Asian insider's eye on a split-level society

Indonesian Destinies
May 21, 2004

In the final years of the Marcos regime in the mid-1980s, a flood of foreign academics and journalists descended on the Philippines to witness the victory of "people power" and to observe the country's transition to democracy over the remainder of the decade. From communist revolutionaries to military putschists, businessmen to local bosses, the protagonists of this drama subsequently reappeared on the pages of countless coffee-table photo-histories, eyewitness accounts, documentary films, PhD theses, and scholarly articles, books and edited volumes.

More than a decade later, a similar wave of foreign interest began to crest in Indonesia with the dramatic fall of its long-time president, Suharto, in the face of protests and rioting in Jakarta in May 1998. After a decade of rapid growth in the "democratisation industry", the numbers of foreign observers, experts and fixers appearing on the scene skyrocketed. Now this wave has begun to recede, leaving in its wake shelf upon shelf of analysis, commentary, diagnosis and prescription.

Theodore Friend's mammoth tome Indonesian Destinies is not part of this wave. He is a former president of Swarthmore College, an established fixture in the New York-Washington foreign-policy axis of influence and an "Asia hand" of fine vintage. His book carries the weight and promise of Friend's considerable access, experience, regional expertise and worldliness.

Indeed, Indonesian Destinies offers a sustained treatment of Indonesian history and society that rivals Adam Schwarz's A Nation in Waiting as the most comprehensive overview of political change in the country from independence to the present day. It is appealingly modest in tone, simultaneously wide-ranging and attentive to detail, and commendably generous towards other Indonesia specialists, especially junior scholars.

The book's historical narrative is peppered with regular digressions on important topics and with personal anecdotes from Friend's research and travels in Indonesia over many decades. The photos are of high quality; the factual errors are few.

That said, Indonesian Destinies might disappoint some readers, especially those hoping for something if not "ruthlessly analytical", then at least roughly coherent and compelling in its articulation of an overarching argument about Indonesian society and politics. Friend's background as a specialist on the Philippines, for example, suggests at least one point of systematic comparison and contrast with the Indonesian experience. Indeed, early in the book he redeploys an old argument about "split-level Christianity" in the Philippines as a loose framework for understanding Indonesia, and there are mentions throughout the book of split-level phenomena - "coexistence within the same person of two or more thought and behaviour systems which are inconsistent with each other" - with regard to democracy, free enterprise and Islam. "From these fundamental separations in both the larger culture and individual psychology," Friend asserts, "arise the difficulties Indonesians have experienced in welding constitutional liberalism to democracy, and thereby guaranteeing it."

This analysis is problematic in at least three ways. First, contradictions - between the ideals and practices of democracy, free enterprise and Islam - are hardly unique to Indonesia, as Friend acknowledges; they are inherent in any ideology or set of discursive and institutional practices. As an American Protestant, Friend's tendency to dwell on the shortcomings of liberalism and monotheism in Indonesia says more about his ideological perspective than about the country itself. He leans heavily on Indonesian interlocutors who trace their intellectual formation to western secular or Christian education and their political lineages to the "technocratic" Partai Sosialis Indonesia (PSI) of the 1950s.

Second, insofar as Indonesian variations on - or deviations from - democratic, capitalist and Islamic templates are especially pronounced or peculiar, some kind of explanation is presumably called for. Friend's laments over corruption and "gangsterism", cronyism and religious obscurantism echo the complaints of many other recent - local and foreign - observers, of both Indonesian and Philippine society. But Indonesia is distinctive in the particular complexion of its supposed failings. The pattern of strong, centralised political party identification - and pseudo-populist electoral mobilisation - stands in sharp contrast with the pattern of local bosses and clans in the Philippines (and Thailand). The extent of Indonesian ambivalence towards free-market capitalism, and the nature of state intervention in the economy, likewise diverge from the more whole-hearted liberalism of such neighbours. The complex - and much contested - nature of Islamic worship, education and associational activity in Indonesia bears little resemblance to the neighbouring Muslim societies of the southern Philippines and Malaysia. Yet these peculiarities remain unexamined and unexplained.

Third and finally, Friend's tendency to frame his understanding of Indonesian society in terms of "culture and individual psychology" reveals a set of - implicit or unconscious - assumptions that have been strongly challenged and in large measure discredited since the heyday of behaviouralism and modernisation theory in the 1950s and early 1960s. Few of the old essentialist nostrums about "Javanese culture", "primordialism" and "traditionalism" have survived serious critical examination over the past few decades. Yet the focus on culture and individual psychology does serve an important purpose, reworked as it is to fit contemporary concerns about trust and social capital in the developing world. This narrow focus serves to obscure from view the broader sociological context in which Indonesian history has unfolded over the past half-century.

Indonesia is a country with an impressive history of popular mobilisation, of revolutionary struggle for independence, of autonomous associational activity, of collective identities - class, ethnic, regional and religious.

To understand Indonesia's destiny - or in Friend's self-consciously pluralist term, "destinies" - it is essential to go beyond portraits of the country's leading lights and to address the broader social forces and institutional configurations that have shaped the parameters of political change since independence and will do so for decades to come.

John Sidel is reader in southeast Asian politics, School of Oriental and African Studies, London.

Indonesian Destinies: Theodore Friend

Publisher - Harvard University Press
Pages - 628
Price - £22.95
ISBN - 0 674 011337 6

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