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Review: The Anxieties of Mobility

Review: The Anxieties of Mobility
Published: May 17, 2009

Migration and tourism in the Indonesian borderlands

Johan A. Lindquist

Honolulu: University of Hawai‘i Press, 2009, 193pp.
ISBN 978-0-8248-3201-8 (hard cover)
ISBN 978-0-8248-3315-2 (paperback)

The Indonesian island of Batam, just a short boat ride from Singapore, used to be largely deserted. Yet in recent years it has transformed from a space of thick jungle to a sprawling boom town, home to a major industrial park (Batamindo) and a throbbing economy of sex, drugs, and vice tourism catering predominantly to working-class Singaporean men. In The Anxieties of Mobility, anthropologist Johan Lindquist combines a short account of Batam’s development with insights into the lives and experiences of many of the ‘key figures’ to be found on the island: Batamindo factory workers, the unemployed, prostitutes, Singaporean tourists and labour migrants hoping to use Batam as a stepping stone to Malaysia or Singapore. Their stories are always fascinating, but Lindquist goes further. For him, they offer nothing less than a powerful new way to think about globalisation.

Lindquist’s argument is beguiling. Many theorists have suggested that globalisation involves above all a profound change in the organisation of the capitalist political economy, but Lindquist argues that this understanding has left the ‘emotional economy’ under-theorised. His portrait of this emotional economy lies at the heart of the book. The account is organised around three concepts that he identifies as dominant tropes of life on Batam. The first, merantau, refers to the widespread practice of circular migration in which Indonesians leave home and travel elsewhere, hoping to make it big before returning home. Migrants choose Batam having heard that it is a hub of modernity and a city of 24 hour fun. They are met with a shock when they arrive to find themselves in a city that is half-built; strewn with spaces and people categorised as liar (wild, unregulated): squatter settlements, unmarried households, and freelance prostitutes. The vast numbers of migrants make it difficult for anyone to secure a job in the flagship multinationals, and if they do, it is the gruelling monotony of the assembly-line and factory floor. Many women turn to the sex industry to supplement or substitute their factory wages, in an effort to support their partner or send slightly higher remittances back home.

There is thus a lot to feel ashamed about – and Lindquist’s third concept reflects this. Identifying malu (shame, embarrassment, reserve) as the ‘dominant emotional trope for migrants on Batam’, Lindquist suggests that it is the shame of failure and inability to return migrants’ emotional debt to their home that keeps them on the move and so sustains migration circuits. Batam, he concludes, is characterised by ‘the belum’ or ‘the not-yet’. The island is not-yet developed; the migrants are not-yet successful – and yet their feeling of malu about this prompts them to present a rosier picture of Batam to their families back home, thereby fuelling the myth of its modernity.

Lindquist’s provocative conclusion is that culturally situated emotions such as malu – rather than economic ‘push-pull’ factors – fuel what appears to be a straightforward case of economic migration. The cases Lindquist chooses illustrate his arguments well, and on this level the book offers a substantial contribution to thinking and theories about globalisation. But in placing the relationship between merantau, liar and malu so centrally in his analysis, Lindquist risks both misrepresenting Batam and obscuring further aspects of the island’s emotional economy.

Lindquist refers to these key concepts throughout the book, but they receive little interrogation or contextualisation beyond the definitions provided at the beginning. As a result, what could be highly nuanced uses of a word get collapsed into overarching ‘tropes’, producing an unduly rigid analysis. A central component of Lindquist’s analysis, for example, is that the concept of merantau includes an explicit obligation to go home, and this drives a sense of malu. Yet this obligation is clearly ignored by large numbers of migrants living on Batam. Indeed, there is a growing sense amongst migrants that Batam is their home, where they wish to stay, and to which they feel a strong emotional attachment. The nuances of what it means to be a ‘migrant’ thus appear to be both diverse and changing, and feelings of homeliness and belonging to Batam may offset those of malu and the desire to return to the kampung.

Similarly, while Lindquist suggests that malu keeps people on the move, the towns and villages of Sumatra are full of young men and women who tried their luck in Batam and returned home impoverished and bitter. Though they might feel malu, such people are also adamant that their failure in Batam is not a measure of their own shortcomings, but of the nefarious interests of Batam’s municipal government or other ethnic groups. These realities – inconceivable within Lindquist’s model – suggest that the emotional economy he has described is only partially complete, and that other concepts and emotions could be usefully added into the analysis.

I wondered both how sincere and how comprehensive migrants’ accounts actually are, and to what extent they are drawing on dominant social narratives to hide the murkier aspects of their stories

They also raise a methodological question. The book relies on the feelings and sentiments that migrants and tourists themselves express. Frustratingly, though, there is very little discussion of the stakes that individuals might have in telling their story in a particular way. I wondered both how sincere and how comprehensive migrants’ accounts actually are, and to what extent they are drawing on dominant social narratives to hide the murkier aspects of their stories. Lindquist sidesteps this issue by choosing to focus on a limited number of key concepts, yet it is precisely these unspoken dimensions of lived experience that could provide crucial additional insights into Batam’s emotional economy.

My final reservation concerns historicisation. Lindquist conducted the bulk of his fieldwork in the late 1990s, but insists that the framework he has developed remains relevant through to the present day as an ‘enduring social form’. He provides little analysis to support this claim. Problematically, he plays down the idea that Indonesia’s recent political changes, including decentralisation, have had much effect on Batam. For example, he ignores the creation of a new ‘Riau Islands’ province (in which Batam is located), which arguably may have had very profound implications for the emotional processes involved in inhabiting and ‘belonging to’ Batam. I was disappointed to see little engagement with either these processes, or the scholarly literature addressing them (for example, the work of Carole Faucher). Equally curiously, Lindquist makes no attempt to engage with the works of Australian scholars who have conducted research in Batam, and elsewhere in the Riau Islands, on very similar themes to The Anxieties of Mobility (notably Michele Ford, Lenore Lyons and Sophie Williams). Their accounts show that Lindquist’s concerns with dispossession, marginality and malu are valid ones, but also highlight a range of more positive experiences: opportunities for social and physical mobility that keep people in the Islands, a more friendly and human face to labour migration than that experienced elsewhere, and a sense of fraternity amongst sex tourists that helps their lives in Singapore become more bearable. In this light it seems that Lindquist is correct to focus on the emotional economy, but his focus on relatively extreme cases of anxiety and disenfranchisement only scratches the surface of the complex processes at play.

As the first book-length publication dealing with Batam, The Anxieties of Mobility opens up a series of fascinating questions about a truly intriguing part of the world. Its style is compelling and clear, and the stories Lindquist focuses on are both engrossing and moving. Intellectually, the call to focus on the emotional economies of globalisation is an important one, and provides ample food for thought. Ultimately, however, whilst the book aims to provide a comprehensive account of these emotional economies, its reductive methods and weak sense of historical change mean that its central argument – much like Lindquist’s Batam – remains characterised by the ‘not-yet’.     ii

Review by Nick Long (NJL34@CAM.AC.UK), who lectures in social anthropology at the University of Cambridge

Inside Indonesia 96: Apr-Jun 2009

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