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Postscript: Additional Indonesian Impressions

1 May

Postscript: Additional Indonesian Impressions

 

It occurs to me that two additional impressions of Indonesia seem relevant enough to be worth a short supplement to my post of a few days ago.

 

Multituli, Max Havelaar, or the coffee auction of the Dutch trading company  (Penguin Classics, 1866)

 

Multituli is the pen name of Edouard Douwes Dekkar, a 19thcentury Dutch civil servant who worked in the East Indian Civil Service as a colonial official. Multituli produced an extraordinary critique of the colonial mentality from the standpoint of a disenchanted colonialist with eyes wide open, who eventually resigned his position out of disgust, returned to Holland, and subsequently lived in poverty despite an upper class marriage, while trying to survive as an author.

 

This novelistic treatment of Dutch colonial rule is deservedly viewed as a literary masterpiece, written in an engaging style that has a contemporary feel, especially by inserting illusions and subtle qualifications pertaining to scene and character. What makes this novel worth reading so long after when it was written is its contemporaneous appreciation of the false consciousness that artificially sustained the colonialist sense of Dutch superiority. What Multituli shows so vividly is that the condescension of the Dutch toward the Javanese was pure racism, and that in fact it was the deep traditions of culture and civility native to Java that far exceeded in virtue and ethical quality the empty pretensions of the Dutch claims to be a vehicle for the dissemination of ‘civilization.’

 

A couple of quotations suggest the tone and direction of the novel’s critique. After discussing some of the functions of administration in a particular region of Java, Multituli writes: “All this, then, results in a strange situation whereby the inferior really commands the superior.” (italics in original) A bit later in the text is this reinforcing observation: “Even the lower-class Javanese is far more polite than his European equivalent—making this apparently difficult relationship more tolerable than it would otherwise be.”

 

I strongly recommend reading Max Havelaar not only for the pleasure of encountering an intriguing work of fiction reflecting a lively imagination, but also for its capacity to convey a strong sense of how the colonial mind manipulated reality to validate its exploitative relationship to the land, resources, and people of Java, achieved by distorting and deforming social relations between foreign intruder and native inhabitant., producing suffering and humiliation followed by resistance Max Havelaarcan be valuably read in conjuction with the wonderful quartet of Pramoedia, which addresses the evolving political consciousness of a native resister.

 

 

 

 

The President of Indonesia—Joko ‘Jokowi’ Wadido

 

Joko Wadido or Jokowi is the seventh president of Indonesia, elected in 2014  for a five year term, and the first president that does not come from an elite military or civilian past. Jokowi, riding his motorcycle around the country, creates the sense of ‘a man of the people’ and is given widespread credit for needed infrastructure reforms and a popular crackdown on tax evasion. His election, popularity, and governing style confirms the impression of a democratizing trend in Indonesia that is benefitting the population as a whole and runs counter to the rise of autocracy throughout Asia and the world. Despite this generally positive assessment of Jokowi’s leadership serious problems remain in the country, including treatment of refugees, corruption, poverty, class tensions, unmanageable traffic, serious pollution, an ethnic and religious grievances among non-Indonesians and non-Muslims. 

 

 

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