Posted by: Lisa Hill | November 28, 2018

Indonesia etc, Exploring the Improbable Nation (2014), by Elizabeth Pisani

If you’re looking for a primer before going to Indonesia on business, Elizabeth Pisani’s Indonesia Etc is not the quick read you need.  It’s 380 pages not counting the acknowledgements, suggestions for further reading and the index.  But for anyone who wants to know more about one of the most dynamic countries on the planet and home to 1 in 30 of the global population, this book is much more than a travel memoir.

For a start, Pisani is not a FIFO (Fly In Fly Out) journalist capitalising on a jaunt with a superficial analysis tucked into a travel memoir. She has lived and worked in Indonesia on and off, longer than anywhere else she has ever lived, and she speaks Indonesian.  She was there from 1988 to 1991; from 2001 to 2005, and from 2011 until she finished this book which was published in 2014.  And in a journey of just over a year on a shoestring budget, she visited 20 provinces, all five of the biggest islands (Sumatra, Sulawesi, the Indonesian parts of New Guinea and Borneo and of course the Java that’s outside Jakarta) and dozens of smaller islands that most of us have never heard of.

At first glance, the book  might seem like an assemblage of titbits, meandering through a collage of ideas and scraps of history, written by a journalist skilled at picking out the interesting bits.  But Pisani has actually been very clever about the structure of the book.  She uses each sojourn in places off the tourist trail for some kind of exotica to hold the reader’s interest, but she extracts from her interactions with the locals some kind of principle.  For example in her chapter about West Timor, she describes how the Habibi government decentralised government and why, and the problems that have ensued in the transitional period.  In the chapter about Sumba, it’s the clash between modernity and tradition.  For this reason, Indonesia Etc far superior to most of the travel writing you come across, and it’s more in depth than the usual thematic format.

The book begins the prologue with an explanation of its title, citing the declaration of independence in 1945, in its brief entirety:

We, the people of Indonesia, hereby declare the independence of Indonesia.  Matters relating to the transfer of power etc. will be executed carefully and as soon as possible. (p.2)

and in Chapter 1 ‘Improbable Nation’ that hasty brevity is explained as Sukarno and his fellow nationalists making sure that the islands were kept out of the hands of any other grasping outsiders.

When the flamboyant nationalist leader Sukarno proclaimed the independence of Indonesia, he was liberating a nation that didn’t really exist, imposing a national unity on a ragbag of islands that had only a veneer of shared history, and little common culture.  The haphazard declaration, with its ‘etc’ and its ‘as soon as possible’, was blurted out just two days after Japan’s unexpected surrender in the Second World War. (p.9)

Many readers schooled in anti-British Imperialism rhetoric will be surprised to learn the reasons for the frequently expressed wish that it would have been better if the Brits and not the Dutch had colonised the Spice Islands.

  • The Dutch only took things, they didn’t give anything back, while the British built up the institutions of state.
  • The Dutch deliberately kept the local population stupid, while the British educated people.
  • The Dutch had a sliding scale of justice, administered against the little person, while the British had an independent judiciary and everyone was equal in the eyes of the law.  (p.19)

These reasons came, she says, not from historians or academics but from everyday people that she met on her travels.  I don’t dispute this view, since I’ve come across it myself from Indonesians nostalgically referring to that brief period when Raffles administered what had become a British colony during the Napoleonic War.  However, the book would have been well-served IMO by exploring the nearest relevant comparison i.e. British Malaya which has certainly had its own post-colonial difficulties even if it does have a better economy.  Whatever about that, Pisani goes on to ‘suspect’ that all the Dutch did was to exploit patterns of behaviour that had already existed in these islands when they first arrived and that the Indonesians haven’t done anything to change the things they blame the Dutch for.

Pisani has a jaunty style, referring, for example, to Sukarno as a Cecil B de Mille character with theatrics who wanted all Indonesians to become extras in a political pageant under his direction, and damn the cost.  He used his personality to try to unify Indonesia while Suharto used the steely threads of bureaucracy.  This style makes the book immensely readable, even when reading about serious issues.  Here she is at Party Central in Weda in southern Sulawesi, where the local Bupati (head honcho) has used public money to invite 7000 people to his twin daughters’ wedding, justified as a form of competitive identity-creation to replace the imposed conformities of the Suharto era:

The Bupati tacked on some more parties, the better to entertain all these Big Men.  The third day of frolics was dedicated to celebrating the birthday of the PDIP, the political party which was backing the Bupati in elections later in the year.  The PDIP’s buffalo logo graced red-silk flags that flirted with the sea breeze in front of the hotel, outside every government building, outside the offices of other political parties.  On the back of a flatbed truck, the local transgender of waria contingent gyrated to dangdut music, with the Bupati’s face stretched over their silicone breast implants.  Though they had sexed up their T-shirts with punky slashes and safety pins, they were careful not to deface the Bupati’s image.  (p.186)

Pisani notes that when (after an absence of some years) she returns to Indonesia after the fall of Suharto, she sees the end of censorship in bookshops, a plethora of TV channels instead of the dreary government broadcasts, and the rise of the jilbab (the Indonesian version of Islamic head covering) along with religious intolerance and intimations of a less cohesive nation.  By the time she comes to write this book, she wonders if she is writing about a country that has ceased to exist. The chapter ‘Historical Fictions’ is themed around the dangers of separatism and the surprising change of heart in Aceh, while ‘Misfits’ (in Central Sumatra) covers the attitudes towards and lack of support for disability in a country where it’s thought to be a punishment on the parents from God, and also the damage to the environment under unenforced national laws and impotent NGOs.

Although Pisani spends a lot of her time with women, including sharing their work, she doesn’t have much to say about the status of women (even though Indonesia’s third post-Reformasi president was a woman).  Pisani herself was constantly interrogated about her status as a female solo traveller, and invented a husband (and sometimes children) in Jakarta along with a Catholic religion so as to deflect interest.  (She is actually a divorced, unemployed atheist with no children).  She is wittily scathing about the rise of evangelism (both Christian and Islamic) and the overt forms of piety which, she says, require nothing of the congregation except donations, and make no mention of inequality, corruption or the need to help others.

However, while mob justice and armed conflict is mostly ascribed to religious differences which exacerbate the fracturing of national unity, she writes that:

Urbanisation and mobility are diluting the tribalism and collective cultures that underpin much of Indonesian life.  Religion recreates the comfort of a known universe, it is a visible badge of identity which suits the need to clump together.  (p.320).

So it will be very interesting to discuss this book with my Indonesian book group!

Author: Elizabeth Pisani
Title: Indonesia etc, Exploring the Improbable Nation,
Publisher: Granta Books UK, 2014, 404 pages,
ISBN: 9781783780143
Source: : Port Phillip Library

Available from Fishpond: Indonesia Etc.: Exploring the Improbable Nation


  1. The Netherlands (emigrated to this land) and Indonesia are connected at the the hip…still! This year a shortlist finalist for Dutch history book of 2018 was by Piet Hagen (1000+ pg) Koloniale Oorlogen in Indonesië. I know nothing about NL-Indo coloniaism and this book just look like a challenge to read. That is why I’m am interested in Pisani’s book Indonesia, Etc.. It seem more accessible to a Indonesia novice. I just ordered it. Thanks for bringing this book to my attention!


    • You’re welcome, Nancy:) I hope to bring you more books about Indonesia and by Indonesians as our group gets going. At the moment we’re still finding our way in sourcing the books we want to read, but we’ll get there!

      Liked by 1 person

      • I will follow your ‘Indonesion connectons’….good books about the land are hard to find for me. Thx.


        • BTW Pisani references two authors to chase up: Ahmad Tohari who wrote a trilogy called The Dancer and Sini Murbaya by Marah Rusli, the first modern Indonesian novel. Both of these are available for Kindle from Amazon. I have them, but haven’t read them yet…


          • Thanks for the reading tips!


  2. Many, maybe even most, countries are temporary when you look at them. Germany – a recent federation. Spain – a conflicted federation. Yugoslavia – an ex-federation. And on we go, around the world. Indonesia is special – to Australians, to our future, if not to our leaders. I wish the Indonesians hadn’t seized West Papua, but …


  3. Just to let you know….I’m reading Indonesia and enjoy Pisani’s ‘ jaunty style’!
    Especially had to laugh about Sukakrno: ” 1 part populism, 3 parts theatre, seasoned with mischief and served with a large glass of charisma!”
    I’ve added a few of your 2018 recommendations to my TBR 2019…thanks so much for all your reading analyses!
    Have a great Christmas Holiday!


    • That’s wonderful! I love it when this happens:)
      Happy reading!


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