Jul 22, 2024 Last Updated 5:22 AM, Jul 16, 2024

Return of the sultans

After the New Order, pomp and ceremony is returning to dusty palaces all over Indonesia

Gerry van Klinken

The last sultan of Pontianak, Syarif Hamid II Alqadrie, was jailed for 10 years in 1953 for siding with the Dutch army against the Indonesian Republic during the revolution of 1945. When he died in 1978 the throne was left empty. His palace remained a somewhat run-down tourist attraction by the Kapuas River. In January 2004 a new sultan was installed in the Qadriah palace, a nephew of Sultan Hamid II. At the celebration to mark the occasion, golden umbrellas adorned the palace, and thousands of well-wishing guests dressed in traditional Malay finery feasted on food set out in long rows on mats. Massive cannon shots boomed over the river and Air Force Skyhawks performed acrobatics over the palace. The man who said the prayers almost choked on his tears; his father had taught the Koran to the entire Alqadrie family years ago. It seemed as if the past was not gone after all.

Long-dormant sultanates are being revived all over Indonesia. My own list, no doubt incomplete, contains about 24 of them in Kalimantan, Sumatra, Java, and Maluku. That does not count the 40 or so sultans and non-Islamic kings whose roles have not changed appreciably. Figures such as the sultan of Bima and the king of Kupang have always been respected as informal local leaders.

Kutai in East Kalimantan is one such revived sultanate. In the 1920s, oil royalties made Kutai’s ruler the wealthiest in the Netherlands Indies. He tore up the river in his powerful speedboat and drove his luxurious car up and down the only road in the kingdom. In 1960 he lost his kingdom following the implementation of the government’s ‘anti-feudal’ policy, which aimed to centralise power in Republican hands. In 2001, however, the district head of Kutai Kertanegara reinstalled the sultanate and gave the new sultan a fabulous palace, part of a tourist theme park on the river. Regional autonomy has now given the district head a significant share in oil royalties.

Some sultanates remained intact in the new Republic. In 1945 the sultan of Yogyakarta was able to retain his power due to his support for the revolution. Today, Indonesia’s national parliament is debating a bill drafted by the sultan’s supporters that would automatically make him governor of the Yogyakarta Special Region, thus bypassing an election by the assembly.

New opportunities

Other sultans also saw post-1998 democratisation as a window of opportunity. The current prince of Mempawah, in West Kalimantan, has a PhD in environmental science from Canada. When he took over from his ailing father in 2002 he immediately set about recruiting a large ‘palace guard’ (laskar). Late in 2003 he indicated his willingness to become district chief of the new district of Mempawah but withdrew the offer after he realised he lacked support. The same awareness did not dawn on the sultan of Ternate until it was too late. He had worked hard to become governor of the new province of North Maluku in 1999, but his palace guards suffered a humiliating defeat against ‘white’ Islamic troops from Tidore. He was forced to flee to Minahasa.

Other sultanates were entirely reinvented. Pagaruyung, the last kingdom of Minangkabau in West Sumatra, dissolved during the Padri Wars of the early nineteenth century. In 2002, however, a committee of local notables persuaded descendants of the Pagaruyung house to invite the sultan of Yogyakarta to the palace to receive a royal title.

Because his kingdom was absorbed by Ternate in 1380, no one knows where the sultan of Jailolo in North Maluku even had his palace. Today Jailolo once more has a sultan and a palace is being built for him on the island of Halmahera. The leader of the Free Aceh Movement, Hasan di Toro, says he will revive the sultanate of Aceh, defeated by the Dutch a century ago last January.

The sultans have had their own Forum Komunikasi (Communication Forum) since 1995. It has held four meetings, usually coinciding with the colourful Festival Kraton Nusantara which is generally held every two years. Kutai hosted 34 kings at the last meeting in September 2002. The tourism department sponsored these festivals in the hope they would increase revenues. The meetings have also brought the traditional ruling families together for the first time, but their public statements have been bland vows to uphold cultural values. The mercurial sultan of Ternate did tell the press that what the sultans really wanted was their land back since redistribution of aristocratic lands was a key part of the anti-feudal program of the early 1960s.

Why did it take until the end of the New Order to reverse the long historical trend against ‘feudalism’? What does the return of the sultans tell us about local politics? The first question is easy to answer; the second less so.

Sultans and local politics

Regional autonomy has created arenas for local political community that hardly existed during the centralising New Order. Autonomy has brought not merely new administrative arrangements but a new kind of political struggle requiring new (or newly reinvented) symbols. The autonomy laws are focused on the districts (kabupaten), not on the provinces. The boundaries of these districts often reflect the numerous small kingdoms that were incorporated into the Netherlands Indies by Dutch colonists, some of which were described by Joseph Conrad in his stories, including Lord Jim. Areas ruled indirectly covered more than half the archipelago outside of Java. It should be no surprise that these kingdoms have now become symbols of district identity. The message to Jakarta is: don’t underestimate us, we have a magnificent history.

It is important to remember that the sultans are symbols lacking real power. There is no question of them becoming real sultans; they are weekend sultans who hold regular jobs in the city, not the ‘off with his head!’ sultans of another era.

Exactly what the symbols mean is more difficult to determine. There is no doubt that Indonesia’s sultans are well liked and the notion of kingship remains a popular one. Millions of Indonesians watch wayang wong (Javanese theatre) on television or read Indonesian martial arts comics. Where a western football club celebrates its victory at the local pub, in West Kalimantan I noticed one team first made a thanksgiving pilgrimage to the sultan’s grave in Sambas. Such pilgrimages were also a key part of the theatre of office that President Abdurrahman Wahid performed.

Unity and diversity

The past is a dilemma: it can bring people together, or it can divide. The royal families I have spoken with in West Kalimantan say their leadership is meant to bring different ethnic groups together. They point out that their forefathers married into many different groups in order to extend their influence, as kings have always done. The Mempawah royal family has Bugis and Dayak blood as well as Malay in its lineage, making the sultanate a symbol of an all-embracing unity.

The American scholar Dennis Galvan wrote that ‘neo-traditional’ customary institutions like the sultanate can often be an effective means of bringing communities together. When ethnic conflict threatens, communities need unifying symbols that are not forced on them by the state, as Pancasila was by the New Order government. According to Galvan, such symbols need to be reinterpreted in a more open and inclusive way — Sultan Hamengkubuwono X of Yogyakarta, for example, is popular precisely because he rides his bicycle in public to support clean air, invites experimental musicians to perform in his palace, and spoke at Indonesia’s biggest anti-Suharto demonstration on 20 May 1998. He even has the advantage of gender: his Australian-educated daughter will one day succeed him to become Indonesia’s first female sultan.

Some new sultans do try to live in this manner. The sultan of Landak, also in West Kalimantan, is a lecturer in politics at the university in Pontianak. He is determined that his kraton will not become a power base for local politics or a symbol of ethnic exclusivity, but a place for cultural activities that bring both Malays and Dayaks together. The new sultan of Serdang in North Sumatra is a historian who wants to make his palace a centre for Malay music and literature. Revived sultanates means revived interest in architectural heritage and also a rediscovering of indigenous forms of Islam.

However, these symbols can become divisive if turned to real political power. The return of the sultans is part of a wider turn towards ethnicity in local politics. Many experts believe ethnic politics can be an obstacle to democratisation in which relatively unimportant dress and food customs are highlighted while important issues such as poverty can be obscured. Ethnic stereotyping sets people against each other when they could instead be joining together to create a more equal and sustainable society.

The colonial government used sultans to keep a lid on dissent, especially after the communist uprisings of 1926-27. In contrast, the anti-feudal character of the Indonesian national revolution was driven by the idea that an equal society must be thoroughly republican. It was precisely that egalitarian spirit that suffered during Suharto’s New Order. In this sense, the return of the sultans has more in common with the New Order than it first appears.

It is yet to be determined if the new sultans can be a positive influence on local politics — one that creates space for ethnic inclusiveness and greater equality, the basis for true popularity.

Gerry van Klinken (editor@insideindonesia.org) is coordinating editor of Inside Indonesia magazine.

Inside Indonesia 78: Apr - Jun 2004

Latest Articles

Essay: Testing out my Bahasa Indonesia

Jul 09, 2024 - PATRICK J MAHONY

We need to learn more about each other. If we do, we will find that in many ways we have much in common

Asbestos danger

Jul 08, 2024 - GWYN ROBERTS

What can be done to prevent suffering in Indonesia?

Obituary: Stop telling, start listening

Jul 04, 2024 - DUNCAN GRAHAM

Owen Podger’s guide to aid-giving

Essay: What remains of the 1998 tragedy for the post-1998 generation


Hearing about my mother's experiences in May 1998 became a pivotal moment that has shaped my life. 

Obit: Bob Muntz, 1947-2024

Jun 24, 2024 - HELEN PAUSACKER

Subscribe to Inside Indonesia

Receive Inside Indonesia's latest articles and quarterly editions in your inbox.

Bacaan Bumi: Pemikiran Ekologis – sebuah suplemen Inside Indonesia

Lontar Modern Indonesia



A selection of stories from the Indonesian classics and modern writers, periodically published free for Inside Indonesia readers, courtesy of Lontar.