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Review: Democracy, corruption and the politics of spirits in contemporary Indonesia

Published: Sep 06, 2015

Nils Bubandt brings an exciting new approach to the study of Indonesia's politics

Nicholas Long

Nils Bubandt has hit upon an ingenious idea. Indonesian politics is profoundly intertwined with what he calls ‘the spirit world’. He defines this broadly, to include unseen energies and forces ranging from jin and ancestral spirits, to prophetic visions, sorcery and perhaps even the human zest for democratic reform. The brilliance of this book stems from Bubandt’s realisation that studying these interconnections can transform our understandings of both politics and spirits. 

Bubandt does two things in his book. He develops a compelling analysis of the contemporary Indonesian fascination with spirits, which he argues should be seen as a ‘political effect’. More innovatively still, he suggests that spirits provide a powerful lens through which to better understand the paradoxical character not just of Indonesian democracy, but of democracy itself.

Leading characters

The book is structured around the ‘political biographies’ of four characters that Bubandt encountered during his fieldwork in North Maluku and East Java. Each have an interesting and engaging story. The book opens by introducing us to Kyai Muzakkin, the owner of an Islamic boarding school for spirits. Muzakkin sent a thousand spirits to protect an anti-corruption demonstration from the actions of ‘free-riders’ that he feared might be using it to destabilise the government. Bubandt discusses Muzakkin’s motives and the variety of online reactions to his intervention. 

Bubandt then shifts focus to North Maluku, where we meet a range of characters beginning with Pak Muhammad, a parliamentary candidate slain by suspected sorcery. Readers also meet the (recently deceased) Sultan of Ternate, said to be simultaneously a human and a spiritual being, as he plans to stand for election as governor. But his ambitions are thwarted, and the narrative begins to resemble a political thriller as we follow the twists and turns of the legal battles surrounding the election. 

However, it is the final account of Hajjah Nur, a prophet with the ability to ‘see directly into the spirit world’, which readers may find most satisfying. Her story pulls together many of the arguments developed earlier in the book, combining them with absorbing insights into North Malukan society. At its heart is a prophecy about the Sultan of Jailolo. This is a mythical figure said to have magically vanished from the earth in the sixteenth century but long predicted to return and rule as a Just King. In 2001 a controversial local politician, Abdullah Sjah, was appointed Sultan of Jailolo. However, Hajjah Nur claims the spirits have revealed that another man is the real Sultan. The prophecy follows: if he is recognised as such, untold riches will spring forth from the ground. If he is not, then North Maluku will be destroyed. 

Part of what makes the chapter so fascinating is the vibrancy of Hajjah Nur’s political imagination. She describes how Sukarno was himself a spiritual being who made an agreement with the Sultan of Jailolo that Indonesia should become independent and that Sukarno should take the Presidency. As such, Indonesia’s very independence – not to mention its transition to democracy under the rule of Sukarno’s daughter, Megawati – are seen as being profoundly intertwined with the North Malukan spirit world and infused with the promise of Just Rule. 

Bubandt guides us through the complex material with remarkable deftness, concluding that Hajjah Nur’s prophecy should be seen as an attempt to bring about Just Rule in an age of democracy where ‘good governance’ is conspicuously absent. He suggests that her turn to the ‘spirit world’ is an attempt to make up for democracy’s shortcomings; to sustain faith in its promise despite its failure to meet expectations. Given the murky picture that he paints of North Maluku’s provincial politics, the argument seems compelling. It serves as powerful evidence for his more general claim that spirits should be understood as ‘political effects’. However, what marks his analysis out as a particularly original – and doubtless controversial – contribution to the literature on Indonesian democracy is his claim that these shortcomings are inherent to democracy itself.

Dysfunctional democracy

Much of the book is devoted to exploring this ‘paradoxical’ quality of democracy, an analysis in which the spirit world serves as a potent metaphor. Politics in North Maluku, for example, is shown to be safeguarded by ancestral spirits, who impose punishing curses called katula on those who commit transgressions. Bubandt suggests that the mysterious and unaccountable spirit world finds an earthly parallel in the legal regulation provided by a non-transparent and corruptible Constitutional Court: an institution that epitomises the rule of law. 

An even closer parallel is drawn in Bubandt’s comparison between corruption and sorcery. Both, he argues, are seen by his informants as dangerous forces that are inimical to a properly functioning democracy. And yet because they are such widespread dangers, aspiring politicians must take measures to protect themselves from their ravages. For potential sorcery victims, this means seeking out protective magic – but this is a questionable practice because magical defences can themselves give rise to sorcerous injury. Similarly, politicians might seek out alliances of mutual help so as to protect themselves in a corrupt field of political alliances, but in doing so they inadvertently perpetuate corruption and collusion. 

The provocative conclusion – that the prevalence of corruption, sorcery, and other murky practices are in fact integral to democracy’s successful reproduction – is one of the book's most challenging but exciting contributions. This flies in the face of normative assumptions that corruption is inimical to democracy, raising difficult questions about what we actually mean by democracy’s ‘consolidation’. No wonder, then, that the shame corruption engenders in Indonesians is said to be similar to that provoked by Kyai Muzakkin’s spirits. Neither is supposed to have any place in the modern world and yet they are felt to be intractable, and ‘somehow essential’ to contemporary Indonesia. 

Bubandt’s achievements are twofold. Not only has he managed to capture in a nuanced and engaging fashion the complex structures of feeling that surround Indonesian democracy, he also provides an exciting new way in which to study Indonesian politics. Rather than lamenting democracy’s dysfunctionality, he encourages us to look at the ways in which dysfunction is productive, sustaining political systems and animating contemporary political imaginations. 

While this is exciting stuff, some of its implications need more extensive analysis than has been possible within this relatively slender volume. Bubandt suggests, for example, that his analysis might prove illuminating for the study of democracies beyond the Indonesian case. Yet while it is true that most, if not all, contemporary democracies fall short of their promise and could thus be seen as ‘paradoxical’ or ‘dysfunctional’, without a more detailed comparative discussion it is impossible to adjudicate whether the structure of democratic dysfunction is always the same. Certainly democracy’s reception by citizens appears to vary widely between settings. Indeed this is a dimension of the Indonesian case that could have been explored in more detail. 

While Bubandt provides a subtle and penetrating analysis of the ambivalent attitudes Indonesians hold towards the spirit world, their attitude to political corruption is presented in relatively broad brush-strokes. In my own experience, Indonesians can have quite complex moral theories regarding corruption, accepting some instances as necessary evils, whilst decrying others as excessive and shameful abuses of power. Exploring when and why dysfunction proves unacceptable to citizens and when and why it can be tolerated thus seem to be at least as important as understanding the dysfunction itself.

Yet the book’s more limited focus makes sense given what Bubandt is seeking to achieve. In the final pages of its conclusion he explains his frustration with the tendency in Indonesian studies to present corruption, elitism and patrimonialism as ‘legacies’ of the New Order, rather than appreciating the ways in which they are generated and sustained by democracy’s own internal contradictions. He recommends we begin developing ‘post-post-Suharto’ modes of analysis. While such phrasing risks underplaying the role that memories of Suharto may play in the highly charged political affect surrounding ‘democracy’ and ‘corruption’ in Indonesia, Bubandt is quite right that the mechanisms sustaining such affect emerge from the present and need to be understood in their own terms. As such, he has set an important agenda for future studies of Indonesian politics. 

Bubandt, N. (2014) Democracy, Corruption and the Politics of Spirits in Contemporary Indonesia. Abingdon & New York: Routledge.


Nicholas Long (n.j.long@lse.ac.uk) is an Assistant Professor of Anthropology at the London School of Economics and Political Science. 

Inside Indonesia 121: Jul-Sep 2015{jcomments on}

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