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 triumph of Joko Widodo in the Presidential election, defeating Suharto-era former general Prabowo Subianto represents a further break from the military regimes of the past.
Indonesia, a nation of thousands of islands and almost 250 million people, straddles the junction of the Pacific and Indian oceans. Current President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono has presided over 6 per cent average yearly growth of its economy, to surpass $1 trillion. If this rate continues, Indonesia will join the world's ten biggest economies in a decade or so, just behind the so-called BRIC countries.
The much-discussed documentary The Act of Killing revived some of its darker past, and Barack Obama's reminiscences about the childhood years he spent there briefly shone the spotlight on a country many Americans know little about. Yet as Indonesia approaches its 2014 parliamentary and presidential elections, its future is wide open.
Though the largest Muslim nation by population, it remains a receiver of wisdom from the Arab world, rather than a messenger of multi-religious tolerance. Its pursuit of trade agreements with Japan and South Korea have burnished its economic ambitions, but its diplomacy is long on so-called soft power, and short on sanctions or force. So what does the future hold for this pivotal place?
Award-winning Asia-Pacific journalist Hamish McDonald's Demokrasi is an accessible and authoritative introduction to the modern history and politics of this fascinating country.