille Bonito Oliva, who was a consultant, amongst others, for the pavilion, Rifky Effendy, Titarubi and Entang Wiharso.
4 inghamSAKTI, Indonesia National Pavilion, ARSENALE, 55th International Exhibition, La Biennale de Venezia

A comparison of the works by two of the artists, both women, illustrates the push and pull between local identity and global community. One work used only traditional forms while the other was ‘biennale art’ in which it was difficult to detect any particular Indonesian reference at all. In Astari Rashid’s installation, Pendopo: Dancing the Wild Sea, the Bed Oyo dancers at the entrance to the Javanese pendopo house are decorative, ethnographic objects. They are supposed to refer to the Queen of the South Seas and illustrate Sakti, the female power, but it is difficult to detect any transformation of tradition into contemporary meaning. The dancers remain conventional symbols of Indonesian culture and static signifiers of Indonesian identity.

On the other hand, Titarubi in her installation, The Shadow of Surrender, worked entirely with the forms and content familiar to international audiences. Her artist’s statement claimed that the benches made from burnt wood with overly large blank books are a reference to her experience at school while the large charcoal drawings of a burnt forest on the walls referred to environmental damage. These forms and their meaning are so familiar that they can be found elsewhere in this same Biennale. A Costa Rican artist used desks, and books were used by a Brazilian. If Titan is referring to a contemporary Indonesian experience, it is lost in the all-too-familiar forms of installation art in international exhibition.

5 inghamAstari Rashid, “Pendopo: Dancing the Wild Sea”

Image 6 - Titarubi IMG 7996Titarubi, "Shadow of Surrender"

Albert Yonathan Setyawan Cosmic Labyrinth: The Silent Path was another installation, consisting of a thousand ceramic stupas laid out in a shape reminiscent of Borobudur. The curatorial essay states that the work was ‘inspired by other houses of prayer’ and ‘reflected the plurality of Indonesian society throughout the ages.’ But this is not apparent in the work. The forms are well-known references to Javanese temples and, with the very familiar form of repeated shapes laid out in a pattern, the work is designed for an international biennale audience.

Eko Nugroho’s bamboo raft, Penghasut Badai-Badai (Instigator of Storms), was perhaps the most transgressive work in the Indonesian pavilion. It is claimed that the figures on the raft symbolise the ability of the Indonesian people to survive amidst overwhelming political, social and religious challenges, and that this is a ‘feat of Sakti’. But the use of old oil barrels with fantastical figures and shapes stems more from Eko’s surreal comic strips than suggesting uplifting creativity. There is a cynicism and a challenge in this work that is incompatible with the benign and spiritual theme.

7 inghamAlbert Yonathan Setyawan, “Cosmic Labyrinth: The Silent Path”
Image 8 - Penghasut-Badai-Badai-625x3901Eko Nugroho, "Penghasut Badai-Badai (Instigator of Storms)"
9a inghamEntang Wiharso, “The Indonesian: No Time to Hide”
9b inghamDetail of Entang Wiharso, “The Indonesian: No Time to Hide”

Contemporary meaning

Of all the works, Entang Wiharso’s The Indonesian: No Time to Hide, successfully draws on the traditions of the past to comment on contemporary life in Indonesia. Entang’s work references the narrative reliefs on Hindu temples such as Prambanan in Central Java but inserts contemporary relationships and disturbing meanings in what look like traditional forms. A wall of reliefs surrounds four of the installations intersected by an entrance gateway into the exhibition. Outside the wall are the figures of past and present presidents of Indonesia seated at a table, one abject figure lying across the table from them. At the gate a male and female nude face one another under an inscription that reads ‘Your perception is not my reality’. Are they Adam and Eve? Questions are raised by all of the figures in the relief. They appear to represent love, deceit, politics and history but with unexpected changes of scale and eruptions of organic shapes. The meaning is obscure and if the reference is to mythology, these are myths with a contemporary connotation. Even the medium is contradictory. The work has the impressive scale and solemnity of metal yet is not as solid as the bronze, aluminium and graphite construction implies. Volcanic ash has been incorporated into it, perhaps from the eruption of Mount Merapi outside Yogyakarta in 2010, which could be a suggestion of potential violence. This is an ambitious work from a sophisticated artist who can blend personal meaning and contemporary Indonesian references in an installation that is understood as a part of an international dialogue.

The pavilion was ‘staged’ with gamelan music by Rahayu Supanggah and dramatic lighting effects. Overall, the Indonesian pavilion held its own among the many installations and national pavilions of the Biennale. This was the primary aim of the curators: to show that Indonesia could take its place ‘on the global map’ and ‘that the world would take due note’, as Carla Bianpoen wrote. But as Alia Swastika asked in her review in the Jakarta Globe, ‘should Indonesian art be reduced to nostalgic symbols rather than offering a critical perspective on the current national and even international situation’? National identity remains one of the many issues that surround biennales. But to address that issue in some meaningful way, a work should also engage the viewer at a personal and subconscious level - and this is rare.

Sue Ingham obtained her PhD from the University of NSW College of Fine Arts in 2008 on Indonesian contemporary art. Her website presents her research material and current events. Images of the Indonesian pavilion at the Venice Biennale were provided by Bumi Purnati Indonesia.

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]]> (Sue Ingham) Mon, 27 Jan 2014 05:11:22 GMT
Subaltern cosmopolitans Riau Islanders prove you don’t have to be rich, or even mobile, to be a citizen of the world

Michele Ford and Lenore Lyons

Ford Lyons smallRiau Islanders are outward looking - Henri Ismail

When people think of cosmopolitans, they think of jet-setting elites or the chattering classes, flitting between countries and consuming the ‘global’ through food, film and other aspects of their privileged lives. But not all cosmopolitans are rich or educated. In fact, some of them don’t ever leave home.

Riau Islanders living in Tanjung Pinang, Tanjung Balai Karimun or anywhere on Batam Island do not need to cross an international border to connect with Malaysia and Singapore. Whether or not they choose or can afford to travel there, the visibility of Singaporeans and Malaysians in their towns, in their newspapers, and on television – plus the very proximity of Singapore and Malaysia – make those places seem easy to know. Some Riau Islanders even set their clocks on Singapore time.

Everywhere in Indonesia people are now far more exposed to ‘the world’ than they have ever been. Mobile phones, the internet and cable TV may not have touched all Indonesians directly, but their influence has spread to all but the most isolated parts of the archipelago. But exposure is different from mind-set. Riau Islanders are set apart from other working and lower-middle class Indonesians by their deep familiarity with life outside Indonesia, and what this familiarity brings.

Living on the edge

The special character of islander life emerged in a context where travel to other parts of Indonesia was for many decades relatively rare. The tyranny of distance has lessened with the advent of cheaper airfares, but many still rely on boats for travel in the islands.

The sea journey to other parts of Indonesia is time-consuming and arduous. The trip from Tanjung Pinang to Pekanbaru in mainland Sumatra takes three days and two nights, or several hours by boat to the mainland port of Dumai followed by several more overland. It is much easier to get to Singapore or Malaysia. The journey from Batam or the northern ports of Bintan to Singapore by ferry is less than an hour. It’s just as fast for people living in Tanjung Balai Karimun to get to Malaysia.

Ferries from Karimun to Singapore and Malaysia are cheaper and faster than the inter-island ferry to Tanjung Pinang. As long as travellers make a day trip or can stay with friends or relatives, these countries are more accessible physically – and even financially – than a trip to the provincial capital of the islands.

What’s more, it’s been this way for a long time. Until relatively recently, Riau Islanders travelling to Singapore or Malaysia didn’t even need a passport. Before that, they could move back and forth across the straits as easily as to any nearby Indonesian island.

Experiencing the other

The cross-straits connections that Riau Islanders have forged and the constant flows of peoples and goods across the border have created a way of life that is different to that which Riau Islanders imagine other Indonesians experience. There is good reason for this belief. At a time when mainland Sumatra didn’t even have electricity, people in Tanjung Pinang were watching Singaporean TV. The difference in lifestyles was so marked that when one man we know moved from Tanjung Pinang to Pekanbaru as a child in the mid-1970s he thought he was moving overseas.

People do, of course, experience Singapore and Malaysia in different ways. The wealthy businessman who takes his family for regular holidays in Malaysia has a different kind of connection from the Chinese market stall owner who saves every cent to educate her children in Singapore. She, in turn, has a different experience from the second-hand goods trader who crosses the border each month to buy stock. And the sex worker employed in the busy port town brothel, the motor cycle taxi-driver who hustles tourists on the dock, and the immigration official who stamps passports in the arrival hall all have a more intense transnational experience than the primary school teacher, who has relatively little contact with foreigners.

Ultimately, however, it is impossible to live in any but the most isolated communities on the islands of Batam, Bintan and Karimun, without developing an awareness of what it is like to live across the straits.

Knowing, not loving

There’s a saying in Indonesian: the heart can’t love what it doesn’t know. But in fact knowing doesn’t always lead to love. While many Indonesians have a deep-seated aversion to Malaysia, most see Singapore as some kind of paradise, awash with fancy shopping centres and the other trappings of modernity. But long-term residents in the Riau Islands know better. Their deeper understanding of life in Singapore precludes blind admiration. Contact with tourists from those countries, and visits to (or from) relatives or friends living there, has bred something more like pity for Singaporeans who live in ‘bird cages’ and have little time to enjoy life or to socialise.

It is this knowing that sets Riau Islanders apart from most other working and lower middle-class Indonesians. Living on the edge of a very large nation-state and on the doorstep of a global city, their daily lives are infused with ‘the global’. Their consumption habits and interactions with foreigners produce a worldview that tends to be outward-looking and open. At the same time they are grounded enough to be aware of the realities – and advantages – of ‘the local’. Riau Islanders don’t have to travel the world to be cosmopolitan.

Michele Ford ( is an ARC Future Fellow in the department of Indonesian Studies at the University of Sydney. Lenore Lyons ( is an Honorary Professor in the same department. Michele and Lenore have been working for several years on a research project on cross-border interactions between the Riau Islands and Singapore initially funded by the Australian Research Council (DP0557368).

Inside Indonesia 115: Jan-Mar 2014{jcomments on}
]]> (Vivian Honan) Mon, 27 Jan 2014 03:37:35 GMT
Online cosmopolitan An interview with Enrico Aditjondro

Alexandra Crosby

Crosby Enrico Aditjondro - Goethe Institute Malaysia

Enrico has lived in Indonesia, West Papua, the United States, Australia and Timor-Leste. He started his journalism career in 1998 when he joined The Maritime Workers’ Journal in Sydney. He moved to Jakarta in 2000 and joined the Southeast Asia Press Alliance, while also traveling and working in Timor-Leste with UNESCO and the United Nations Transitional Administration in East Timor (UNTAET).

In 2005 he co-founded and was managing editor for Paras Indonesia, which became one of the country’s leading bilingual social-political websites. He has worked for the United Nations' Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), The International News Safety Institute, Transparency International-Indonesia, and EngageMedia.

He is currently working in West Papua as a producer for Big Stories Small Towns, an evolving multiplatform documentary about love, humour, family and belonging.

What do you think ‘cosmopolitan’ means in Indonesia?

Thanks to the Cosmopolitan magazine, a lot of folks in Indonesia seem to identify ‘cosmopolitanism’ with glamour, celebrities and trends, rather than any kind of intellectualism. Perhaps the closest Indonesian term would be ‘gaul’ or being ‘anak gaul’ – somebody who seems to always be in touch on social media, knows what’s going on (at least from the headlines on twitter), and knows a lot of important people. The idea is that anak gaul can get along well with most folks, and that can be on a global scale.

Who are some Indonesian cosmopolitans that inspire you?

Well, I grew up in a cosmopolitan family where we travelled constantly and lived in many different places. That was just the way it was since I was very small. So I suppose my parents were the first inspiration – my dad would introduce cool new cultures, while my mum’s way of making me able to adapt easily in a new place was by saying to me, ‘make this new home the best home you’ve ever lived in’. That was how we lived I suppose.

In recent times, I’m always inspired by what my friend Ukke has done. She’s a Sundanese woman, anthropology graduate, and used to work for The Body Shop’s social awareness initiatives. We worked together on various climate change campaigns. She’s Muslim, married to a Batak Christian, and they each practise their own religions. They have a daughter who was raised as a moderate Muslim. But Ukke from early on told her daughter she was free to choose any religion she wants once she understands their concepts. Her daughter is now home-schooled, where the teachers include top filmmakers, artists, historians, journalists and activists – all of whom are good friends of Ukke and her husband. After years of working in the private sector, Ukke has now started Circa Handmade dolls with marginalised women and leads the Craft for Change movement – urging crafters to create and self-sustain. I think this is a kind of cosmopolitanism that goes ‘beyond’ the idea of religious tolerance.

Does leaving Indonesia make you feel less Indonesian? Does it make it harder to go back?

Because I moved around so much from an early age I’m not quite sure what ‘feeling Indonesian’ really is. I don’t see territorial borders as a way to differentiate people and culture. As I learn from meeting people and listening to their stories, the troubles people suffer, the joy people feel and the challenges they face are all unique but similar. As for food, you can find croissant, nasi goreng or sushi anywhere nowadays.

What you could miss though, is your own language and how people accept you. I wouldn’t want to feel like a foreigner all the time. Even though Jakarta is hardly an ideal home, at least I’m just another guy on the street; I can be anonymous. (Disclaimer: I’ve never lived for a long time in a place where none of Indonesian, Malay or English was the main language. So, we’ll see how I would feel when I’m living in Yangon next time, perhaps.)

I was thankful that my mother taught me to adapt easily by embracing the newest port of call as the best home. But to be honest, I haven’t found what ‘home’ is because there’s always something you miss elsewhere. So nope, my personal challenge is actually staying put, rather than moving on or going back.

What kind of relationships do you have ‘outside Indonesia’?

Having lived and worked over the years in West Papua, the United States, Australia and Timor-Leste, those places rope me back in continuously. I’m based in Jakarta now, but at the time of writing I’m punching the keyboard from Waigeo, the biggest island in Raja Ampat, West Papua. I’m currently making Waisai, the capital of Raja Ampat, my temporary base while I make a series of videos about the people of these islands of paradise. The videos will be distributed mainly via the Big Stories, Small Towns project website (, a video initiative by a group of Australians.

And before this trip, I spent the past four years working for EngageMedia ( as its Southeast Asia Editor. For the past couple of years, I’ve been guest lecturing via Skype for Ithaca College’s Video and Environment class. And next year, hopefully, I’ll start a Timor-Leste documentary. So yes, after living and working in a certain place, I tend to go back for the aftertaste.

How do you think being cosmopolitan is different now from previous generations?

I love the internet. After a couple of weeks island hopping, I began to miss googling silly things like “jokes on Abbott’s no apology”. However, a week ago I was arguing with a person from Jakarta who was visiting Raja Ampat over information about the islands. She was convinced about the accommodation, prices and schedules on one of the islands. I told her, life wasn’t that simple in Raja Ampat – where there are no internet cafes and not a day goes by without a power outage. Folks here have to worry about fuel supply before thinking about updating information on their websites.

So yes, the digital natives (and immigrants) now have easier access to information that can trigger their interest in different cultures and people. Via video sites, land rights activists in Cambodia can watch and learn that their brothers and sisters in West Papua and Kalimantan are also facing similar problems, and therefore a solidarity movement can be built. But being an Indonesian cosmopolitan in the online world must also entail the understanding that unlike how the mainstream media portray them, people, language and culture are not as uniform as they are on screen in the Jakarta TV programs. People don’t speak the same Jakarta dialect, wear the same type of clothes nor do they all need to eat rice.

To work for an international/ transnational NGO, do you have to be cosmopolitan?

You have to appreciate differences, but at the same time you must not succumb to other cultures. Sometimes NGO workers just follow the culture of where the organisation was founded without considering the benefit of their own background. Be proud of where you’re from, but appreciate others too. Seems like common sense, but it’s so often forgotten.

Is this harder (or even possible) if you are not educated?

There are a lot of individuals who have made it big in international/ transnational NGOs even without a top education. Most of these people though have lived side by side with different cultures. In some cases, they were forced to.

A Papuan filmmaker recently managed to screen his videos at the Australian Parliament, watched by a handful of senators. The 32 year-old has only just started going to university. He barely speaks English. But, being brought up in a family of mixed tribes and hanging out with people of mixed religions, he later also found another way to express his opinion through videos. Since then, it opened him up to the wider audience. His short video about a school with no teachers in Keerom, Jayapura, has now been seen by people all over the world – including a teacher in Surabaya, East Java, who decided she wanted to volunteer and teach in that school.

Is cosmopolitanism just another word for globalisation and westernisation?

I hope not. Several years ago I wouldn’t have thought that kids in Jakarta would recognise the names of K-pop singers more than the western boy bands.

Alexandra Crosby ( met Enrico ( while they were both working for EngageMedia (2009-2012). This interview was done over email, online chatting and phone calls.

Inside Indonesia 115: Jan-Mar 2014{jcomments on}
]]> (Vivian Honan) Mon, 27 Jan 2014 03:16:19 GMT
Impossible ideal? Cosmopolitanism is a dirty word in rural West Java, where creativity and new words are needed to reopen dialogue.

Julian Millie

biennale-1An exhibition at the Venice Biennale in 2013, Jemma Purdey

Cosmopolitanism might appear to be a concept tailor-made for Indonesian conditions. Diverse peoples have lived side by side in the region for ages. Linguistic difference is a feature of everyday life. In many communities, religious diversity is also a normal part of routine social life. All these realities suggest Indonesians have long supported one of the central principles of cosmopolitanism: that the interests of one’s own group should at times be sublimated for the good of the greater whole.

But some of the ideas that cluster within the broader concept of cosmopolitanism in fact meet with express disapproval in contemporary Indonesia. Much of this opposition is founded on religious rationales and, for those who cherish cosmopolitanism as an ideal of universal relevance, this opposition is a salient reminder of the impossibility of that ideal.

A war of ideas

Cosmopolitanism and its constituent ‘isms’, such as pluralism, are foremost amongst the concepts employed in a war of ideas. In this war, one side argues that concepts for social harmony derived from western models are valuable for Indonesia; the other side argues that Islamic belief is the normative resource upon which a prosperous Indonesia can be built. This war is not new in Indonesia but has increased in intensity since the liberalisation of public expression after Suharto.

For many Indonesians, both these positions are perfectly acceptable and do not conflict with each other. But in some regions, many people believe the incompatibility is unavoidable and should not be overlooked. A recent survey highlighted such a region, namely the pesantren (religious school) communities of rural West Java. A team of researchers from a Jakarta-based think tank, the International Centre for Islam and Pluralism (ICIP), set out to establish how the kyai (pesantren leaders) viewed concepts such as pluralism and multiculturalism. To do this the researchers conducted a series of semi-structured interviews with the kyai of some of West Java’s most conservative pesantren. Their final report was published in a book entitled Pluralisme, Sekularisme dan Liberalisme di Indonesia.

The survey was partly motivated by the 2005 fatwa of the Indonesian Ulama Council (MUI), which had forbidden Indonesian Muslims from supporting the concepts of secularism, pluralism and liberalism. According to the fatwa, these were contrary to aqidah (Islamic belief). The MUI is an organisation consisting of religious scholars that purports to represent the interests of Indonesian Muslims. Many Indonesian Muslims respect the MUI as the highest and most representative deliberative Islamic body. Apart from the 2005 fatwa, it has made a number of other fatwa that declare certain minorities to be outside of Islam. The survey was intended to find out whether these fatwa were in fact representative of the opinions of religious elites in rural West Java.

About 97 per cent of the population of West Java province is Muslim. In terms of religion, it is one of the most homogenous provinces alongside Aceh, West Sumatra and a few others. In these provinces, many people live in communities where everybody is and, it seems always has been Muslim. For this reason, cosmopolitanism and its related concepts, including pluralism, might not seem so important to people in these communities.

The interview team found that most religious leaders, even the more conservative ones, were supportive of the substance of cosmopolitanism. But the leaders were quick to assert that one did not need to adopt western concepts to justify the notion that people should be respectful of difference. Muslims could follow Islamic precedents, they argued, that had almost the same effect.

They pointed out, for example, that when the Prophet Muhammad arrived in Medina after fleeing Mecca he had to deal with a diverse community. He confronted practical problems such as creating harmony between the supporters who had arrived with him from Mecca and the long-time residents of Medina. Furthermore, Medina was a religiously diverse environment, and was riven by genealogically based social hierarchies. The prophet successfully established his community in Medina by avoiding an exclusive religious attitude and paying respect to the status quo.

The respondents pointed approvingly to another example set by the Prophet: he introduced a social order that in fact freed the residents of Medina from hierarchies that had trapped them in positions of inferiority. In this sense, the Prophet appears as an exemplar of progressive social reform. For the Muslim communities of rural West Java, here is a precedent for tolerance and harmony that bears the authority of the Prophet’s own experience.

Pluralism versus plurality

But many of the kyai drew a line at pluralism. They contrasted pluralism with plurality to illustrate an important point. Plurality was a reality of Indonesian life, they pointed out. Acceptance of diversity in Indonesia was a practical necessity, given the realities of the country.

But pluralism was a concept that many kyai leaders could not accept. This concept implied that all religions were equal and in the eyes of many West Javanese kyai this implication was contrary to Islamic teaching. In their interpretation, Islam obliges people to believe that it is the only true means to salvation. This belief, they argue, is a non-negotiable aspect of aqidah.

Large populations in West Java are open to this view, especially when it is supported by a kyai who they look up to. For many West Javanese rural communities, the kyai is the most dependable authority, a stabilising presence in the region for centuries. Many people live in financial hardship, receive little benefits from Indonesia’s recent economic growth and are buffeted by fluctuating economic conditions. Things have always been so for these communities and the kyai has always been present to provide inspiration and stability.

Apart from that, many rural Muslims consider Indonesia’s mainstream culture, with its pronounced western influences, something to be wary of. An increase in consumption-related media has brought with it advertising images showing independent, individualistic lifestyles. These urban images are disconcerting for people trying to live an Islamic lifestyle, and the kyai provides an alternative message.

Of course, this does not mean that all of West Java’s Muslims live puritanical lives under the watchful eyes of their religious leaders. West Javanese rural areas hold some of the most enthusiastic audiences for dangdut, Indonesia’s sexy dance music. This brings a sensuous tension to everyday life: everyone respects the word of the kyai, but at the same time, few can resist the rhythms of dangdut!

Against this background, aqidah gains a special importance. Although it consists of abstract formulations expressed in religious ideas, it forms a sort of public good in rural West Java. Through the mediations of religious leaders, aqidah has been a nourishing principle for these communities for centuries. Not surprisingly, many Indonesians in rural West Java believe correct aqidah is essential to the formation of a community that is orderly and prosperous, and to the maintenance of the values their ancestors upheld. They are ready to believe their kyai when he assures them that pluralism and multiculturalism are western values that pose a threat to aqidah.

More than symbolism

Most of the pesantren leaders who opposed pluralism also expressed opposition to violence and discrimination against minorities. They cited the Prophet’s example in support of this position. It might seem, therefore, that the rejection of pluralism has symbolic meaning only. After all, the level of religion-based violence and discrimination in West Java is quite low. It might seem only a matter of semantics but the survey team found otherwise. They found that the widespread condemnation of pluralism, and the MUI fatwa condemning minorities, had in fact brought about substantive change.

The MUI fatwas made a difference by providing legitimacy to vigilantism. West Java has always had a relatively small number of Islamic groups that have ideological motives for taking vigilante actions against minorities. The MUI itself does not encourage violence, but its fatwa are a gift to the vigilante groups. They now have a strong justification for their actions: the country’s highest ranking religious body agrees with the position they take on difference, so their actions are in fact being made for the good of the public. The moral dimensions of violence committed against innocent minorities are obscured.

The violence has not been widespread, but nevertheless, a number of small outbreaks have had severe consequences. One vigilante attack on a minority in 2011 in Banten resulted in the deaths of three people (see the four articles in Inside Indonesia 107: Jan-Mar, 2012). This and other less serious cases indicate that the ‘battle’ between an exclusive perspective on aqidah and cosmopolitanism is in fact more than symbolic.

The conflict goes back to long before the most recent skirmishes, and is most likely intractable. The supporters of cosmopolitanism and related concepts often work in Jakarta-based NGOs. It is widely known that they receive foreign funding. This complicates the situation for some religious leaders see these funding arrangements as proof of the west’s determination to replace Islamic concepts with western ones. One leader of an association of pesantren once famously forbade the association’s members from receiving western funding in any form.

In fact, the ICIP itself, whose name declares its orientation so clearly, was the subject of a smear campaign identifying it as a corruptive influence. The survey, as well as some workshops the centre held on pluralism, were funded by the Australian government. The ICIP was accused of spreading the ‘sepilis’ virus. Sepilis is an acronym for secularism, pluralism and liberalism – its resemblance to ‘syphilis’ is no accident. It might appear that feelings about cosmopolitanism and pluralism have become so highly charged that there can be no future for these terms in West Java.

Not surprisingly, even those West Javanese Muslims who support the western terms have suggested that changes need to be made in order to break the impasse. So what is the way forward? The West Javanese painter and poet, Acep Zamzam Noor – the son of a famous kyai – offers a solution:

'When our ancestral values are reworked into new terms like pluralism, people who have become accustomed to religious homogeneity will see them as a kind of virus that needs to be opposed. Especially when the new term contains ‘-ism’, something which reminds people of Zionism, Marxism, communism, socialism, secularism, liberalism, capitalism, colonialism and so on. But if one fights the radical groups, nothing good will come of it. If one wins, one will not be highly regarded, and to lose is also embarrassing. Even more so if one is beaten up in the street. Activists like the young NU [Nahdatul Ulama] people need to quickly find new terms that are more intimate and broadly acceptable, for the communities [of West Java] are not made up wholly of intellectuals or educated people. The same goes for the methods used to spread or promote a new discourse to society. It needs more than enthusiasm and courage. Creativity is also required. Just like an art project, this struggle also needs intuition and imagination. It needs creativity.'

Who will reopen the cultural dialogue in Indonesia with a new word for cosmopolitanism that also satisfies the aqidah?

Julian Millie ( is senior lecturer in the Anthropology program of the School of Political and Social Inquiry at Monash University.

Inside Indonesia 115: Jan-Mar 2014{jcomments on}
]]> (Vivian Honan) Mon, 27 Jan 2014 03:04:25 GMT
Floating World See the world and be exploited

Pam Nilan and Luh Putu Artini

Nilan and ArtiniCruise Ship Training College in Bali - Michelle Mansfield 

Indonesian cruise ship service workers have a kind of cosmopolitan experience at sea. They seem to be good candidates for the development of a cosmopolitan outlook. They are well educated, open to the world and regularly mix with people from many nations. They often travel to international destinations. But they do not enjoy the experience.

Such workers are mobile but without the privilege of wealth or free choice. In the words of a Balinese waiter, ‘we can work 14, 16 hours a day. It is very hard. And then we get too much pressure, not only from our supervisor or our bosses, but from our guests, because we often have very demanding guests.’ An Indonesian blog entry warns, ‘for ordinary people, working on a cruise ship seems exciting, full of promise. But the reality is quite the opposite. Living on the ship for months is like living in hell’.

Cruise ship service work might seem similar to hotel work, but it is quite different. On a cruise ship there is no escape from long shifts and cramped conditions, nor from humiliation, exploitation or harassment if it happens.

Balinese cruise ship workers gain skills, confidence and – eventually – some measure of prosperity. Yet long periods at sea can disrupt their cultural, religious and personal life, including marriage and parenthood. On return they are clearly comfortable serving people from all nations, but this is true of many in the tourism sector.

Once they retire from cruise ship work, most do not seem to think differently about things like religion, their identity, the future of the Indonesian nation, or even sexual norms. They do not seem to develop a more cosmopolitan consciousness than other tourism workers, despite years spent out of the country in a multicultural ‘floating world’.

See the World and Get Rich Quick

Luxury cruise ship tourism is big business worldwide. Transnational cruise lines actively recruit from the Philippines and Indonesia, where well-educated workers can be paid low wages. This maximises profits. A cruise ship trainer explained: ‘they want to recruit from Bali, because the English is much better. And also they have the history of serving guests’.

Cruise training courses in Bali cannot keep up with demand from senior high school graduates. Middle and lower-income Balinese parents are proud to see their children get jobs with a cruise line. This leads to more and more young Balinese entering training programs. They expect to make big money. But the real money-earners in Bali are cruise ship training providers and employment agents.

Trainees in Bali certainly imagine a cosmopolitan experience. Young Agus was relishing the idea of travelling ‘around the world by sea.’ Classmate Wawan explained, ‘I want to work on a cruise ship to have an overseas experience, to learn about everything in the world’. A female trainee wrote on the blog Kerja di Kapal Pesiar (Working on a Cruise Ship), ‘I want to travel around the world saving up money and getting rich working on a cruise ship.’

The idea of quick wealth is seductive. A trainee from Bangli said, ‘I want to work on a cruise ship because the wages are higher than hotel work’. Laundry and kitchen workers earn around US$1,000 per month. Service staff earn as little as US$74 per month but can get tips totaling US$2,500 per month or more. This is the lure. Yet money quickly disappears. The training loan of more than US$3,000 must be repaid. Agent fees are around $2,000 per contract. Travel to and from departure must be pre-paid. On-board costs such as uniform laundering are deducted. Back home, families have high expectations - savings fund, motorbikes, cars, house renovations, religious ceremonies, education for younger siblings. One blogger wrote: ‘although cruise ship work builds up money, when you get back to the village you are still poor, basically going backwards’.

Transnational cruise ships sail under ‘flags of convenience’ from countries like Panama. Instead of proper labour regulation they operate under the lax compliance codes of that country. A shift can last 12 hours a day for up to six and a half days a week, over a nine-month contract. Workers sleep in a crowded, windowless cabin and often eat passenger left-overs. Unlike hotel workers in Bali they can’t go home, see their family or separate themselves from the workplace. Internet and mobile phone access is limited and unreliable. A young waiter described short voyages: ‘For the first week they’re sailing from Miami to the Caribbean, and then the next week they’re sailing to the Bahamas or wherever’. He added ‘Sometimes we are overnight in Venice, so we go out. But the bad thing is we need to work hard … so maybe sleep for only three or four hours, and then we have to work again’. Each voyage requires cleaning and supplies, so the work never stops. The cycle of debt, family obligation and the need to save binds them into repeated contracts.

Colonial Nostalgia

Part of the luxury cruising experience for passengers is a nostalgic re-creation of the colonial master-servant relationship. For those who serve them, this is hardly a cosmopolitan experience. Cruise advertisements include statements like: ‘on our ships you are the boss’ and ‘our staff pride themselves in exceeding your every wish’. Balinese trainees are taught never to say no to a passenger request. A cruise trainer said it was hard to teach recruits to keep a happy face: ‘you have to smile all the time, and a real smile, as if you mean it’.

Workers depend on tips so they go out of their way to please passengers. One young waiter learnt to juggle bottles of vodka. He was sure this would charm bar guests and increase his income. Other trainees in Bali were polishing their karaoke skills so they could duet tunefully with passengers to maximise tips.

These are standard tourism strategies. However, consequences for displeasing cruise ship guests are more severe. An experienced waiter told us: ‘if you make one mistake, you have one guest complain, you can go home. You can get fired. Yeah, it’s very bad’. The fired worker forfeits wages and is left at the next port to find their own way home. The same waiter recounted that a wheelchair-bound European passenger once asked to be carried, with his wheelchair, up a narrow stairway to the dining room. There was a lift down the corridor, but the passenger insisted. The waiter obliged and was tipped. But he hurt his back. He did not complain or go to the ship’s doctor because if the event was investigated he might be found to be at fault.

Cosmopolitan Skills?

Cruise ship trainees in Bali aim to break into small business once they have sufficient capital. But it can take ten years or more to save enough. Experienced workers have set up bars, restaurants and guesthouses after leaving cruise ship work. They have used the international skills gained through cruise ship work. They speak foreign languages, especially English; their knowledge of beverage and catering tastes is sophisticated; and they have cutting-edge familiarity with decorating styles and entertainment options. But their main strength seems to be their capacity for confidence and politeness in dealing with people of many nations. This leads to the conclusion that that these workers eventually developed some kind of cosmopolitan outlook. Their apprenticeship was long and difficult.

We asked two current workers if they would like their younger brothers to work on cruise ships. They simultaneously replied: ‘No!’ One added that he would rather his brother became a bank teller. The wages are lower but the job has more local status and stability. Overall, the multicultural ‘floating world’ of the cruise ship does not seem to provide a positive cosmopolitan experience.

Pam Nilan ( teaches sociology at the University of Newcastle, Australia. Luh Putu Artini ( teaches English at Universitas Pendidikan Ganesha in Singaraja. The authors interviewed 35 informants in Bali and read the Indonesian cruise ship worker blog Kerja di Kapal Pesiar.

Inside Indonesia 115: Jan-Mar 2014{jcomments on}
]]> (Vivian Honan) Mon, 27 Jan 2014 02:44:34 GMT
Diaspora power Abused maids are not the only Indonesians overseas as success stories from the Indonesia Diaspora Congress show

David Reeve

ReevePoster for a hugely popular 2012 film about Yusuf Habibie and his wife Hasri Ainun Besari

The main cry of the second Indonesian Diaspora Congress was ‘hidup diaspora!’ – long live the diaspora. It rang out in session after session in Jakarta from 18 to 20 August 2013. The emotions expressed were simple but deep – ‘We have come home!’ from the diaspora and ‘we love you, we accept you’ from those who remained. This was a new note in discussions about Indonesians overseas, which are dominated by victim stories and outrage about ill treatment of low-level Indonesian workers. Outrage was not absent: advocacy organisations for migrant workers (TKI) were represented. Nevertheless, the dominant tone was that of appreciating the diaspora as a national resource, of revelling in the success of Indonesians competing internationally.

The first congress was held in Los Angeles in June 2012. There the focus was on Indonesian citizens living, studying and working overseas, and on how they could be mobilised to help Indonesia. This second congress also included the ‘historical’ diaspora, citizens of other countries who are descended from Malay stock.

One sensation from the historical diaspora was a presentation in fluent Indonesian by a senior military figure from Madagascar. He claimed that 60 per cent of his country’s population are descended from Indonesians. He is also a candidate for the Madagascar presidency.

Another intense moment was a fiery presentation from the South African Cape Malay community, about Sheikh Jusuf. This learned nobleman was born in Makassar in 1626, lived in Banten, and was exiled by the Dutch to Cape Town, where he is said to have established Islam. Nelson Mandela has called him South Africa’s first freedom fighter. He is an official national hero in both Indonesia and South Africa.

There was a delegation from Suriname, where Javanese make up about 14 per cent of the population. In the current Suriname cabinet, six of 17 ministers are ethnic Javanese. The Suriname Home Affairs Minister Soewarto Moestadja made his mark with a speech that started in Indonesian, continued in English and finished in Javanese.

Respect and participation

This was a big congress. The organisers had been expecting around two thousand delegates, like at the Los Angeles congress. But over seven thousand people registered, including 1500 from overseas who mostly paid their own way. The largest delegations – around 200 each – were from Qatar and the United States.

Estimates of the size of the Indonesian diaspora ranged from six to eight million people, of whom 4.5 million are Indonesian citizens. The phrase ‘two Singapores’ was much repeated.

Members of the diaspora wanted some respect and appreciation, rather than the feeling that Indonesians who live overseas are somehow disloyal. They specifically wanted changes to immigration: visas and better treatment on arrival in Indonesia, particularly for their overseas-born children. The immigration department seemed to be listening. Jakarta airport had a special welcome desk, and immigration officers attended a large meeting at the congress itself. And the Indonesian Ministry of Foreign Affairs established the Indonesian Diaspora Desk, headed at ambassadorial level.

The single biggest concern that unites the diaspora is dual citizenship. Like the United States, Indonesia does not recognise dual nationality. But it was clear at the congress that the Indonesian government is prepared to consider it. The problem now is getting a workable proposal to the government before attention shifts to the 2014 elections.

What the home side wanted was some concrete participation by the diaspora in Indonesian economic development. In order to create links to make this work and to hammer out some realistic programs, the congress had eleven task forces. Some tackled the obvious issues: immigration, Indonesian migrant workers, education, business and investment. But other task forces thought about liveable cities, public health care, energy, innovation and technology, aerospace and the green economy. Another task force proposed the use of ‘culinary diplomacy’ to enhance Indonesia’s name recognition overseas, hoping for a profile similar to sushi and tom yam.

Success stories

Many stories of great challenges overcome were heard from the diaspora, in presentations, awards and the congress book Life Stories. Indonesians of humble origins who seize opportunities was a big theme. They worked their way up in a foreign country, a foreign culture and a foreign language. Ambassador Dino Patti Djalal started out washing plates. Tania Gunadi, a rising American TV star on Disney Channel, comes from Bandung. She found herself cleaning toilets and mopping floors in a Los Angeles Pizza Hut before she got a break in Hollywood.

Some started with little education, or in a neglected province. One had his education in Indonesia cut short when his Chinese-language high school was closed at the start of the New Order in 1966. Yet he eventually succeeded in Japan. This was the educator Ken Kawan Soetanto. After his school in Surabaya was closed he spent years working in a radio repair shop by day and studying by night. His savings, supplemented by his family, took him to Japan in 1977 for language study and then multiple university degrees. He wanted to become an academic, but found his career hopes frustrated by Japanese reluctance to take on foreigners. So he went on studying, eventually taking out four doctoral degrees, in electrical engineering, medicine, pharmacy and education. His inventions have led to 29 patents in Japan and two in America. He founded the Faculty of Biomedical Engineering at Toin University of Yokahama. Finally in 2003, at the age of 52, he was delighted to be made a professor at Waseda University and dean of its International Liberal Studies division, the first foreigner in the Waseda executive in its 125 years.

Mahdi Musa, one of the Qatar group, told his story of rising from an undernourished background in a traditional fishing community in Aceh. He criss-crossed Aceh with labouring jobs, rising slowly through oil drilling, a sugar factory, and starting as a welder in construction but ending up an inspector. He studied at weekends, going by bus from Aceh to Medan, gaining an engineering degree in 1987 when he was 35. This led to a job with the gas industry in Qatar. Once there he could see business possibilities. He started his own small supermarket for Indonesians. He then expanded to a cleaning service, a restaurant, and an import-export business.

Another theme was of seizing the chances following study overseas. Iwan Sunito went from the jungles of Kalimantan to become the founder and CEO of one of Australia’s biggest property developers. In 1985 he started studying architecture at the University of New South Wales (UNSW). He founded his first business in 1994, together with Paul Sathio, from Bali, whom he met in Sydney. Paul Sathio had wanted to become a badminton champion but, after getting the chance to complete high school in Sydney, he went on to civil engineering degrees at the University of Technology Sydney and UNSW.

Another storyteller at the congress was Edward Wanandi, a successful entrepreneur in Chicago. Apparently the Indonesian diaspora community in the United States is bigger than the Vietnamese. In 2012 Indonesians there, on average, earned $10,000 more than the average American.

Alongside the success stories were others of overseas Indonesian communities split by rivalries – sometimes between indigenous and Chinese communities, sometimes along religious lines – and of attempts to bridge the differences.

Jon Soemarjono, a long-time lecturer at the University of Sydney, commented on ‘unsuccessful’ behaviours of Indonesians overseas. He listed them as: a reluctance to disagree, reluctance to endorse clearly, an appearance of indecision.

Compared to Indians, Pakistanis and Vietnamese, he said, Indonesians lack confidence in group discussions, are slow to participate, and lack the courage of their convictions. He urged Indonesians to learn to be straightforward and not to apologise extravagantly for small mistakes or no mistake at all. Where others push on, Indonesians tend to be content with what they have achieved. They rarely master the local language, and tend to mix within their own community, even when language courses are free. Too few parents in the Indonesian diaspora encourage their children to read and use the library.

Support and commitment

This congress had friends in high places. It was opened by President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, and a phalanx of senior ministers took part. Former finance minister and now World Bank managing director, Sri Mulyani, came from Washington DC. Former vice-president, Jusuf Kalla, attended for the commemoration of Sheikh Jusuf. And former president Habibie (once a Messerschmitt-Bolkow-Blohm engineer in Germany) received the biggest diaspora award in the closing ceremony.

Strangely enough, media coverage was polite but rather muted. The diaspora is not yet what Jakarta circles call ‘a sexy topic’. The press welcomed members of the diaspora home and expressed relief at the evidence that Indonesians could compete globally but said that it was now up to the diaspora to come up with some real outcomes.

The Indonesian Diaspora Network, IDN, was established after the last congress and has 56 branches in 26 countries. This is fast development in the first year of its existence and has raised some questions abroad. One Australian reaction to the formation of the IDN was: there are already so many Indonesian organisations, why yet another?

Moreover the IDN has competition from the ‘historical’ Malay diaspora. Malaysia has been way in front in efforts to recruit the diaspora with several Dunia Melayu (Malay World) conferences over the last fifteen years.

Allegations of political profiteering are also heard. The great promoter of the IDN is Indonesian ambassador to the United States, Dino Patti Djalal, who is in the running at the Partai Demokrat convention to succeed the current president. Some whisper that the IDN is a ruse to recruit diaspora votes for the party.

Still, the task forces seemed to be committed and working hard; the green energy and liveable cities groups were particularly active. And by the 2014 congress it should be clear whether the IDN is sustainable. Will real projects be emerging? Will the Indonesian government have begun to act on dual citizenship?

David Reeve ( is retired from the University of New South Wales, and helps ACICIS ( bring Australian students to study at Indonesian universities. His book Golkar of Indonesia (1985) has just appeared in Indonesian translation.

Inside Indonesia 115: Jan-Mar 2014{jcomments on}
]]> (Vivian Honan) Mon, 27 Jan 2014 02:21:18 GMT