ABBEY'S BOOKSELLER PICK ----- Like many Australians, my knowledge of Indonesia was next to nil. When it did cross my mind, the picture ranged from that of a mythical tropical land of exotic and mystical delights, to a hotbed of Islamic fundamentalism. With the recent elections in one of the largest democracies in the world, my interest was piqued with this book by Hamish McDonald, a Walkley Award-winning journalist who has a long association with Asia.
McDonald takes us on a sweep across the history of the archipelago as the ebb and flow of colonial and military power and cronyism are revealed. The structure is well thought-out as each chapter focuses on a key facet of the society or history. The 'disguised coup' from which Major-General Suharto assumed power from Sukarno is the subject of The Crocodile Hole. The embedded nature of the military within the fabric of civil, economic and political life is covered in Beyond Dwifungsi (Dual Function). Capital takes us through the development of the economy and the strained relations with non-indigenous tycoons and nepotism. Moving through history, later chapters deal with Papua (their claim for independence from Indonesia is a sore that won't heal), and the battle against pollution and environmental plundering.
The peppering of Indonesian words throughout also provides a strong sense of the culture. We learn of 'preman' (gangster-thug-enforcers for hire) and 'cukong' (roughly meaning 'boss' but which evolved to also imply a Chinese businessman who had thrived under military patronage).
All-in-all we get a strong picture of emergence. Indonesia is on the rise but it is certainly not a straight line. Key reforms in education, welfare, anti-corruption and democracy run alongside brutal suppressions and corruption. The pattern identified by McDonald is of good intentions, policy and reforms at the top level being watered down or simply ignored by entrenched corruption and poor administration, combined with inadequate resources for enforcement.
The dust is still settling on the Presidential election and it appears that the triumph of Joko Widodo is a lucky escape for the nation, with his defeat of the Suharto-era former general Prabowo Subianto representing a further break from the military regimes of the past.
FREE EVENT: THE UNIVERSITY OF SYDNEY
SYDNEY IDEAS - INDONESIA FACING A NEW FUTURE
1 September 2014
FREE EVENT: ANU CANBERRA
Indonesia Update Conference 2014
The Yudhoyono years: An assessment
19 – 20 September 2014
More reading: An excellent article on a new paradigm for leadership
Soft power, the bazaar and voting for Indonesia's future
INTERVIEW Margaret Throsby speaks with Hamish McDonald on ABC Classic FM
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