Feb 21, 2024 Last Updated 10:11 PM, Feb 20, 2024

Review: Becoming Dutch, staying Indo

Review: Becoming Dutch, staying Indo
Published: Mar 22, 2011

Van Leeuwen’s book considers the struggles and ironies surrounding Indies heritage in Holland, as the outcome of an absurd colonial history


Ben Anderson

   Our Indies Heritage: Sixty Years of Struggle for Culture and Identity

Some years ago, when I read Lizzy’s masterpiece, Lost in Mall: An Ethnography of Middle-Class Jakarta in the 1990s, I found myself laughing over and over again – a delicious pleasure that I had never experienced while reading any of the classic academic books about Indonesia. In them you could find moralising, anger, earnestness, melancholy, cynicism, pedantry, secular missionising, sometimes a dash here and there of irony, but practically never the laughter that best distinguishes us from our animal cousins. Lizzy had had the originality to undertake anthropological fieldwork among the new rich of Jakarta, and the fortitude to endure one year of moral, political and cultural nothingness in one of the quasi-gated communities in which such people lived during the final years of Suharto’s tyranny. The book reaches its climax in the first days of the rioting that led to Suharto’s fall. We are shown a youngish middle-aged wife and mother, facing an existential conundrum. Her dilettante husband has gone off to take photos, and has shut down his cell-phone. Her brutish teenage son is incommunicado in some favourite mall, and the maid has taken the day off. Left alone with the family’s three Mercedes Benz, she thinks of driving one off to a ‘safe’ spot near the city limits, but is paralysed by the fancy that while she is gone, the other two could fall into the hands of the menacing unwashed. Lizzy’s perfect eye and ear for black social comedy makes one laugh, but one also feels her quiet sympathy for the wretched woman. This combination of comedy, melancholy, human warmth and sharp-eyed, unillusioned social observation is Lizzy’s forte.

Her latest book, Ons Indisch Erfgoed: Zestig Jaar Strijd om Cultuur en Identiteit (Our Indies Heritage: Sixty Years of Struggle for Culture and Identity), is another triumph in much the same manner. It analyses the first great post-colonial migration of ‘ex-colonials’ to an imperial step-motherland in Atlantic Europe, and the politico-cultural consequences over the next 60 years. The waves started in 1946 when largely totok or ‘pure Dutch’ bureaucrats, businessmen and soldiers, savagely interned by the occupying Japanese, were repatriated to Holland with their families. After four years of brutal warfare, the Netherlands was forced to transfer legal sovereignty to the Federal Republic of Indonesia. Many Indos, especially those with ‘Dutch’ legal status, who had fought with the Dutch against Indonesian nationalists, imagined the writing on the wall, and started to migrate to the Netherlands, though some went on to warmer (in every sense of the word) climates in California, Australia and Brazil. Late in 1957, in reprisal for The Hague’s stubborn refusal to negotiate West Papua’s joining the infant Republic, Sukarno ordered the nationalisation of all Dutch enterprises in Indonesia, and the expulsion of all those with Dutch nationality.

Who were the traumatised migrants from Indonesia between 1946 and, say, 1965 (‘integration’ of West Papua into Indonesia in 1963 and Sukarno’s effective fall in late 1965)? The two most important groups were ‘pure Dutch’ and Indos. The former included many with long careers behind them in the Indies, many children born and raised there, as well as a minority of families with local roots several generations back. In political terms, they could be easily assimilated into a Dutch society that was still fairly homogeneous. But, with a few exceptions, they would never, in Holland, have the kind of power and prestige (let alone armies of male and female servants) they had once enjoyed and taken for granted in the Indies. The Indo-Europeans were another matter.

Amazingly, from almost the start, Dutch colonial law never acknowledged a status like, for example, the Mmétis in the French colonies or the Anglo-Indians of the Raj. If a ‘European’ acknowledged a child by an ‘Asian’ woman, the little one became Dutch, despite, maybe, a brown skin and beautiful eyes. If he did not – and this was much more common – the child would become a native (inlander) even if s/he had blue eyes and a fair skin. ‘Indos’ never appeared as a statistical category in colonial censuses, but it is probable that they made up three quarters of the 250,000 ‘Europeans’ recorded by the census of 1930. No one has any idea how many inlander Indos there were.

Until 1870 or so, when the colony was still closed to immigration, the ‘European’ Indos did rather well, but once the doors were broken open by Free Trade, whole families could seek their fortunes in the Indies, and thus the economic, political and social position of the Indos steadily declined. Meanwhile the opening of good schools for Indonesians created a growing rivalry in the job-market between Indos and natives. The memoir of journalist Kwee Thiam Tjing, the wittiest satirist of the colonial era, who used the mock-terrifying pen name ‘Tjamboek Berdoeri’ (Whip Laced with Thorns), describes hilariously his relationship – in jail – with a young Indo thief. The boy was taken to court in an automobile, while TB, charged with offences against the press laws, had to walk the same route in chains. The boy had a comfortable mattress, a mosquito net, a personal native servant and large European meals, while TB had none of these privileges. The end of the anecdote has the little thief saying he couldn’t bear the European food, and could he exchange what he was given for the simple native food supplied to TB?

The traumatisation of the Indos differed fundamentally from that of the totoks. During World War II, the totoks were all, step by step, put in prison camps. Indo women and children escaped this fate, on the whole, but adult males (except the old), especially soldiers from KNIL, the colonial military, were frequently interned. Curiously enough, the Japanese, thinking racially like the Dutch, but in their own manner, decided that anyone with ‘Asian’ blood was all right. Indo kids could be raised as good members of the Greater East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere. TB laughingly describes a very European-looking Indo family in his neighbourhood taking photos of themselves standing around and behind their elderly Javanese gardener – who was captioned, for Japanese eyes, as ‘Beloved Grandpa’. They suffered, like everyone else, under Japanese rule, but not nearly as terribly as the hundred of thousands of ‘natives’ recruited for forced labour, most of whom died from starvation and disease.

The big shock came with the unexpected onset of the Revolution. After Hitler’s suicide on the last day of April 1945, Japan’s defeat was generally seen as inevitable, though most believed many months of fighting lay ahead. The Big Allies – the UK and the US – would eventually disarm the Japanese, and help the Dutch quickly to restore colonial rule. But the nuclear bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the simultaneous Soviet declaration of war on Japan and invasion of Manchuria, and the abrupt unconditional surrender announced by Hirohito on 15 August, turned American eyes towards the fastest possible occupation of Japan. The British, mainly concerned with re-establishing their power in Malaya, Singapore and Burma, had no interest in the Indies, beyond rescuing the wretched people in the Japanese internment camps.

In the mind of the British military leaders, now serving under Attlee’s Labour government, and very uncertain whether their mostly Indian troops would obey orders against the colonised Indonesians, practical negotiations with the shaky new Republican government were unavoidable. Holland at that time, only just liberated from Nazism, had neither the military power nor the economic resources immediately to restore colonial rule on their own account. Hence the appearance in the last four months of 1945 of a power vacuum, the so-called Bersiap period, which produced ‘social revolutions’ in Atjeh, North Sumatra, Banten, the Tiga Daerah on Java’s north coast, Surakarta and elsewhere. The targets of these social revolutions were primarily bureaucrats and aristocrats regarded as collaborators with the Japanese and Dutch colonialism.

But other groups suspected of welcoming the return of colonialism or working for Dutch intelligence, were not spared, especially by criminal elements wrapping themselves in the cloak of Liberation. Among these groups were Indos – mainly old folk, women and children living outside the camps. Suspicion of the Indos went back to pre-war times. In the later 1930s, for a while at least, 75 per cent of the members of the Indies section of the metropolitan Dutch fascist National-Socialist Movement were Indos. And Indos typically supported the colonial regime’s repressive policies towards the ‘natives’.

At the same time the Indonesian nationalists had always regarded themselves as being on the left – communists, socialists, social democrats, progressive Muslims and so forth. In 1946, the British left Indonesia and the Dutch sent a large army to the former colony, which the Republic’s official army and armed political youth groups fought to a standstill. At the end of 1949, under heavy American pressure, The Hague finally transferred sovereignty to a Federal Republic of Indonesia. During these years the overwhelming majority of Indos with Dutch status remained loyal to Holland, and many Indo males fought on the Dutch side in a war in which atrocities were committed by all parties.

After the transfer of sovereignty, the Dutch-status Indos generally saw no future for themselves in independent Indonesia: a small distrusted minority, drowning in a population of perhaps 80 million people. One reason The Hague clung so long to West Papua was the hope that the Indos could move there, not to’ pure-blood’ Holland. But very few Indos wanted to go to this distant terrain, where a warm welcome by the Papuans was unlikely. Soekarno’s decree expelling Dutch nationals from Indonesia in 1957 was the last straw. Cold and rainy Holland, with its odd food and odder habits, was the haven to go to, even if the vast majority had never been in this Homeland, let alone one reeling from World War II, economic destruction (thanks to the beloved Allies), humiliation and total colonial failure. After all they were legally Dutch!

   Becoming The Whip Laced with Thorns: The memoir of Kwee Thiam Tjing

The ‘pure’ Dutch and the Indos had several things in common. They were deeply attached to the Indies, they had experienced the Japanese occupation, and they had tried to restore colonial rule. They loved the food, the landscapes, the climate, the women (but Indo men often preferred blondes) and the music. And they were united in fury with the Dutch government’s ungrateful stinginess. For 40 or more years, The Hague did everything it could to avoid backpay for immigrant civil servants, pensions, relocation costs and so forth. ‘We sacrificed everything for you, and you have betrayed us politically, financially and morally!’

Nonetheless, and this is Lizzy’s great theme, these embittered migrants were committed to surviving the chilly reception they received on arrival. Again the Indos were the hardest hit. Most accepted jobs ranking well below those they had held in the Indies, and did their best to assimilate and fit in. Children were taught to learn ‘proper Dutch’ at the expense of pétjo, the well-known Indo pidgin. This commitment stands in sharp contrast to the commitment of another sizeable group fleeing Indonesia: the Protestant Moluccans, who, though once called Black Dutch, refused Dutch citizenship as it would undermine their claim to an independent secessionist state in their home territory.

Although most Indos were committed to assimilation, the difficult process soon enough raised the question ‘who are you?’ which today we casually call the problem of ‘identity’. One could say that the spectrum of replies ranged between: ‘We are what we used to be’ and ‘We are what we hope to be’. Lizzy has a respectful but ironical account of the politico-cultural leadership provided, till his early death, by ‘Tjalie Robinson’ aka Jan Boon (and, afterwards, by his implacable widow Lilian Ducelle), whose hilarious, touching and unforgettable stories about his childhood in colonial Batavia – written in a classy combination of Dutch and Betawi Malay, for example Pikierans van een Straatsmijslijper (Thoughts of a Street Person, definitely male) – every Indonesian and ‘Indonesianist’ book-lover should learn to read. In Tjalie’s mind these writings were an expression of an indestructible Indies identity – indestructible because it was rooted in ‘blood’ or mixed racial heritage. Lizzy offers us a photo of the great man with a cigarette dripping from his lips in the Bogart manner, demonstrating the famous Indo slingshot with which, as a boy, he had killed so many birds. A man of vast energy, he founded and led the militant ‘Indo’ magazine Tong Tong (which survived for a decade after his death in 1974), as well as the American Tong Tong for the many Indos who settled in California. He also started the Indies Cultural Circle, an Indies Scientific Institute and above all, the annual Pasar Malam fair in The Hague, a huge popular success up till the present. But ‘blood’ was not enough for the second and third generations of ‘Indies people’.

‘Identity’, even if often felt as a modern replacement for the soul, is basically a reply to an interlocutor’s question ‘Who the hell are you?’ In reality, the answer depends on who is asking, when and where? If you are an Indonesian and are questioned, in Indonesia, by another Indonesian, your answer will be of the type: I’m a Batak, I’m from Palembang. If you are asked by a Japanese immigration officer at Narita airport, you will say, I’m from Indonesia (you know he has never heard of Palembang). If you go to Indiana, and are asked by a local gas-station attendant, you will say: I’m Asian, because you are sure that either the guy has never heard of Indonesia, or that he can’t distinguish between India and Indonesia. But for the Indies people, it seemed that only ‘culture’ would work. This culture took some time to be elaborated. But already in the 1950s ‘Indies’ rock bands were pioneering a ‘Youth Culture’, which owed more to Elvis Presley and to Indo krontjong music than to anything ur-Dutch.

It is striking that Lizzy’s work does not go into detail about the deep cultural revolution in the Netherlands during the late 1950s and especially in the 1960s, which changed the old political-moral order inherited from the late nineteenth century. One could say that the basic causes were two. With the publication of Anne Frank’s heart-breaking diary, the Netherlands’ horrible role in the mass murder of Jews could not be ignored, and caused a revulsion against ‘good old Holland’ that has continued. The second was the discrediting and collapse of the oligarchic political order famously known as pillarisation (verzuiling). In this system, Calvinists, Catholics, Liberals (economic) and eventually Socialists each controlled their own institutions (schools, churches, presses, unions etc) sharply segregated from each other and cabinets were formed by murky and unprincipled coalitions at the top. The cabinets that controlled policy on Indonesia between 1946 and 1949 were mostly coalitions of very conservative Catholics and timid Socialists, with the Catholics playing the worst and most stupid role. The pillarised slogan that without the Indies Holland would fall into economic misery was quickly proved a lie – the country did far better after the end of colonial rule than it had ever done before. The claims of popular democracy could no longer be brushed aside.

The famous Provo movement, starting around 1963, initiated the street-level changes. In an eerie reincarnation of the Patriotten movement of 1784, which preceded, and contributed to, the French Revolution five years later, the Provos were the pioneers of a worldwide rebellion against ‘old orders’ in the US, France, Britain, Italy, Japan and so on. These libertarians, whose weapons of choice were mockery, contempt and radical street politics, bequeathed a Netherlands unimaginable in 1950. Their basic stance was that the political class, which had controlled Dutch political life for decades, was stupid and an enemy. This leftist, anarchistic movement also laid the ground for a political multiculturalism that became state policy by the late 1980s.

What Lizzy shows in passing, however, is that the Provos had very little direct impact on and relevance for the Indies people, who generally remained what they had always been, a conservative and rightwing group. What she highlights for that decade was the enthusiastic reception of the fall of the ‘Great Satan’ (Sukarno) in 1966, following the mass murder of Indonesian leftists, far vaster and more terrible than anything the Indies people had ever experienced. Furthermore, the nice tyrant Suharto opened wide Indonesia’s doors to foreign investors and tourists. The IGGI, Inter-Governmental Group on Indonesia, including all the major capitalist countries, made possible, by covering for decades of almost all non- routine budgetary state expenses, a rapid development in the former colony. The IGGI’s ‘capital city’ was The Hague. Dutch tourists flocked to Indonesia in a wave of sensual nostalgia. ‘It hasn’t really changed’, you might say, ‘Grandpa’s villa is still there’, ’Gamelan and wayang haven’t disappeared’, ‘Priangan is just as gorgeous as ever’, ‘17th century VOC buildings are being restored’, etc. After all, the conflicts between 1945 and 1965 were over, and no one wanted to think too deeply about them. Too bad young Indonesians didn’t know any Dutch – but English was OK too.

This enormous political change had two major consequences. On the one hand, people in power in The Hague had no interest in poking into the turbulent events of 1945-65, precisely the years in which the Indies people saw themselves as betrayed victims. Official amnesia was also accompanied by a huge wave of sentimental nostalgia for the good old days, now that those bad later days had been bracketed. It was thus in the 1970s and 80s that Indies people had a complicated opportunity to spread their cultural-heritage wings. The 1980s was the decade in which novels set in the Indies, written mostly by totok Dutch, suddenly drew a wide readership. The idea of an ‘Indies literature’ separable from (and better than) mainstream Dutch literature was born, with an ancestry going back to the most famous of all totok Dutch writers – Eduard Douwes Dekker, known better as Multatuli: Louis Couperus, Edgar du Perron, Maria Dermoût, Albert Albers, F Springer, plus Tjalie Robinson. At the popular level, the Indos led the way.

The great star of the period was a singer-actress who appeared in the unending comic sinetron The Late Late Show of Tante Lien. This character was a friendly colonial stereotype of the grown-up Indo woman, dressed in a loud sarong and kebaya, warm-hearted, blabber-mouthed (tjeplas-tjeplos), opinionated, gossipy, sentimental, unabashedly sensual and speaking street-Dutch with the distinctive Indo accent. (One can observe that there was no Oom Frans counterpart, since a stereotyped Indo male, perhaps showing his knuckledusters, could be threatening). But the Indos themselves were divided on Tante Lien’s popularity. The formidable Lilian Ducelle, who continued her husband’s purism, but amped it up 200 percent, bitterly attacked the show as a superficial caricature of true Indo identity and culture. Nonetheless, Tante Lien’s huge popularity was a sign that Indies culture was becoming commercially viable and also successfully assimilated in the ex-imperial centre.

By the 1990s the Anglo-American doctrine of ‘multiculturalism’ had seeped its way into Dutch public life. New-generation, middle-of-the road Dutch politicians were now willing to put state power and financial resources behind the endeavour to create lasting institutions celebrating ‘Our Indies Heritage’ – museums, monuments, festivals, TV documentaries, libraries, research grants and archives. They even began to offer ‘compensation funds’ for selected ‘Indies’ institutions, after 50 years of dragging their feet on backpay and pensions. Much of this endeavour could be said to be successful. Every year the national Pasar Malam – now ‘ours’ not ‘theirs’ – was more and more crowded and stimulated smaller local versions around the country. The biggest success was Indies food – especially for a country that never managed to export its cuisine even to close neighbours like the UK, France and Germany.

But it was by no means all plain sailing. The building of a small, special war memorial for the Indies victims of the Japanese Occupation and its aftermath did not go well. Over the previous two decades there had been periodic TV documentaries, followed by TV debates, on the atrocities committed by Dutch troops, including KNIL veterans, against the Indonesian natives. In 1995, the 50th anniversary of Indonesia’s Declaration of Independence, Queen Beatrix was invited to make a state visit to Suharto’s Jakarta. The Indies veterans’ lobby went in to furious battle. It was encouraged by a successful 1993 campaign to prevent ‘traitor’ Poncke Princen, the youthful deserter who went over to the Indonesian side during the Revolution (and later became the father of the country’s human rights movement) from making an sick old man’s visit back home. What enraged the old guard was the idea that after 45 years of insisting that Indonesia was born in 1949, the state authorities were now accepting Sukarno-Hatta’s declaration of independence on 17 August 1945. The change was a huge humiliation for those who had fought against Sukarno-Hatta from 1945-49. Beatrix did make her state visit, but only after the 50th anniversary was over.

There was also a serious financial scandal, of which Lizzy gives a nicely sardonic account. A sizeable part of the Dutch government’s budget for multicultural activities went into the five-star renovation of a large ‘traditional’ building in The Hague entitled Indisch Huis (Indies House). Pushed most strongly by Lilian Ducelle and the ageing purists, this Indies House was supposed to be the headquarters for the preservation and dissemination of true Indies identity. Unluckily, the appointed managers turned out to be crooks, who with the see-nothing, hear-nothing, know-nothing connivance of some high state functionaries, bankrupted the House and vanished, maybe overseas, with their pockets full of embezzled euros. No one was punished, or even put on trial. Laughing, Lizzy remarks: Exactly like the tahu sama tahu (you cover my ass and I’ll cover yours) corruption within the VOC, oldest erfgoed of Dutch Indies colonialism.

In the meanwhile, multiculturalism was coming gradually under rightwing and racist political pressure. In the late 1970s, 1980s and 1990s, new waves of immigrants were arriving and often staying in the Netherlands: first from the small Dutch colonial possessions in the Caribbean zone, especially Surinam, later, Muslim Arabs and Berbers from Morocco. There were racial incidents, but nothing too alarming. But all this changed after Al-Qaeda’s spectacular and successful attack on New York’s Twin Towers. In line with Washington’s ‘war on terrorism’, most European governments undertook more and more repressive police action against Muslims resident in their domains. Early state subventions to the building of small mosques were replaced by louder and louder calls for closing the existing mosques and banning new Muslim religious constructions. Immigration controls were everywhere tightened, and immigration agencies had plenty of room to expand their power.

   The Indisch author and co-founder of the Pasar Malam Fair Jan Boon (Tjalie Robinson) with a catapult at the Pasar Malam,
   early 1960s
   IISG Collection Ducelle 84

The final irony of contemporary Dutch postcolonial history is the dizzying rise of the charismatic young Geert Wilders and his ultra-right-wing populist political party, without whose support the present-day Dutch cabinet could not have been formed. Wilders regards himself as the messianic leader of all the various anti-immigrant and racist rightwing political movements in Western Europe. His central demand is the forcible expulsion of all Muslims from ‘Christian Europe’. In Holland, he claims to stand for traditional Dutch values, above all pure-Dutch nationalism. Holland’s Le Pen one could say. But in fact he is an Indo in Tjalie Robinson’s formulation, who keeps his hair dyed a brilliant blond, perhaps to go with his Aryan blue eyes. Finally there has emerged a strange kind of conjuncture. From one direction looms the lovable immigrant Indo woman, Tante Lien, nudging her country from one-sided ‘assimilation’ towards multiculturalism’s live and let live morality. From another direction comes finally a male Indo star, Wilders, with rhetorical knuckledusters in both sides of his mouth, and standing for so pure a Dutchness that his Indies ‘identity’ has disappeared under his cute, renewable ‘wig’.

Readers will not find Wilders in Ons Indisch Erfgoed, which deliberately focuses on the cultural struggles of the migrants to the Netherlands, and over whose conclusion there hang no ominous thunderclouds. But, dear reader, you won’t be surprised that Lizzy published last year a brilliantly shrewd article, in the magazine De Groene Amsterdammer, on Wilders’ shady ancestry, which she dug up from dust-gathering colonial archives, as well as on his psychology and political ambitions, relying on her profound knowledge of the Indo community in the Netherlands. It’s a pity that a negative variant on erfgoed seems not to exist in the Dutch language.

Lizzy’s wonderful study of the Indos in the Netherlands ought to have its counterpart in a fine book on Indos who remained in Indonesia and improved their status from ‘inlander’ to ‘WNI’ (Indonesian National Citizen). So far as I know, the Suharto regime did not seriously discriminate against Indos – a sharp contrast with its vast array of rules and practices designed to hurt Indonesian Chinese. Ferry Sonneville, the world champion badminton player, had no trouble becoming a popular hero. Few people were more feared under the New Order than General Benny Moerdani, who rose to become commander of the Indonesian Armed Forces and later minister of defence, and Yapto Soerjosoemarno, an experienced killer who long headed the Pemuda Pantjasila. All three were ‘mixed blood.’

So much for the Pikierans of an elderly so-called Indonesianist, who is enchanted by two utterly different, wonderful books, one on Djakarta and one on Ons Klein Land (Our Small Country). I cannot think of anyone in the last 20 years who has achieved what Lizzy has managed to create.

Lizzy van Leeuwen, Ons Indisch Erfgoed, Amsterdam, Bert Bakker 2008.

Ben Anderson is Aaron L. Binenkorb Professor of International Studies, Emeritus, Cornell University.

This article is part of the Being 'Indo' miniseries.

Inside Indonesia 103: Jan-Mar 2011

Latest Articles

Essay: Local tradition in a global religious community in modern day Java

Feb 20, 2024 - LEO BARRY

Ghosts and spirits often come up in conversation but attitudes are changing

Review: Netflix’s ‘Cigarette Girl’ promotes Big Tobacco interests in Indonesia

Feb 08, 2024 - MARINA WELKER

Netflix’s series Gadis Kretek (Cigarette Girl) romanticises an industry that kills around 290,000 Indonesians each year

Book review: I am that unicorn

Feb 06, 2024 - HELEN PAUSACKER

Essay: A movement to remember

Feb 01, 2024 - GHINA TSABITAH

This essay is the first in a new series featuring the writing of and edited by young people.

Obituary: Soni Farid Maulana (1962-2022)

Jan 23, 2024 - IAN CAMPBELL

Lontar Modern Indonesia



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

Subscribe to Inside Indonesia

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