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Book review: A serious report of a serious Indonesia

By Duncan Graham - posted Thursday, 23 March 2006

Life was much easier for observers of Indonesia in the bad old days of Suharto and his authoritarian Orde Baru Government.

We could write with confidence about politics and forecast election outcomes with accuracy. Year in and year out, the same players and predictable issues. Economic indicators were forever onwards and upwards. All critics could be dismissed as communists.

And now? Every day is an astonishment and all seers suspect. Comments have a use-by date, and in modern mercurial Indonesia that’s often just a matter of days - sometimes hours; Britain’s Sunday Telegraph newspaper splashed a story about Bali’s recovery on the weekend of the second blast.


In trying to explain it all to the mildly interested, the easy solution is to play safe, record the past and raise gentle questions about the future, letting the reader develop answers: “Given the enormous social and economic changes that have occurred in recent decades, does politics still retain the same degree of autonomy from cultural influences?” asks Dr Ian Chalmers.

This unanswered question is from the Australian academic’s new book Indonesia: An Introduction to Contemporary Traditions, which tries to bring Indonesian studies students up to speed on events in the past decade.

To the great dismay of all who are mesmerised by this country, Indonesian studies has slumped in Australian schools and universities since the first Bali bomb. Chalmers, who helped organise last year’s successful conference of the Australian Society of Indonesian Language Educators, has been busy trying to reverse this trend.

So there was some hope that this book would boost his campaign by enthralling the next generation with the quivering danger and delight that’s Indonesia today. This is a nation dancing with democracy on the lip of the caldera, and it’s a spellbinding performance.

Instead we have a sober, constrained, fact-filled text, a good glossary, fine index and enough notes to stump the most pedantic. This is all well and good if you think Indonesia should only be debated by stern scholars and political analysts.

Relations with Indonesia are the most significant item on Australia’s foreign affairs agenda, too important to be left to academics and policy-polishers in Canberra. Indonesia is people in all their confusing complexity. More than anything else this makes the country so appealing to those dismayed by logical, organised, smug Australia.


The book covers all the required bases - history, anthropology, culture, religion, economy and politics - and does so competently. It’s littered with on-the-page references which add authenticity but make reading a bumpy experience. Endnotes avoid this hazard. The monochrome pictures do nothing to lift the text or appeal to the “interested general reader” Chalmers is trying to reach.

Consequently it lacks the electricity that might jump-start young Australians making their educational choices and now sadly opting for European tongues rather than the language and culture of the people next door.

Being populist and serious is a big ask, though journalist Bruce Grant pulled it off with Indonesia. First published in 1964, it survived into a third edition 32 years later.

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Chalmers, Ian: Indonesia. An introduction to contemporary traditions. Oxford University Press, Melbourne.

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About the Author

Duncan Graham is a Perth journalist who now lives in Indonesia in winter and New Zealand in summer. He is the author of The People Next Door (University of Western Australia Press) and Doing Business Next Door (Wordstars). He blogs atIndonesia Now.

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Creative Commons LicenseThis work is licensed under a Creative Commons License.

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