Jun 21, 2024 Last Updated 1:20 AM, Jun 20, 2024

Nineteenth century nationalism

Published: Sep 30, 2007

Ahmat B. Adam, The vernacular press and the emergence of modern Indonesian consciousness (1855-1913), Cornell University, 1995. xiii, 206 pp.

Reviewed by JOOST COTE

The title of this book throws out a challenge to those who still want to confine modern Indonesian history to the twentieth century. By rolling back the genesis of 'modern Indonesian consciousness' to the middle of the nineteenth century, Adam provides not only a valuable overview of an important linguistic and expressive form, the print media, but also an important orientation for Indonesian history.

A nationalist press supported by a nationalist consciousness was able to appear at the end of the period of Adam's study, 1913, because of the long gestation period of a public Malay voice. Adam's book shows that it emerged from a Malay-speaking colonial urban society which had evolved from the middle of the nineteenth century. It was stimulated by (at least) two prior nationalist 'awakenings', namely the Indo-European and the Chinese. (There is no mention here of Arab nationalist influences.)

The history of the vernacular press which the book now makes readily available for us all needs to be placed alongside another study of literature written before the establishment of the colonial publisher Balai Pustaka, namely Claudine Salmon's 1981 catalogue of vernacular Sino-Malay literature. The birth of Balai Pustaka in 1917 is often associated with the beginning of 'Indonesian' literature. This Malay-language literature by Chinese emanated from the same precursor 'modern' communities responsible for the emerging vernacular language press which Adam describes.C. W. Watson had indicated such literatures as a fruitful line of research as long ago as 1971. A number of scholars have been researching them since.

This book is an extremely valuable contribution to Indonesian history, even if it were only for its extensive lists of newspapers, dates of publication, names of publishers and city of origin which are provided in three appendices divided into historiographically useful time periods. The majority of its eight chapters flesh out these lists, identifying key editors and publishers, characteristics of the main papers, their publishing houses, and the main themes of their editorial stances. All this is based on extensive personal exploration of extant archival holdings of newspapers in four countries. Ninety-nine individual papers are cited in reference.

Specific chapters summarise the development of the Indo-European, Chinese and early Indonesian-owned press. The work of the pioneer Indonesian journalists Tirto Adhi Soerjo and Abdul Rivai is described, and separate attention is given to the Outer Island vernacular press and to the press linked to political organisations.

Two criticisms can be made. Firstly, it is unfortunate that this book, based on a dissertation of 1984, was not published earlier. Its age is reflected in the absence of the approaches of more recent exciting writing on Indonesian history such as notably, that of Shiraishi ('An age in motion') and the research's unquestioning dependence on traditional historiographical structures.

Secondly, there is no adequate reference to the contemporary colonial Dutch language press. This would have allowed an examination of the vernacular press in the broader context of the colonial media and of nineteenth century agitation against colonial policy by Dutch settlers. Such agitation preceded the colonial reformist discourse, the so-called ethical policy, at the end of the nineteenth century. Elements of 'the modern Indonesian consciousness' were initially involved with this discourse.

This history of the Indonesian press suggests the importance of situating 'modern Indonesian consciousness' in the fullness of the multi-ethnic and multi-layered social and cultural phenomenon known as colonialism.

Joost Cote teaches at Deakin University in Melbourne.

Inside Indonesia 49: Jan-Mar 1997

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