Published: Sep 22, 2007

Review: Damien Kingsbury, The politics of Indonesia, Melbourne, Oxford University Press, 1998, 286pp, Pbk ISBN 0-19-550626-X, AU$29.95.

Reviewed by JONATHAN PING

This is an accessible text. It is one of the few books to achieve simplicity while still providing the reader with insights that can only come from years of analysis. The text explains the basic elements of Indonesian politics and political history without resorting to excessive detail. The result is a text which enables the reader to understand the motivations and precedents of Indonesian politics.

Kingsbury begins with traditional and colonial influences and carries the reader, with ever more detail, through to the present political and economic crisis. His thesis follows a common line that Indonesian politics, based in Javanese history, essentially remains unchanged by modern international or Western society. They follow their own internally determined rather than externally influenced path. The motives of Suharto, student protesters and Abri, among the many groups discussed, are understood through examples of their actions and an understanding of this thesis.

The book is structured into short chapters, which are enhanced by brief sub-sections on elements within each topic. This allows for a cover to cover reading, or admission to a specific topic such as ‘Tommy’ and the national car project, or corruption and Abri.

For the advanced reader Kingsbury has included two sections of interest: ‘Looking ahead: 1998 and beyond’ and ‘Epilogue: The fall of Suharto’. Here he dips into futurology. Political ‘openness’, for example, is ‘likely to be a short term phenomenon’ (p246). On Habibie’s presidency: his ‘elevation appears only to have been accepted by Abri as a precondition for installing its own candidate at a more opportune time’ (p244). General Wiranto is included in the list of potential future dictators (presidents)! Kingsbury’s outlook is bleak. Rather than seeing an embryonic democracy he argues that ‘any future Indonesian government will be more, rather than less, influenced by Abri’ (p249).

This is a valuable starting point for more study and provides all the references required. Kingsbury’s writing style is readable and at times entertaining. For example his account of the ecstasy and heroin-taking, BMW or Mercedes-driving children of the elite is amusing in comparison with his discussion of their mass murdering and corrupt parents.

Jonathan Ping <jping@arts.adelaide.edu.au> is a lecturer and postgraduate student in politics at the University of Adelaide, Australia.

Inside Indonesia 58: Apr-Jun 1999