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Vol. 9, No. 3, Albert Hasudungan and Jeffrey Neilson


Contents>> Vol. 9, No. 3

The Institutional Environment of the Palm Oil Value Chain and Its Impact on Community Development in Kapuas Hulu, Indonesia

Albert Hasudungan* and Jeffrey Neilson**

*School of Business and Economics, Universitas Prasetiya Mulya, BSD City Kavling Edutown I.1 Jl. BSD Raya Utama, BSD City Kabupaten Tangerang Banten 15339, Indonesia
Corresponding author’s e-mail: albert.hasdung[at]; albert.hasudungan[at]
**School of Geosciences, University of Sydney, Sydney, New South Wales, Australia

DOI: 10.20495/seas.9.3_439

The aim of this study is to present the multi-scalar institutional environment that has emerged around the palm oil value chain, and to analyze how this influences community development outcomes in the Kapuas Hulu district of West Kalimantan. A common narrative presented by many environmental organizations, and indeed often reinforced in the academic literature, is one where local communities actively resist the expansion of oil palm plantations but are ultimately powerless to halt it. This narrative tends to depend on, and reinforces, a portrait of traditional communities as being dependent on subsistence food provisioning and natural resources for their livelihoods, thus making them particularly sensitive to the widespread environmental changes caused by this highly transformative—in a landscape sense—type of commercial agriculture. This research draws upon mixed method data collection techniques, including eight months of participant observation fieldwork across three villages in 2016 and 2017, group discussions, household surveys, and semi-structured interviews. Conceptually, we develop an understanding of the institutional environment as applied within global value chain theory, which we present as a complex amalgam of social structures from within the value chain (especially governance by lead firms), those external to it (including formal state institutions and NGOs), and the changing customary institutions within production landscapes. The ability of local communities to participate in the construction of this broader institutional environment, and to benefit from it, is of critical importance when assessing the impact of incorporation within the palm oil economy. This study thus helps present a more nuanced analysis of community engagement with palm oil and the processes driving contemporary agrarian change.

Keywords: institutions, institutional environment, global value chains, palm oil, swidden, agrarian change, Indonesia, Kalimantan

I Introduction

The ongoing expansion of oil palm plantations in Indonesia has been actively challenged by various advocacy groups and foreign governments on both social and environmental grounds, whilst being strongly supported by the government of Indonesia. The negotiating space within which decisions are made regarding this expansion connects primary producers, processors, exporters, importers, product manufacturers, retailers, and final consumers within the value chain with a much broader set of societal actors, including traditional landowners, community groups, nongovernmental organizations, and governments, that are essentially external to the value chain. Collectively, these actors mutually construct a continually emergent institutional environment within which industry and community outcomes are shaped. We borrow the concept of the institutional environment as applied within global value chain (GVC) theory, and use it in this article to refer to the complex amalgam of social structures both from within the value chain (especially governance by lead firms) as well as external to it (including formal state institutions and NGOs, but also extending in our case to customary law arrangements). Despite such complex multi-scalar institutional connections, industry critics tend to highlight the negative environmental, social, and economic impacts occurring in remote rural regions as a simple consequence of exploitation by downstream corporate actors (Paganini 2018). The market dominance of powerful corporations is associated with the economic marginalization of swidden-based farming communities in Kalimantan, which are heavily dependent on natural resources for their livelihoods (Colchester et al. 2006). Yet, as described by J. F. McCarthy (2010), outcomes on the ground in rural communities are highly variable and include successful wealth accumulation—especially by local elites—often occurring alongside “adverse incorporation” and deepening poverty for others. Blanket claims about the industry are often made without adequate consideration of the ways many smallholders actively seek to rearrange the terms under which they engage with the palm oil economy.

This paper presents the multi-scalar institutional environment within which local communities have become enmeshed by virtue of their participation in the global value chain for palm oil. This study contributes to our knowledge of how the outcomes of community engagements with the palm oil industry are shaped by the strategies of NGOs, customary landowners, the government, and agribusiness and food processing firms. An understanding of the institutional environment thus created can also be helpful to identify points of leverage to effect change. It furthermore makes a contribution to our understanding of contemporary agrarian change as being shaped by a broad constellation of actors, including those operating at a distance through the global value chain.

The aim of this study is to present the multi-scalar institutional environment that has emerged around the palm oil value chain, and to analyze how this influences community development outcomes in the Kapuas Hulu district of West Kalimantan (Fig. 1). According to understandings of value chain governance, lead firms will position themselves strategically amongst competitors to serve their own interests while also meeting consumer expectations in respect to economic, social, and environmental conditions, resulting in particular strategies to manage a globally coordinated production process (Neilson et al. 2018). Drawing upon eight months of fieldwork in Kapuas Hulu, this paper demonstrates the way in which the multi-scalar institutional environment presents room to maneuver for communities and individuals engaging with the palm oil sector. This study unpacks the complex interactions of agribusiness firms, the government, and NGOs with local customary arrangements. Downstream firms play a key role in governing the value chain to ensure faster and more efficient supply chain deliveries by extending their reach into local communities through the establishment of physical infrastructure such as roads and manufacturing mills, but this is also mediated by the broader institutional environment.



Fig. 1 The Study Site of Kapuas Hulu District in West Kalimantan, Indonesia

Source: Authors, prepared using ArcGIS Software.


II The Institutional Environment: The Global Value Chain and Beyond

Our understanding of the institutional environment shaping development outcomes in the palm oil economy is greatly assisted through recent conceptual developments in GVC theory. GVC analysis helps us, in the first instance, to understand how value is added through an input-output structure, by tracing production from upstream producers (such as farmers) to primary processors, exporters, importers, product manufacturers, retailers, and on to final consumers. In the contemporary global economy, these value-adding processes are often geographically dispersed across regions and countries and have their own “territoriality.” Within a value chain, moreover, there is often a dynamic relationship among different actors that governs the flow and allocation of profit and human resources throughout the chain (Hassler 2009). When examining the entire chain, it becomes clear that different groups make their own rules to regulate and allocate resources among their members and to dictate the actions of others elsewhere in the chain. Such rules of the game can be thought of as being embodied within governance structures that are often strongly dictated by the most powerful actors in the chain—those lead firms located at strategic value-adding nodes. The critical conceptual contribution of GVC analysis has thus been to highlight the ability of such firms to dictate chain governance structures.

G. Gereffi (1995) described how a (value) chain does not only possess an input-output structure, a territoriality, and a governance structure but is also contained within an “institutional framework.” He defined this as “how local, national, and international conditions and policies shape the globalization process at each stage of the chain” (Gereffi 1995, 113). Subsequent work in GVC studies, however, for instance by J. Neilson and B. Pritchard (2009), has further developed an understanding of the institutional framework of GVCs that borrows more explicitly from the work on institutions in new institutional sociology and economics such as that by D. C. North, who explained:

Institutions are the humanly devised constraints that structure political, economic and social interaction. They consist of both informal constraints (sanctions, taboos, customs, traditions, and codes of conduct), and formal rules (constitutions, laws, property rights). Throughout history, institutions have been devised by human beings to create order and reduce uncertainty in exchange. (North 1991, 97)

In this paper we follow the clear distinction in North’s (1990) study between “institutions” and “organizations,” the former being the “rules” and the latter the “players.” We also respect North’s fundamental distinction between “institutional arrangements” as discrete arrangements between economic units and the broader “institutional environment” as the “fundamental political, social and legal ground rules that establish the basis for production, exchange and distribution” (Davis and North 1971, 6–7). According to Neilson and Pritchard (2009), it is necessary for GVC analysis to move beyond a concept of the institutional framework as something that GVCs are “framed within,” toward one that is both external and internal to chains. They argue that “The institutional environment is a pre-determining characteristic of the governance structures which subsequently emerge within the chain and which, in turn, then act upon those arrangements in continual feedback” (Neilson and Pritchard 2009, 56).

To examine palm oil dynamics in West Kalimantan, we borrow and apply this understanding of the institutional environment of a GVC as an amalgam of rules, norms, and conventions set by lead firms from within the chain along with those constructed by extra-firm actors who are essentially external to it. The approach builds on the insights generated by J. F. McCarthy et al. (2012), where oil palm development outcomes in Indonesia were examined by drawing together insights from GVC theory with the literature on state formation and regime interests. We have also been influenced by the earlier work on dynamic legal pluralism in political ecology by R. S. Meinzen-Dick and R. Pradhan (2002), who highlighted the ambiguity of rules and coexisting multiplicity of legal systems and institutions with respect to natural resource access and exploitation. Importantly, various local, national, and global institutions (formal and informal) intersect in a multi-scalar process to ultimately shape how natural resources are allocated and controlled (Meinzen-Dick and Pradhan 2002).

This article applies a value chain analysis to examine the complex relationships among different layers of institutions connected to the value chain. In this multi-layered institutional environment, different actors negotiate rules to determine the right to access and use resources under specific conditions (McCarthy 2006). In the case of oil palm, T. M. Li (2015) found a degradation of customary institutions when local villagers were incorporated into palm oil value chains. We extend those observations by scrutinizing how local customary institutions are constantly challenged by various institutions associated with the palm oil value chain in Kapuas Hulu. We specifically examine the changing labor and resource access arrangements influenced by palm oil value chains.

In their application of GVC theory to the global cocoa sector, N. Fold and J. Neilson (2016) argue that while firms are increasingly able to determine the rules and standards in the global value chain, they act in a dialectical relationship with extra-firm actors, including state-based actors and NGOs. While the government often supports proposals for oil palm development in Indonesia, several NGOs strongly reject oil palm development (Levang et al. 2016), continually recreating spaces of negotiation. Similarly, the “inextricably entwined and mutually constitutive” interests of the state and large agribusiness are highlighted by McCarthy et al. (2012), who demonstrate how these interests coalesce to shape development pathways.

In Kapuas Hulu, we find community and household attitudes toward oil palm are far from homogenous, are difficult to predict, and appear to be highly contingent. This is suggested elsewhere, for example, in the diverse outcomes reported in Jambi, Sumatra (McCarthy 2010), and West Kalimantan (Potter 2011), where local community engagements as relatively independent landholders and highly dependent contract farmers were respectively reported. In the palm oil economy, local communities are seen to pursue quite diverse livelihood portfolios (Elmhirst et al. 2016), which clearly affects disparate development outcomes, and these outcomes frequently reflect a shifting set of local cultural institutions. This study examines how particular institutions, within and external to the global value chain and operating across multiple scales, coalesce in an institutional environment to shape different modes of oil palm community engagement with impacts on processes of agrarian change.

III Research Methods

This research uses a case study approach, and fieldwork was conducted across three villages in Kapuas Hulu District, West Kalimantan, as shown in Fig. 1. Each village was selected based on particular geographies, ethnic composition, and modes of engagement with oil palm development. Village A and Village B (both located proximate to the Malaysian border) were chosen partly due to their relatively recent incorporation within the palm oil economy, which occurred from around 2012 and was driven partly by territorial competition at the national scale with Malaysia. On the other hand, oil palm development in Village C commenced in the early 2000s and was promoted by local government elites as a means to replace the swidden practices that they considered an unproductive use of land resources. The development model in Village C included a significant smallholder production base, and it attracted migrants to either work directly on their own smallholdings or to work as plantation labor (Leonald and Rowland 2016).

A key reason for the inclusion of both Village A and Village B in the study was the reported dominance of ethnic Malays in the former and Iban Dayaks in the latter. Household livelihood surveys were conducted on a sample of 40 households within each of the three villages (120 household responses in total), where households were invited to participate based on a random selection from listings provided by administrative village heads. Table 1 shows the approximate ethnic composition of the villages based on this survey, which confirmed information provided by earlier interviews.


Table 1 Ethnic Composition of Each Village



Qualitative data collection techniques were undertaken in 2016 and 2017, comprising participant observation, semi-structured interviews, and group discussions. Participant observation is a way of collecting information about social activities within a particular society using both verbal and non-verbal clues (Schmuck 1997). It was conducted in Kapuas Hulu to trace local attitudes toward farming systems and livelihoods linked to oil palm, and lasted a total of six months, with two months in each of the three villages. Semi-structured interviews sought to capture various institutional forms of oil palm development and perceptions toward oil palm development. The selection of informants was based on their ability to communicate their ideas and experiences relevant to the research investigation (Dunn 2005). In both village and local urban centres, a total of 40 interviews with a variety of informants and stakeholders were undertaken, as presented in Table 2. Interview topics within the village environments included local demographic change, perceptions of the introduction of oil palm in their villages, and changes in land access, labor arrangements, and livelihood strategies. Group discussions were organized to obtain responses regarding palm oil development in local areas and were used to observe the interpersonal dynamics between different individuals. Discussions were either organized explicitly by the researcher (as in Village B) or involved attending regular village meetings (as in Village A and Village C).


Table 2 List of Semi-structured Interview Informants



IV The Multi-scalar Institutional Environment in Kapuas Hulu

The following analysis is based on a three-fold assessment of the institutional environment, which we present in terms of: (i) governance structures resulting from lead firm strategies within the global value chain; (ii) institutions constructed by extra-firm actors who are essentially external to the value chain (including the government and NGOs); and (iii) informal customary institutions peculiar to place-based sites of production. While we recognize that these three forms are, in a sense, arbitrary in that they are actually mutually constituted, we present them separately here for analytical purposes. It is, however, our intention that they be considered as collectively coalescing to construct a broader multi-scalar institutional environment that in turn shapes the nature of palm oil–community engagements.

Governance Structures within the Palm Oil Value Chain

Indonesia produces significant volumes of several agricultural commodities for the global market, including palm oil, rubber, coffee, and cocoa, such that the activities of global lead firms in these sectors often exert a powerful influence on sites of production. For example, chocolate manufacturing firms have been generally reluctant to get directly involved in farm-level cocoa production due to the relatively low cost-capability ratio for that activity (Neilson et al. 2018). While chocolate firms would struggle to manage labor more efficiently than smallholder farmers, their influence on agricultural production is exerted (at a distance) through various commitments to sustainability programs and certification schemes (Neilson et al. 2018). Moreover, chocolate firms have also outsourced primary processing of cocoa beans to specialist grinding firms rather than absorbing these costs themselves, and it is these firms that frequently implement farm-level development programs. The economics of palm oil, however, are different. The end users of palm oil are more diverse across a number of consumer products, such that ultimate lead firms (generally branded food manufacturers) are unlikely to be involved in agricultural production. They do, however, rely on large agribusiness firms as suppliers of palm oil products, and these firms (unlike cocoa processors) are intimately involved in agricultural production themselves.

The cost calculations of oil palm plantations are far more dependent on capital (manifest particularly in access to land and fertilizers) than cocoa plantations, which have lower capital-labor ratios (Budidarsono et al. 2012). Therefore, being a competitive oil palm producer in Indonesia, and a strategic supplier to global lead firms, generally depends on obtaining access to large areas of land, with reliable access to finance and a disciplined labor force. For such potential investors with the necessary connections to political decision makers, Kapuas Hulu seemed to provide the right combination of factors.

The combination of financial and political capital possessed by agribusiness firms in the palm oil sector is disproportionate to that possessed by local communities as the customary landowners, whose rights over land are highly variable and determined by an assortment of both formal and informal institutions. As a result, the terms of community engagement with these firms are overwhelmingly shaped by firm-specific priorities. In Village A and Village B, PT Buana Tunas Sejahtera (PT BTS)1) made a contractual agreement with the community where local community members were enrolled as laborers, and where the firm was in direct control of production. In that negotiation, the firm acquired a 30-year Hak Guna Usaha (leasing concession right, HGU) from the government over customary land after obtaining written consent from representatives of the community. In return, the firm was to pay 20 percent dividends from its profit to the original landowners (KOPSA MGB and BTS 2010). According to community representatives, this contract reflected an attempt by the firm to formally limit the activities of smallholder farmers while ensuring access to labor.

The processes through which agribusiness firms are able to access land to begin with are critical and complicated (Hasudungan and Neilson 2020). First, agribusiness firms routinely construct a discourse around poor smallholder agricultural capacity and productivity in order to accumulate land and assert control over resources. To convince the government of the superiority of large-scale plantations over local agricultural systems, investors present local swidden cultivations as backward and unproductive (Potter 2011). This provides a conducive environment for the subsequent lease negotiations between firms and the state at the district and national levels. To then ensure optimal land access, agribusiness firms seek ways to negotiate contractual agreements that allow them greater direct control of upstream production sites. This means that agribusiness firms need to engage in active negotiations and bargaining with actors outside the value chain, including government and local communities, the latter primarily as gatekeepers of land but whose members often later participate directly in the value chain as either fruit suppliers or laborers.

Community consent emerges as a key milestone in ensuring access to land, but since negotiating with all the landholders is costly, time-consuming, and uncertain, firms inevitably choose to pursue contract negotiations mediated through a more limited number of customary elites (Li 2015). Our fieldwork in multiethnic Village A, where a Dayak leader occupied the position of village head, found that the allure of promised future prosperity was an important factor in eliciting consent. One firm’s representatives took village leaders to the firm’s other plantation in Riau, on the east coast of Sumatra, where the visitors were exposed to apparently high levels of material prosperity, which they associated with corporate control of oil palm production. In this case, however, it led to later disappointment:

About 30 village leaders were invited to a comparative study in Riau. They were shown the development in the firm’s concession, and in return we gave the land to them. Yet those promises were misleading. What they promised was different from the current reality. (Respondent J, Iban, 2016)

Through these field trips and other activities, the firm expected key leaders in the village to convince others to agree to land transfers, and these leaders were often recruited for this specific purpose. As negotiations progressed in this case, the firm sought to directly influence internal community dynamics and increasingly relied on existing institutions of patronage through which customary leaders would provide material and social support to their “clients” in return for obedience and recognition of their superior social standing. Through the successful recruitment of such local patrons as supporters of the firm, the likelihood of acquiescence from other community members was greatly increased, resulting in more secure access to the natural resources available on community lands.

In these contested land deals, some customary Dayak elites rejected the contractual conditions while others became strong advocates in favor of the offered agreements, leading to sometimes-serious intra-community conflict. One Dayak community member sold access rights to large tracts of land with the expectation that his children would be given supervisor-level jobs within the firm. The upstream influence of agribusiness firms within communities divided aspirations in ways that sometimes led to horizontal conflict and violence. Another Dayak man revealed how he had been verbally abused as a result of his father-in-law opposing the firm contracts, the terms and conditions of which he felt were unclear. In another instance, it was recounted that a man who supported the firm ended up in a duel (using a machete-like weapon known as mandau) with another man who opposed it. Such conflicts also led to imprisonment, such as a case in Village B, when an Iban man contested his neighbor’s recently placed boundary markers for land sold to the firm, leading him to physically threaten a firm representative with his mandau. The Iban man, whose frustration at his inability to assert his rights was palpable, was later sentenced to jail:

My older brother was convicted by the law because of that conflict over the land (boundary). He couldn’t find a legal solution to that issue, so he brought his mandau, and the firm representative claimed he was attempting to kill him. He was prosecuted in Putussibau. (Respondent N, Village C, 2016)

Lead firms in a global value chain, moreover, position themselves strategically amongst competitors to meet consumers’ expectations in respect to various quality, economic, social, and environmental requirements (Neilson et al. 2018). This is often associated with a stronger buyer-driven governance structure within the chain. Gereffi (1994) emphasized how lead firms enact such governance within a chain, not necessarily through the direct ownership of upstream firms but through decentralized production settings, outsourcing, and indirect control. Large agri-food firms, such as Sinarmas Group (which owns Golden Agri Resources, GAR) and Indofood, operate as lead firms in the palm oil value chain. Both these Indonesian-owned conglomerates, for example, are manufacturers of diversified consumer products including cooking oil, while also engaging upstream with plantation production.

For the most part, these lead firms enact relatively strict supply chain traceability programs on third-party suppliers. On the GAR website,2) the firm provides detailed information regarding third-party suppliers and its attempts to manage them. For example, a GAR internal monitoring team found indications of 2018 clearing of high-conservation-value forest in West Kalimantan by PT BTS (a GAR third-party supplier), which was subsequently deemed to be non-compliant with GAR’s grievance process.3) An alternative model is evident in Kapuas Hulu, where PT Riau Agrotama Plantation is a subsidiary of Indofood Agri, a major agribusiness conglomerate with a reported 247,630 hectares of oil palm across Indonesia in 2017 along with 26 palm oil mills and five refineries (IndoAgri 2016). Both Indofood Agri and Sinar Mas Agro Resources and Technology are important suppliers for the domestic market, for which they manufacture consumer products, while also exporting to various markets across Asia-Pacific and Europe.

Specific norms around corporate social responsibility have emerged within the palm oil sector that in themselves constitute institutional forms (that is, accepted patterns of behavior). Lead firms enact interventions along the value chain primarily in an attempt to ensure long-term stability over palm oil supplies, which often involves upstream commitments to stimulate local development surrounding the mills (SMART 2016). To meet their supply needs (and consumer expectations), lead firms have funded the building of mills, roads, schools, and facilities around Kapuas Hulu. Indofood Agri has initiated social investments through its Solidarity Programme(IndoAgri 2016), which delivers improved community health and education facilities in an explicit attempt to improve relationships with the local community of Village C. Such social infrastructure development has been replicated in Village A and Village B by other agribusiness firms to fulfill their corporate interests to integrate more productive and capable potential laborers in their supply chain. Indeed, relatively high rates of satisfaction with education and health infrastructure were reported by respondents to our household survey, as presented in Fig. 2 and Fig. 3, even if satisfaction with education facilities was somewhat lower in the more established oil palm plantation of Village C.



Fig. 2 Satisfaction with Education Services in Oil Palm Villages

Source: Authors’ survey, 2016.



Fig. 3 Satisfaction with Health Services in Oil Palm Villages

Source: Authors’ survey, 2016.


While an expanding corporate infrastructure program primarily serves strategic business interests, rural households with adequate capability assets can leverage this to configure diversified livelihood strategies where they effectively engage with multiple value chains simultaneously (Bolwig et al. 2010). For instance, with improved access to education and health care, some members of the local community are able to access better jobs on the plantations and elsewhere. In an interview with a younger, high-school-educated Dayak man, he explained that the ability to write, read, and understand basic numerical calculations allowed him to work as a field supervisor on a plantation and improve his overall economic situation.

Indeed, many community members have successfully upgraded their positions within the value chain to occupy more lucrative positions as collectors or middlemen, where they use the improved infrastructure to supply mills in Sintang, a processing hub farther down the Kapuas River. They act as local market conduits from smallholders to downstream value chain actors, and use their economic position to coordinate and increase smallholder production. These chains continue to be effectively governed by lead firms, which create limiting institutions for participation, including through price and standard settings, although collectors also retain a degree of autonomy.

The characteristics of oil palm fruit have a powerful effect on the value chain structure and the relations between actors. Fresh fruit bunches generally need to be processed within 48 hours to maintain oil quality, and prices paid are severely discounted or rejected outright if delivery is delayed. A relatively capital-intensive processing mill will thus often be surrounded by a hinterland of producers who are virtually tied to it with few alternative marketing options, with resulting highly uneven power relations between the two sets of actors. It can also have the effect of empowering transport operators who provide a critical service linking them together. During the period of fieldwork in 2017, when general market prices for oil palm fruit in West Kalimantan were around IDR 1,600 per kilo, local middlemen in Village C would pay as little as IDR 1,300 per kilo due to these local dynamics.

We observe how contractual deals for large-scale oil palm plantations can affect social relations among customary leaders as a result of firm-specific strategies to assert control over supplies. Despite that disruption, the palm oil value chain functions in other ways to facilitate local participation in this value chain and in other economic activities. Previous research has emphasized that smallholding oil palm plantations can indeed be a way for local villagers to adopt commodity production largely on their own terms (Cramb and Sujang 2013; Potter 2015). In our study, the business capabilities of some individuals were enhanced as a result of their exposure to corporate sustainability programs initiated by downstream value chain actors, especially improved social and physical infrastructure, enabling them to engage in new small business opportunities.

Extra-firm Actors and the Institutional Environment of the Palm Oil Value Chain

The palm oil value chain consists of various direct economic actors, including smallholder growers, collectors, agribusiness firms, processors, exporters, product manufacturers, supermarkets, and financial organizations. These actors and their value-adding activities constitute the fundamental input-output structure of the chain, with a buyer-driven governance structure dictated by the needs of lead firms that manifests itself in the various institutions described in the previous subsection. These economic actors are then embedded within a broader set of institutions shaped by various external stakeholders, many of whom have a major impact on oil palm cultivation at the local level (the “institutional framework” in Gereffi’s 1995 formulation). In Kapuas Hulu, the Indonesian government, operating at various scales, is clearly an important driver of this broader institutional framework and acts to either promote or inhibit the spatial expansion of plantations. Meanwhile, various environmental and conservation interests, including international NGOs, have performed a further critical role in bringing public attention to the damaging environmental impacts of the palm oil industry, and their actions, agendas, and interests are reshaping the way smallholders engage with the palm oil sector and their ability to develop their own livelihood trajectories.

J. Ribot (1998) emphasized how state institutions shape access to resources, which in turn influences profit distribution along a value chain. In Kapuas Hulu, there are various state actors—including the local government, national and provincial land agencies, financial regulators, and conservation agencies—that shape the contours of industry expansion. Principal amongst these state actors’ roles is allocation of land access to preferred economic actors, where Badan Pertanahan Nasional (National Land Agency, BPN), agricultural authorities (through Permentan No. 98/2013, for example), and the local government are all pivotal. National and local authorities facilitate the expansion of oil palm cultivation through improving labor supply (including through transmigrasi schemes) and by providing subsidies, loans, agricultural extension services, and infrastructure development.

Plantation expansion has been a key pillar of state policies through which to promote agricultural modernization in border areas such as Kapuas Hulu, further encouraging large-scale appropriation of land resources (Hasudungan and Neilson 2020). These state interventions are mediated through local government agencies such as Badan Perencanaan Pembangunan Daerah (Regional Development Planning Board, BAPPEDA), which also oversees the spatial planning process. In Kapuas Hulu, agribusiness firms actively negotiated with local authorities, such as BAPPEDA, to acquire land for oil palm development, due to such authorities’ influence over local land use decisions.

BPN is the only state institution legally allowed to issue HGUs in Indonesia, although if the lease area is below 1,000 hectares, authority falls upon the provincial land agency. Prior to gaining concession rights, firms are legally required to negotiate with local communities about their proposal to establish a plantation. In these situations, state agents often view swidden cultivation negatively while embracing and supporting the need to develop modern, large-scale plantations. A frequent problem is that state agents overlook the informal, customary rights of swidden cultivators. Certain representatives of the state were quite explicit about their attitudes toward customary rights, which were seen to be subservient to state claims over land:

Here [West Kalimantan], customary rights do not exist. These would require satisfying formal requirements, such as the presence of local customary and collective rights. In fact, these cannot be observed—they are just able to claim access to sacred forests to collect local resources. The firm was granted the [legal] concession based on the prior legal status of that being state land. (Interview with a staff member of the West Kalimantan Provincial Land Agency, Pontianak, 2016)

Furthermore, to discourage swidden farmers’ control over their swidden territory, the state imposed various rules to restrict their farming practices, such as demarcating the land as state land where legal sanctions could be imposed on any parties carrying out swidden burning. In Village C, environmental policies were being pursued on such “state land,” with many Dayaks now reluctant to undertake swidden planting. Such policies tend to create a regulatory dichotomy between state land and freehold land, which implicitly suggests an absence of informal rights or customary tenure. This false dichotomy has contributed to multiple conflicts, competing claims, and ultimately the ability of firm interests to access land at relatively low cost.

In 2015 a presidential decree4) established an independent authority, directly under the high-profile coordinating minister for economic affairs and known as Badan Pengelola Dana Perkebunan Kelapa Sawit (Palm Oil Fund Management Agency, BPDPKS), to essentially channel loans and other support to the palm oil sector. It was an extension of a previous program to provide micro-credit to smallholders. BPDPKS is financed from an industry levy imposed on palm oil exports, and in return it provides subsidized loans through state-owned banks and other support for research and development and replanting. Despite government claims that the fund would support smallholder farmers (Dara Aziliya 2016), in the Kapuas Hulu case study sites at least, funds were channelled primarily into “plasma plots” that had long been under the indirect control of large firms rather than independent smallholders. Plasma plots refer to smallholdings surrounding a larger “nuclear” estate that are compelled to sell their produce to the estate. Most of the actors provided with financial assistance were finance organizations, such as local banks and credit unions, that channelled the funds to farmers for accessing fertilizers, herbicides, and motorcycles (for transporting fruit).

Agricultural assistance is provided also through the Directorate General of Estate Crops, which in 2016 provided the local community in Village B with planting material and fertilizers through sporadic projects. The local agricultural development office is also a conduit for the distribution of subsidized fertilizer, formally intended for use on local food crops.5) This subsidized fertilizer is widely used for oil palm, even if it is accessed through food crop farmer groups. A government program to issue “fertilizer cards” in 2018 to prevent such misallocation largely failed, and subsidized fertilizer scarcity is an ongoing problem in Kapuas Hulu, leading to hoarding and illegal sales by traders. Swidden farmers are generally ineligible to access subsidized fertilizers.

In contrast, nongovernmental organizations link oil palm expansion with the loss of biodiversity, soil erosion, greenhouse gas emissions, and the pollution of soils and waterways (Levang et al. 2016). These NGOs, furthermore, expand their focus to highlight negative social impacts in order to generate broader public opposition. In Silat Hilir, agribusiness firms were accused by one international NGO of exploiting child labor and paying low salaries while destroying rain forests and orangutan habitats (Greenpeace 2017). This public opposition has included criticism of financial institutions for unethical investments in the palm oil sector. For instance, Chain Reaction Research (2017) highlighted the critical role played by banks in financing oil palm expansion, claiming that NGO pressure on financiers had resulted in the latter’s adoption of more stringent environmental and social policies.

Environmental organizations thereby also actively reconstruct the institutional environment of the chain at various scales. At the local level, NGOs have worked with some villagers to oppose oil palm and successfully reshape local opposition toward its expansion (Acciaoli and Dewi 2016). In Village B the influence of NGOs was exerted through engagements between village activists and NGO staff, where the latter actively urged local villagers to reject oil palm expansion. Community members in one village received pamphlets from a Jakarta-based NGO about the negative impacts of palm oil, which identified the lack of employment and dispossession resulting from palm oil development:

Oil palm plantations destroy local livelihoods. The local community has been cultivating food crops for hundreds of years. Rotation and swidden cultivation in particular has allowed for the regrowing of forests. Palm oil development erased that subsistence food and other agroforestry incomes such as rattan, resin rubber, and pepper. (Local pamphlet from an NGO, NN, Embaloh Hulu, Kapuas Hulu, 2016)

Such NGOs tend to present villagers as having lived in harmony with the environment as ecologically “noble savages” prior to the introduction of oil palm, and as being powerless to resist the changes enacted upon their livelihoods (as described also by Levang et al. 2016). In Kapuas Hulu an influential NGO, Lanting Borneo, worked with around 24 local communities; its discourse emphasized a dichotomy between oil palm development and the interests of the “customary community”:

Currently, we advocate the endorsement of customary rights in Kapuas Hulu. With regard to palm oil development, we ask the customary community to calculate the costs and benefits of accepting palm oil development. We can conclude that the customary community received only 0.1 percent, yet they lost their rights for 35 years along with their rubber. In fact, by working in their rubber fields they can use this cash income for their daily shopping needs. (Interview with DU, head of a local Kapuas Hulu NGO, Putussibau, 2016)

This approach, where environmental activists advocated protection of customary rights, gained favorable traction among local communities. Nonetheless, the inability of NGOs to differentiate between oil palm as a smallholder crop (grown on terms set by community members) and large-scale oil palm plantations meant that they often distanced themselves from prevailing community interests (Levang et al. 2016). In the pamphlet disseminated by activists, oil palm was linked to labor exploitation:

In the Indonesian palm oil sector, labor rights such as decent pay, freedom, and their ability to negotiate are suppressed. Agreements and expectations from palm oil firms about employment are rarely met. Many people face a worse situation than before the arrival of oil palm. (Local pamphlet from an NGO, NN, Kapuas Hulu, 2016)

This argument seemed to ignore the reality of active community participation in the palm oil sector across Kapuas Hulu, both as smallholders and as plantation workers, and the mutual existence of palm oil laboring and swidden farming. From another perspective, the oppositional stance taken by activists tended to raise local expectations about the prospects of alternative livelihood improvements, which were rarely realized in practice (Acciaoli and Dewi 2016). NGO activists in Putussibau, for instance, promoted swidden cultivation and rubber as a way to sustain livelihoods, as presented in a local seminar: “[Rubber is] a founding local livelihood. While the local community shifts to other crops, rubber plays an important role to sustain household economies. Rubber is the social capital for local development” (Swandiri Institute in the BAPPEDA office of Putussibau, April 19, 2016).

While activists insist on the economic and social viability of rubber, the local community views it as having declining importance and (at least at the time of fieldwork) being far less important than either pepper or oil palm. Farmers tended to harvest rubber only during periods when they urgently needed cash, as suggested by one farmer:

Even though I have rubber, I have not yet tapped it. These days I am more comfortable cultivating padi (swidden) and working as an oil palm laborer. . . . I follow other people to work as an oil palm laborer . . . working in palm oil mills is not complicated, just chopping down [trees]. Previously, I got rid of the [rubber] bark and would harvest it . . . but today I am chopping it down. (Respondent TT, Iban, Village B, 2016)

Indeed, aspirations and monetary needs in West Kalimantan had been growing, and this resulted in greater interest in education, health care, and goods such as motorbikes and electronic equipment (Levang et al. 2016). Involvement in the palm oil economy appeared to offer realistic opportunities to meet these desires and needs through increased involvement in the cash economy. In areas that had rejected oil palm cultivation, such as the communities surrounding the buffer conservation areas of Embaloh Hulu and Batang Lupar subdistricts, local people were frequently confused about what livelihood alternatives could be realistically pursued given broader structural constraints. In these communities, which had closer relationships with various environmental activists from Jakarta and Putussibau, local people were more likely to complain about their economic situation and the difficulties they faced in meeting their basic needs.

At the global scale, exposure by NGOs of the relationship between deforestation and oil palm expansion has had profound effects on the institutional environment of the palm oil value chain. These include the setting up of the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil in 2004 as a voluntary certification standard that has established new behavioral norms for firms seeking access to ethically aware consumers. This standard demands, amongst other social and environmental requirements, that plantation firms obtain prior informed consent from customary landholders. This has resulted in slowly shifting institutional norms on the ground in Kapuas Hulu. International finance organizations are also under increasing pressure to obtain independent verification that their investments are not contributing to environmental and social degradation. As a final example, the European Parliament responded to consumer and NGO pressure by issuing a resolution in 2017 to phase out biofuels made from palm oil, a decision that has had profound effects on trade and was, at the time of writing, strongly contested by the Indonesian government.

It can be seen that the broader institutional framework of the palm oil sector, most notably the influence of the state and environmental NGOs, created conditions that influenced—sometimes in contradictory ways—the nature of community engagement with the sector. In some instances these institutions provided opportunities for positive engagement that could be strategically leveraged by individuals and organizations, while at other times they could shut down negotiations. Furthermore, these institutions were often powerfully reinforced through the discursive interventions of these actors in a battle for the attitudes and perceptions of local communities exposed to the palm oil economy.

Customary Institutions in Kapuas Hulu

The Ibanic Dayak community in Kapuas Hulu has complex customary cultural institutions that manage natural resources and address conflicts (Yasmi et al. 2007). For instance, in Ibanic customary culture the community lives in a longhouse consisting of 10 to 30 households, with a longhouse head called the tue rumah. During the 1950s and 1960s, Village B consisted of 12 households living in one longhouse, while Village A had 20 to 30 households in a longhouse. To demarcate the territory between longhouses, it would be customary for communally managed agroforests called tembawang to be established. The tue rumah imposed sanctions on any outsiders collecting resources without their approval, and the negotiation of territorial claims among longhouses was decided based on the negotiation between the tue rumah and higher leaders of several longhouses, known as patih.

Incorporation within palm oil value chains has been associated with a shift in preferences for individual, rather than longhouse, residency. In Village B, scarce timber resources combined with past conflicts among customary leaders also contributed to the decline of longhouse unions and their accompanying institutions. Here, the role of the tue rumah to regulate land and labor access has been diminishing, such that many Dayak communities now depend on customary decisions to be made at the higher level of patih. While longhouses are often important sites for various social gatherings (as we observed in villages where less oil palm was grown), the Iban community in Village B was not really functioning in this way, due to increased intra-community conflicts. Conflicts within Dayak communities were frequently perceived by local migrants and non-Dayaks as a sign of weak customary institutions that would increase the ability of firms to gain further access to resources.

Customary institutions once had a significant influence on the regulations of subsistence-based swidden cultivation in allocating land access and facilitating reciprocal labor exchange. For instance, villagers would obtain exclusive rights to ancestral land after it was transferred by their grandparents. Farmers would take the risk and invest their time and energy to open up forest areas for swiddening, but only after gaining local approval from the tue rumah. Clearing primary forest, in particular, posed major risks, including dangers of encountering crocodiles, sun bears, or venomous snakes. In addition, the tue rumah would also monitor labor reciprocity among the households within the longhouse, and they would impose customary sanctions on any reluctance to appropriately engage in labor exchanges.

Ibanic Dayak culture and institutions are strongly associated with swidden cultivation. M. R. Dove (1985) highlighted past studies of swidden cultivation that demonstrated its economic and cultural importance for Dayaks in terms of inheriting collective norms and ensuring food production. These cultural practices continued even as rubber became integrated as a complementary cash crop alongside a subsistence crop economy for Dayak households (Dove 2011). Nevertheless, external influences associated with oil palm development have changed local attitudes toward swidden cultivation. In the previous discussion of government institutions, national and local elites enacted regulatory interventions that restricted local swidden-linked burning practices. Their assumption was that the swidden cultivators were incapable and reluctant to participate in oil palm development. In fact, a new tentative coexistence seems to be emerging between swidden farming and oil palm at the case sites. In Village B and Village C, some farmers have largely incorporated oil palm cultivation into their swidden plots, but with a marked generational pattern. Older informants revealed their continued commitment to swidden land, while at the same time they had begun to embrace oil palm cultivation. Yet, for younger Dayaks, swidden cultivation is often seen as a mostly unproductive livelihood strategy and one with decreasing social value. The generational shift was explained by a Sebaruk farmer:

I work in a palm oil firm here. . . . I am not involved in swidden cultivation, but my parents are. However, I am involved in oil palm and rubber cultivation. The oil palm [fruit] has not yet been harvested, but the rubber has. For me, swidden cultivation is insufficient for us. (Respondent AS, Sebaruk, Village C, 2016)

Swidden cultivation is poorly valued by younger farmers due to its inability to generate significant cash income and due to the influences of urban lifestyles and mass consumerism (as also described by Cramb et al. 2009). With better formal education and training, youths are abandoning swidden farming and participating more in various livelihood activities linked to oil palm. In Village B, a 41-year-old Iban man described the process through which he abandoned swidden cultivation and embraced oil palm cultivation:

In 2013 I went to Lubok Antu to visit my relatives in Malaysia. One of them shared his story about the unpleasant experience of planting pepper, rubber, swidden, and running a local shop. A Chinese man persuaded my brother in Malaysia to plant oil palm, saying it was more beneficial than pepper. I then took 500 (oil palm) seeds. I started to plant despite the warnings of local villagers. Nowadays I no longer practice swidden cultivation, as I expect more from the oil palm harvest. (Respondent YE, Village B, 2018)

Dayaks in Village A shared similar opinions about swidden cultivation. For example, a well-educated Dayak man in his mid-40s explained how swidden cultivation had largely become irrelevant to his livelihood as he instead invested cash resources into rental properties. Another Iban man in Village A, in his mid-30s, had moved away from swidden cultivation to local trading after receiving a university education in Java. He preferred purchasing rather than growing food: “I was born here. I am a local trader but not a farmer. I purchase my own food, as I cannot depend on this local society. I purchase it from Malaysia” (Respondent J, Village A, 2016).

In Village C, Dayaks are a minority compared to Malays and other migrants, who often aggressively criticize customary swidden farming by Dayaks, which they claim is destructive and polluting. A local Malay leader explained:

I need to explain the effects to indigenous farmers. I already told them the smog will go overseas [to Malaysia]. I did not blame the swidden cultivation, but just the way land is converted through slash-and-burn practices. We observed little progress [in government attempts] to reduce slash-and-burn farming. It took two months to socialize that to farmers. (Respondent N, Village C, 2016)

A decline in customary resource tenure institutions has also facilitated a further powerful mechanism driving exclusion and unequal land possession among villagers—that of the market itself. In addition to contractual deals negotiated by firms, growing numbers of villagers from Village A and Silat Hilir have become engaged in land markets associated with oil palm, such that increasing economic differentiation has emerged. It has been reported elsewhere in Southeast Asia how the local transition to perennial cash crops resulted in an increasing pattern of individualized land tenure and the weakening of community governance (Cramb et al. 2009). This was observed, for instance, in both Village B and Village C, where customary institutions that had traditionally demarcated village boundaries based on natural signs (such as rocks, rivers, and trees) obtained from village elders were now being challenged as the physical landscape itself was transformed through oil palm. A Sebaruk man explained how he preferred using GPS and a letter of consent from the village head (Surat Keterangan Tanah, SKT) to demarcate land boundaries when purchasing swidden land from other villagers.

In addition to an increasing trend toward perennial cash crops, declining traditional practices of labor exchange have also been observed (Cramb et al. 2009). In the past, reciprocal labor exchange arrangements, known as kabanbelayan among the Iban (Sather 2006), were employed within longhouse communities to overcome labor bottlenecks during planting, weeding, and harvesting times (Dove 2011). When the arrangement was strictly enforced, not even material returns or surplus rice was allowed to be substituted for labor. In Iban culture, cooperation between local community members is particularly useful when it comes to labor-intensive activities such as felling trees and harvesting subsistence food crops (Cramb 2007).

In contemporary Kapuas Hulu, however, instead of complying with traditional labor exchange rules, many instances of labor exchange now involve monetary contributions, as reported by a Dayak man in Village C who paid IDR 80,000 per day for local assistance on his swidden, and an Iban Dayak in Village B who paid IDR 50,000 per day for outside labor to assist with the rice harvest. For perennial cash crops, labor arrangements are almost universally based on monetary exchanges; in both Village B and Village C daily labor was reportedly paid up to IDR 100,000 to harvest oil palm fruit.

Across Southeast Asia there has been a trend toward off-farm livelihood diversification, but often as part of a multipronged strategy to continue farming or as a strategy to accumulate resources and invest in larger smallholding plots (Rigg et al. 2016). Land dispossession due to plantation development has been reported elsewhere, leading to highly unequal access to land and processes of agrarian differentiation (Hall et al. 2011), such that off-farm work can even help reduce distress land sales. Similar outcomes were observed in Village B, as explained by a Dayak Iban (a single mother):

The advantage of working in palm oil mills is that I can earn money while still engaged in swidden cultivation. I work from 7 in the morning to 2 in the afternoon. Afterward, I continue my swidden work. . . . Fifteen years ago, women could not seek a financial income apart from swidden cultivation. Yet I can make it to work on the palm oil plantation. (Respondent VM, Dayak farmer, Village B, 2016)

While work on the oil palm plantation did not provide the abovementioned single mother with significant money to meet all her needs, she found this work beneficial because it allowed her to flexibly meet her daily cash economic needs.

Customary institutions in Kapuas Hulu (such as those linked to swidden cultivation) once played a critical role in determining livelihood aspirations and engagement with new economic opportunities. These institutions are still important for some Dayak communities, especially the older generation, and they can be seen to have mediated the integration of these communities into the palm oil economy. Yet, over time, the influence of these institutions has tended to evolve (and indeed decline). Local institutional adaptation is a key feature of the social landscape in Kapuas Hulu and has resulted in new systems of resource access that frequently build upon past customary institutions in a largely path-dependent way. The ability of communities to draw legitimacy and strength from these institutions appears to be a key determinant of social outcomes arising from engagement with the palm oil economy.

V Conclusion

This research presents the complex multi-scalar institutional environment emerging around the palm oil value chain as it manifests itself in Kapuas Hulu. While we recognize that livelihood outcomes for rural households are often site specific, our study has highlighted the multi-scalar sets of institutions that intervene in the relationship between agrarian communities and the palm oil sector. We have further demonstrated how livelihood change and rural development outcomes can be helpfully analyzed, and indeed understood, through a global value chain lens, especially one that is sensitive to the broader institutional environment of the chain.

In this case study, large-scale oil palm development has resulted in land appropriation and the exclusion of some individuals from accessing traditional land resources. This has occurred as a result of various mechanisms, including the regulatory processes associated with spatial planning, formalizing private concessions (HGUs), constructing discursive strategies, and establishing patronage relationships with local customary elites. While local communities have, at times, been able to call on external institutions to mobilize support for their struggle against land appropriation, they are generally engaged in a negotiating space with highly unequal power relations. National and local elites have more successfully configured alternative strategies to incorporate regulations, force, discursive constructions, and market pressures to achieve access to land (to borrow from the powers of exclusion presented by Hall et al. 2011). The outcome of this process has been a large-scale landscape transformation across Kapuas Hulu away from a mosaic of forests, agroforests, and swidden land toward mostly monocultural oil palm plantations, even as this process remains incomplete.

The process of allocating large-scale concessions combines regulations and discursive narratives to accommodate the interests of lead firms in global value chains. These interests are able to concentrate land resources into their hands, or at least their supply chain, through regulatory mechanisms that ensure this is achieved at relatively low cost. They rely heavily on negotiating and networking with various national and local elites within the state apparatus who support their desire to encourage a shift away from swidden-based land practices. With such formal regulatory support, plantation firms can secure land access and exert pressure on customary institutions to facilitate resource access. The degradation of customary institutions was also influenced by competing aspirations among Dayak communities themselves to reject or accept firm land contracts, and was ultimately associated with an increase in market-based land transactions (a relatively new institution) and subsequent loss of indigenously controlled land.

While there has been a countermovement by environmental activists and other NGOs to recognize customary rights and to reject oil palm expansion, this countermovement has largely failed to consider the reality that many community members are actively embracing the crop and voluntarily engaging with the broader oil palm economy. Many swidden farmers expressed their disappointment with environmental advocacy groups, since they had been largely unable to generate alternative income-generating activities for the local community. As a result, many of these farmers have established their own oil palm smallholdings to secure a cash income. In the current broader context of the Indonesian agrarian political economy (and the institutional environment described in this article), there appears to be limited room for maneuver for many rural households beyond the palm oil sector—at least in Kapuas Hulu.

While agribusiness firms are generally able to increase their control over land through various contractual agreements, there is another associated process of establishing palm oil related infrastructure. This infrastructure development provides some (albeit limited) choice and improved access to local inhabitants, so that they can engage with the larger value chain that reaches beyond Kapuas Hulu, and often in quite beneficial ways. Local actors occupy different positions in the value chain in order to improve market access and strengthen their social and economic position. The broader market access associated with global palm oil value chain interventions encourages more local engagement with smallholding palm plantations, as found also by previous smallholding oil palm studies (Cramb 2015; Potter 2016). Our approach of examining the broader institutional environment of the GVC for palm oil generates insights into the possibilities for reforming governance structures in ways that might allow community engagement to occur on terms more amenable to community interests.

Our research findings also have implications for understanding agrarian change and rural development trajectories in Indonesia. Smallholder households are clearly not just functioning as passive objects of development assistance or corporate accumulation, but they are actively configuring new roles as producers and broader agents within the local economy. However, their attempts to assert a vision for appropriate rural development pathways in this case are ultimately dependent on their capacity to engage with, and actively reshape, the broader institutional environment of the palm oil value chain. Efforts to promote rural development should consider a much wider set of leverage points and actors embedded at different scales within an institutional environment that is continually under construction.

Accepted: March 2, 2020


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Vol. 9, No. 3, Nuurrianti Jalli and Yearry Panji Setianto


Contents>> Vol. 9, No. 3

Revisiting Transnational Media Flow in Nusantara: Cross-border Content Broadcasting in Indonesia and Malaysia

Nuurrianti Jalli* and Yearry Panji Setianto**

*Department of Languages, Literature, and Communication Studies, Northern State University, 1200 S Jay St, Aberdeen, South Dakota, 57401, The United States of America
Corresponding author’s e-mail: nuurrianti.jalli[at]
**Departemen Ilmu Komunikasi, Universitas Sultan Ageng Tirtayasa, Jl. Raya Jakarta Km 4 Pakupatan Kota Serang Provinsi Banten, Indonesia

DOI: 10.20495/seas.9.3_413

Previous studies on transnational media have emphasized transnational media organizations and tended to ignore the role of cross-border content, especially in a non-Western context. This study aims to fill theoretical gaps within this scholarship by providing an analysis of the Southeast Asian media sphere, focusing on Indonesia and Malaysia in a historical context—transnational media flow before 2010. The two neighboring nations of Indonesia and Malaysia have many things in common, from culture to language and religion. This study not only explores similarities in the reception and appropriation of transnational content in both countries but also investigates why, to some extent, each had a different attitude toward content produced by the other. It also looks at how governments in these two nations control the flow of transnational media content. Focusing on broadcast media, the study finds that cross-border media flow between Indonesia and Malaysia was made possible primarily in two ways: (1) illicit or unintended media exchange, and (2) legal and intended media exchange. Illicit media exchange was enabled through the use of satellite dishes and antennae near state borders, as well as piracy. Legal and intended media exchange was enabled through state collaboration and the purchase of media rights; both governments also utilized several bodies of laws to assist in controlling transnational media content. Based on our analysis, there is a path of transnational media exchange between these two countries. We also found Malaysians to be more accepting of Indonesian content than vice versa.

Keywords: Nusantara, Indonesia, Malaysia, transnational media, cross-border content, broadcast media


The effect of globalization on national media systems has encouraged various countries to reconsider the effectiveness of their media policy. While the presence of foreign media content is not new for most nations, the intrusion of material produced by other countries has long been considered a national threat (Crofts Wiley 2004; Cohen 2008). This is more so in states that aim to protect their national identities from the infiltration of foreign cultures, which are viewed as unsuitable for local audiences, via imported media content. Today, with the proliferation of the Internet, Indonesia and Malaysia are expressing concerns over the media flow from foreign countries through global channels such as Netflix, Hulu, Amazon Prime, and Viu, among others. Leaders in Malaysia and Indonesia have raised concerns over the potential impact of loosely regulated media content on local cultural and religious values, especially content related to LGBTQA+, violence, and leftist political ideologies (Anton Hermansyah 2016; Kelion 2016; Katrina 2019).

Notwithstanding the current reality, where global media companies like Netflix have already infiltrated Malaysia and Indonesia through the Internet, this paper aims to provide a historical overview of transnational content in both countries before 2010. Since previous studies on transnational media have emphasized transnational media organizations and tended to ignore the role of cross-border content (Esser and Strömbäck 2012), this paper hopes to fill this theoretical gap by providing data focusing on these two nations. More data on this topic will help to cross-examine the significance of country and regional studies from the perspective of global communication and media studies (Flew and Waisbord 2015). Additionally, this research hopes to assist in providing insights into prognosticating reactions from both governments to trends in global media consumption, based on policies implemented by both countries in the past decade.

The relationship between Indonesia and Malaysia has always been defined based on the idea of serumpun (kinship), the sharing of racial and religious affinity (Islam), linguistic similarity, geographical proximity in the Malay Archipelago (or Nusantara), and a shared history (Khalid and Yacob 2012). Yet the two countries have adopted restrictive media policies toward transnational/foreign media content from each other—along with other countries in the region. Cross-border flow of media content eventually became a political debate in Indonesia and Malaysia (Mohamad Rizal 2010), but what influenced the laws and regulations put in place to deal with this issue remains unanswered. Thus, we argue that comparing the media regulations between Indonesia and Malaysia would further explain what factors determined their decisions in media policy-making processes, especially their critical stance toward Western media content. We also look at the media exchange between Indonesia and Malaysia and investigate the channels of transnational media in these two states in the decades up to 2010. Finally, this study also explores factors influencing the acceptance of cross-border media content in both countries.

For this study we used a historical method, focusing on the comparison of media policies in Indonesia and Malaysia and how these countries developed their strategy on the flow of transnational media content. Among the secondary data we used were past publications, government reports, as well as online databases. This paper aims to answer three research questions: (1) How was the practice of transnational media content flow in Indonesia and Malaysia before 2010? (2) How did the governments of Indonesia and Malaysia control transnational media content? (3) What factors influenced the acceptance of transnational media content in both countries? The discussion is focused on broadcast media before 2010. It is essential to also understand that, despite the objectives, this paper does not aim to measure the acceptance level of media content in Malaysia and Indonesia. We aim to provide insights on matters related to the practice of transnational media flow and government approaches to cross-border content, and to explore potential factors influencing the acceptance of transnational media content in both countries.

Globalization and Transnational Media

With globalization, societies are becoming more transnational. Globalization also creates problems that cannot be handled at the level of nation-states, and this forces governments to think at the supranational level (Kearney 1995). Globalization can be illustrated by the increasing cross-border activities, from interactions among people from different parts of the world through social media platforms to people in different locations enjoying similar content provided by global media-services providers like Netflix. While these transnational phenomena cannot be simplified as logical consequences of the increasing popularity of global media widely accessed by global audiences, it is somewhat difficult to diminish the impact of media on the advancement of globalization. As a result, the transnational flow of media content can also be seen as one of the effects of globalization.

Edward Herman and Robert McChesney (2004) explained that significant changes are taking place within society and in our relationship with media due to the influence of global media. These changes include increasing cross-border flows of media content as well as a growing number of transnational media organizations. However, the authors also warned of the negative consequences of global media, mainly an increase in commercialization and centralized control over media. On the one hand, thanks to the globalization of media, many people in underdeveloped countries can easily watch high-quality programs produced by television stations in developed nations. On the other hand, the infiltration of transnational media content, mostly from Western countries, is seen as a threat to national cultures. Even the dominance of news content from the Western world through global media into Third World countries like Malaysia and Indonesia has often been perceived as an attack on the free flow of information (McBride 1980). Additionally, within the perspective of cultural imperialism, the international flow of communication is seen as favoring industrialized nations and threatening sociocultural values of developing countries (McBride 1980; Kraidy 2002). In some states, foreign television programs have been accused of promoting consumerism (Paek and Pan 2004). Even though policy makers in different countries have varying attitudes toward the presence of global media, governments in many developing nations tend to exhibit hostility toward unwanted transnational media content.

One of the most interesting debates concerning the threat of global media and transnational flows of communication took place during the UNESCO meeting in Kenya in 1973. During the initiation of the New World Information and Communication Order, a debate session hosted at the UNESCO meeting, some countries argued over whether the advancement of transnational media flows would be positive. According to Marwan Kraidy (2002), Western countries, which had more advanced media industries, argued that the free flow of information should be seen as positive, while the other nations did not agree and were afraid that liberalization of the flow of information would benefit only Western countries (McBride 1980). Even today it is argued that there is an imbalance in the transnational flow of information, especially since media content tends to flow from developed nations to developing ones.

There have been several attempts to define the term “transnational media.” For example, Leo Gher and Kiran Bharthapudi (2004) defined it as “communication, information or entertainment that crosses international borders without the regulatory constraints normally associated with electronic media.” Other scholars have explained the different types of transnational media. Michael Brüggemann and Hagen Schulz-Forberg (2009) categorized it into four types: (1) national media that has a cross-border mission, (2) international media, (3) pan-regional media, and (4) global media as illustrated in Table 1.


Table 1 Types of Transnational Media



Diplomatic Relationship between Indonesia and Malaysia

The diplomatic relationship between Malaysia and Indonesia has existed for several decades, since the time of Malaya’s independence in 1957 (Muhammad 1964; Malaysia, Ministry of Foreign Affairs 2015). However, this relationship has not always been stable and is bittersweet. When Malaysia was formed (through the amalgamation of the Federation of Malaya, Singapore, Sabah, and Sarawak) in 1963, Indonesia, led by President Sukarno, was not happy with the idea. The Indonesian government’s opposition to the formation of Malaysia led to a violent conflict, better known as Konfrontasi, that lasted three years—1963–66. According to James Mackie (1974), this diplomatic dispute was an undeclared war, with most of the action occurring at the border between Indonesia and East Malaysia in Borneo; it included restrained and isolated combats and was most likely driven by Sukarno’s political purposes. However, Konfrontasi ended with Indonesia finally acknowledging the formation of Malaysia.

In more recent times, tensions between these two countries expanded to issues of territorial boundaries, Indonesian illegal immigrants, ill treatment of Indonesian workers in Malaysia, human trafficking, and the infamous annual forest fires in Indonesia that resulted in a terrible haze over Peninsular Malaysia and Singapore for more than a decade from the mid-1990s (Kanapathy 2006; Kompas 2007 in Heryanto 2008; Killias 2010; Elias 2013). There were also several disputes between these countries over ownership of items of cultural heritage, such as the Pendet dance, folk songs like “Rasa Sayang” and “Terang Bulan,” and wayang kulit shadow puppetry (Chong 2012). However, despite the endless conflicts between these two countries, governments on both sides worked hard to arrive at a better understanding and a more stable diplomatic relationship. This could be seen through the efforts by both governments to strengthen bilateral ties. In 2018, during a diplomatic visit to Indonesia by Malaysian Prime Minister Dr. Mahathir Mohamad, he and Indonesian President Joko Widodo pledged to improve the relationship between their countries and focus on resolving outstanding border issues, enhancing protection and welfare for migrant workers, and potentially reviving the old plan of an ASEAN car project (Chan 2018).

Media in Indonesia and Malaysia

As in many Southeast Asian countries, the broadcasting system in Indonesia was introduced during the colonial period. Under Dutch colonial rule, radio was used to relay messages from the Netherlands to the Dutch East Indies as well as provide entertainment for colonial elites (Kitley 2014). When Japan took over, radio became a propaganda tool for the colonizers, with Japanese programs delivered to local audiences. When Indonesia gained its independence in 1945, radio eventually became the primary tool to broadcast nationalistic and revolutionary messages around the country. Once the national radio system became more established, the Indonesian government set up a national television network, Televisi Republik Indonesia (TVRI), in August 1962 through the Decree of the Minister of Information No. 20/1961. The initial reason for this was that Sukarno, the Indonesian president at the time, wanted to deliver the image of Indonesia as a modern country to the whole region (Kitley 2003). As the host of the Asian Games in 1962, Indonesia wanted to broadcast this sporting event to other Asian countries transnationally. However, after the Asian Games TVRI suffered a lack of funding, which resulted in the discontinuation of the network (Kitley 2014). Consequently, TVRI was overwhelmed by American television programs: it was much cheaper to broadcast those than to produce local programs.

Indonesia’s second president, Suharto, who overthrew Sukarno in 1965, enjoyed his control over the country’s broadcasting system. He exercised powerful control over the media in general, mainly through “licensing mechanism, media ownership regulation, paper distribution, media associations, Press Council membership and so on” (Agus Sudibyo and Patria 2013, 258). He prohibited broadcast media from delivering political messages, which in turn encouraged the growing popularity of entertainment content. Music, both local and Western, dominated radio shows at that time. While Suharto still allowed national television to broadcast limited transnational programs, such as American TV shows, he prohibited TVRI from airing advertisements over concerns that television commercials might promote consumerism (Ade Armando 2011). The Indonesian government tended to be permissive with imported programs due to business reasons. However, on some occasions government officials still warned the public not to be influenced by Western cultures that were promoted through foreign television programs.

Indonesia’s first private television network, Rajawali Citra Televisi Indonesia (RCTI), was introduced in the late 1980s. One of the reasons why Suharto permitted a private television network was to distract Indonesian viewers from foreign broadcasting (Ade Armando 2011). It seems that the increasing use of satellite dishes at that time encouraged local audiences to access international broadcasts illegally. Through shared signals from a satellite dish, even people in a small village could watch overseas television programs that were not available on local broadcasting channels. Unable to prohibit the use of satellite dishes, the government issued an “open skies” policy and legalized the use of parabola satellites, but many people still used them to access foreign channels (Sen and Hill 2006). Therefore, rather than further control the use of satellite dishes, which was seen as impractical, the government tried to attract local audiences by introducing private television channels.

The strict Suharto government finally fell after the countrywide Reformasi protest movement in 1998. In the aftermath of Suharto’s defeat there was media liberalization, which allowed the growth of press freedom and creativity (Kakiailatu 2007). Films that were deemed as sensitive or critical of the government were publicly broadcast, and various new creative products could be shared with international audiences. However, some critics argued that although there were improvements in terms of cultural expression, some media content was still heavily censored (Sen and Hill 2006), such as pornography, extreme violence, and content deemed too critical of the Indonesian government or its policies.

In Malaysia, too, the media was tightly controlled by the ruling power. The government or its affiliated companies owned broadcasting stations, especially during the Barisan Nasional (BN) government and its predecessor Parti Perikatan government from the country’s independence in 1957 until 2018. This resulted in minimal media freedom in the country and not much variety in media content available to the public (Kim 2001; McDaniel 2002; Mohd Sani 2004; George 2006; Iga 2012; Willnat et al. 2013). It also led to media monopoly. In addition to free-to-air (public) channels such as RTM1, RTM2 (operated by the Ministry of Communications and Multimedia), TV3, NTV7, 8TV, and TV9 (operated by the government-affiliated Media Prima Berhad), the other media giant in the country was—and is—the sole satellite television service provider, Astro, owned by Astro Malaysia Holdings Berhad. Unlike free-to-air channels, Astro satellite service offers 170 television channels and 20 radio stations that include all free-to-air channels along with international channels such as HBO, Cinemax, and Fox (Astro 2019).

Over the years Astro has received multiple criticisms not only from subscribers but also from local politicians, even though it provides so many interesting channels (Khairil Ashraf 2014).1) Subscribers’ complaints usually concern what they consider unnecessary fees for the average service that Astro provides, with constant disruptions especially during the monsoon season. Other complaints involve excessive advertising—showing Astro’s obvious capitalistic motives rather than a desire to provide excellent service to customers. Despite the negative feedback about Astro since it began broadcasting in 1996, the satellite service provider has never had serious competition in the market. With strong demand for a variety of channels, the people have only one legal option for satellite service—although many, especially in the rural areas, have opted to purchase unregistered illegal satellite dishes. Using such satellite dishes, they can receive multiple channels from outside the country without having to pay monthly fees; plus the content is not filtered by any government body, which allows users to enjoy original uncensored content.

Malaysia has always been strict when it comes to filtering media content from foreign countries, particularly content originating and produced in Western nations. Media content that is seen as inappropriate, especially opposing Eastern and Islamic cultures and values, is banned from public viewing. The Film Censorship Board of Malaysia under the Ministry of Home Affairs plays a vital role in deciding what content can be broadcast in the Malaysian media. Film censorship laws, specifically the Film Censorship Act 2002,2) not only filter and oversee exported content but also oversee the production and showing of local films (Wan Mahmud et al. 2009). According to Wan Amizah Wan Mahmud (2008), the censorship system in Malaysia was not initially created by the Malaysian government per se but was one of the effects of British colonization. The British, according to Paul O’Higgins (1972), introduced such a policy in order to uphold and defend their dignity as masters in the occupied territory—which at the same time instilled the idea of censorship among local leaders as one of the ways to maintain their own status as the highest class in the societal hierarchy. It is believed that the main legacy of the British Empire in the field of media was not the craft of producing films, but the outline of the censorship system (Van der Heide 2002), which can still be seen today. It is also important to note that the Censorship Board reviews not only films but also trailers, newsreels, posters, advertisements, and short comedy films (Wan Mahmud et al. 2009). Hence, in order for local and international producers to have their content nationally broadcast, it is crucial for them to follow the guidelines provided by the Censorship Board.3) If they fail to follow instructions, their content is banned from national broadcasting; and extreme content can also be charged under the Film Censorship Act (2002). Some of the media laws in Indonesia and Malaysia that could be used to oversee transnational media content can be referred to in Table 2 below.


Table 2 Media Laws in Indonesia and Malaysia that Could Be Used to Oversee Transnational Media Content*



Although Indonesia’s censorship laws are not as strict as Malaysia’s, Indonesia also pays careful attention to content that is considered to be against Islamic values. For instance, in 2014 both countries banned the Hollywood film Noah claiming it went against Islamic beliefs (Nathan 2014). With Islam being the official religion in both countries, the Malaysian and Indonesian governments pay extra attention to any content that can affect Islamic values. In 2019 an Indonesian filmmaker, Garin Nugroho, received death threats for his film Memories of My Body, which portrays a male dancer exploring his sexuality and gender identity. In Indonesia there is no specific law to oversee content related to the LGBTQA+ community except in Acheh. However, for the majority Muslim population in Indonesia, such “Western” content is not acceptable (Malay Mail, May 11, 2019).

Transnational Media Flow: Indonesia and Malaysia

Historically, in many countries uncontrolled media flow has been viewed as a threat to national sovereignty and has shaped media policies (Hardt and Negri 2001; Flew 2012). Information flow from developed countries into Third World countries threatens the latter as foreign media content effectively surpasses the jurisdiction and authority of nation-states, eventually challenging the notion of national sovereignty and its effectiveness. Therefore, according to scholars like Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri, government and politics “come to be completely integrated into the system of transnational command” (Hardt and Negri 2001, 307). In this section, we highlight some examples of how media content flows between Indonesia and Malaysia, with a specific focus on broadcast materials such as films, TV dramas, radio, and music.

Transnational media content flows between Malaysia and Indonesia mainly through two modes of transmission: (1) illicit or unintended media exchange, including, especially at the national borders, the availability of illegal satellite dishes and DVD dealerships to accommodate local demand for foreign content; and (2) legal and intended media exchange (refer to Fig. 1). The intended media exchange discussed here focuses on content from Malaysia and the island of Java, where the Indonesian capital—Jakarta—is located and extensive use of the official Bahasa Indonesia rather than the Javanese language is recorded (Poedjosoedarmo 2006). Due to the diversity of languages in the Indonesian archipelago (Goebel 2013; 2016), media consumption in the country also varies (Sen and Hill 2006). Most media companies and government agencies are located in Java, but there are some also in Bali and Sumatra (Nugroho et al. 2012).



Fig. 1 Transnational Media Flow in Indonesia and Malaysia


In Indonesia and Malaysia, one of the catalysts facilitating transnational media content was satellite TV. With limited TV channels provided by the state, the use of satellite dishes was deemed necessary to increase options for media content. However, for many Indonesians and Malaysians, especially in the 1990s, satellite dishes were considered a luxury. Nonetheless, transnational satellite TV was a concern for both governments since content from the Western world was deemed a threat to the Asian values upheld by both nations (McDaniel 2002). For example, the introduction of Rupert Murdoch’s Star TV in 1991 was received differently by audiences and governments in Southeast Asian countries such as Indonesia and Malaysia. Many media policies were set up to handle the transnational flow of media content enabled by this new media technology.

The common view of upholding Asian values was not exclusive to Indonesia and Malaysia. In many other Southeast Asian countries with authoritarian regimes, the discourse on media policies was also centralized in censorship.4) Censorship was deemed necessary to prevent unwanted foreign media content. In the late 1990s, using the argument of preserving Asian values, Southeast Asian governments’ efforts to maintain censorship—to protect the public from “unsuitable” materials—faced an unlikely dilemma (McDaniel 2002). In Malaysia, for example, thanks to advanced media technologies—from satellite dishes to videocassettes—people living near the national borders in particular could easily access media content from neighboring countries without having to be concerned with the government’s censorship policy (McDaniel 2002). Why government policies concerning the cross-border flow of media content were ineffective during that time is yet to be fully understood.

Radio and Music

The history of the infiltration of Malaysian media content into Indonesia can be traced back to the increasing popularity of radio broadcasts in both countries in the post-independence period. Due to geographical proximity, broadcast signals from Malaysia are relatively easily received by Indonesian audiences, and vice versa. As a result, it is common for Indonesian listeners to tune into Malaysian radio stations. In West Kalimantan, for example, 18 Malaysian radio channels—including Muzik FM, TraXX FM, Klasik Nasional FM, Hot FM, Hitz FM, ERA (formerly Era FM), and Cats FM—are available for free to Indonesians living near the Malaysian border. To attract Indonesian listeners, Malaysian radio plays Indonesian pop songs.

In comparing the Malaysian music industry to the Indonesian one, it is safe to say that the latter is more advanced and prominent than the former (Heryanto 2008). Indonesian bands such as Peterpan, Sheila on 7, and Cokelat, among others, are well known among Malaysians. And in 2007, instead of choosing a local Malaysian band, Celcom—Malaysia’s largest and oldest telecommunications company—officially appointed Indonesia’s best-known music group, Peterpan, as the company’s new “power icon” as part of its marketing strategy (Heryanto 2008). Malaysia’s warm reception of Indonesian music is not recent: it goes back several decades to the success of artists such as Titiek Puspa, Lilis Suryani, and Vina Panduwinata (Sartono 2007, quoted in Heryanto 2008). In contrast to the success of Indonesian musicians in Malaysia, only a few Malaysian artists—such as Search, Siti Nurhaliza, and Sheila Majid—have managed to penetrate the Indonesian music industry (Tribune News, July 2, 2013).

The Indonesian and Malaysian governments have tried to cooperate in making collaborative broadcasts (McDaniel 1994). In the case of radio, Radio Republik Indonesia (RRI) has long collaborated with Radio Televisyen Malaysia (RTM) in broadcasting programs to reach audiences in both countries. One of the most famous such programs was Titian Muhibah (Bridge of harmony), broadcasting Indonesian and Malaysian songs to listeners in both countries. Similar programs were later introduced on television; TVRI broadcast a program with the same name in the 1990s. The television program was discontinued after Suharto resigned and the bilateral relationship between Indonesia and Malaysia became troublesome. In 2013 RRI made an unsuccessful attempt to work with RTM to produce a similar show, with the primary aim being to reach out to audiences living near the national borders of these neighboring nations, including areas like Pontianak, Sintang, Entikong, and Sarawak (Tribune News, July 2, 2013). Many of the programs co-produced by RRI and RTM were cultural shows, and one of them—Bermukun Borneo—continued until 2019. Intentional or legal transnational flows of media content were considered inconsistent and profoundly influenced by the internal political conditions in each country as well as the bilateral relationship between the two countries.

TV Dramas and Films

Unlike scholarly articles on the development of Indonesian cinema, little has been written about the history of Malaysian cinema (White 1996). Scholars have suggested that Indonesian media content has long been accepted by the Malaysian public (Van der Heide 2002; Heryanto 2008). This can be traced all the way back to the 1930s through the overwhelming popularity of media content such as the film Terang Boelan (Bright moon) in Malaya and Singapore. The success of Terang Boelan inspired the production of Malay films. This could be seen through the establishment of an Indonesian film house in Singapore in 1938 to cater to local demand for Malay media content (Norman Yusoff 2019). The popularity of Terang Boelan also inspired Shaw Brothers in Singapore to set up Malay Film Productions, which became one of the successful film companies in the region.

According to William van der Heide (2002), the popularity of the Malayan movie actor P. Ramlee in the 1950s beyond the Peninsula was regarded as having the potential to boost the export of Malayan movies to Indonesia. But Indonesia reacted negatively by imposing a strict protectionist policy—demanding that three Indonesian films be screened in the Peninsula for every Malayan movie exported to Indonesia—which resulted in a limited number of Malayan films being circulated in Indonesia (Latif 1989). Despite little success, some strategies, such as inviting Indonesian directors and actors to produce Malayan movies, were used to ensure the smooth distribution of Malayan films in Indonesia (Alauddin 1992).

The introduction of television in the early 1960s also contributed to the declining popularity of Malaysian movies among local audiences. Meanwhile, due to the technical superiority of Indonesian films, Malaysian viewers became more interested in their neighboring country’s films. Providing Malaysian audiences with Malay-language content, Indonesian movies of various genres—from action to dangdut musicals—became more popular in the 1970s (Sirat 1992). Even Perfima—the film company set up by P. Ramlee and a few others—initially imported popular Indonesian films before it produced local content (Van der Heide 2002).

In the 1980s Indonesian films could be accessed via state-owned channels operated by RTM, through programs such as Tayangan Gambar Indonesia (Indonesian film show) on TV1. At the same time, locally produced media content was shown on programs such as Tayangan Gambar Melayu (Malay film show). Due to the lack of local media products, RTM had to purchase rights to Indonesian films for RM3,000–5,000 from local distributors. The cost to purchase Indonesian content was considered reasonable to fill in the vacant slots on RTM TV channels. The same approach was taken by TV3, a private TV channel that was established in 1983 (Abdul Wahab et al. 2013). TV3 at that time, aware of the trend, also featured Indonesian films alternately with Malay films through its program Malindo Theater (Norman Yusoff 2019).

In the early 2000s, some of the Indonesian films popular in Malaysia were Ada Apa Dengan Cinta (What’s up with love, 2002), Eiffel I’m in Love (2003), Heart (2006), and Ayat-Ayat Cinta (Verses of love, 2008). Ada Apa Dengan Cinta, which was released in Malaysia in 2003, received positive feedback, especially from young adults. Observers of the local art scene posited that the film contributed to the emergence of a subculture centralized in Indonesian poetry in Malaysia. In 2016 a prequel of the movie, Ada Apa Dengan Cinta 2, was released in the Malaysian market, 13 years after the release of its predecessor. Recorded as the highest-grossing Indonesian movie in Malaysia, Ada Apa Dengan Cinta 2 reaped more than RM2.5 million in box office takings within a week and surpassed RM4 million revenue after its 12th day of screening (Chua 2016a; 2016b).

Indonesian TV dramas, better known as sinetrons, also became popular in Malaysia. According to Josscy Aartsen (2011), the popularity of Indonesian media content as an official import to Malaysia was initially due to cheaper copyrights compared to Western media content, especially during the financial crisis in the 1990s. The overwhelming acceptance of Indonesian sinetrons led to the establishment of exclusive slots on Malaysian TV networks. For example, in 2006 TV9—a channel under Media Prima, one of the largest media agencies in Malaysia—dedicated a daily slot to broadcast Indonesian TV dramas (Abdul Wahab et al. 2013). This was seen as an effort to compete with other TV stations that were also actively broadcasting Indonesian sinetrons. Some Indonesian dramas were hugely popular among Malaysian viewers: for example, Kiamat Sudah Dekat (The end is near, 2003) had a viewership of over 1 million. And Mutiara Hari (Pearl of the day), which was initially released on SCTV in Indonesia in 2005, had a viewership of 1.6 million on TV9 (Abdul Wahab et al. 2013). Tabulated in Table 3 above are some of the Indonesian sinetrons and films broadcasted in Malaysia over the years.


Table 3 Some Indonesian Sinetrons and Films in Malaysia



Unlike the penetration of Indonesian films into Malaysian media, Malaysian media content was not well received in Indonesia (Van der Heide 2002). This could have been due to a few factors, such as the plethora of choices within Indonesia and slower development of the entertainment industry in Malaysia. According to Khairi Ahmad (1988, 9), at least in the 1980s, Indonesian audiences found that Malaysian films were not as attractive as local content or other foreign films. Some Malaysian films that succeeded in breaking into the Indonesian market were those by P. Ramlee, such as Seniman Bujang Lapok (The three bachelor artists), Nujum Pak Belalang (Pak Belalang the necromancer), Bakti (Services), among others (Khairi Ahmad 1988). Bakti, which was released in 1950, received a particularly overwhelming response from the Indonesian public due to the widespread publicity provided by newspapers in Singapore such as Utusan Melayu, Utusan Zaman, and Mastika (Sahidan Jaafar 2019; Abdullah Hussain 2003):

The Oranje Theater was a first-class stage that usually showed only big movies from the West. At the time the film Bakti was aired on the Oranje Medan Medan stage in the 1950s, some of the main streets around the theater were jammed with vehicles and humans. (Abdullah Hussain 2003, 17)

Other than films by P. Ramlee, in the 1990s other films also managed to break into the Indonesian market. One was Fenomena (Phenomenon). The success of this film was catalyzed by the popularity of the lead actor, Amy Search, who was also a member of the popular Malaysian rock band Search. In 1989, a year before the film was released in the Indonesian market, the rock band released its album Fenomena, which received overwhelming support from Indonesian audiences—over 2 million copies were sold (Raja 2017).

Various efforts to co-produce movies between the two countries were initiated after the formation of ASEAN in 1967, but they materialized only in the late 1980s. Eventually several films were produced, including the popular Irisan-Irisan Hati (Shreds of the heart) (Lim 1989). There were also successful attempts by filmmakers to incorporate celebrities from Indonesia and Malaysia in their films. For instance, Isabella (1990) was directed by the Indonesian director Marwan Alkatiri and featured the Malaysian actor Amy Search and Indonesian actor Nia Zulkarnain. Other collaborative films included Gadis Hitam Putih (The black and white woman, 1986), directed by Wahyu Sihombing, and Gelora Cinta (The surge of love, 1992) by Aziz Sattar (Norman Yusoff 2019). While such collaboration was applauded by the Malaysian film industry, it gained little interest from its Indonesian counterpart (Said 1991).

Unlike successful Indonesian sinetrons in Malaysia, only a small number of Malaysian TV shows managed to penetrate the Indonesian market. In the late 1980s there were only two notable Malaysian television shows popular in Indonesia: the soap opera Primadona (Primadonna, 1989) and the variety show Titian Muhibah (1990). One of the best contemporary examples of Malaysian media content popular in Indonesia is the animation series Upin & Ipin, by Les’ Copaque Production. The children’s show has been broadcast on the Indonesian TV channel MNCTV since 2007.

Media Piracy in Indonesia and Malaysia

Audiences in both countries also enjoyed relatively easy access to transnational media content through pirated media. In Indonesia, for example, the government found it difficult to eliminate media piracy. The development of videocassettes in the 1980s is viewed as having kickstarted media piracy in Indonesia (Rosihan Anwar 1988). Locals made copies of videocassettes in order to meet the demand for a variety of films without having to spend much money going to the cinema. The booming piracy business led to a decline in the production of Indonesian movies in the early 1980s (Rosihan Anwar 1988). New films were recorded as soon as they were available in theatres, and videocassettes of the films were promptly distributed by video rental shops. Many of the recordings were made illegally and disseminated without obtaining video rights from the producers. Efforts were made by the Indonesian government to eliminate piracy and exert more control, but no significant success was achieved (Khairi Ahmad 1988).

In the 1990s, pirated media content in most Southeast Asian countries was distributed via counterfeit VCDs or DVDs due to the lack of access to online media. Even though pirated media is illegal in Indonesia, 90 percent of the VCDs distributed in the market were pirated copies (Van Heeren 2012). Most pirated media offers relatively cheap access to transnational content. Hollywood box office movies were “often for sale on the streets before they even premiere in local theaters” (Baumgärtel 2007, 53). Pirated VCDs and DVDs also offered pornographic materials, Western music albums, and computer software and games. The only regulation that could be used to eradicate the practice of media piracy was Copyright Law No. 28/2014. However, the issue was more law enforcement than regulation.

Following the increasing penetration of the Internet in Indonesia, this newest medium has provided an alternative way for Indonesians to access transnational content. While it is true that a variety of media content from many countries is now easily available to Internet users in Indonesia, there is also a tendency to utilize this relatively cheap medium to access and distribute pirated media content. Even though the government tried to minimize online piracy through the implementation of Information and Electronic Transaction Law No. 11/2008, the government’s efforts to prevent the distribution of online pirated content seemed to focus mainly on blocking pornographic websites.

Even though censorship has been in place in Malaysia since the country’s independence in 1957, citizens can bypass bans through illegal Internet downloads. Banned media content can also be purchased from pirated VCD/DVD dealers (Yow 2015). Thus, it is not surprising that even though the Malaysian Censorship Board banned 50 Shades of Grey in 2015, people in the country are able to get their hands on an illegal copy of the movie through the ever-free Internet and illegal VCD/DVD dealers. The introduction of Malaysian Copyright Act 1987 proved that the government took piracy seriously and eventually hoped to put an end to it. Unfortunately, although illegal VCD/DVD dealers have been subjected to numerous raids by the authorities, their numbers are unlikely to decrease as the demand for illegal content is very high among Malaysians. For those who have slow Internet speed, it is more practical to buy illegal copies of VCDs or DVDs from unlawful dealers at prices starting from RM10 each, with discounts available for bulk purchases. The existence of illegal VCD and DVD dealerships not only raises questions about the relevance of stringent censorship but also explains one of the ways in which transnational content can be exchanged between countries.

Satellite Dishes and Antennae to Access TV Shows and Films

As in the case of radio, which was discussed in the previous section, Indonesian television owners in Northern Sumatra and West Kalimantan were able to access Malaysian television programs due to leaks of the broadcasting signal. In the late 1980s, television programs from the Malaysian channel TV3 were so popular in Sumatra that most Indonesian audiences were not aware they were enjoying programs from another country (Sen and Hill 2006). Other than TV3, two other mainstream Malaysian TV channels were also available for free beyond the Malaysian border in West Kalimantan—RTM1 and RTM2. Malaysians living near the border also have access to a few Indonesian television channels. In Johor, for example, residents can easily watch the three oldest Indonesian channels for free without having to subscribe to any cable or satellite service. Johor is located near Singapore and Indonesia. Hence, Singaporean and Indonesian channels are easily transmitted beyond the Malaysia-Indonesia and Malaysia-Singapore borders. By purchasing a standard outdoor antenna, viewers can enjoy TPI, RCTI, and SCTV from Indonesia as well as television channels from Singapore (Mohammad Faiq 2007). This can be considered as an unintended or unintentional transnational flow of media content, since the content comes via either illegal or unofficial transmission.

Likewise, the use of parabolic antennas in rural areas is seen as an essential unofficial medium for audiences in Indonesia to obtain transnational programs, including television programs from Malaysia, and vice versa. Compared to before the early 1990s, these days the numbers of satellite dishes in the country has decreased remarkably. In 1991, to control information flows from outside the country through alternative means such as privately owned satellite dishes, the Malaysian government announced a ban on all privately owned satellite dishes. The ban was described as highly necessary and a matter of highest national unity and security and also one of the ways to preserve Malaysian morals and values (Davidson 1998). With the ban in place, the Malaysian government aimed to control the massive flow of foreign media content into the country, worrying that without censorship, “dangerous” media content could easily influence Malaysians and not only jeopardize Malaysian culture but also threaten national harmony. However, as previously discussed, by the mid-1990s Astro Holdings was given the exclusive rights to provide satellite broadcasting services in the country. Ownership of satellite receivers other than Astro’s is considered illegal without a license—and owners of such receivers without the proper documentation and permits face confiscation of equipment as well as a hefty fine if discovered.

Private enterprises attempted to further encourage cross-border content broadcasting between Indonesia and Malaysia. One of the most prominent examples was the establishment of Astro Nusantara in 2006. As Malaysia’s sole satellite television service, this company signed an agreement with a local Indonesian company to establish its business in the Indonesian media market. Unfortunately, due to a stock dispute between the two majority shareholders, Astro Malaysia and Lippo Group, Astro Nusantara was dissolved in October 2008 (Malaysia Today, May 1, 2012). There was another reason why the Indonesian government supported the disbanding of Astro Nusantara. Indonesian Member of Parliament Dedy Malik argued that the Malaysian broadcasting company violated the broadcasting rules set by Indonesia’s Ministry of Communication and Information, especially the reciprocity clause (Tempo, March 3, 2006). Astro Malaysia was given a license to broadcast Malaysian content to Indonesian audiences, but this Malaysian satellite service did not transmit Indonesian content to Malaysian viewers.

Better Acceptance of Indonesian Content

We found that there were several reasons for the better acceptance of Indonesian media content in Malaysia than vice versa. Audiences in Malaysia found that Indonesian radio and television programs shared similar cultural values as their own; thus, it was easy for them to accept Indonesian content. Researchers such as Latifah Pawanteh et al. (2009) observed that at least for Malaysian media audiences, Asian media content such as Indonesia’s had relatable storylines and was relevant to their daily lives. The use of relatively identical language in the two countries in addition to Muslim-friendly content facilitated better acceptance of Indonesian content in Malaysia (Khairi Ahmad 1988). Moreover, since the majority of the population in both countries is Muslim, that further facilitates the flow of media between the two countries, mainly from Indonesia to Malaysia. Our analysis of media laws in both countries found that their regulations outlawed content that was deemed to be against Islamic values, such as explicit sexual content and gambling. In the case of Indonesian audiences, local media content is more popular than Malaysian content since Indonesia has a more advanced media industry and there are diverse options to choose from. Local media content is more popular among Indonesians also as it reflects Indonesian values. Some of the local media content is even produced in indigenous languages such as Javanese and Sundanese (Goebel, 2013), which makes it more appealing to local audiences (Sen and Hill 2006).

The entertainment industry in Indonesia is seen to be a step ahead of Malaysia’s. In 2017 Indonesia was the world’s 16th-biggest film market and the largest in Southeast Asian (Jakarta Post, December 14, 2018). Unlike Malaysian media products, Indonesian content is not only widely accepted by a global audience, but much of its profit is derived from the local market. With a population of 241 million in 2018 (Freedom House 2019), Indonesia undeniably has a larger talent pool than Malaysia. Due to Indonesia’s large population, its media market has greater potential for distributing local products. Its large population also makes Indonesia one of the most promising markets for the entertainment business in Asia (Jakarta Post, December 14, 2018; Chan 2019).

Low English proficiency among Indonesians is also deemed to be one of the factors contributing to the flourishing media industry in Indonesia. According to Itje Chodidjah, (2007) the dispersed geography of the Indonesian archipelago made it difficult to spread an English education. Low English proficiency led Indonesian audiences to prefer local rather than foreign content. Although Indonesia has diverse ethnicities and different languages, Bahasa Indonesia is the state’s officially mandated lingua franca (Rahmi 2015). Malay was used as an official language of Indonesia in 1918 (Moeliono 1993), primarily because colonial officials were concerned that if Dutch was extensively used, Indonesians would have easy access to political ideologies from abroad (Alisjahbana 1957; Lamb and Coleman 2008). In the 1920s, during the nationalist uprising in Indonesia, the nationalist movement declared Bahasa Indonesia as the language of solidarity for all Indonesians (Lamb and Coleman 2008). All these factors led to better acceptance of local media products than foreign materials and eventually contributed to the ever growing local media industry. Also, among the working class in Indonesia, local content was viewed as more relatable as it was imbued with familiar daily Indonesian values; this further contributed to the thriving entertainment industry in the state. Since the Indonesian entertainment industry was deemed good enough for Indonesians, foreign content—including that of Malaysian origin—was deemed inferior. The flourishing media industry in Indonesia provided better opportunities for the production of diverse media content than Malaysia. This was especially true after the fall of the Suharto regime in 1998, ending stringent control over media in Indonesia. The liberalization of the press in Indonesia resulted in the production of colorful media content that is still well received by international audiences, including Malaysians.


Our findings revealed that the Indonesian and Malaysian governments paid more attention to the flow of Western media content than to content from neighboring countries that shared the same religion and cultural values. As illustrated previously, hostility toward Western content could be seen through a more stringent body of laws in both countries prohibiting—often through censorship—materials that went against local norms (Wan Mahmud et al. 2009). At the same time, there is no record of an aggressive approach having been taken by either government when dealing with the illegal transmission of media content between these two countries, particularly near the border. Other than concerns over different religious and cultural values, governments were also concerned about the introduction of a consumer culture and liberal political ideologies from the West. Therefore, Western media content was more closely monitored and controlled through stringent media laws and policies (Ade Armando 2011). Such media content was viewed not only as an economic threat but also as a potential threat to national security.

As for the transnational flow of content between Indonesia and Malaysia, minimal documentation has been found to indicate that there were extensive official media exchanges between these two countries. In fact, scholars such as Van der Heide (2002) posited that scholarly discussion on the film industry in Asia often overlooked the Malaysian context. Based on our exploratory analysis, there was a lot of Indonesian entertainment content in Malaysia but minimal Malaysian content in the Indonesian media space. This was due to factors such as a better-developed entertainment industry in Indonesia, and a freer media environment in Indonesia, particularly after the fall of Suharto. Indonesians were found to prefer local rather than Malaysian content due to factors such as language and the sense of familiarity with Indonesian values depicted by locally produced broadcast media.

Also, minimal records have been found to indicate that either country paid close attention to media flows, especially the illicit transnational media flows in border areas. Not much action was taken to control the cross-border flow of content. It can be assumed that content from both countries was considered “safe” due to the countries’ common shared cultural and religious values; also, illegal content could flow transnationally only near the national border areas, and no significant amount of exchange was reported. Illicit cross-border broadcasts and content are believed to spread not much farther than the border areas of Malaysia and Indonesia.

Since the relationship between Indonesia and Malaysia has been somewhat unstable for several decades, media exchange may be seen as one way to rekindle the relationship. It is surprising that although several efforts have been made to improve the relationship, especially through strategic agreements, minimal efforts have focused on extensive media exchange. In the 1990s the two countries tried to work together on programs like Titian Muhibah, but since then no similar efforts have been made. Increased media exchange between Indonesia and Malaysia can serve the diplomatic purpose of improving the bittersweet bilateral relationship between these Nusantara countries.

Since this study was conducted through historical research, it is exploratory in nature. Minimal resources were found about official media exchanges between Indonesia and Malaysia. The issue can be further explored through interviewing media providers from both countries to see whether there are any bilateral agreements on broadcast media content. Research can also focus on interviewing diplomats from both countries to better understand the bilateral relationship between Indonesia and Malaysia. Through these interviews, researchers will be able to gain updated information on Indonesia’s and Malaysia’s media exchange initiatives and better understand how media exchange can serve as a diplomatic approach. Since there is also minimal proper documentation on unintended transnational media flows near the national borders, it would be best to explore this topic by interviewing and requesting official documentation from the relevant authorities in both countries.

Accepted: March 2, 2020


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1) Khairil Ashraf (2014) mentions Bung Mokhtar, a local politician from Sabah.

2) The first Act to be adopted was the Cinematograph Films Act 1952 (Amendment 1966), followed by the Film Censorship Act 2002 (Act 620), which is still in force today (Malaysia, Ministry of Home Affairs 2012).

3) Decisions are made based on rules and criteria stipulated in three basic documents: the Film Censorship Act, Censorship Guidelines, and Specific Guidelines Censorship (Malaysia, Ministry of Home Affairs 2012).

4) Vietnam, Singapore, Laos, Myanmar, Brunei, and the Philippines also have media policies focused on censorship, due to their respective authoritarian governments (see Sen and Lee 2008; Slater 2010).


Vol. 7, No. 1, Yerry WIRAWAN


Contents>> Vol. 7, No. 1

Independent Woman in Postcolonial Indonesia: Rereading the Works of Rukiah

Yerry Wirawan*

*Department of History, Sanata Dharma University, Mrican, Gejayan, Yogyakarta, Indonesia
e-mail: yerry.wirawan[at]

DOI: 10.20495/seas.7.1_85

This paper discusses the strategic essentialism of gender and politics in modern Indonesia by rereading literary works of Siti Rukiah (1927–96): her first novel, Kedjatuhan dan Hati (1950), and her collection of poems and short stories Tandus (1952). It locates Rukiah’s position in modern Indonesian politics and the literary world to understand how she crafted her literary skills. It highlights the importance of her hometown, Purwakarta, as the locus of her literary development. It argues that as a representative female writer of the time Rukiah offered important contributions to the nation’s consciousness of gender equality and liberation from the oppressive social structure.

Keywords: Rukiah, Purwakarta, female author, postcolonial literature, Indonesia


During the early years of Indonesian independence, the young generation (Pemoeda) played an important role in the nation’s literary world. Writing was a medium to express the restlessness and rebellion of the young generation (see Teeuw 1967; Soemargono 1979). Writers of the period were collectively known as the “1945 Generation,” and Chairil Anwar (1922–49) was the towering figure of this generation—his poems were praised for the prose he formulated to express a sense of courage and boldness. Siti Rukiah (1927–96) was a little younger than Anwar, yet she produced exceptional works. She, too, wrote a number of poems during this period, and in 1948 she was a correspondent for Poedjangga Baroe (New writer), a Batavia/Jakarta-based avant-garde literary magazine. She was one of the authors of this generation who productively published literary works in postcolonial Indonesia.1)

After the transfer of sovereignty in 1949, Rukiah continued her writing activity and involvement in politics throughout the 1950s and 1960s. She joined the leftist artist group Lembaga Kebudayaan Rakyat (LEKRA, League of People’s Culture) in the 1950s. Unfortunately, her bright talent and career were halted abruptly in 1965 amid the brutal purge of the Indonesian Communist Party (PKI, Partai Komunis Indonesia). She was detained and sent to prison without due process, and after her release in the late 1960s she lived the rest of her life in difficulty with six children. Although her name is mentioned in contemporary Indonesian literary textbooks, only a few young Indonesians are able to access her works.2)

Rukiah’s writings and life have attracted a number of scholars of Indonesian literature.3) Annabel Teh Gallop (1985) examines her literary works by focusing on their emotional and intellectual ideas. From her analysis, she concludes that Rukiah’s Kedjatuhan dan Hati (The fall and the heart) is, in fact, a representation of the author’s love affair and psychological conflict. Julia Shackford-Bradley (2000) offers a different reading on Rukiah. Based on textual and language analyses as well as interviews with Sidik Kertapati, she sees Rukiah as constructing herself on the ambivalent choices that she faced at the time of her writing. She concludes that the revolutionary figures in Rukiah’s works were Rukiah’s own inventions—in other words, fictional (Shackford-Bradley 2000, 254). Alicia Marie Lawrence (2012) compares Rukiah to Eden Robinson (an indigenous female writer from Canada) and finds that Rukiah’s writings were a product of the communication of her emotional experience, based on her submissiveness as an indigenous woman. She concludes that Kedjatuhan dan Hati represents the voice of a subaltern woman and that in current light, reading it may have some practical value for community organization and political decision making.

Although these studies have different methods, they focus on Rukiah’s literary works as her personal achievement and reflection of inner conflict rather than a direct expression of the revolution that she experienced. They also analyze Rukiah in comparison to other (female) literary figures: Shackford-Bradley compares Rukiah to Kartini, Hamidah, and Soewarsih Djojopoespito; Lawrence compares her to Robinson. This comparative reading is useful to understand Rukiah’s creative inspiration and distinctive qualities as compared to other female authors. Understandably, Shackford-Bradley’s and Lawrence’s readings emphasize the literary values of Rukiah’s works rather than the historical trajectory of the socio-political conditions that allowed Rukiah to write. As such, they fail to consider Purwakarta (in West Java), her hometown, as an important locus that forms Rukiah’s consciousness and in turn informs her writings.

This article intends to place Rukiah’s literary works as the historical documents of a young Indonesian woman during the revolution. It emphasizes Purwakarta and its surroundings as providing the context of Rukiah’s early writings: the novel Kedjatuhan dan Hati (1950) and her anthology of short stories Tandus (Desert) (1952). This article starts with a brief summary of Indonesian women writers and their movement during the colonial period. Following that, it discusses Purwakarta—where Rukiah once resided and produced a number of literary works—in the context of the Indonesian Revolution (1945–49). This is followed by a short biography of Rukiah and the historical context of her stories. In the last part, this article analyzes and (re-)interprets her texts on socio-political issues, especially on modernity. This article argues that although Rukiah’s literary works can be read as her individual achievement, they are also a result of the socio-political transformation that affected her hometown and her life.

Female Authors during the Colonial Era

During the colonial period native women had to suffer multiple forms of repression due to the colonial system and patriarchal tradition, while male figures dominated the media and political organizations. Nonetheless, they used writing as an important medium to channel their concerns and views on social issues that affected their lives. There were at least two prominent Indonesian women whose literary works were published and widely read during colonial times: Raden Adjeng Kartini and Soewarsih Djojopoespito. Interestingly, they came from different family backgrounds, and thus they can be considered to represent the diversity of Indonesian female intellectual figures in the pre-independence period.

Kartini was born to a noble family on April 21, 1879 in Rembang, Central Java. Due to her aristocratic background, she was able to attend Dutch elementary school, at least until the age of 12 years. During her adolescence, following Javanese tradition for noble young girls, she had to discontinue her studies and avoid social activities in order to prepare for marriage (pingit). During this time of seclusion, Kartini spent most of her time reading books and corresponding with a number of Dutch pen friends. Her letters demonstrate her critical thinking on various issues (they were written in eloquent Dutch). Her primary concern was girls’ right to education and the local traditional practice of polygamy. At the age of 24 Kartini became the fourth wife of a nobleman, but unfortunately on September 17, 1904 she died at the age of 25 after giving birth to a son.

Although Harsja Bachtiar regards Kartini’s seclusion as a consequence of her nobility, her life represents the dilemma of standing as a modern woman versus living in line with tradition.4) In the beginning of the twentieth century in the Dutch Indies, education access for girls, underage marriage, and polygamy were certainly the main issues facing native women as reported in colonial surveys.5) Given such a situation, Kartini’s life (except her tragic death) represents the ideals of a native woman who was not only fluent in a European language and could express her thoughts and concerns but also an enlightened native. In order to push for social change in the colony, an edited collection of Kartini’s letters was published in 1911 (the Malay version was published in 1922) and became a best seller in colonial society. Royalties from her book were donated to establish Kartini’s school in 1912. These efforts to increase education for girls were eventually supported by the colonial government, which adopted the ethical policy of girls’ education and attempted to modernize the colony.

In the following period, the increasing number of educated women gave rise to the presence of women activists in the first decade of the twentieth century. The first native women’s organization was Putri Mardika (Free Daughter), founded in Batavia in 1912. This organization aimed to help women who wished to continue their education, to increase their self-confidence, and contribute to society. In 1913 Putri Mardika published its own newspaper, which discussed various issues including polygamy and child/underage marriage (see Vreede-de Stuers 1959).

In the 1920s, the women’s movement gained popularity among native activists. There were an increasing number of social organizations with a women’s section. Two months after the Second Indonesian Youth Congress, 30 women’s organizations arranged the First Indonesian Women’s Congress in Yogyakarta on December 22–26, 1928. This congress concluded with an agreement to form a women’s federation, Perikatan Perempuan Indonesia (PPI, Indonesian Women’s Union). However, the First Indonesian Women’s Congress did not mention clearly its political stance on the nationalist issue in its communiqué. Sukarno, the most prominent nationalist leader at the time, regretted the result of this congress (see Wieringa 2010).

A different picture of the relationship between female activists and male domination in the nationalist movement is described in an autobiographical novel published in 1940, Buiten het Gareel (Out of harness). This novel was written in Dutch by Soewarsih Djojopoespito, who was born on April 20, 1912 in Bogor. She was educated at Kartini’s school before moving to Middlebaar Uitgebreid Lager Onderwijs, or Dutch lower secondary school, in Bogor. In 1931 she became a teacher at Taman Siswa in Batavia, where she met her future husband, Soegondo Djojopoespito, a key person in the youth congress in 1928 (see Shackford-Bradley 2000, 199).

Her story took place in the 1930s, when there was a great deal of anticolonial sentiment among native intellectuals. Buiten het Gereel recounts the story of Sulastri, a teacher at a private school (or sekolah partikelir),6) and her husband, Sudarmo, a political activist. The novel describes the couple as “proletarian intellectuals,” meaning that Sulastri and her husband were educated figures although they were not part of the elite class. This depiction was in line with a phenomenon at the time of an increasing number of young people among the native population who chose to have an independent career in the private/nongovernmental sector rather than seeking a position in a government office. Nevertheless, working as a political activist required Sudarmo to repeatedly relocate to different cities. Sulastri dutifully followed her husband, as was expected of an ideal wife. Despite their unsettled life, Sulastri was able to manage their meager income.

The novel provides a contrast to the common image of Kartini as the ideal woman. Sulastri is described as being more articulate: she could express her opinions freely and decide her own life and path, both as a female activist and as a devoted wife. Although the novel describes Sulastri as a woman of her own thoughts, it actually uncovers an unequal relationship between male and female intellectual-activists. Sulastri’s life is still tied to Sudarmo’s as she (still) consents to live under her husband’s authority.

During the Japanese period, women’s organizations were dissolved. In turn, the Japanese military administration established Fujinkai, which was led by the wife of a top local officer. It was obligatory for all civil servants’ wives to register as its members.7) It also recruited a number of ordinary women to train in order to support the Japanese army at war by engaging in such activities as visiting wounded soldiers, knitting socks, and entertaining Japanese and Pembela Tanah Air (PETA, Defenders of the Fatherland) soldiers (Wieringa 2010, 144). Later, these practical skills came in useful in supporting the Indonesian Revolution.

Purwakarta Area during the Revolution8)

Purwakarta is located in the Karawang area, which is approximately 80 kilometers from eastern Jakarta. When the republic moved its capital to Yogyakarta in the beginning of 1946, this area soon became the frontline of the battlefield. The local population of Purwakarta undoubtedly supported the republican cause and embraced the revolutionary idea due to the misery they had to suffer during the colonial period. Under Japanese occupation, Karawang and its surroundings were forced to supply rice crops and manpower labor (romusha). Those who failed to fulfill the military’s authority of this obligation were detained and persecuted. Consequently, there was great resentment among the common people, who joined gangsters to wreak revenge against the Japanese and Allied forces during the revolution.

After the defeat of Japan, people in the Karawang area immediately manifested their discontent and resentment against local Japanese. The PETA units in Rengasdengklok (60 km north of Karawang) seized power early in the morning of August 16, 1945. They disarmed a few Japanese and raised the Indonesian flag. The PETA’s revolt in Rengasdengklok spread rapidly to Purwakarta. The alliance between the conservative nationalists, the PETA, the police, and the civil service was formed while the PETA disarmed the security and took over the town from the Japanese. Although the Japanese immediately succeeded in crushing this insurrection, the revolutionary spirit had started in the Karawang region (Cribb 1991, 49–50).

Meanwhile, political tensions were rapidly rising in Jakarta. The young generation organized under Angkatan Pemuda Indonesia (Youth Generation of Indonesia) formed a joint command organization, the Lasykar Rakyat Jakarta Raya (LRJR, People’s Militia of Greater Jakarta), in Salemba (in central Jakarta) on November 22, 1945; they were headed by a former medical student (ibid., 71). Their main task was to defend the town, although they had limited military arms. And this dire situation made them powerless with the coming of the Allied forces to Jakarta. On December 27, 1945 the Allied forces were instructed to restore order with repressive measures, including searching resistance groups in the kampungs of Jakarta. Apparently, this repression was too heavy to fight against. In less than a week, it was reported that Allied forces detained 743 people and successfully controlled the town. Facing this critical situation, the LRJR had to leave Jakarta and moved their headquarters to Karawang (ibid., 72–73).

The LRJR reorganized their army group in Kawarang in a relatively simple way.9) Inspired by the heroic struggle in Surabaya, they planned to push away the Dutch and British by launching a massive attack on Jakarta. Thus, they needed to strengthen their forces by connecting the struggle with other armed groups in the region (ibid., 75). With the help of these groups, the LRJR succeeded in controlling a strategic position in the front line. Purwakarta was an important city for their struggle, and it was from this city that they broadcast political programs to gather mass support using transmitters of the Radio Republik Indonesia (Radio of Republic of Indonesia).

It should be remembered that the Indonesian Revolution involved various groups with competing ideological perspectives (see Anderson 2001). The armed groups were generally divided based on religion, nationalism, and socialism. The LRJR itself had numerous affiliated units, and the LRJR in Karawang was closely associated with Pesindo (Indonesian Socialist Youth) although never a part of it (Cribb 1991, 75). Interestingly, the LRJR extended their struggle into educational activities so that they could improve political consciousness among their members and common people in the region. This strategy certainly reflected their mass-based politics. There was a high level of illiteracy among the people in the region, and the educational work was a struggle of its own. On the other hand, the LRJR realized that providing a political education was important to build up a system of village defense (pertahanan desa), which in turn would help the organization.

Rukiah in Purwakarta10)

Rukiah was born on April 27, 1927 in Purwakarta. She went into education training during the Japanese occupation and worked as a teacher at a girls’ school in her hometown. According to Sidik Kertapati, her interest in writing led her into contact with leftist artists in Purwakarta and Bandung (Shackford-Bradley 2000, 254). In the coming years, her network of artist friends was instrumental in her accessing the literary world.11) Rukiah’s first poem was published in Godam Djelata,12) a magazine edited by Sidik Kertapati (1920–2007), a prominent revolutionary, member of the LRJR, and Rukiah’s future husband.


Fig. 1 Rukiah, c. 1952–53 (Photo: Family collection)


After finishing her training, Rukiah rapidly developed her literary career. When she was 21 years old (May 1948), she worked for Pudjangga Baru as its Purwakarta correspondent. In the same year, she worked for Mimbar Indonesia and Indonesia. It was during this time that Rukiah developed genuine concerns about the cultural life of her hometown. In 1949 she founded the cultural magazine Irama (based in Purwakarta) and became its editor. Despite her literary activities, Rukiah maintained her job as a schoolteacher. Purwakarta was not simply a hometown in a nostalgic sense but became the breeding ground for her to launch a writing career on her own. According to Sidik Kertapati, Rukiah stayed home during 1948–49 (ibid., 257) and produced a number of poems, short stories, and a novel and prepared them for publication in the following years.

In another testimony, Pramoedya Ananta Toer shared a memory that gives another nuance to Rukiah’s literary activities:

In 1949 Rukiah created [the journal] “Indonesia Irama” and held her position as editor while engaging in activities to help the guerilla forces. . . . She avoided being arrested for these activities on numerous occasions, through her associations with the local Wedana, but she witnessed the killing of one of the guerilla fighters who she had been harboring in her house. In 1949 she was given the task to visit prisoners of war being held in Bukit Duri. (ibid., 257–258)

Pramoedya’s testimony confirms Rukiah’s involvement in the revolutionary struggle that took place in her hometown. Her “engaging in activities” may have been due to her educational background and nationalist ideals, which inspired her to take risks by harboring independence fighters. In turn, Rukiah was inspired by her experiences among the independence fighters. As we shall discuss below, she expressed her thoughts and restlessness about this subject in her stories.

Rukiah’s Entry into the Literary World

Rukiah moved to Jakarta in 1950 and began working as an editorial secretary at Pudjangga Baru. In the same year, her novel Kedjatuhan dan Hati was published. It seems that it received a lukewarm response within literary circles in Jakarta. But that changed with the publication of her collection of poems and short stories, Tandus, in 1952. In 1953 she won a literary prize from the Badan Musjawarah Kebudajaan Nasional (National Cultural Board) for Tandus.13)

It should be noted that the early years of postcolonial Indonesia were marked by the attempt of several Indonesian artists to define the future of Indonesian culture. On February 18, 1950, a group of Indonesian artists declared the Surat Kepercayaan Gelanggang (Gelanggang Testimonial). This manifesto emphasized that Indonesian culture was part of the world’s culture rather than an isolated phenomenon. A few months after the declaration, a group of leftist artists founded the Lembaga Kebudajaan Rakjat (LEKRA, Institution of People’s Culture) on August 17, 1950. In contrast with the Surat Kepercayaan Gelanggang, in its manifesto LEKRA underlined that the people were the sole creator of culture and the new Indonesia must be based on the struggle against feudal and imperialist cultures. In short, LEKRA criticized Surat Kepercayaan Gelanggang supporters as adopting the culture of the capitalist class (Dharta 2010).

It is difficult to conclude when exactly Rukiah joined LEKRA. In the first congress of LEKRA on January 28, 1959, she put forward the ideal that progressive artists should visit peasants’ villages and labor camps.14) She was elected as a member of the National Council of LEKRA, along with some of her artist friends such as the painter Affandi (1907–90), Hendra Gunawan (1918–83), and the writer Rivai Apin (1927–95).15) Yet, her choice to join LEKRA was not surprising. In her works she already expressed, to a certain degree, her support for leftist ideas.

Women and the Revolution in Tandus

Although Tandus as a collection was published two years after Kedjatuhan dan Hati, some of the poems and short stories were written much earlier. The collection consists of 34 poems and six short stories, and Rukiah wrote them before she worked on the novel. In fact, some poems were already published elsewhere before 1950: for example, Buntu Kejaran was already published in Pujangga Baru in 1948.

As Gallop (1985) has discussed Rukiah’s poems extensively from a literary point of view,16) the focus here is on Rukiah’s short stories in Tandus.17) The background of these stories is mainly the revolution, and the main character is the common people. Although most of the narrators are female, male protagonists play a key role. This structure reminds us of Du Perron’s critical commentary on Soewarsih’s work that Sudarmo (the husband) is the hero, not Sulastri (the wife) (Du Perron 1975, xii). Indonesian women’s writings show that women had an inferior position to male activists and guerrillas in the Indonesian political context of the period.

Like her poems, Rukiah’s prose employs a simplicity of style (“kesederhanaan baru”), a new genre in Indonesian literature at the time that was invented by Idrus (1921–79), a well-known Indonesian writer (Gallop 1985, 44). In this context, Purwakarta and its people became an essential part of Rukiah’s works to represent the simple life in the region. In contrast, newness and revolutionary ideas always came from the foreigner. Rukiah has successfully highlighted the presence of common people in the region when they confronted or embraced revolutionary ideas.

The simplicity in style is clearly presented in Rukiah’s first short story, “Mak Esah” (Esah’s mother).18) It tells of an elderly woman who lives alone in a house 4 kilometers from a kampung named Tandjungrasa. This is the only story in which Rukiah details the location of the protagonist’s village, as if she wants to highlight that it is based on a true story.

The story describes the woman as an honest person who lives in her own world with her simple thoughts, as she believes that she has done good deeds in her life and thus expects God will help her. Ironically, her kindness and simplicity do not protect her from being affected by political events. The story informs readers that people actually have forgotten her name and instead call her by the name of her oldest son, who died during the Communist insurrection in 1926. Since then, misery keeps coming into her life. Her husband dies at the beginning of the Pacific War, and her daughter, Rumsah, passes away from malaria during the Japanese occupation (1942–45). During the revolutionary period, the elderly woman does not believe in political change as she does not see the difference in the meaning of merdeka (freedom). For her, merdeka simply means another king: an Indonesian king with a pitji (traditional cap). Nonetheless, when a group of guerrillas seek shelter in her house, she willingly lodges them simply because they look nice and polite. The next morning when a group of Dutch soldiers raid her house to look for the guerrillas, they burn down her house and shoot her dead while she is still unable to understand what happened and her role in it. Her “simple” life illustrates the political gap between the guerrillas and common people whose lives are still miserable and who have to bear all the costs despite the political changes after merdeka.

In “Isteri Peradjurit” (The soldier’s wife), Rukiah tells of a couple who live in a village in West Java, somewhere near Garut. The story revolves around its protagonist, a beautiful young woman named Siti, who is the couple’s only child. The couple are known simply as Pak Siti (father of Siti) and Mak Siti (mother of Siti). Pak Siti works on the family’s vegetable farm and is supportive of his daughter’s education despite Mak Siti insisting that a woman’s place is in the house. At the age of eight, Siti goes to the school for girls in town. After Siti finishes her studies, Pak Siti gives her sewing equipment so she can work as a tailor. This background gives the reader a sense of the simplicity in the lives of the characters as something they can relate to their own situation.

As the story unfolds, however, the family’s simple life is complicated by the arrival of the Japanese occupation army. Pak Siti refuses the order of the Japanese, who have mobilized the people to plant castor beans (Ricinus communis) to serve the needs of war. His main concern is his farm and the survival of his family, as the family has no interest in political matters. His refusal to follow orders costs him his life: one morning he is picked up in a truck (mobil tidak bertutup) and never returns home. The story continues by introducing Hasjim, a young man from Garut, who is rumored to be a fugitive from the Kempeitai (Japanese secret police). He falls in love with Siti, and three months later they get married. Hasjim introduces Siti to politics, books, and his friends. When the revolution breaks out, Hasjim wants to join the army but Siti worries about it as she is pregnant. Eventually, she lets him join the revolution when their child is born.

Although the story illustrates the troubles of a simple family who live in a small town, it shows how politics affects the lives of its characters based on their gender. Readers see how the male characters can do whatever they please based on their political outlook (they are either politically naive like Pak Siti or politically engaged like Hasjim). As a result of the males’ political outlook, it is the female characters (Siti and Mak Siti) who have to cope with the burden of life on their own shoulders. While the male characters are free to act on their political outlook, the female characters are compelled to follow what their husbands want to do. It seems the message that Rukiah wants to convey is how revolution (even in a small town) was experienced differently by males and females, and it was the females alone who had to strike a balance in their life. Even when females wanted to express their political outlook, the conditions of the revolution did not allow them to do so. Thus, the story works as a criticism of unequal gender-based political expression of revolutionary ideals.

This notion of women’s political outlook is described also in “Antara Dua Gambaran” (Between two perspectives), the story of Ati, a young female teacher and writer who lives in a small town during the Japanese occupation. Ati has a lover, Irwan, a law student who is a political activist. Irwan introduces Ati to one of his classmates, Tutang. The story describes Tutang and Irwan as two young men of completely different characters. While Irwan is a passionate political activist, Tutang is a quiet, obedient, and tidy person from a middle-class family. Despite her mother’s preference for Tutang, Ati chooses Irwan as her lover as she sees Tutang as an orang kosong (empty person). Yet, Irwan reminds her to be more friendly and patient with Tutang and even suggests that she learn writing from him. Ati follows Irwan’s suggestion, and from there her perception of Tutang gradually changes.

The proclamation of independence in 1945 transforms the lives of these three characters. Irwan has been getting more involved in politics and has become the leader of a people’s militia in West Java (Lasjkar Rakjat se-Djawa Barat). Meanwhile, Tutang works as an editor of a magazine in Jakarta. Ati continues her work for a while as a teacher and spends more and more time reading and writing. The political situation with the revolution forces Irwan to continue his armed struggle in the mountains. Later, Ati hears of Irwan’s death and chooses to marry Tutang. The story portrays the limitations of women’s political outlook during the revolution. They had the freedom to read and write, but their political expressions were confined within males’ prerogatives. This story also shows that advice from a male protagonist (Irwan’s suggestion to Ati to approach Tutang despite her objections) is always correct.

In “Surat Pandjang dari Gunung” (Long letters from the mountains), Rukiah narrates the love story of Hambali, a guerrilla fighter, and Isti, a schoolteacher of Taman Siswa in a small town. The title of this short story refers to the love letters Hambali sends to Isti, in which he discusses political issues and difficulties during the war, as well as the educational activities carried out by guerrillas in the mountains. As communications between guerrilla fighters and the general population are difficult and closely monitored by the Dutch, Isti receives these letters discreetly from a courier boy, Haja, one of her students. Haja is an orphan: his mother has passed away, and his father was killed by the Dutch army. Having no family, Haja later chooses to follow Hambali to war and thus has to leave school. Isti fails to persuade Haja to remain in school. Isti represents the life of many women during the revolution who were unable to intervene in decisions made by males to go to war. She is allowed to know about the revolution only from the letters sent to her, and nothing else. Ironically, these letters could be confiscated by the Dutch and used to implicate her as a sympathizer. In the end, Isti chooses to burn all the letters.

“Tjeritanja Sesudah Kembali” (His story on returning) is the story of a 26-year-old man, Nursewan, narrated by his close friend, a young woman. The young woman is known only by her nickname, Rus. Rus informs the reader that Nursewan is a simple man who has uncertain feelings about his future. Having failed to date women of his choice, Nursewan decides to join a guerrilla army. Rus cannot believe that Nursewan is capable of doing such a thing. When Rus leaves her hometown for work in Yogyakarta, she loses contact with Nursewan. However, one of her friends later informs her that Nursewan did, in fact, join the guerrilla fighters. Toward the end of the story Rus finally meets Nursewan in a hospital in their hometown, where he explains in detail his reasons for joining the guerrilla fighters. The story illustrates how men had the option of joining the guerrilla fighters (and could make a claim to being heroic) even though their reasons may have had nothing to do with the revolution. As the story is narrated in the first person by a woman, it highlights how women saw the revolution, which was used by men as an excuse to escape from women’s rejection of their love and at the same time to claim their masculinity.

The Fallout of Revolution in Kedjatuhan dan Hati

As does Tandus, Kedjatuhan dan Hati reflects factual problems experienced by common people during the revolution. The story is about Susi, a young woman who lives in a small town (presumably Purwakarta) with her two sisters and parents. Susi’s mother is the most dominant person in the family, and she is obsessed with materialistic achievements. Meanwhile, Susi’s father is a quiet man. The eldest sister, Dini, is described as an independent young woman who has less self-confidence and feels a little unhappy in the family for being pressured by their parents to marry. The second sister, Lina, is described as the most beautiful and their mother’s favorite daughter. Susi is described as a sincere young woman.

The story informs the reader that Dini and Susi are expected by their mother to marry wealthy men. Under such pressure, they decide to leave their family home. Dini continues her studies abroad, while Susi joins the Red Cross.

It is at work that Susi meets Lukman, a Communist guerrilla, and falls in love with him. However, Susi and Lukman have different views of marriage. Susi would like to have a traditional wedding ceremony. Lukman, on the other hand, does not like ceremonies and is unable to guarantee a “normal” life as he is devoted to politics and revolution. After having a long debate, Lukman accepts Susi’s request:

Karena engkau jang minta, apa sadja perintah itu, aku patuh menurut, sekalipun perintah itu mengambil sepotong kejakinanku. (Siti Rukiah 1950, 54)

Because you asked for it, I will follow and obey whatever your request is although it may eat away some parts of my belief.

They end the night with some time in private. The following day, Susi demands an immediate marriage but Lukman responds that he has to leave for war. Susi is very disappointed and decides to return home.

Upon coming back home, Susi finds Lina, her youngest sister, has matured greatly. Their mother, however, is becoming more insecure. To reconcile with these changes, Susi finally agrees to marry Par, a wealthy man who helped her family through difficult times. It is then that Susi finds out she is pregnant (by Lukman). When finally Lukman comes to see her again and asks her to live with him, she refuses.

The story illustrates male superiority by showing Lukman leaving Susi behind even though initially he had agreed to stay with her. This story also shows the dilemma of a young Indonesian woman during the revolution. Susi has to choose between living with the new revolutionary values or old traditions, between romantic love or arranged marriage, while maintaining her own independent life. Facing this dilemma, Susi chooses to make a practical decision. As such, the story informs us that revolution failed to change the oppressive traditional social structure and create a more egalitarian postcolonial society, and women were caught in the middle. Women’s aspiration to be independent and have a family of their own choice was not fully realized. In postcolonial Indonesia, women still have to depend on their partner, financially and emotionally, and to disregard their own ideals. Thus, the story shows the limited impact of political changes on women’s status.


Like Kartini and Soewarsih Djojopoespito, who came before her, Rukiah expressed her concerns about the status of women. Kartini represents the enlightened female author of the early twentieth century under the colonial ethical policy. In her novel, Soewarsih Djojopoespito represents the rebellious female activist at the dawn of nationalism among the natives. This article shows how, in her own context, through literary works Rukiah was able to express herself as an independent woman to challenge the “normalized” ideals of her revolutionary male friends.

Aside from their literary value, Rukiah’s literary works provide an important documentation of the revolution for the historiography of Indonesia. Kedjatuhan dan Hati and Tandus are based on her experiences and observations during the revolution in Purwakarta that allowed her to write detailed accounts of the common people and beyond their seemingly simple life. Rukiah provides a detailed picture of how revolutionary ideas brought by outsiders drastically changed the lives of simple people in Purwakarta, regardless of how ignorant the latter might have been on political issues. This article also shows how her short stories uncover the complex issues of revolution, such as the political gap among the people, the old traditions that were still maintained in the lives of many young women, and the unequal gender-based political expression of revolutionary ideals. In that sense, Rukiah’s literary works provide a deeper picture of the revolution beyond the revolutionary heroism and political rhetoric of merdeka for all.

Rereading Rukiah’s literary works in the present time brings us to a deeper understanding of the development of the nation’s consciousness for gender equality and liberation from the oppressive social structure. Female authors have come a long way in expressing their thoughts and aspirations about the ideals of an independent woman who is not afraid to express her critical thinking and political outlook. Post-1998 Indonesia has legally ensured women’s rights, but it falls short on providing space for women’s political empowerment. Rukiah’s literary works provide fruitful insights on the status of Indonesian women today.

Accepted: December 11, 2017


I am indebted to Rukiah’s family for generously providing me with their mother’s photo and to Ita Nadia and Hersri Setiawan for LEKRA’s materials. I would like also to thank anonymous reviewers for their constructive suggestions. Any errors that remain are my sole responsibility.


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Soemargono, Farida. 1979. Le groupe de Yogya, 1945–1960: Les voies javanaises d’une littérature indonésienne [The “Yogya Group,” 1945–1960: The Javanese ways of Indonesian literature]. Paris: Association Archipel.

Soewarsih Djojopoespito. 1946. Buiten het Gareel [Out of harness]. Utrecht, Amsterdam: W. de Haan, Vrij Nederland.

Stop Naskah2 Lekra di Balai Pustaka [Remove Lekra’s manuscripts from Balai Pustaka]. 1965. Duta Masjarakat. November 6.

Teeuw, A. 1967. Modern Indonesian Literature. Leiden: Leiden University Press.

Tham Seong Chee. 1981. The Social and Intellectual Ideas of Indonesian Writers, 1920–1942. In Essays on Literature and Society in Southeast Asia: Political and Sociological Perspective, edited by Tham Seong Chee, pp. 97–124. Singapore: Singapore University Press.

Vreede-de Stuers, Cora. 1959. L’émancipation de la femme indonésienne [The emancipation of Indonesian women]. Paris: Mouton & Co.

Wieringa, Saskia. 2010. Penghancuran gerakan perempuan: Politik seksual di Indonesia pasca kejatuhan PKI [The destruction of the women’s movement: The politicization of gender relations after the fall of the PKI]. Yogyakarta: Galang Press.

1) See Siti Rukiah, Kedjatuhan dan Hati (1950); and Siti Rukiah, Tandus (1952). The first female author to have published a novel in postcolonial Indonesia was Arti Purbani (Widyawati, 1948). Arti Purbani is the pen name of Raden Ayu Partini Djajadiningrat (1902–98), the wife of Hoesein Djajadiningrat (1886–1960).

2) On November 6, 1965, Duta Masjarakat, the newspaper of Nahdlatul Ulama, reported that although Tandus was republished by Balai Pustaka, its distribution was halted (See “Stop Naskah2 Lekra di Balai Pustaka,” Duta Masjarakat, November 6, 1965). Interestingly, her brief biography (including her involvement in LEKRA) appears in an online encyclopedia published by the Ministry of Education of Indonesia. See Ensiklopedi Sastra Indonesia,, accessed April 20, 2016.

3) Some of her works are translated by John McGlynn. See S. Rukiah Kertapati (1983); Siti Rukiah (2011). In 2017 Ultimus, an independent publishing house in Bandung, republished Rukiah’s works: see Kejatuhan dan Hati (2017) and Tandus (2017).

4) See Bachtiar (1979). For comparison, see Gouda (1995).

5) Nine elite women were interviewed in the 1914 colonial survey on the status of native women: Raden Ajoe Soerio Hadikoesoemo, Raden Ajoe Ario Sosrio Soegianto, Oemi Kalsoem, Raden Adjeng Karlina, Raden Adjeng Amirati, Raden Adjeng Martini, Mrs. Djarisah, Raden Dewi Sartica, and Raden Ajoe Siti Soendari. See Onderzoek Naar de Mindere Welvaart der Inlandsche Bevolking op Java en Madoera, Verheffing van de Inlandsche Vrouw, IXb3 (Batavia: Papyrus, 1914). For a summary, see Vreede-de Stuers (1959, 150–151).

6) These schools were founded across the country by native Indonesian nationalists to fulfill education needs for all Indonesians.

7) This kind of leadership was often taken as a model during the New Order period (1965–98). In fact, one organization, Dharma Wanita, continues this practice even today.

8) This part relies extensively on the study by Robert Cribb (1991), which provides details on the militias and their armed struggle around the Purwakarta area.

9) Cribb (1991, 749) notes, “Although Sutan Akbar was leader, with R.F. Ma’riful as his deputy, the organisation’s policy was directed by a political council (dewan politik) consisting of Khaerul Saleh, Armunanto, Johar Nur, Kusnandar and Akhmad Astrawinata, with later also Mohammad Darwis, Syamsuddin Can and Sidik Kertapati, all of them capable and experienced young politicians.”

10) This part relies mainly on Gallop (1985).

11) Sapardi Joko Damono (1997, 276–279) concludes that most writers in the revolution, in fact, started their writing career before the war. Therefore, Rukiah was an exceptional writer at that time.

12) Brief information on Godam Djelata can be found in Cribb (1991, 74).

13) Badan Musjawarah Kebudajaan Nasional was an important cultural institution founded by the Indonesian government to support national cultural development in the 1950s. Rukiah married Sidik Kertapati in 1952 and gave birth to their son in 1953. It is interesting to note that H.B. Jassin (1962) wrote a bitter critique on Tandus 10 years after it was published. That is partly because in 1962, LEKRA and its opponents were very tense, and this might have influenced Jassin’s view on Rukiah’s earlier work.

14) Njoto (1959).

15) Rukiah wrote a poem titled “Sahabatku” (My friend) as a dedication to one of her painter friends.

16) Gallop (1985) classifies her poems in seven categories: life, truth, desire, revolution, inner struggles, love, and writing.

17) I do not discuss “Sebuah Tjerita Malam Ini” because it was written in 1951, after the revolution was over. The other five short stories were written between 1948 and 1949.

18) Gallop (1985, 43) notes that the story was first published in the Pujangga Baru in 1948 and titled “Gambaran Masyarakat” (A picture of society).


Vol. 5, No. 2, WAWAN SOBARI

Contents>> Vol. 5, No. 2 

Anut Grubyuk in the Voting Process: The Neglected Explanation of Javanese Voters (Preliminary Findings)

Wawan Sobari*

* Department of Political Science, Brawijaya University, Jl. Veteran Malang 65145, East Java, Indonesia

e-mail: wawansobari[at]

DOI: 10.20495/seas.5.2_239

The “Javanese factor” is a strategic consideration in Indonesian electoral politics, as the Javanese are Indonesia’s most numerous inhabitants. However, seminal masterpieces such as those by Geertz (1960) and Gaffar (1992) apply only a limited and individual-based voting approach in their efforts to explain Javanese voting behavior. Recent qualitative case studies explore anut grubyuk (fitting in) as a unique form of grouped rural Javanese voting behavior, rooted in the Javanese communal philosophy of life and hierarchical values. A study in four selected villages in Blitar and Trenggalek Regencies in East Java argues that individual Javanese voters adjust their voting decisions based on the major preference in their neighborhood, in keeping with the communal spirit of living in harmony as well as to avoid conflict and respect neighborly relationships. This article presents a preliminary assessment of anut grubyuk as group-oriented voting among the Javanese, a topic that has been relatively absent in academic discussion. Beyond cultural explanations, recent illiberal democratic practices have made anut grubyuk vulnerable to manipulation, since certain community leaders or brokers exploit Javanese communality in return for both individual and communal short-term benefits from candidates. Instead of helping with the growth of liberal democracy, anut grubyuk potentially supports patronage-driven democracy, in which small numbers of elites use patronage for influential control over electoral processes.

Keywords: Javanese, group-oriented voting, democracy, Indonesia


The Javanese are ranked as the most numerous ethnic group in Indonesia. The 2010 national census reported that they amounted to 40.22 percent of the national population (92,217,022 people), with 48.72 percent of them living in rural areas (Na’im and Syaputra 2011, 28). This numerical majority is one of the reasons for scholarly studies to examine the Javanese as a political entity.1)

However, the number of published scholarly works on Javanese voters is not commensurate with the dominance of this population. Clifford Geertz (1960), in his pioneering masterpiece The Religion of Java, introduced the aliran (streams) approach that attempted to map Javanese electoral orientations. The approach is founded on Javanese socio-religious norms that contribute to the Javanese people’s worldview (religious beliefs, ethical preference, and political ideologies) and yields three main cultural types: abangan, santri, and priyayi (ibid., 4–5). Geertz explains this well-known trichotomic nature of Javanese society as follows:

Abangan, representing a stress on the animistic aspects of the overall Javanese syncretism and broadly related to the peasant element in the population; santri, representing a stress on the Islamic aspects of syncretism and generally related to the trading element (and to certain elements in the peasantry as well); and priyayi, stressing the Hinduist aspects and related to the bureaucratic element. (ibid., 6)

In the postcolonial period, these socio-religious groups changed their positions from religious to political (ibid., 363).

Afan Gaffar (1992) deployed Geertz’s Javanese cultural types to study Javanese voting behavior for a political party. This quantitative research succeeded in revealing some explanatory variables of Javanese voters, especially in rural Java. The general conclusion was that norms and values, which were transferred via political socialization, contributed to the creation of partisan choices among Javanese villagers. Gaffar concluded that voters’ preferences are shaped by their interaction with leaders. Voters attached to formal leaders (village officials and their assistants and the heads of hamlets) vote for the government party (Golongan Karya, Golkar). In contrast, voters affiliated with informal leaders, especially religious leaders, vote for the Islamic party (Partai Persatuan Pembangunan, PPP).2) Consequently, the influence of socio-religious orientation shows a clear pattern of abangan voters attached to formal leaders voting for Golkar and santri affiliated with religious leaders voting for PPP (ibid., 193–194).

It is important to note that Gaffar’s research was conducted in the context of a hegemonic party system and authoritarian government. It is fair to say that contemporary Indonesian politics is very different. Indonesia has implemented open political competition or regular and fair elections since 1999. Freedom House classified Indonesia as a free country in terms of electoral democracy (Puddington 2013, 15).3)

Some scholars working in the Javanese or Indonesian context are involved in academic debate over Geertz’s crucial work. Kahn expands Geertz’s argument that aliran does not merely inform citizens’ political affiliations with parties. In the Indonesian context, aliran is an ideological element, along with ethnicity and patron-clientage (Kahn 1978, 120). Meanwhile, R. William Liddle observes that Indonesia is very diverse in political values, beliefs, and attitudes. The uniform dynamic of Islam between 1960 and 90 and abanganism’s existence indicate the continuing diversity (Liddle 1996, 631).

However, Robert Hefner (1987, 550) reveals that the politics of the New Order had oppressed political Islam but Islam as a religion expanded in Java due to state facilities and policy support for education. Similarly, Bambang Pranowo argues over the santri-abangan dichotomy, indicating that the New Order “floating mass” policy at the village level meant people were not segregated by political affiliation. Consequently, the Javanese villagers’ preference for following Islam replaced the santri-abangan segregation among them (Bambang Pranowo 1994, 18). Through an intensive study in rural Banyuwangi, East Java, A. Beatty revises Geertz’s aliran by making the opposite argument that political and social tensions are able to shape, stimulate, and mute religious expression. In other words, relations of power affect religious expression (Beatty 2004, 6, 239).

In the post-Soeharto era, the debates are likely to refute this aliran approach. Anies Baswedan (2004) states that political Islam remains relevant to explain voters’ alignment. The emergence of Islam-friendly parties that have evolved out of Islamist aspirations has attracted electoral support in both legislative and presidential elections (ibid., 689–690). Nevertheless, changes in formal institutional arrangements and the outcomes of socio-economic change have reduced the significance of aliran and resulted in a modified aliran or dealignment of political parties (Ufen 2008, 20–34). Furthermore, R. William Liddle and Saiful Mujani (2007) refute aliran with academic evidence of national opinion surveys following parliamentary elections in 1999 and 2004 and the two-round presidential election in 2004. Religious orientation is no longer as influential on voting behavior as leadership and party identification (ibid., 851). The scholars echo similar findings following parliamentary and presidential elections in 2009 (Mujani and Liddle 2010, 39).

Meanwhile, contemporary political facts demonstrate that the era of authoritarian government in Indonesia ended in 1998, when people power forced President Soeharto, who had run the country for 32 years, to resign from office. Soon after entering the new era, the country ran a more competitive election in 1999 in which 48 political parties contested. Five years later, Indonesia ran the first direct presidential election. It was followed by the first year of direct elections for local government heads (regent/mayor/governor) (pilkada) ever in 201 regions and seven provinces throughout 2005. Of the 201 regions, 36 are located in Central and East Java Provinces and the Special Region of Yogyakarta, where Javanese have lived for centuries.

These growing democratic contests have encouraged the interest of many academics and NGOs, which have established pollsters for both academic and commercial interests (Mietzner 2009, 117). However, this mushrooming of pollsters has not been followed by sufficient studies on Javanese voters. Pollsters merely capture Indonesian voters’ preferences, mainly approaching the legislative and presidential elections of 2004, 2009, and 2014. Some more academic and seminal studies in the post-Soeharto period have dealt specifically with Indonesian voters, such as those by D. King (2003), Baswedan (2004), the Asia Foundation (2003), Liddle and Mujani (2007), and Mujani and Liddle (2010).

Published studies on pilkada in Java are, in fact, specifically non-voter oriented. They are mostly focused on pilkada dynamics and the political survival of local leaders. Three articles in M. Erb and P. Sulistiyanto’s Deepening Democracy in Indonesia? Direct Election for Local Leaders (Pilkada) (2009) by Priyambudi Sulistiyanto, J. Schiller, and Tri Ratnawati are based on fieldwork conducted in the regencies of Bantul, Jepara, and Kebumen, where Javanese culture is very influential.4) Also, the current and well-respected literature on pilkada discovers factors behind the victories of three Muslim women bupati (regents) in Java. The women deployed Islam, gender, and social networks to gain office in three regions. In particular, Islamic ideas provided a strong religious foundation for their campaigns in pilkada (Dewi 2015). Although these studies on pilkada in Java are worth mentioning, they do not give any insight into voters’ logic.

In addition to the lack of concern for Javanese voting studies, Indonesian and non-Indonesian scholars have approached Javanese voters through a limited perspective, which is based mainly on an individual voting behavior model. Both Geertz (1960) and Gaffar (1992) apply the social cleavage structure as an analytical base for individual Javanese voting behavior. Some contemporary studies on Javanese voting behavior in the post-Soeharto era, specifically during pilkada, focus on similar voting concerns, such as the study by Susilo Utomo (2008) on the victory of Bibit Waluyo and Rustriningsih in Central Java’s gubernatorial election in 2008. Wawan Sobari and M. Faishal Aminuddin (2010) studied personal image and popularity as determining factors in the 2010 pilkada in Malang Regency, East Java. Lastly, a quantitative survey in Semarang Municipality examined the influence of the candidates’ image, party identification level, and campaign effectiveness on the Javanese in voting for governor and deputy governor in the 2008 East Java gubernatorial pilkada (Wicaksono 2009, 129–130). These studies’ contradictory results fail to provide a conclusive explanation for Javanese voter behavior. This raises the question: What other original explanation is there that can enrich studies on Javanese voters, particularly with regard to their group-oriented voting behavior rooted in Javanese culture and current electoral politics?

This study seeks to enrich the literature on Javanese voters. With respect to Geertz’s aliran, this study sees the importance of Javanese communal norms, rather than religion, in explaining voting orientation. Also, it presents a preliminary assessment of anut grubyuk (fitting in) as a group-oriented voting preference among the Javanese, a topic that has been relatively absent in academic discussion. Moreover, it extends the explanation that anut grubyuk is part of electoral manipulation by local and neighborhood elites.

The last concern should not be ignored, since several studies reveal that Indonesian liberal democracy is susceptible to unfair practices in competitive elections. Violence, money politics, and alleged political kidnappings are not appropriate for the country’s infant liberal democracy (Robison and Hadiz 2004, 256). These practices subsequently lead to illiberal forms of democracy (Hadiz and Robison 2005, 231).

In the 2014 legislative election, blatant patronage—mainly extensive vote buying among candidates, brokers, and voters—was an embarrassment to Indonesia’s democracy. Patronage has worsened the party system in Indonesia, which has become less programmatic and more fragile (Aspinall 2014, 109). Anut grubyuk is allegedly an electoral manipulation that can be indirectly related with these illiberal practices of democracy. This article, thus, contributes by providing a non-cultural explanation of this group-oriented voting phenomenon among the Javanese.

As its main focus, this study proposes a group-oriented explanation of voting behavior revealed in the 2010 pilkada in two rural regions in East Java. It provides a distinctive explanation of Javanese voting behavior by asserting the practice of anut grubyuk among rural Javanese. The analysis sheds light on a logical link between anut grubyuk in voting and the Javanese philosophy of life, and between socio-political dynamics pertaining to pilkada and their effect on the country’s democracy. The arguments in this paper do not interpret anut grubyuk as an exclusively cultural Javanese reality, as the study evaluates the involvement of group leaders or brokers who are on a political drive as well.

Political scientists have analyzed this group-oriented voting. Carole Uhlaner (1989) proposes the importance of groups for a rational turnout. She argues that “individuals do not behave atomistically within the political sphere but rather are joined with others in groups with shared interests.” Group leaders transact policy positions or options with candidates, and voters under the coordination of group leaders are rewarded for voting or penalized for abstaining (ibid., 419). In other words, individuals intelligently adjust their ballot to conform with those of their neighbors to gain certain communal benefits. Using similar language, A. Glazer, B. Grofman, and G. Owen (1998, 29) reveal that racial backlash and support for candidates representing the median voter can shape grouped voting. In a similar vein, Timothy Feddersen (2004, 100) views voters as ethical agents, in a group-based ethical voter model, who are directed by their beliefs to be ethically obliged to behave in accordance with the group’s interest after reviewing the possible outcomes that would occur and the positive payoff that would be received. Nonetheless, voters do not blindly follow the norms of the group; they also consider the centrality of the issue to the group (Smith et al. 2005, 167).

To clearly explicate the preceding arguments, the next section briefly describes the case study design to analyze anut grubyuk among rural Javanese voters. The following section explores the practice of anut grubyuk and develops arguments beyond this grouped voting practice, from the point of view of both the dominant Javanese culture and the rational motives of voters and group leaders. Finally, the availability of some recent studies on Indonesian electoral politics and democracy, including pilkada, provides a basis for serious concern that this Javanese grouped voting can be captured in patronage-driven political realities.

The Case Study

This study is centered on the incumbents’ political survival and failure in the new and emerging local democracy in Indonesia, mainly in pilkada at the regional level. The study was conducted in four rural and urban regions: Blitar and Trenggalek Regencies (rural regions) and Probolinggo and Madiun Municipalities (urban regions). However, the analysis focuses only on the two rural regions, where the practice of anut grubyuk in voting took place in the 2010 pilkada: Blitar and Trenggalek Regencies.

This study applies qualitative research principles with interpretivism as its paradigm (Creswell 2009, 18). It utilizes the case study as a research method, involving “an exploration of event, activity and process of one or more individuals” (Stake, in Creswell 2009, 13). To gather qualitative data, the study utilized semi-structured interviews with voters who cast their vote in the pilkada. The analysis is focused on 8 of 31 selected participants in three villages (Tempur, Kerjo, and Laksono) who argued for anut grubyuk in voting.

Several criteria were identified before selecting Blitar and Trenggalek Regencies as the research sites. First, the regions had to have incumbents running for re-election. Next, the incumbents had to have occupied the post for five years. Finally, the degree of the incumbents’ success or failure had to reach a minimum of winning or losing by 50 percent. This figure represents absolute winning or failure on the part of incumbents as well as challengers. Also, it indicates the effectiveness or ineffectiveness of incumbency. There were 18 regions conducting pilkada in 2010 in East Java, of which 15 were in rural regions. There were only five incumbents in the rural regions running for the second pilkada in 2010. Three of the five failed to maintain their post in the 2010 pilkada.

Blitar Regency, one of the most populous regions in East Java, is located in the southern part of the province. According to the 2010 population census, the regency had 1,116,010 people living in an area of 1,588.79 km2. The population density was 702 per km2, and the regency contributed 2.98 percent of the province’s population. Blitar is categorized as a Mataraman area since the major and indigenous population is Javanese (Rozuli 2011, 96).5) Meanwhile, Trenggalek is one of the regencies located in the southern coastal area of East Java. It covers an area of 1,261.40 km2, two-thirds of which is mountainous land. According to the 2010 national population census, Trenggalek’s inhabitants amounted to 674,521: 334,769 males and 339,752 females (Indonesia, Badan Pusat Statistik Kabupaten Trenggalek 2010, 6). The population lives in 14 districts and 157 villages. The majority of the population is Muslim, accounting for 99.25 percent of the regency’s inhabitants (Indonesia, Badan Pusat Statistik Jawa Timur 2010, 22). Overall, according to the 2010 national population census, Javanese comprised 81.1 percent of the 37,476,757 inhabitants in East Java (Na’im and Syaputra 2011, 38).

Both Blitar’s and Trenggalek’s cultural features are categorized as Java Mataraman in the East Java Regional Division of Culture (Sutarto and Sudikan 2008). In other words, in the regional division of Javanese culture, these regencies are included in Mancanagari or “outer region.” Mancanagari’s culture is similar to the central Javanese court culture of Yogyakarta and Surakarta, with syncretism in religious life, unifying elements of Hinduism, Buddhism, and Islam. The folk culture and art of Blitar and Trenggalek are also similar to those of the two centers of Javanese culture (Koentjaraningrat 1985, 21–22).

The first pilkada in Blitar Regency took place in 2005. The official ballots counted on December 4, 2005 showed that the duo of Herry Noegroho and Arif Fuadi had won the pilkada by 42.18 percent of votes. Five years later, the two ran separately in the pilkada. Herry urged a former senior bureaucrat, Rijanto, to run with him. In turn, Arif urged a local legislator, Heri Romadhon, to challenge the incumbent. In the 2010 race, held on November 9, the incumbent Herry Noegroho survived in office with 59.7 percent of votes.

The pilkada in Trenggalek Regency turned out to be a unique race for democratic contenders, as it was a battle between two incumbents. In the first pilkada in 2005, the incumbent Soeharto6) (2005–10) defeated the former incumbent Mulyadi WR (2000–05). In the second pilkada in 2010, the incumbent Soeharto was defeated by the former incumbent Mulyadi WR. In the pilkada held on June 2, 2010, Soeharto faced Mulyadi WR and the deputy regent as well as his running mate in the 2005 pilkada, Mahsun Ismail. Soeharto garnered the fewest votes, only 22.4 percent (71,818). Mulyadi WR won the race by gaining 174,656 ballots (54.4 percent) (Indonesia, Komisi Pemilihan Umum Kabupaten Trenggalek 2010, 79).

Trenggalek Regency was selected to represent a rural region with a failed incumbent. It met all the criteria: the incumbent running for the second pilkada, the incumbent having occupied office for five years prior to the 2010 pilkada, and the degree of the challenger’s victory being above 50 percent. Blitar and Jember Regencies met all the criteria for a district with a successful incumbent. Finally, Blitar was preferred as a case study site because of the incumbent’s more impressive victory compared to the one in Jember.

To interview voters, two districts were selected based on the criterion of their distance to the center of government of Blitar and Trenggalek Regencies. In Blitar Regency, Srengat District was selected as it met the criterion of a district that was close to the center. The other one was Wonotirto District, representing the opposite criterion to the former. In Trenggalek Regency, Trenggalek District was selected to represent a district situated close to the center. Meanwhile, Watulimo District denoted the opposite district to Trenggalek District. Due to the limitations of this study in gaining official data of the 2010 pilkada results, one village in each district was chosen, based on a limited assessment through a brief discussion with local government officers.7) The assessment was based on an assumption of villages where the incumbent gained votes that exceeded or fell short of the district’s average vote. Then, the study selected one village in each district: Tempur (pseudonym) in Srengat District, Kerjo (pseudonym) in Wonotirto District, Joyo (pseudonym) in Trenggalek District, and Laksono (pseudonym) in Watulimo District.

According to the voter list issued by the Blitar Election Commission, Tempur village had 4,957 eligible voters: 2,472 male and 2,485 female. These voters were distributed among nine polling stations (Tempat Pemungutan Suara). On Election Day (November 9, 2010), voting participation in this village reached 58.2 percent—that is, only 2,885 voters exercised their right to vote in the pilkada. Of the nine polling stations, the station where the incumbent gained the highest number of votes compared to the rival was identified. Polling station number 7 was then chosen as the location for the interviews. The incumbent in that station gained 75.3 percent of the 352 votes. In-depth interviews were conducted with six female and five male voters from various social backgrounds.

In the 2010 pilkada, Kerjo village had 3,340 eligible voters: 1,651 male and 1,689 female. According to the pilkada results issued by the Blitar Election Commission, 39 percent of voters were absent. In contrast with Tempur village, in Kerjo village the incumbent Herry Noegroho ran a tough race with the challenger. At the final count, the incumbent gained 51.13 percent of votes. Among the seven polling stations in the village, polling station number 4 was chosen—this was where Herry had gained the most votes (98.4 percent)—to conduct in-depth interviews. Interviews were conducted with five female and five male voters. The interviewees included farmers, traders, the head of the hamlet, and the leader of a farmer group.

In Trenggalek District, Joyo village was chosen as the location to conduct in-depth interviews. The village had 5,449 eligible voters: 2,612 male and 2,837 female. The number of absentees in the pilkada amounted to 1,559 (28.6 percent). Nevertheless, the incumbent gained the highest number of votes in the village, 1,557. Mahsun Ismail (the challenger) gained 915 votes and Mulyadi (the winning challenger) 1,288. In this location, six male and four female voters were interviewed on September 12–13, 2012. In Watulimo District, one of the 12 villages, Laksono, was chosen for conducting in-depth interviews with voters. According to the 2010 pilkada results issued by the Trenggalek Election Commission, Laksono was ranked third among the villages in Watulimo District where the incumbent experienced a crushing defeat in the pilkada. Laksono village had 5,601 eligible voters: 2,774 male and 2,827 female. The incumbent obtained 29.46 percent of votes (1,089), whereas Mulyadi won the poll in the village by gaining 59.3 percent of votes (2,192). The number of absentees was 32.4 percent (1,815). In-depth interviews were conducted in the area of polling station number 8, where the incumbent experienced the most crushing defeat among the 20 polling stations. In this polling station the incumbent gained 39 votes (13.2 percent), Mahsun Ismail obtained 41 votes (13.9 percent), and Mulyadi won the race by obtaining 215 votes (72.9 percent). The number of absentees in this polling station was 190 (38.15 percent). In this area, seven male and three female voters were interviewed.

Anut Grubyuk: Communal Spirit or Rational Pragmatism in Voting?

To facilitate the best description of Javanese communal life, the discussion begins with the valuable Javanese advice of rukun agawe santosa (harmonious living in peace and security). It reflects an ideal Javanese type of neighborhood life, where people live in harmony with their neighbors. Javanese people believe that their neighbors are more valuable than relatives living far away. Close neighbors are always available to help, unlike faraway relatives. Accordingly, Javanese feel a need to live in harmony with their neighbors and avoid arrogance. From a Javanese communal perspective, a person’s worth can be judged through others’ esteem for them in the three vital events of the life cycle: birth, death, and marriage. Neighbors come to a respected Javanese person to congratulate or deliver condolences on these three important occasions (Hardjowirogo 1984, 5). This old Javanese belief reflects one of the main pillars of Javanese communal life, living in harmony (rukun).

This communal value exists also in political life, particularly in direct elections of local leaders (pilkada). The case study in Blitar and Trenggalek revealed communal-driven voting behavior among rural Javanese, whether to vote or not vote for incumbents in their re-election bid. The Javanese phrase “anut grubyuk” was mentioned by voters as one of the reasons for voting the way they did. The literal meaning of the phrase is “fitting in” or using the neighborhood’s preference as a basis for individual preference. In the context of pilkada, anut grubyuk is an individual decision and action that adjusts to the major preference in the neighborhood, whether to vote or not for certain candidates.

The argument of anut grubyuk in voting is revealed in voters’ explanations for their preferences. Three participants in two rural neighborhoods in Blitar did not take individual stands in voting for the incumbent; in other words, they just followed the major preference in their neighborhood.

In Tempur village in Blitar, a female farmer delivered a simple answer for why she voted for the incumbent in the 2010 pilkada. She said:

Katanya orang-orang banyak yang milih nomor dua. Ikut-ikut sama teman-teman (I hear that many people voted for candidate number two [Herry-Rijanto]. I just followed my friends [neighbors]).8)

A housewife-cum-chicken farmer gave similar reasons for voting for the incumbent in the pilkada:

Semuanya tidak kenal, cuma ikut-ikutan warga yang lain. Asal milih saja karena tidak tahu (I do not know all [the candidates]; I just follow the others. I just vote because I do not know).9)

In Kerjo village in southern Blitar, another female farmer reiterated that she just followed the communal preference in her neighborhood. She said clearly in polite Javanese:

Namung Nyoblos nomer kalih, soale katah sing nyoblos sing niku. Nggih kirangan, nyoblos, nggih nyoblos (I voted for number two [candidate] as many others were voting for him. I don’t know, voted, yes I voted).10)

In Trenggalek, the case study discovered that voters performed anut grubyuk by not voting for the incumbent in the 2010 pilkada. A trader-cum-farmer in Laksono village conveyed a simple reason for not voting for the incumbent. He said in polite Javanese:

Nggih mboten nopo-nopo sedoyo sae, sami sedoyo, sae dadhos milih niki mawon, nggih ngoten (Well, there is not any reason, they all are good, all [the candidates] are similar. It is good to vote for him [Mulyadi], that is it).

He continued that he had voted for the winning challenger (Mulyadi):

Insya Allah Pak Mul, namung manut grubyuk, namung manut konco-konco. Dukho ketokne, nopo himbauan (God willing [I voted for] Mr. Mul [Mulyadi], just fitting in, just following friends. I am not sure, it seems like an appeal).11)

Two other voters gave similar reasons. They based their decision to not vote for the incumbent on the majority opinion in the neighborhood. A female voter admitted that she had voted for the winning challenger because Mulyadi’s victory team had distributed free yasinan uniforms for all yasinan group members in her hamlet. She argued that there was no mobilization of support for the winning challenger.12) In fact, she adjusted her ballot based on the majority of her fellow neighbors’ votes.

Interestingly, “fitting in” was also given as a reason for voting for the incumbent. Two female participants said that they voted for the incumbent in order to follow their friends in the neighborhood. In Javanese, they said the reason was “manut wong-wong.” The literal meaning of these words is “following people or matching other people’s decisions.” A female participant added in Indonesian:

Ya, saya ini cuma orang kecil, cuma ikut-ikut. Saya tidak tahu cuma ikut-ikut saja (Yes, I am only a little person, just following. I do not know, just following [others]).13)

In a focus group interview conducted on September 29, 2012 in Trenggalek, one participant—an NGO activist and former local legislator—confirmed the phenomenon of fitting in. The participant used the Javanese term “anut grubyuk.” The literal meaning of this term is “following the majority or going anywhere others go.” From the interview, anut grubyuk was understood as the practice of fitting in. Individuals’ voting decisions for the incumbent were not the result of their own assessments of the candidates. Rather, individuals based their decisions on the mainstream opinion of their neighborhood.

Another explanation for the practice of anut grubyuk in voting can be found in cultural aspects of the Javanese philosophy of life. These include assumptions, ideas, and mental attitudes and form a foundation as well as give meaning to every single Javanese person’s attitude to life (Gauthama 2003, 11). Javanese culture has two principal dimensions that influence everyday life: communality and hierarchy (Mulder 1978, 58). Relevant to the research findings is the nature of human relationships in the Javanese philosophy of life, namely, rukun (harmony). This represents the predominant value of communality. Javanese require the principles of rukun in human relationships at the household and community levels. They are taught to prioritize harmony rather than conflict. Javanese society demands the avoidance of behavior that can lead to conflict (ibid., 57–59; Handayani and Novianto 2004, 67–68). The spirit of togetherness, leading to similar preferences between individual voters and the majority of voters in Tempur and Kerjo villages in Blitar and Laksono village in Trenggalek, may be explained by the principle of rukun. Individual voters adjusted their preferences to the majority preference in order to achieve harmony.

However, the implementation of rukun does not tolerate coercion. Javanese culture allows individuality, as it accepts that every individual has different problems, rights, and interests. To support individual freedom in voting, a hamlet head in Kerjo village clearly explained, “I did not direct my people [in the hamlet]. They also think by themselves, vote individually.”14) Still, individuality must align with the principle of rukun. The adjustment of individual preference to the majority preference in the neighborhood is understood as an individual voter’s effort to achieve harmony in society as well as to gain collective benefits from local government policies credited to the incumbent.15)

Another possible explanation for voting adjustments by individuals is their limitations in gathering adequate information to support their voting decisions. Adjustment is an efficient manner or a short cut to support decisions. Indeed, the application of the rukun principle to explain the practice of individual voting adjustment is also reasonable. The individual voter considers the benefits that can be gained from communal facilities promised by the incumbent. Hence, adjusting individual voting preferences to the majority preference is a contribution to collective choice. Voter adjustment is understandable in both possible explanations. First, an individual voter expects to gain benefits from collective voting decisions, as promised by the incumbent. Second, an individual voter can overcome their limitations in gaining adequate information to support their individual voting decision.

The other principal value is hormat or aji (respect), representing the value of hierarchy. The traditional Javanese view is that “all social relationships are hierarchically ordered, and on the moral imperative to maintain and express this mode of social order as a good in itself” (Geertz 1961). In any social behavior, respect is manifested in many different contexts: toward government officials, in school, in relationships among neighbors, among others (ibid., 147).

In order to better understand anut grubyuk, one needs to refer to the Javanese conception of the relationship between the individual and society at the neighborhood level. Because the phenomenon of anut grubyuk appears particularly at the neighborhood level, it is useful to refer to the Javanese philosophy guiding relationships among people in a neighborhood. In addition to the Javanese advice of “rukun agawe santosa,” there is a proverb stating “sing sapa ora seneng tetanggan kalebu wong kang ora becik” (whoever is not a lot like his or her neighbor is not a good person) (Rachmatullah 2011, 80). Javanese live under concomitant or coexistent norms in relating to their neighbors. Individuals as well as families strive to live in harmony with their neighbors. In the wider context of relationships between the individual and society, N. Mulder (1992) refers to a Javanese perspective on the relationship between man, world, and cosmos emphasized as one of the core ideas of communal relationships among the Javanese, namely, the concept of the unity of existence. In terms of individual and societal relationships, the appropriate explanation of this concept is that people should accept and respect order and inevitability; adapt themselves to its requirements; and fulfill the obligations required of the place where they live so as to achieve good order in communal relationships (rukun). In order to maintain a rukun relationship, a person should suppress his or her individual will, emotions, and self-interest (ibid., 143–145).

This ideal of living in harmony elucidates the Javanese cultural context in which anut grubyuk is situated. As a member of a community, an individual intentionally respects communal opinion when voting for a candidate in a pilkada. The means of showing respect is adjusting individual ballots in accordance with the majority opinion in the neighborhood. Consequently, the practice of anut grubyuk among participants in Laksono village makes sense. By displaying similarity in voting decisions, voters achieve two aims: communal peace and the exercise of individual rights as voters.

Nevertheless, voters in Laksono village in Trenggalek held different perceptions concerning the incumbent Soeharto’s performance. They identified positive and beneficial programs credited to the incumbent, for instance, accessible health and education services; the development of dams, irrigation, and neighborhood and village roads; free uniforms for village officers; and the provision of subsidized fertilizer and free seeds. The incumbent was also perceived as a generous and religious person. A dissenting opinion pertains to the incumbent’s failure to meet all the promises made when he campaigned in the 2005 pilkada. A community leader involved in supporting the incumbent felt disappointed as the latter did not keep his promises. The incumbent experienced the most crushing defeat in polling station number 8, where voters were interviewed. The incumbent’s better performance did not automatically encourage voters to vote for him; voters decided not to vote for the incumbent because they matched their preference with the majority opinion in their neighborhood.

From the findings in Laksono village, three important points emerge. First, participants had different perceptions of the incumbent’s performance during his time in office, compared to those of participants interviewed in Joyo village. A more positive perception of the incumbent’s performance did not automatically persuade voters to elect him. The cultural phenomenon of anut grubyuk can both disfavor and favor the incumbent. Second, party attachment and personal connection with the contenders can encourage voters to disfavor the incumbent. Third, the support of an informal leader in Laksono village was important, as he could also act as an opinion leader who probably provided guidance for voters to disfavor or favor the incumbent. This could be a possible explanation for the phenomenon of anut grubyuk among voters in the village; voters matched their decision with the majority opinion in the neighborhood, which was probably under the influence of an informal leader. Voters in Laksono village also demonstrated a differing acceptance of local government policies and programs credited to the incumbent. This acceptance was unlike the non-government and government elites’ opinions in the regency, which were inclined to disfavor the incumbent. These opinions did not express negative perceptions or gossip about the incumbent, as propagated by the local mass media.

Lastly, the practice of anut grubyuk in voting decisions and voters’ ignorance of evidence-based local government performance and pilkada-related issues can explain the disconnection between the incumbent’s performance during his time in office and the pilkada results. The practice of anut grubyuk among rural voters in Blitar and Trenggalek could lead voters to ignore their individual choices as they adjusted their voting decision to the majority opinion in the neighborhood. Furthermore, anut grubyuk could negate positive or negative campaigns about the incumbents’ performance. Voters made their decisions based on communal judgment without considering the costs or benefits of the incumbent’s leadership in terms of long-term social, economic, or environmental outlook. It was such behavior (anut grubyuk) that disfavored the incumbent in Trenggalek and supported the incumbent in Blitar.

Other Motives in Voting

In addition to the practice of anut grubyuk, the case studies in these two rural regions found four other categories of motives that shaped voters’ preferences at the polls. First, voters referred to the tangible policy output credited to the incumbent. Better infrastructure (roads) at the neighborhood level was recognized by voters in the regions. In Trenggalek, voters also considered rural infrastructure constructed during the incumbent’s time in office, such as irrigation for rice fields, as a reason to vote for the incumbent. Nevertheless, the incumbent in Trenggalek was regarded as having failed to improve the regency’s roads during his incumbency. This opinion was widely held among voters, though official data showed that under the incumbent’s administration there was better development of the regency’s roads compared to the previous administration’s performance.

Second, complementary to the tangible and direct policy outputs are the populist images of the incumbents. The incumbent’s so-called blusukan (impromptu community visits) was clearly remembered by voters. Voters frequently mentioned them as extraordinary activities performed by a person who held the most honorable and prominent position in the region. This admiration persuaded voters to vote for the incumbent. The incumbent’s frequent visits to villages in Blitar Regency were appreciated by voters. Moreover, voters considered tangible aspects of the incumbent’s populist activities, namely, donations and appearances. However, some voters in Trenggalek Regency perceived that the incumbent was not really a local person like the winning challenger was. Although the incumbent was known to be a religious person, some voters felt that his half-hearted local identity would discourage him from working for the regency’s interests if he regained control of the regent post.

Third, voters compared the incumbent and the challenger before making their decision. Their basis of comparison was the competitive advantage between the candidates. This comparison was made mainly by voters who held leadership positions in the community, such as hamlet heads, neighborhood unit (Rukun Tetangga) heads, community unit (Rukun Warga) heads, and village heads. Voters voted for the incumbents in Blitar Regency because they perceived that the incumbents were more experienced and better grounded than the challengers. Many of the incumbents’ programs had not yet been completed in the first term, but voters felt that the development programs should be continued in the second term. By voting for the incumbents, these elite voters sought to minimize the risk of uncertainty. The case study in Blitar found a Javanese proverb to express this consideration: “tinimbang golek wong nambal or tinimbang bakal aluwung nambal” (it is better not to take a risk with a new leader). Voters are assumed to play safe or to avoid risky choices. In other words, voting for the incumbent was better than voting for a challenger who had not yet proven his worth. Voters wanted to continue to gain policy benefits equal to those they had received in the incumbent’s first term. There is an Indonesian proverb expressing this idea: “ibarat membeli kucing dalam karung” (to buy a pig in a poke), or to avoid a mistake by not voting for a candidate who has no previous record. In other words, voters do not want to take a gamble as they do not have adequate information about the challenger’s prior performance. In Trenggalek, voters decided to vote for the winning challenger as he had been the former regent (Mulyadi, defeated by the incumbent in the 2005 pilkada). Voters felt that the winning challenger showed better leadership compared to the incumbent. This could be called the “Mulyadi effect.”

Finally, some voters considered party loyalty when deciding whether or not to vote for an incumbent. Voters’ alignment with the party that nominated the candidate shaped their preference. Sometimes voters obeyed the party’s decision and voted for the nominated candidate. One voter voted for the winning challenger in Laksono village in Trenggalek, since the party he was loyal to (PDI-P) had nominated the challenger.

Beyond a Cultural Explanation

Voters’ social profiles probably shed more light on the external factors that shape anut grubyuk (see Table 1). Voters who practiced anut grubyuk had similar social profiles of inadequate involvement in organizational life, mainly at the neighborhood or village level. They did not join mass organizations, political organizations, professional organizations, or semi-government organizations. All participants stated that they regularly attended the weekly yasinan meeting conducted by yasinan groups.16)


Table 1 Social Profile of Voters


In Java, yasinan is popular for both Javanese performing Javanism or Javanese rituals (kejawen) in their lives and traditional Javanese santri. Yasin epistle recitation is part of Muslim funeral rites practiced several days after death and as collective veneration of a teacher or respected person (Woodward 2011, 40, 119).17)

In connection with pilkada, yasinan weekly meetings are also a campaign medium for candidates. In Tempur village in Blitar, an incumbent’s campaign team member distributed free uniforms to the male yasinan group. In addition, the challenger’s campaign team attended the weekly yasinan meeting in Kerjo village. In Laksono village in Trenggalek, participants said that the challenger’s victory team distributed free yasinan uniforms for all yasinan group members in the hamlets where fieldwork was conducted. This profile shows less varied involvement of participants in organizational life. It can limit voters from having wider views and better arguments in voting.

Other social profiles of participants who practiced anut grubyuk in voting show that they mainly did domestic work or informal sector jobs for a living. Furthermore, the majority of voters had only completed their education up to elementary and junior high school. Also, anut grubyuk in voting was practiced by both sexes. Thus, the study cannot claim that anut grubyuk refers only to male or female voting behavior in rural Java.

Compared to voters who have individual stands on their preferences (non-anut grubyuk), this case study found different degrees of “engagement” based on the reasons given by the voters interviewed. Engagement is a degree of contact between voters and local political issues as well as policy implementation and organizational life prior to pilkada that can shape voters’ choices. There are two categories of engagement to cover all contacts between voters and local political issues and policy implementation: simple engagement and intensive engagement.

Simple engagement is a typology covering voters who pay less attention to pilkada issues, irrespective of the experience they have in gaining the benefits of local government policies. The majority of these voters belongs to the masses and has a less educated background. A male brick maker (50 years old, elementary school graduate) who has lived in Tempur village since 1980 said that shortly before the 2010 pilkada he heard that the incumbent had donated several sacks of cement for constructing a bridge in the village. To the best of his knowledge, education and health services were not totally free. He stated his reason for voting for the incumbent in the 2010 pilkada in plain Indonesian:

Hanya ikut-ikut, aslinya tidak tahu. Ikut-ikutan kawan, pedoman utama (untuk memilih) tidak ada (Just fitting in, I actually do not know. Just blindly followed my neighborhood mates, [there is no] particular guidance [on whom to vote for]).18)

A micro-businesswoman (55 years old, junior high school graduate) who has lived in Laksono village since she was born recalled that she had benefited from a revolving fund program for women under the national program for community empowerment (simpan pinjam perempuan program nasional pemberdayaan masyarakat). Her children had also benefited from the national program of school operational aid (bantuan operasional sekolah). She gave a short answer for her reason for practicing anut grubyuk in voting for the incumbent: “Alasannya, manut wong-wong, gitu aja” (My reason is just following my neighborhood mates, nothing else).19)

In contrast, voters who pay attention to pilkada issues—mainly village leaders and other officeholders—can argue about the reasons for their choices. They show an intensive engagement with the issues as well as gaining the benefits of policy implementation. The leader of a farmers group in Kerjo village conveyed a clear answer about his reason for voting for the incumbent:

Saya nyoblos nomor dua karena kita menginginkan sarana transportasi lancar. Setelah kita bertanya ke teman-teman di daerah lain, janji-janjinya terbukti. Pak Herry itu orangnya enak, setiap diundang mau datang. Bantuan ke kelompok tani juga sudah ada sebelum pilkada (I voted for [candidate] number two [the incumbent] because we want a good infrastructure for better transportation. After asking for many fellows [farmers groups] in other villages, [the incumbent] kept his promises. Mr. Herry is a humble person; he wanted to come when we invited him [to the village]. [I also saw that] Aid for farmers groups was provided prior to the pilkada).20)

An interesting reason for voting for the challenger was given by a village officer in Laksono who was responsible for managing the village’s irrigation. He recognized that he had received an official uniform from the regional government during the incumbent’s stay in office. He added that the incumbent had paid proper attention to infrastructure development at the village level, such as roads, dams, and irrigation. In fact, he voted for the challenger in the pilkada for a simple reason: “Pak Mulyadi dulu pernah menjabat jadi Bupati, dulu ya baik . . .” (Mr. Mulyadi was the former regent; he [performed] well . . .).21)

In rural regions, voters who are categorized as being intensively engaged are those who have official or cultural positions in the village, such as village heads, hamlet heads, the heads of farmers and religious groups, and those who have enjoyed a better education (are at least senior high school graduates). These voters are able to argue about their rationale for whether or not they vote for the incumbents. In urban regions, the case study found that all participants or voters were categorized as showing intensive engagement. They could explain the incumbent’s popular policies and the benefits of these policies. As a consequence, they had clear arguments for their reasons to vote for either the incumbents or the challengers.

Related to anut grubyuk in voting, the degree of “engagement” can explain why rural Javanese voters practice anut grubyuk in pilkada. Inadequate engagement with pilkada-related issues can encourage voters not to take individual stands in pilkada. Engagement provides a complementary explanation of communal Javanese values that connect individuals to the life of their society in a rural neighborhood.

Beyond these cultural aspects, the profile of villages can also shed light on the nature of anut grubyuk. Tempur village in Srengat District is located 10 km southeast of the district capital and 8 km west of the Blitar Regency capital. The village is composed of four hamlets. About 40 percent of Tempur’s territory consists of rice fields, 20 percent is residential, 35 percent is dry fields, and 15 percent is used for other purposes. Residents in this village mostly work as farmers, with some being traders, stock farmers, clerks, and factory workers. Kerjo village in Wonotirto District is located in southern Blitar, at a distance of 25 km from the central government of Blitar Regency. In 2011 the population was 3,962 people: 51 percent female and 49 percent male. The composition of the educational background in the village is dominated by elementary school graduates (68 percent) and those who did not graduate from elementary school (12 percent). The majority of the population is farmers (58.1 percent). Chili or red pepper is a prominent agricultural product of the village. This village is also known to be one of Blitar’s migrant worker contributors. According to the Blitar Regency branch of the Indonesian migrant workers union (Serikat Buruh Migran Indonesia), the village had 257 migrant workers in 2013 (Rahayu 2013, 2). During fieldwork, the prominent role of the farmer-based group (kelompok tani) in the neighborhood where the interviews took place was apparent.

Joyo village in Trenggalek District is located exactly in the center of the regency of Trenggalek, as the regency office is located there. Many local government offices are also located in the village. Interestingly, the village is also where both Soeharto and Mulyadi were born. They still have their childhood homes in the village, in different hamlets. The majority of the population in the village consists of Javanese Muslims. Since this is an urban village, most people are occupied as civil servants, traders, entrepreneurs, and clerks. Observations in the village showed that most of the neighborhood infrastructure was well developed. The distance between houses was very short, and almost all the houses had vehicles.

Laksono in Watulimo District is a rural village in the southern coastal area of Trenggalek Regency, about 53 km from the center of the regency. In addition to fishing, the majority of the population in the village relies on the forest-based agricultural sector for their livelihoods. According to data from the Forest Village Community Institute (Lembaga Masyarakat Desa Hutan, LMDH), the village has 6,269 members. The LMDH working area of the village covers 4,271 hectares. In cooperation with the state-owned forestry company (Perhutani), LMDH manages forest areas in the village through Community-Based Forest Management (Pengelolaan Hutan Bersama Masyarakat). As a village-based association with a large membership, LMDH has a strong bargaining position in the village. Moreover, several key persons in LMDH at Laksono also hold important positions in the LMDH association in Watulimo District.

The above brief profiles can provide additional explanations for anut grubyuk in voting, beyond Javanese cultural aspects, by showing the rural and urban character of villages and the variety of villagers’ occupations. The majority of the population in Joyo village is engaged in non-agricultural occupations, such as teachers, civil servants, street vendors, and entrepreneurs. In the village, the study did not find any explanation from voters concerning anut grubyuk in either voting for or not voting for the incumbent. Voters had their own arguments in this respect, based on their individually oriented preferences, and did not follow others in the neighborhood. In three other villages where anut grubyuk was found, the occupations of the population were homogenous, such as farming or fishing.

Another important non-cultural feature of villages and neighborhoods is the presence of farmer organizations. LMDH is the most popular farmer-based organization in Laksono village in Trenggalek. With its huge membership and wide networking, LMDH is a potential political force in the pilkada.22) The incumbent was supported as well as challenged by LMDH in both pilkada. In 2005, LMDH’s networks helped Soeharto to gain victory in the pilkada. There was an informal agreement between the incumbent and LMDH’s leaders prior to the 2005 pilkada. LMDH supported Soeharto with the expectation of gaining direct benefits during his term in power, namely, infrastructure (roads), fertilizer donations, and seeds. However, the incumbent did not keep his promises during his term in office.

In the 2010 pilkada, LMDH’s networks diverted their support to Mulyadi WR. A chairman of an LMDH forum at the district level as well as chairman of LMDH in Laksono village remarked:

When finally Mr. Harto [Soeharto] was elected [as the regent], the promise was not fulfilled. When he came here [to visit the village] he never greeted us or [LMDH] administrators. Finally, the LMDH board was not needed anymore by Mr. Harto. So, the promise was violated. He gave assistance to fishermen, but we farmers were not taken care of. We [LMDH] decided not to support Mr. Harto.23)

Like Soeharto, prior to the pilkada Mulyadi and his running mate Kholiq met with LMDH networks in Nglongsor village. LMDH’s decision to support Mulyadi in 2010 was influenced also by an informal agreement to support LMDH members. Mulyadi promised to subsidize fertilizer and farming tools for LMDH. Mulyadi’s first attempt to fulfill his promise was the inauguration of the LMDH Association of Trenggalek on March 23, 2011. In the inauguration, Mulyadi also conducted a dialogue with LMDH’s representatives to hear their aspirations.24)

The effort to divert LMDH’s support from Soeharto to Mulyadi prior to the pilkada was planned. An actor who encouraged LMDH to withdraw its support from the incumbent was Mr. K (pseudonym), a timber businessman who had close connections with LMDH networks. In 2005, he supported Soeharto’s run in the pilkada. In the 2010 pilkada, Mr. K had registered to be the candidate for the regent through the National Awakening Party (Partai Kebangkitan Bangsa). Finally, he shifted his support to Mulyadi in the 2010 pilkada by directing LMDH networks’ support to Mulyadi.25) In the LMDH association of Trenggalek, Mr. K was the adviser.

Meanwhile, Tunas Makmur, a farmer-based group, is the only organization in the area of polling station number 4 where interviews were conducted in Kerjo village in Blitar. The incumbent paid special attention to this group. Prior to the pilkada, the local agriculture office built a pond for farming in the village. The office also gave tractors and goats as aid for the farmers group and free bean and corn seeds for farmers. Moreover, the incumbent visited the village twice. A farmer and wood trader talked about the incumbent’s visit: “Mr. Herry came when the farmers group conducted a chili harvest festival and inaugurated the operation of the pond in 2010.”26)

During the campaign, or one month prior to the pilkada, the chairman of Herry’s campaign team (Mr. Z) met with villagers in the hamlet’s hall. During this meeting, the chairman promised to build the hamlet’s roads if Herry won in the pilkada.27) After the pilkada, Herry’s people kept their promise to the villagers. The head of the hamlet testified that after the pilkada, one of Herry’s victory team members visited the hamlet and donated a goat as well as Rp.1 million in cash to support the hamlet’s activities.28) Mr. Z also kept his promise to the villagers. The leader of the farmers group testified that the local government had carried out development of the hamlet’s roads. It was predicted that all roads would be built by 2014. In addition, Mr. Z wanted to donate materials to the farmers group when it built the group’s hut. Mr. Z also helped to support the group’s proposal to gain agribusiness development funds (Pengembangan Usaha Agribisnis Perdesaan) from the local government. In fact, before gaining Mr. Z’s support, the group found it difficult to access funds. After gaining Mr. Z’s support, the group regularly obtained funds of Rp.100 million per year from 2010 to 2012.29)

These narratives show the power of farmer-based group leaders to shape voters’ preferences by practicing anut grubyuk in voting. Anut grubyuk is probably a form of mobilization of voters to vote or not to vote for incumbents in return for benefits for the farmers groups as well as their leaders. However, the case study cannot judge the importance of the role of village heads and hamlet heads in shaping voters’ preferences as they provided relatively formal answers during the interview by admitting that they had to be neutral in the pilkada.

The next question, then, among theories of voting behavior is how anut grubyuk can make a scientific contribution. The analysis of voting behavior is closely related to the discussion of factors that can shape voters’ preferences in voting, in terms of rationale for both voting and not voting. The two main theoretical streams of voting behavior explain how external factors and internal evaluation by voters can shape voting preferences. The former is known as the social cleavage theory, and the latter is the rational choice theory.

Seymour Lipset and S. Rokkan (1967, 13) stress that locality and its dominant culture, class, and interest can shape voters’ decisive criterion for alignment to parties or candidates. On the one hand, voters—without taking into consideration their economic position—vote for parties or candidates due to their commitment to locality and its dominant culture. On the other hand, due to the commitment to class and its collective interest, voters vote for parties or candidates that have or represent the same position irrespective of their localities. The importance of the social cleavage structure is not merely about class interest but a wider understanding of social influence. In addition to class, the criterion of alignment can be shaped by religion, gender, and other social aspects.

Another mainstream political scientist has criticized those who analyze voting without taking into account that citizens are rational people who respond rationally (efficiently) to political realities, particularly in the situation of imperfect information. A. Downs (1957a, 149) has suggested adoption of the economics of political action in analyzing the political behavior of citizens in a democracy. Rationality in political realities is not a simple cost-benefit analysis in which every rational action is justified by the result of a surplus equation between benefits and costs of action (benefits exceed costs). In an imperfect information situation in a large democracy, an intelligent citizen does not always use logical thinking in taking action, because “the marginal return from thinking logically is smaller than its marginal costs.” Consequently, rather than spending much to gain perfect information to support rational action, the citizen sometimes acts rationally (efficiently) to act irrationally, by intentionally avoiding devoting much time and cost for an uncertain outcome. In voting, voters act rationally in being apathetic toward elections or ignore the issues when they know that there is a very low probability that their ballots will make a difference in the election outcome. Furthermore, A. Downs (1957b, 49–50) concludes that voting behavior could be shaped by current party differentials, chance of winning, and the possibility of voter abstention.

Anut grubyuk in voting covers both theoretical streams. Javanese voters who practice anut grubyuk link their decision to a locality and Javanese as the dominant culture that encourages voters to live in harmony. Individual voters voluntarily align with a major decision in the neighborhood in order to respect communal values and integration. Anut grubyuk can also be interpreted as a rational behavior. A voter intentionally does not engage in pilkada issues to overcome the cost of perfect voting. Fitting individual voting decisions to communal guided preferences is a result of logical thinking that shapes Javanese voters.

A more relevant logic views anut grubyuk as group-oriented voting, that is, the awareness of Javanese voters as being parts of groups in a society. The voters act rationally as a group of voters who demand that individual Javanese act with a communal logic. The case study in Blitar and Trenggalek found that individual voters matched their ballots to the preference of neighborhood voters that aimed to meet communal benefits promised by candidates as well as the ethical obligation of group interest.

As a result, understanding Javanese voters in a group perspective provides a different explanation for a previously existing framework (individual voting), which is predominantly viewed from the perspective of social cleavage, mainly locality and its dominant culture or Javanese socio-religious norms. This study interprets anut grubyuk through four possible explanations. First, anut grubyuk is a personal expression of Javanese voters to avoid conflict with neighbors by implementing the principle of rukun. By following anut grubyuk, Javanese also show respect for both community leaders and neighbors and apply the principle of aji. Second, anut grubyuk is probably a form of Javanese pragmatism in voting due to the situation of imperfect knowledge and irrationality in gaining adequate information to support the ballot. Third, anut grubyuk refers to mobilized group voting that is coordinated by a group leader or broker in return for specific rewards from candidates. Finally, anut grubyuk in voting is directed by an obligation to comply with group norms that share group interests, based on the positive result of evaluation of outcomes and payoffs.

Furthermore, regarding group-oriented voting, anut grubyuk echoes the works of Uhlaner (1989) on the possible voting mobilization for transactional benefit of elites in the neighborhood or in the region. This non-cultural logic enriches an explanation that relies on cultural factors, which remain influential among rural Javanese.

Arguably, the non-cultural explanations of anut grubyuk emphasize the need to assess its impact on running genuine democracy in Indonesia. In contrast to liberal democracy, anut grubyuk raises the issue of independence in voting. This group-oriented voting is contrasted to voting as an individual right ensured by the constitution. In terms of democratic process, this remains a critical question in the ongoing democratization of the country, as equal power relationships in democracy are challenged by communality. Moreover, anut grubyuk can potentially be distorted to become a hegemonic instrument of certain parties or elites to gain or retain office in national or regional elections.

Finally, beyond the cultural factors identified in the case studies, farmer-based organizations as well as leaders are influential in neighborhoods, including in mobilizing voters to practice anut grubyuk in pilkada. The leaders form a major opinion in neighborhoods, referred to by voters, by providing options to vote or not to vote for the incumbent. Not surprisingly, the regional leaders who survive in pilkada are consummate strategists who strengthen patronage-driven democracy. The regular succession of a leader who demands the major support of the people is, in fact, determined by much fewer numbers of vital backers. These backers attach themselves to the incumbent leaders who control the dynamics of support and opposition.30)

Therefore, anut grubyuk is susceptible to becoming trapped in patronage-driven democracy practices when community leaders trade benefits in return for the support of candidates. These practices potentially threaten voters who have inadequate engagement in election issues and community organizational life. Additionally, anut grubyuk as a local form of Javanese wisdom can be permanently converted to transactional political practices; and it can consistently support this inconsistent practice of democracy.


There have been repeated attempts to explain the behavior of Javanese voters in the Indonesian democratic framework, in both the Soeharto and the post-Soeharto eras. Unfortunately, these works have neglected the social reality of Javanese communal and hierarchical culture as well as its potential patronage in democracy.

This study reveals that Javanese voters do not base their decisions solely on individual preferences. Among rural Javanese, voters are familiar with the idea of applying anut grubyuk to voting. Individual voters adjust their preferences to the majority preference in their neighborhoods. Anut grubyuk is firmly rooted in the Javanese communal philosophy of life, namely rukun and the hierarchical value of aji. To live in harmony as well as avoid conflict, individuals in rural Java tend to follow the majority voice in the neighborhood, and this applies to voting as well. Individually, Javanese also apply the value of respect—not merely in relationships with people who have informal or formal positions, but also in relationships among neighbors.

Nonetheless, relying solely on the explanation of Javanese dominant culture would be misleading in comprehending Javanese voting behavior in the recently democratic Indonesia. Beyond cultural explanations, Javanese individuals who cast their votes in accordance with communal preferences in the neighborhood aim at gaining collective benefits from local government policies credited to certain candidates who run in the electoral race. In recently democratic Indonesia, anut grubyuk is vulnerable to manipulation (via mobilization), because certain community leaders or brokers exploit Javanese communality in return for both individual and communal short-term benefits from candidates. Instead of helping liberal democracy to grow, anut grubyuk potentially supports patronage-driven democracy, in which democracy ends up in the hands of certain elites who are able to play the politics of particularism.

As a preliminary finding that relies on only a small number of participants, this study needs further exploration. Future research might need more in-depth fieldwork in other rural regions where Javanese culture can be found. In addition, a further comparative study is urgent, to find out whether non-Javanese voters are more independent in voting than Javanese ones. Finally, both cultural differences and non-cultural explanations are relevant to discern voting patterns among Javanese and non-Javanese in the outer Java regions where Javanese also live, such as Lampung and North Sumatra.

Accepted: December 8, 2015


I would like to express my sincere gratitude to my academic supervisors, Associate Professor Janet McIntyre and Craig Matheson, and to the Directorate General of Higher Education of the Republic of Indonesia (DIKTI) and Brawijaya University for my doctoral scholarship. Fieldwork was supported by a Flinders University Overseas Field Trip Grant (project number 5595.3251). I also wish to thank my three anonymous reviewers for their critical and encouraging comments. The content of the article is entirely my responsibility, and the views and opinions contained do not represent DIKTI or Brawijaya University in any way.


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1) Even though Javanese are large in number, scholarly works on them rarely consider their significance in Indonesian electoral politics. Exceptions are Hill and Shiraishi (2007), who mention Javanese domination of the state (that is, the domination of mainly Javanese army officers), and Woodward (2011), who holds the view that Javanese occupy a position of “first among equals” with two visible attributes—being the largest ethnic community and having always been politically dominant. Meanwhile, Liddle and Mujani (2007) found that in the 2004 legislative election, ethnicity had little impact on voting. In the 2004 presidential election also, ethnicity had no impact. The strength of Javanese as an ethnic identity can only explain the lower probability of votes for Partai Golkar (Functional Group) relative to other parties; in other words, Golkar is a non-Javanese party. Recent explanations by pollsters found that in the 2014 presidential election the ethnic background of presidential and vice-presidential candidates was not a dominant consideration. Poltrack Institute’s polling of Indonesian voters found that only 27 percent of voters voted for the Javanese presidential candidate and 23 percent for the Javanese vice presidential candidate (December 2013). In January 2014, Poltrack found slight changes—21.18 percent and 25.10 percent respectively. In contrast, the Indonesia Survey Circle (LSI) found that among the two most numerous ethnic groups (Javanese and Sundanese) the presidential pair of Joko Widodo-Jusuf Kalla were preferred by Javanese voters (47.6 percent in June 2014 and 52.18 percent in July 2014) and the presidential pair of Prabowo Subianto-Hatta Rajasa were preferred by the Sundanese (51.6 percent in June 2014 and 61.4 percent in July 2014). In particular, LSI revealed that Joko Widodo-Jusuf Kalla were more influential among voters in Central and East Java, where the Javanese formed the majority. These data minimally show the relevance of Javanese as an object of electoral studies in the country.

2) Golkar is an acronym for Golongan Karya, or Functional Group. PPP is an acronym for Partai Persatuan Pembangunan, or the United Development Party.

3) However, Freedom House downgraded the country’s freedom status from “free” in 2013 to “partly free” in 2014. The house considered that the adoption of the new social organization law (UU Ormas) had undermined Indonesia’s civil liberties.

4) In the pilkada, the significance of ethnicity varies in different regions. LSI (2008) found that the ethnic background of candidates and the proportion of dominant ethnic groups in the provincial population resulted in different pilkada results in the three provinces. In the 2007 gubernatorial pilkada in West Kalimantan, voters tended to vote for candidates with a similar ethnic identity. However, in the 2007 gubernatorial pilkada in South Sulawesi and Bangka Belitung, voters accepted candidates with a different ethnic identity. Although ethnicity is not a dominant factor referred to by voters, it is relevant to explain the pilkada result.

5) A survey conducted by the Blitar Development Planning Board in cooperation with Airlangga University in 2009 presented the ethnic distribution of respondents, chosen randomly: 99.8 percent of the 1,000 identified themselves as being Javanese. Based on this survey, one could say that almost the entire Blitar population is Javanese.

6) The incumbent bears exactly the same name as the former Indonesian President Soeharto. The name Soeharto in this article refers primarily to the former regent of Trenggalek (2005–10).

7) I obtained the data on pilkada results from the Blitar and Trenggalek Election Commissions after gaining a research permit from the regencies. Consequently, I did not use these data for selecting villages where I would conduct interviews with voters; but I did use the data for selecting the specific location in each village (neighborhood) for the interviews.

8) Interview conducted on July 4, 2012.

9) Interview conducted on July 4, 2012.

10) Interview conducted on July 5, 2012.

11) Interview conducted on September 18, 2012.

12) Interview conducted on September 18, 2012. The yasinan group is a communal male or female religious group at the neighborhood level. The main activity of this group is attending weekly meetings and reciting the yasin epistle in the Koran. This group does not perform religious activities only; it also acts as a social medium or meeting point for male or female villagers to discuss issues and developments that are considered important for the community. In Blitar and Trenggalek Regencies, yasinan activity is usually conducted every Thursday evening for males and on other days for females.

13) Interview conducted on September 18, 2012.

14) Interview conducted on July 5, 2012.

15) This assumption is based on fieldwork in Kerjo village. The incumbent has a close connection with the neighborhood and has disbursed many development benefits, particularly the construction of roads and ponds for farming, the disbursement of a micro revolving fund program (simpan pinjam), and seed distribution to farmers groups.

16) See footnote 12 for an explanation of yasinan.

17) In East Java, yasinan is an identical religious expression of Nahdlatul Ulama (NU) followers (Shelia 2012, 4; Lukman 2014, 38). Therefore, yasinan can tell us about the presence of NU tradition in expressing Islam in three villages. Moreover, the existence of NU is very visible via the presence of NU branches (pengurus ranting) in Tempur and Kerjo villages. In Tempur, Ansor (Gerakan Pemuda Ansor, Ansor Youth Movement), a youth wing of NU, also exists. In Laksono village in Trenggalek, two schools under Maarif NU’s supervision—a madrasah ibtidaiah (elementary school) and raudlatul athfal (kindergarten)—have served the village for the last two decades.

18) Interview conducted on July 4, 2012.

19) Interview conducted on September 18, 2012.

20) Interview conducted on July 5, 2012.

21) Interview conducted on September 18, 2012.

22) Of the 157 villages in Trenggalek, 75 percent are categorized as forest villages with the total number of members (LMDH) amounting to approximately 104,000, both youths and adults ( Libatkan_LMDH_untuk_optimalkan_potensi_ekonomi_hutan.html, accessed December 10, 2013;, accessed December 10, 2013).

23) Interview conducted on September 18, 2012. The interviewee lives in Laksono, where he was the former village head.

24) Interview conducted with a chairman of the LMDH forum at the district level on September 18, 2012. See also the inauguration news in, accessed November 27, 2013.

25) Interviews with a local journalist on September 21, 2012; a local activist affiliated with the winning challenger on September 21, 2012; a local academic as well as a lawyer on September 19, 2012; a young party activist affiliated to the winning challenger on September 17, 2012.

26) Interview conducted on July 5, 2012.

27) Interview with a leader of a farmers group in the village on July 5, 2012.

28) Interview conducted on July 5, 2012.

29) Interview conducted on July 5, 2012.

30) The word “patronage” in this article has two meanings: defender and protector (from the Latin word patronus). Political patronage means “distributing favors to the supporters in return for votes” (McMillan, in McLean 2003, 400).


Vol. 5, No. 1, MIICHI

Contents>> Vol. 5, No. 1

Looking at Links and Nodes: How Jihadists in Indonesia Survived

Miichi Ken*

* 見市 建, Faculty of Policy Studies, Iwate Prefectural University, 152-51 Sugo, Takizawa City, Iwate 020-0693, Japan

e-mail: miichi[at]

The major militant Islamist network in Indonesia, comprising the Jemaah Islamiyah (JI) and its associated groups, was believed to have been responsible for dozens of violent incidents after 2000, including the Bali bombings of 2002 and 2005. Generally JI sympathized with al-Qaeda’s ideology, openly supported al-Qaeda and other militant ideologues by translating and publishing their work in Indonesia, and sent hundreds of fighters (mujahidin) to Afghanistan for training. The Indonesian militant Islamist groups were not foreign controlled, but they shared some features with a broader militant Islamist network. This essay takes as its point of departure Albert-Laszlo Barabasi’s characterization of al-Qaeda as a matrix of self-organized networks, not a military organization with structured divisions. In Barabasi’s theorization of networks, al-Qaeda appears as a “scale-free network” of a limited number of persons who had accumulated many nodes in a scattered and self-sustaining web. Hence, JI was loosely organized and yet hierarchical, composed of small cells held together by personal loyalties, family, school, and other friendly connections. Faced with intensifying police assaults, militant Islamists increasingly fell back on their networks. Using published reports and the author’s own interviews with relevant individuals, this essay traces the links and nodes of the militant Islamic networks in Indonesia and examines why and how jihadists in Indonesia tenaciously sustained their violent activities.

Keywords: Indonesia, Jemaah Islamiyah (JI), Islamist, jihadist networks, Islamic State (IS)


It has been more than a decade since the Bali bombings of 2002, which increased international awareness of militant Islamists, more commonly called jihadists by Western media and security experts, in Indonesia.1) Jihadists in Indonesia, represented by an organization called Jemaah Islamiyah (JI), carried out a series of attacks on Western targets such as US-owned hotels and tourist sites over the next few years. Indonesia became the “second front” in the War on Terrorism. Indonesian security authorities arrested or shot down most of the key jihadists and a few hundred other perpetrators and accomplices. JI and related groups became more and more dispersed, and the structures of their organizations dissolved. However, jihadists have survived in different forms with smaller groups and continued their “war on the enemy of Islam.” Furthermore, the recent war in Syria and proclamation of the so-called Islamic State (IS) seem to have revitalized their international connections and activities. This paper examines why and how jihadists in Indonesia tenaciously sustained their violent activities.

To examine this, I shed light on JI and related groups in Indonesia by preliminarily applying network theories, mostly those proposed and summarized by Barabasi. There are detailed reports published by Sidney Jones on current militant Islamists,2) and the historical background and chronological paths have been revealed by ex-activists and Indonesian experts (Abas 2005; Huda Ismail 2007; 2010; Solahudin 2011; 2013; Wildan 2013). There are hundreds of published and unpublished books, booklets, papers, and videos in which militant activists translate and share their ideology for their fellow activists. Using these materials as well as my interviews and discussions with activists, insiders, and experts, this paper tries to extract certain significant aspects of Indonesian jihadists by focusing on the links and nodes in such networks.3) The significance of this paper is that it reorganizes existing reports and materials with theoretical and comparative views by applying network theories. Through focusing on several key actors or “nodes,” this paper especially emphasizes the changing characteristics of the jihadist network in Indonesia, which could not be fully captured by existing studies. JI is an organization with a loosely organized but hierarchical structure that is divided into regional cells. Its members are recruited through families, schools, friends, or other connections.

As organizations weaken because of arrests and police assaults, jihadists modify themselves and rely more and more on new types of horizontal networks. Most recent violent attacks have been carried out by infamous, small splinter groups. It is not very meaningful to analyze each group or organization separately in this regard, and thus network analysis is useful.

The following sections will first provide the key concepts of network theories. They will then draw on the changing structure of jihadist organizations in Indonesia by briefly describing family and school ties and their international expansions and limitations. The network surrounding the Malaysian jihadist Noordin M. Top and the changes after his death will then be explained, by highlighting three figures. Before concluding, some implications of emerging Internet networks will be discussed.

I Theological Background

Network theories assume that networks are present everywhere. They can be applied to understand issues ranging from how Christianity spread beyond Judaism to the vulnerability of the Internet and the spread of deadly viruses (Barabasi 2003, 7). Some key concepts and theories on networks give us suggestions to analyze social and political phenomena. This paper highlights several ideas for a deeper understanding of Indonesian jihadist networks.

In his influential book Linked (2003), Barabasi describes al-Qaeda as a military organization not with divisions but with self-organized networks. It was populated over the course of several years by thousands of individuals who were drawn to its radicalism by religious beliefs and impatience with the existing social and political order. It is a typical scale-free network in which a limited number of persons have many nodes, accumulated over the course of years, yielding a scattered and self-sustaining web (ibid., 222–223). This model can be applied to the current condition of Indonesian jihadist networks, with some reservations.

Mark Granovetter’s classical “weak-ties” theory also contributes to an understanding of jihadist networks in Indonesia. The weak-ties theory proposes something that sounds preposterous at first. A natural a priori idea is that those with whom one has strong ties, such as cherished friends, are more motivated to help with job information. In contrast to this, those to whom we are weakly tied are more likely to move in circles different from our own and will thus have access to different information than what we receive (Granovetter 1973, 1371). Weak ties (shown as thin lines in Fig. 1) between small clusters “play an important role in any number of social activities.” This weak-ties model describes how militant Islamic activities have been conducted through links to other, mostly local, groups and networks.



Fig. 1 Strong and Weak Ties

Source: Barabasi (2003, 43)


An analysis of Indonesian militants reveals at the same time a weakness of network analysis. This paper suggests what we can and cannot find through network theory and how to overcome the theory’s weaknesses.

II From Hierarchical Organizations to Horizontal Networks

JI originated in the Darul Islam (DI) movement, which aimed to establish an Indonesian Islamic State (Negara Islam Indonesia, NII)4) with armed uprisings during the 1950s. The uprisings were suppressed by the government. DI/NII subsequently went underground, where it divided into small factions. The founder of JI, Abdullah Sungkar (1937–99), was a leading figure of a DI faction and left it to his followers. Sungkar and Abu Bakar Ba’asyir (b. 1938), his longtime associate, also belonged to the Masyumi party, one of the four major parties participating in the 1955 election, as well as related organizations such as DDII (Dewan Dakwah Islamiyah Indonesia, Indonesian Islamic Propagation Council). During the early 1970s, Sungkar and Ba’asyir, along with other preachers, established the Islamic boarding school Pesantren al-Mukmin, known as Pondok Ngruki, in the village of Ngruki near the city of Solo in Central Java. Sungkar and Ba’asyir were very critical of Suharto’s authoritarian regime, which intervened in Islamic movements and enforced a basically secular nationalism, and they were charged under the law governing subversive activities.

Sungkar and Ba’asyir managed to escape to Malaysia in 1985 and settled in Johor, where they opened the Lukmanul Hakiem school and organized mujahidin (jihad fighters) to be sent to Afghanistan in the late 1980s in order to undergo military training. Influenced by Salafi (Wahhabi) scripturalism, Sungkar was said to be critical of inauthentic customs practiced by Masduki, a DI factional leader. In 1993 Sungkar formed his own group named Jemaah Islamiyah, which means simply “Islamic community” (see Solahudin 2011, 197–224). His political ideology sharpened at the time, from domestic political opposition to global jihad revolution.

Al Qaeda is so scattered and self-sustaining that even the elimination of Osama bin Laden and his closest deputies might not eradicate the threat they created. It is a web without a true spider. (Barabasi 2003, 223)

The organizational structure of Indonesian jihadist groups changed over time and became closer to Barabasi’s al-Qaeda model, though it was more hierarchical in the beginning. In the early years of the twenty-first century, JI was often described as having a central committee and regional branches (see Fig. 2). JI had four regional divisions, called mantiqi, which covered the area from the Philippines to Australia. Each of these divisions had a top-down command structure. There were four phases of systematic cadre training: public lectures (tabligh), religion courses with small numbers of students (taklim), a closed religious study session (tamrin), and an advanced stage (tamhish) (Abas 2005, 99–100). When a central or regional leader was captured and unable to maintain his leadership, he was quickly replaced. After Abdullah Sunkar, the leader (amir) of JI, died in 1999, the co-founder, Abu Bakar Ba’asyir, adopted the position of amir. Several members replaced Ba’asyir after he was captured. Ba’asyir never returned as the amir of JI even after he was released, although he remains an important node.5) Instead, he established JAT (Jamaah Ansharut Tauhid) and became its amir in 2008. His religious authority and thus legal judgment (fatwa) are recognized even among non-JI and non-JAT members.6) Nevertheless, the JI and JAT networks can survive without him. As I will describe later, the organizational structure dissolved and came to resemble self-organized webs. Though the earlier form of the organization was very different from the current form, it also can be argued that JI was designed flexibly from the beginning. Membership in JI is based on a loyalty oath (bai’at) pledged to the leader. During the 1990s, many members pledged their loyalty to Abdurrahim Thoyib, alias Abu Husna, who acted in a leadership position while Sungkar was away from Indonesia.7) When JAT was established, members made another oath to Ba’asyir. According to former DI and JI members, a loyalty oath represents a lifetime commitment but does not necessarily entail continuing activity within the organization. Loyalty to the organization is less important than personal relationships, and JI can be described as an organization made up of personal networks.


Fig. 2 Organizational Structure of Jemaah Islamiyah, as Described by Singaporean Authorities in 2003

Source: Singapore, Ministry of Home Affairs (2003, 10)


It should be noted that al-Qaeda itself transformed significantly, especially after the 9/11 attacks in 2001 (see Sageman 2008). It is known that Abu Mus’ab al-Suri, al-Qaeda’s leading strategist, wrote Call to Global Islamic Resistance with the aim of transforming al-Qaeda from a “vulnerable hierarchical organization into a resilient decentralized movement.” He encouraged individuals to play a role without being part of an organization. Though his 1,604-page book predated 9/11, his idea was largely adopted after the collapse of the Taliban (Cruickshank and Ali 2007). Indonesian jihadists, probably intentionally from the beginning, followed al-Qaeda’s path.8)

III Expanding Family and School Ties

Family and school ties characterize JI’s internal network. Initially, most of the mujahidin sent to Afghanistan were recruited from DI families. There were, at the same time, members from non-DI families who were recommended from among Sungkar’s close associates (Solahudin 2011, 204–205). Furthermore, Pondok Ngruki had survived during Sungkar’s absence, and underground members of JI constantly recruited from among the organization’s students and alumni. Because these students were not limited to members of DI families, JI’s network expanded. Yet kinship consisted of important links in order to expand and maintain networks and a sense of community.9) The 2002 Bali bombings were planned and executed by three brothers—Mukhlas, Amrozi, and Ali Imron—who taught at the Ngruki-related Al Islam school in Lomongan, East Java. Mukhlas married a Malaysian who was a sister of Nasir Abas, a leader of Mantiqi (Region) III. There are ample examples like this.

There are also examples of solidarity and mutual help among widows and orphans of mujahidin who were killed by the authorities. The wife of Dulmatin, a key figure in the 2002 Bali bombings, lived and worked at an Islamic school complex on the outskirts of Solo, where the widow of Imam Samudra, a Bali bomber executed in 2008, and the widow of Urwah, an associate of the aforementioned Noordin, also lived.10) There are foundations for families of late mujahidin, such as the Infaq Dakwah Center and Yayasan Rumput, which were established by the jihadist media outlets and Abdurrachim Ba’asyir, a son of Abu Bakar Ba’asyir, organizes

Most JI members were recruited from Ngruki or related schools. Militant doctrines were taught at individual study groups led by teachers or senior students. Kinship and school nodes were correlated and overlapping (see Huda Ismail 2007). Several related schools were established by DI families, and some were established by alumni of Ngruki in the absence of such family ties. Ngruki requires students to intern during their final year by teaching at another school. Thus, students spread to a plethora of schools and add to the links, enabling jihadists to expand and maintain their networks. Most Ngruki graduates do not join the organization but can be cooperative when they are asked for the use of such assets as their houses or motorcycles. As will be explained later, Ngruki-related schools became more important as time passed.

IV International and Inter-organizational Networks

Existing domestic and international injustice systems also created a rich context for the recruitment of Indonesian jihadists. Soon after the political transition as a result of President Suharto’s resignation, JI became involved in regional conflicts with the Christian inhabitants of the Maluku Islands and Poso, Central Sulawesi. In these conflicts, the victimization of Muslims was emphasized, and their Christian counterparts were believed to be obtaining financial and material support from transnational Christian movements. JI members worked in these areas with activists from other organizations such as KOMPAK (Komite Aksi Penanggulangan Akibat Krisis, Action Committee for Crisis Management), a charitable body of DDII.11)

JI extended its networks to include neighboring countries such as the Philippines and Singapore in addition to Malaysia, where Sungkar and his followers had once been based.12) On the other hand, JI failed to coordinate with militants in southern Thailand; there are indications that JI had links in Thailand but never succeeded in establishing meaningful relationships in this area. Southern Thailand conflicts were regional and autonomous in nature, and militants were less drawn to the global jihad.13) In the Philippines, JI initially developed connections to probably a few small factions of the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) and later established links to the Abu Sayyaf Group. JI moved a training camp to Mindanao, an area under the control of the MILF, after political conditions in Afghanistan became unfavorable. JI members traveled between Indonesia and the Philippines to exchange arms and fighting skills. DI and KOMPAK also established contacts and connections with each other in Mindanao. JI cadres Dulmatin and Umar Patek fled to Mindanao in 2003 after participating in the 2002 Bali bombings. As the MILF entered peace negotiations with the Philippine government, JI withdrew its training camp and Dulmatin and Umar Patek subsequently joined the Abu Sayyaf Group. Dulmatin, believed to have returned to Indonesia in 2007, dramatically reappeared and was shot down by police in 2010. Umar Patek was arrested in Abbottabad, Pakistan, in April 2011. He was arrested where Usama bin Laden was killed a few weeks later. Though we don’t know how closely they were connected, JI and its extended networks have maintained links to global jihadist networks represented by al-Qaeda. These links reappeared during the recent Syrian war. JI, JAT, and other smaller groups sent “humanitarian missions” and mujahidin to Syria (see IPAC 2014b). It appears that there were several hundred Indonesians fighting there by the beginning of 2015. At the same time, JI’s failure in Thailand and limited success in the Philippines reminds us that links cannot explain everything. Ideological differences between groups that reflect local contexts are important factors to explain the limitations of JI’s expansion. As discussed later, the Syrian war and the establishment of IS brought about serious divisions among jihadists in Indonesia based on ideological and strategic differences.

JI has also established links to outside groups that do not necessarily share these familial or school connections, as we have seen in the Poso conflict and Mindanao. JI has temporarily cooperated with outsiders for practical purposes. Organizational affiliation and exclusiveness are not necessarily strict, particularly in areas of conflict, where organizational overlap is not unusual. Such overlap has been strengthened as a function of the passage of time. Because JI and its successor JAT, as organizations, are not currently seeking violent solutions, dissatisfied militant members have extended their cooperative efforts beyond the boundaries of these organizations. Jihadists call each other ikhwan (brother) regardless of organizational affiliation. Indeed, the first internationally recognized 2002 Bali bombing itself was the result of an individual decision made by JI’s militant faction, not the official or collective decision of the organization.14) The 2003 Marriott hotel bombing in Jakarta was similarly executed by a small group led by the Malaysian Noordin, with some help from individual JI members. Annual bombings against Western targets continued until 2005, and the second Marriott and Ritz-Carlton hotel bombings in Jakarta in 2009 were carried out by Noordin’s group cooperating with outside groups (ICG 2006; 2009a). After the dissolution of Noordin’s group, jihadist militants were further fragmented yet managed to survive by changing to more and more horizontal networks. These paths coincided with the above-mentioned strategies of al-Qaeda proposed by Abu Mus’ab al-Suri.

Besides school and family ties, links and a sense of community among small groups and networks were created during combat experiences primarily in Afghanistan and later in Maluku and Poso. As conflicts in Maluku and Poso almost ceased, Indonesian jihadists have kept base in the former conflict area and held temporary training camps in order to maintain networks, combat experience, and technique.15) In addition, the continual crackdowns after the Bali bombings made prison an important place for adding links, as I will describe later in the case of Urwah and Aman Abdurrahman.

V Noordin’s Network and Thereafter

For about six years, the Malaysian national Noordin M. Top dominated the terrorism scene in Indonesia. He led bombing attacks against Western targets or the “far enemy,” meaning the United States and its allies, in Indonesia with a clear awareness of fighting a global jihad.16) Yet he was “by all accounts . . . not a particularly impressive figure.” He could not speak Arabic, and his religious knowledge was limited. Nor was he was a skilled orator. However, he had a knack for surrounding himself with devoted followers who possessed skills that he did not, and his ability to elude police for so long enhanced his stature (ICG 2006, 1). In this section, I will highlight three figures—namely, Asmar Latin Sani, Urwah, and Aman Abdurrahman—in order to elucidate the nature of jihadist networks in Indonesia. The three all played important roles yet linked the networks very differently. Asmar and Urwah were closely associated with Noordin, whom Aman was critical of. Aman became increasingly important after the death of Noordin, and he began to create a new kind of network.

Asmar Latin Sani, the 2003 Marriott hotel suicide bomber, had connections to important nodes but was apparently of less personal importance to the network. He attended Pondok Ngruki and was one of hundreds of students who left the school with Abdurrahim Thoyib in 1995 as a result of an internal conflict. The school foundation issued a regulation to limit extracurricular study groups, the so-called harakah, which brought about a fierce dispute and serious split within the Pondok Ngruki (Wildan 2013, 200–201). Asmar, along with tens of students, subsequently moved to the Darusy Syahadah school in Boyolali, on the outskirts of Solo in Central Java. The Darusy Syahadah is one of the most important JI-related schools, and it may actually be more important than the Ngruki school. Some of those who were involved in violent operations either graduated from Ngruki before 1995 or left in 1995. Several key operatives teach or study at the Darusy Syahadah. Asmar somehow became a member of Laskar Khos (the network’s special forces), led by Noordin. Noordin belonged to JI but coordinated suicide bomb attacks against Western targets without approval from the JI central command. In preparation for the Marriott bombing, Noordin and associates moved to Bengkulu, Sumatra, where Asmar was from. Asmar and other JI members in Sumatra helped Noordin arrange for money and explosives. Asmar was chosen as the suicide bomber who detonated the car bomb in August 2003. A few years after Asmar’s death, Gungun, his former schoolmate in Boyolali, married Asmar’s sister. Gungun was a younger brother of Hambali, known for his strong links to al-Qaeda and the only Southeast Asian detainee at Guantanamo, the United States’ controversial prison camp in Cuba. Gungun was known also for belonging to a Pakistani cell that was led by Abdurrachim Ba’asyir. Asmar was closely linked to very important nodes, but his loss seemed not to damage the network at all. Asmar’s case seems similar to what Barabasi describes as the situation of Mohamed Atta, the purported mastermind of the 9/11 attacks:

Despite his central role, taking out Atta would not have crippled the cell. The rest of the hubs would have kept the web together, possibly carrying out the attack without his help. (Barabasi 2003, 223)

After the first Marriott bombing, Noordin distanced himself from JI and relied more on inter-organizational networks. Urwah, alias Bagus Budi Pranoto, was a key figure in modifying networks by linking Noordin to others. His case typically describes how recent jihadist networks form, are maintained, or collapse.17) Urwah went to Pesantren Al-Muttaqien, a Ngruki-related school in Jepara, on the northern coast of Java, and proceeded to the Ma‘had ‘Ali An-Nur college in 2000. The An-Nur college was founded by teachers who had left Ngruki in 1995. He chose the college because he had not been accepted by the Institute of Arabic and Islamic Sciences, a Saudi government-sponsored college in Jakarta. He had educational links to the jihadist network from the beginning, but his choice of An-Nur made a difference. He added links during his involvement in conflicts in Maluku and Poso, where he spent a few months each, probably as a JI member. It was Urwah who connected Noordin to important links outside JI, such as Iwan Darmawan, alias Rois, a head of DI’s Banten battalion (See ICG 2006). Urwah was arrested in July 2004, before Noordin carried out the Jakarta Australian embassy bombing in September with help from Iwan and other local JI networks.

By his own account, Urwah was further radicalized in jail, where he spent around three years. In prison, he married a woman introduced to him by Abu Bakar Ba’asyir. The families of Urwah and his wife were not involved with DI. Urwah did not participate in the activities of JI or JAT after being released, but he taught at a local mosque and headed a small group probably consisting of around a dozen members. He openly emphasized the need for “terror attacks” in order to fight back against Western, mostly US, aggression against Muslims around the world, which was contrary to mainstream jihadist groups’ increasing tendency to give priority to the “near enemy,” or their own Muslim regime, which hampered the activities of jihadists and contributed to US aggression. Abu Bakar Ba’asyir even tried to persuade Indonesian political elites to repent for their “sins” before fighting against them.18) Although Urwah maintained contacts with the leadership of JAT and other existing groups, he often irritated those who refrained from bombing attacks and the publication of Maqdisi’s criticism of global jihad that will be mentioned later. Urwah also said during my interview that he wanted to be a martyr soon. For the 2009 hotel bombing operation in Jakarta, Noordin asked for Urwah’s help, and Urwah provided his man, Air Setiawan, to assist. Urwah was not directly involved in the bombing operation. He remained at his house in Solo as usual until Air Setiawan was shot to death, and then he realized he would be hunted too.19) He was finally killed by a police squad along with Noordin on September 17, 2009.

It should be noted that organizations have become more fragmented and less important. Networks around Urwah have remained active, but unlike the aforementioned Asmar, Urwah was a capable and important hub. He was like a local bridge, as explained by Granovetter:

As with bridges in a highway system, a local bridge in a social network will be more significant as a connection between two sectors to the extent that it is the only alternative for many people––that is, as its degree increases. (Granovetter 1973, 1365)

After Urwah’s death, his followers dispersed. Some of them joined a group called Hisbah led by Sigit Qardowi. Hisbah carried out minor attacks on small restaurants and bars serving alcohol, more commonly known as “sweeping.” Then after Sigit was shot to death by police in May 2011, some of the group members carried out suicide attacks on a police mosque and a Christian church, which invited further arrests and damage to the network. Some Hisbah members fled to join IS in Syria.

Aman Abdurrahman became one of the most important persons among the jihadists in Indonesia after Noordin passed away. An independent jihadist who was never fully affiliated with major organizations such as DI or JI, Aman linked others with weak ties. He was followed by only around 10-odd people who attended his study group on the outskirts of Jakarta at least until 2004. At the same time, however, he was well known among militants and translated many books published by JI-related publishers. His translations include writings of the Jordanian scholar Abu Muhammad al-Maqdisi, who was the mentor of Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, the leader of al-Qaeda in Iraq. Maqdisi broke with Zarqawi around 2004 and criticized his strategy of massive suicide bombings in Iraq. He believed that the primary targets of jihad should be Muslim regimes or the “near enemy.”20) Because Noordin admired Zarqawi, Aman’s translation was considered to represent criticism of Noordin (see ICG 2010). Aman emphasized that Muslims must fight against the immediate or “near” enemy, the Indonesian government. He believed governments that did not apply Islamic law and oppressed the Islamic movement were kafir (infidel) and thaghut (kafir rulers, literary false gods).21) A thaghut is an enemy of Islam who impedes the implementation of Islamic law and leads Muslim masses to the “darkness of jahiliyya” (pre-Islamic ignorance).

Having no training or experience in Afghanistan or Mindanao, Aman was taught bombing skills by Harun, a JI member. He was arrested in March 2004 after accidentally setting off a bomb (see ICG 2004). In prison, Aman became popular among those who came from the periphery of militant movements such as East Kalimantan and did not have a leader or mentor. He added links from among the detainees. He was released in 2008 and briefly participated in the newly established JAT because his followers had supported this group while he was in jail. However, “his idea on takfir [declaring another Muslim as kafir] was not suitable to JAT.” Aman was too exclusive and strict to accept other Muslims as “true Muslims,” and he often condemned others as kafir.22) What is important here is that Aman’s ties to DI, JI, and JAT were weak, but he definitely had links to other militant groups with many nodes. His personal strength was religious knowledge and a fearless attitude that legitimized attacks. His legal judgment and his recorded speeches were released through Web sites. Eventually his statements became as influential as Abu Bakar Ba’asyir’s.

In early 2010, Aman emerged as a key person in mediating intra- and inter-organizational disputes through a program known as lintas tanzim, which was organized by Dulmatin—who had returned from the Philippines—and his friends to activate a new jihad based on a longer-term perspective than that underpinning Noordin’s desperate bombing operations. However, this effort was soon detected by the police and resulted in raids around Aceh and Jakarta. Aman was arrested, and Dulmatin was shot to death in March 2010 (see ICG 2010). This was not the end of Aman, however. His influence again increased in jail. This time it was not through adding personal links; his ideas on legitimate fighting against the government brought about the creation of self-organized networks outside. His fierce sermons in prison were broadcast to other detainees, even in different prisons, through smuggled mobile phones.23) Several small groups, such as the Abu Omar group and Mujahidin Indonesia Barat (West Indonesian Mujahidin), launched sporadic attacks against police based on Aman’s thaghut concept. Some of these members were affiliated with JAT or JI, but their continual attacks against police were apparently without order or permission from organizations. Moreover, those who sympathized with Aman formed new groups named Jamaah Aman Abdurrahman (Aman Abdurrahman Community) and Tauhid Wal Jihad (Oneness of God and jihad) in several cities without command from Aman or obvious coordination among them. Jihadist networks in Indonesia evolved to become scattered and self-sustaining webs.

Responding to the proclamation of IS in June 2014, Aman urged jihadists in Indonesia to take a loyalty oath to IS and its caliph, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi. Abu Bakar Ba’asyir followed and ordered JAT members to make a pledge. However, ideological and strategic differences between IS and the al-Qaeda/al-Nusra Front overshadowed Indonesian jihadists. IS attempted to subordinate the local al-Qaeda branch al-Nusra, but al-Nusra rejected IS. Ayman al-Zawahiri, al-Qaeda’s chief, tried to calm the dispute, but IS refused to accept Zawahiri’s mediation (Mendelsohn 2014). Although started as part of al-Qaeda, IS seeks territorial rule based in Iraq and Syria, which is different from al-Qaeda’s global jihad. Ba’asyir’s son Abdurrachim did not agree with IS and instead founded Jema’ah Ansharusy Syari’ah. Remnants of JI and Majelis Mujahidin, which Abu Bakar Ba’asyir formerly led, also did not agree with IS and supported rival al-Nusra. They cast doubt on IS’s religious credentials as the caliphate and criticized its harsh implementation of criminal law and takfir tendency.

VI Growing Internet Networks and Their Limitations

Jihadists in Indonesia have used the Internet, e-mail, and mobile phones for communication, but until the early years of the twenty-first century print media were much more important for disseminating ideology in the domestic market. Several JI-related printing companies published hundreds of translations of the writings of major Arabic militant ideologues by downloading the original materials from the Internet and translating them into Indonesian. Due to the absence of publication licenses and internal security acts in Indonesia, these companies could publish radical and militant ideology almost freely. They also downloaded and edited videos and sold them as VCDs (see ICG 2008b).

However, the Internet has grown rapidly and been replacing print media. Aman Abdurrahman had published only one thin booklet by 2008, but dozens of his lectures can be read and downloaded on a blog. Even after he was arrested, he made statements through jihadist Web sites. His blog somehow has continued to update his lectures.24) Jihadist Web sites cover the latest international news related to the struggles of Muslims and condemn US military aggression. They refer to subordinated Muslim regimes as boneka (“puppet” in Indonesian), kafir, munafik, and thaghut. Some of these sites are run by individuals who simultaneously operate publishing companies. YouTube has replaced VCDs for disseminating visual content. TV news and interviews of figures such as Abu Bakar Ba’asyir and the late Imam Samudra, one of the masterminds of the 2002 Bali bombings, began to be posted several years ago after involved individuals learned how the Internet worked and how to utilize its scale-free network. When Imam Samudra and two others were executed in January 2009, a video of their burial ceremony was quickly uploaded to YouTube. In 2010, facing police raids, “al-Qaeda of Aceh” posted a video statement. Santoso, who claims to lead Mujahidin Indonesia Timor (East Indonesian Mujahidin), delivered statements urging a fight with the thaghut Indonesian government and its security authorities. More recently, several recruiting videos for IS were released in Indonesian in addition to “official” videos quickly shared and transmitted. Jihadist Web sites propagate these militant messages by reporting them as news.

The emergence of Facebook and other social network services clearly illustrates the characteristics of scale-free networks. Each member of Facebook has an individual page and links with “friends.” The network service offers members the ability to display and update their profiles, send messages, join groups, play games, and so on. Abdurrachim Ba’asyir had more than 3,000 “friends.” Moreover,, the most popular jihadist Web site in Indonesia, has more than 200,000 “fans” who subscribe to daily updates.25) That is more than most major news sites in Indonesia.26) Friends and fans are encouraged to visit jihadist Web sites and view the YouTube videos mentioned above.

Networking on the Internet has its limitations and risks, especially for those who want to hide their activities. Exposing personal networks through social networks can be a risk rather than an advantage. Probably concerned by this, Abdurrachim Ba’asyir had closed his Facebook page by March 2011. Facebook management shut down the page for in January 2014. The Indonesian authorities arrested M. Fachry, editor-in-chief of the pro-IS, and blocked the Web site at the end of March 2015. Internet media also reveals the split and rivalry among jihadists. M. Fachry used to work for but left it due to differences over jihad strategy., which supports al-Nusra, has repeatedly criticized Aman Abdurrahman (see Al-Majdi 2012; Ali Akram 2015). Accordingly, pro-IS Web sites fought back.

Though acknowledging the risks, jihadists in Indonesia still—or even more often—use social network services for propaganda, internal communication, and discussions. The perpetrators of the Myanmar embassy bombing in Jakarta in May 2013 plotted the attack on Facebook. They were motivated by reading posts by Rohingya Muslims in Myanmar, met and talked with other extremists on Facebook, and learned bomb-making on other Internet sites.27) Indonesians who joined IS in Syria have been in contact with their friends and families at home and share their experiences via Facebook, and WhatsApp, more recently. Yet, as IS realized, the leaking of information through social network sites such as Facebook posts from Syria became less frequent by early 2015.28) Overall, scale-free networks of the Internet have contributed greatly to jihadist activities in Indonesia rather than limited them. It should be noted, however, that communication and networks in the real world have been much more important. Lone wolves are still exceptional; the great majority of perpetrators have familial, educational, organizational, or friendly links. The Internet is not enough to create a sense of community among jihadists in Indonesia.


This examination of the links and nodes of militant Islamists in Indonesia has demonstrated how militant Islamists expanded and maintained networks, adapted to difficult organizational situations, and survived by switching to new kinds of networks. Links are created through family, education, ideology, and organization. Shared experiences in conflict areas, training camps, and jails are vital. As their organizations were damaged by arrests and police assaults, militant Islamists relied more on informal and inter-organizational networks. Incidents over the past few years, mostly attacks on police, were conducted by small splinter groups. Though militant Islamists in Indonesia have links to JI, JAT, or DI and share a sense of community as jihadists and ideas on changing strategies and targets, there are no hierarchical relations. Their changing forms of networks can explain the persistence and resilience of jihadist networks in Indonesia.

Theoretical and quantitative network analyses have several weaknesses. They cannot explain how Indonesian jihadists developed or changed from hierarchical organizations to vertical networks. They also largely ignore personal strength and ideological differences. JI’s inability to expand to southern Thailand cannot be explained through theoretical and quantitative analyses, and the significance of Aman Abdurrahman cannot be fully described by his weak ties. Muslim leaders of important nodes with many links must also have attributes such as outstanding communication skills and strong academic and ideological backgrounds. Scale-free networks of the Internet contributed to spreading militant ideology and enhancing communication among militants, but they did not greatly increase recruitment in Indonesia. Nevertheless, network analysis can be a useful and sufficiently empirical tool if we remain cognizant of its weaknesses.

Accepted: January 21, 2016


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1) Islamism and jihadism are political discourses similar to other political discourses such as socialism and liberalism. Islamism attempts to reestablish Islamic civilization and to center Islam within the political order. It may involve an ideological struggle carried out by a diffuse strategy of “moral and intellectual reform” (Sayyid 1997; Miichi 2006). Jihadists are those who have given highest priority to armed struggle interpreted as jihad fi sabilillah, or “war in the cause of Allah.” It should be noted that the usage and employment of the word “jihad” depends on identity. In the general Muslim context, all efforts to propagate Islam are jihad; in the eyes of jihadists, the word has come to signify a holy war against all infidels whom they stigmatize as such (Kepel 2004).

2) Her reports appeared on the Web site of the International Crisis Group (ICG). She founded the Institute for Policy Analysis of Conflict (IPAC) in 2013 and has provided updates on jihadists in Indonesia.

3) I would like to thank Taufik Andre, Nur Huda Islamil, the late Urwah alias Bagus Budi Pranoto, and many other anonymous informants.

4) According to the classic understanding of Islamic theology, this world is divided into dar al-Islam (house of Islam) and dar al-harb (house of war). The Darul Islam (or Dar al-Islam) movement in Indonesia intends to establish Islamic political authority within Indonesian territory and includes the name Negara Islam Indonesia; the name of this group is thus abbreviated as DI/NII.

5) Ba’asyir established the Council of Mujahedeen for Islamic Law Enforcement (MMI, Majalis Mujahidin Indonesia) in 1999 and became its amir. MMI is a “legal” organization that aims at enforcing Islamic law in an Indonesian framework. Some JI members who remained underground and did not accept the Indonesian government did not join MMI. Ba’asyir established Jamaah Ansharut Tauhid in 2008 and separated from MMI. After he was arrested again in 2010, he was replaced as amir by M. Akhwan.

6) Ba’asyir’s statements during his trials were often reported as fatwa by jihadist media. Ba’asyir has also issued open letters from time to time. See, for instance, “Fatwa Ustadz Abu: Kapolri, Jaksa Agung, dan Ketua Mahkamah Agung Murtad!”, March 1, 2011, accessed March 28, 2011; and “Inilah Surat Ustadz Ba’asyir dengan 3 Bahasa untuk Presiden Myanmar,”, August 1, 2012, accessed March 31, 2015.

7) Abdurrahim Thoyib was captured in Malaysia and deported to Indonesia in 2008.

8) Abu Mus’ab al-Suri’s book was first published in Indonesian in 2009 by a JI/JAT-related publisher, Jazera, yet some of the activists must have read it much earlier as it was available on the Internet as early as 2004.

9) For how a sense of how community enhances cooperation, see Benkler (2011).

10) “Pindah ke Sukoharjo, Istri Dulmatin Bertetangga dengan Istri Imam Samudra,”, March 10, 2010, accessed March 31, 2015.

11) JI needed KOMPAK in order to access funds that were donated by the public, given that JI was not a well-established or trusted organization (Solahudin 2011, 252–256). See Van Klinken (2007) for comparative studies of regional conflicts in Indonesia after 1998, and McRae (2013) for the Poso conflict, especially how mujahidin related to local militias.

12) DI has had small cells in Sabah, Malaysia, since the 1980s; these should be credited for transactions between the southern Philippines and Indonesia. JI itself has also maintained a support base in Sabah since the mid-1990s (see ICG 2007, 13).

13) JI’s former regional chief (the head of Mantiqi I) Hambali was caught in Ayutthaya, Thailand, in August 2003. He attended a meeting with al-Qaeda in Malaysia in 2000. He was the only Southeast Asian detainee in the Guantanamo Bay prison. Terrorism experts such as Rohan Gunaratne and Zachary Abuza have repeatedly warned of the existence of JI members in southern Thailand, but no strong evidence to prove this has been forthcoming. For characteristics of conflicts in southern Thailand, see McCargo (2008) and ICG (2005).

14) There have been internal discussions on the concept of an individual jihad (jihad fardiyah) against the United States. It is commonly understood that collective jihad for defense from the enemy is obligatory for all Muslims. Those who promote an individual jihad consider that jihad against the United States does not require the permission of their organization because the country has aggressively invaded Muslim lands (see Solahudin 2013, 196). The concept of an individual jihad leads to individuals attacking their own government (near enemy), which hinders the activities of jihadists and contributes to US aggression.

15) Mujahidin Indonesia Timor (East Indonesian Mujahidin), led by Santoso, has been active in Poso and sporadically attacks local police. Other small splinter groups such as Mujahidin Indonesia Barat (West Indonesian Mujahidin) claim to support Mujahidin Indonesia Timor.

16) This was based on a theory stating that Muslim regimes would never fall as long as their Western backers kept up their support. This led some jihadists to direct their attention to those backers instead of their own regimes. See Gerges (2009) for the origin of the distinction between the near enemy and the far enemy and how al-Qaeda turned to global jihad.

17) I interviewed Urwah regularly, two or three times a year, in 2008 and 2009. The following description has been reconstructed from published information and my interviews.

18) Though Ba’asyir calls the current Muslim regime thaghut (infidel ruler) and justifies fighting against it, as Aman Abdurrahman describes later in this paper, he wrote an open letter to President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono and published several books urging political elites to repent. See also Miichi (2007).

19) See also “Menelusuri Jejak dan Peran Bagus Budi Pranoto Alias Urwah,”, August 21, 2009, accessed March 31, 2015.

20) Maqdisi also condemned Zarqawi’s takfir of entire groups of people. This view coincided with criticism against Aman Abdurrahman and IS among Indonesian jihadists, as discussed later. Thus, there are twists among ideological and strategic opinions. For Maqdisi’s thoughts and his relationship with Zarqawi, see Wagemakers (2012).

21) There are serious discussions and divisions among jihadists and Salafists on the object of jihad. Though there are differences of opinion among jihadists, they maintain a sense of community as a brotherhood. On the other hand, divisions between Salafi jihadists and Salafi non-jihadists are more profound and intense. Aman Abdurrahman (2012) fiercely criticizes non-jihadi Salafists, who claim the Indonesian government is not thaghut and that they do not have to fight against it. See also Al-Majdi (2012) and IPAC (2014a; 2014b).

22) Interview with a JAT leader, March 6, 2010.

23) Interview with a JAT member, February 6, 2015.

24) Aman’s writings were posted on (accessed March 31, 2015). Previously his writings were uploaded to (accessed March 28, 2011), when it was a blog. The latter Web site was shut down but reemerged as a news site in 2014 (accessed April 19, 2014) and was shut down again sometime in 2015. The Indonesian government blocked access to Aman’s Web site ( in the country apparently after IPAC (2015) pointed out the government’s ignorance about it.

25) was founded by Jibriel Abdul Rahman, a leader of Majelis Mujahidin.

26) Among the usual news sites, (more than 1 million) and (372,000) have the most subscribers on Facebook. The numbers of subscribers of other major newspapers and magazines, such as Tempo (235,000), Kompas (206,000), and Republika (137,000), are not very different from Kompas‘s Web site,, functions more interactively than other major sites integrated with blogs (all accessed November 2013).

27) See “Indonesian Plotted on Facebook to Attack Myanmar Embassy,” Jakarta Globe, November 6, 2013, accessed March 31, 2015.

28) Interview with a JAT member, February 6, 2015. See also Huda Ismail (2014).


Vol. 4, No. 3, ARAI

Contents>> Vol. 4, No. 3

Jakarta “Since Yesterday”: The Making of the Post-New Order Regime in an Indonesian Metropolis

Arai Kenichiro*

* 新井健一郎, Faculty of International Social Studies, Kyoai Gakuen University, 1154-4 Koyaharamachi, Maebashi-shi, Gunma 379-2192, Japan

e-mail: kenichiroarai[at]

This paper is an attempt to explore the features of Indonesia’s post-New Order regime in terms of the reorganization of the spatial, economic, and socio-political order in the Jabodetabek region. Although buoyant property investments in the last seven to eight years significantly changed the skyline of the metropolis, this paper reveals that the basic pattern did not alter after the regime change, with major developers taking control of vast areas of suburban land and creating an oligopolistic order. This paper argues that this continuity was due greatly to the developers’ ability to organize and protect their collective interests through business associations and strong ties with political parties and the administration. The paper concludes that the emerging new regime comprises privatized urban governance in satellite cities, a dual government arrangement, and widening socio-spatial cleavages. So far, the tension inherent in this arrangement has been contained by measures such as the privatization of security and the political mobilization of Islam.

Keywords: Jabodetabek, property industry, urban development


In this paper, the author presents a political-economic analysis of the making of a new urban regime after the collapse of Suharto’s New Order regime in Jakarta and surrounding regions—Bogor, Depok, Tangerang, and Bekasi, popularly known in their abbreviated form as Jabodetabek. There are four major questions to be examined, basically corresponding with the four sections of this paper: (1) How, and to what extent, have basic patterns of urban development persisted after the regime change? (2) Why do the dominant development patterns persist even after losing the support of the government? (3) Combining spatial arrangements and socio-economic hierarchy, what kind of new social order is in the making? (4) How does the new regime maintain stability, and what kind of dynamism is observed?

It is an appropriate time to address these questions for several reasons. First, since the collapse of the New Order, 16 years—about half the time of the Suharto presidency—have elapsed. The democratized post-New Order phase can no longer be treated as transitional. Second, the past seven or eight years have been a buoyant, booming period for the property business, with a number of newly developed apartments, shopping malls, large mixed-use complexes (“superblocks”), and gated communities, which have significantly changed the landscape of Jabodetabek.

Scholars on Jakarta and other large cities in Southeast Asia have stressed that urban spaces and built environments are crucial components in articulating class division and other social cleavages,1) and this could have various implications in understanding ongoing political or social developments. Today, the population of Jakarta is 10 million. Combined with three surrounding regencies (Tangerang, Bekasi, and Bogor) and several municipalities in them, the total population of Jabodetabek is about 28 million: more than 11 percent of the national population.2) The heavy weight of the population, together with the concentration of economic and political activities in Jakarta as the national capital, makes various issues in this region more important than ever—for the whole nation and the stability of the post-New Order regime.

This paper is divided into four parts. First, the author examines preceding studies to show that the concentration of land under a small number of developers during the New Order was facilitated by Suharto’s authoritarian power, and hence the persistence or revival of the oligopoly after the fall of Suharto requires a new explanation about its political economy. The second part examines the continuities and changes in large-scale property projects and major developers, and how they retained their control over land through the process of democratization. The third part shows the new social hierarchy under the developers’ privatized government, and widening social cleavages. The last part points out several elements of the regime that function to cover social cleavages and discontents, and suggests how these cleavages and discontents bring dynamics into urban politics under the new democratic framework. By focusing on the spatial dimensions of a political economy perspective, this paper intends to contribute to a better understanding of the post-New Order regime, of its features, tensions, and resilience.

I Contextualizing Jabodetabek in the Making of the Post-New Order Regime

Jakarta is surrounded by three regencies: Bogor to the south, Tangerang to the west, and Bekasi to the east. Although suburbanization and deconcentration have extended the metropolitan region in all three directions, each direction is characterized by different dominant patterns of suburbanization. The south was the most natural area for suburbanization and the formation of a satellite city since the Dutch colonial period, but this trend was intentionally curbed from the 1970s and 1980s because the southern highland functions as the water catchment area for the capital city. Since the second half of the 1980s, westward development has been propelled mainly by planned satellite city projects (mainly residential ones), while eastward development has been propelled by large-scale industrial estate projects (Arai 2011).

Several studies on urban development during the New Order are available as a starting point to assess the continuity and change before and after the regime change. Among them are Andrinof Chaniago’s fairly comprehensive analysis on the failure of urban development during the New Order (2001); Robert Cowherd’s studies on the political economy and the politics of hegemonic discourse in the implementation and distortion of city planning (2002; 2005; 2008); Tommy Firman’s series of studies on the development in the Jakarta metropolitan region (for example, Firman 2004; 2014; Salim and Firman 2011); Bernard Dorleans’s studies on changes in land use, land transaction, and speculation (1994; 2000); and large-scale, multifaceted joint research on Jakarta conducted by Osaka City University (Miyamoto and Konagaya 1999). Previous work by this author (2005) also analyzed the birth and development of about two dozen large-scale satellite city projects: how these projects were conceived, and how vast spreads of suburban land were consolidated and controlled by a small number of private developers (also Arai 1999; 2001a; 2001b; 2012).

Although varied in approach and focus, preceding studies on Jabodetabek urban development have generally focused on the development of either industrial estates or predominantly residential satellite city projects. For example, while Chaniago (2001) stressed the deregulation of industrial estate development at the end of the 1980s as the major momentum to open up widespread land speculation and the commoditization of urban space, the author of this paper, along with Firman (2004) and Cowherd (2005), put a greater focus on large-scale satellite city projects as a dominant factor in shaping the spatial order of Jabodetabek (Arai 2005; 2012).

These satellite cities indeed deserve special attention in analyzing the spatial transformation of Jabodetabek during Suharto’s New Order era. First, the scale of land appropriation was unusual, especially in the context of densely populated Java. Combined together, these projects were sanctioned by development permits that covered roughly 80,000 hectares of land in this region—roughly 12 percent of the whole Jabodetabek area (663,900 hectares)—and the 22 percent of the area in Bodetabek designated for residential use in the government’s spatial plans (370,716 hectares). Second, these planned cities were developed as a private business, mainly by ethnic Chinese conglomerates. This meant that a small number of private businesses were in a position to decisively influence the land and residential market of the whole metropolitan region, and hence established oligopolistic market structure.

Observers generally agree that the New Order’s policy promoting privately developed large satellite cities had a serious negative impact on the economy and society. It exacerbated land speculation, funded by mushrooming new banks and a buoyant capital market. Skyrocketing land prices made affordable housing unviable and at the same time aggravated social discrepancy and antagonism. Newly developed houses were generally targeted at a small market of the middle to upper classes and caused oversupply while excluding and alienating the lower classes. Overinvestment in land and property, financed by reckless bank loans, and the resulting massive nonperforming loans became one of the most consequential factors of the economic crisis in 1997. Many large corporations experienced de facto bankruptcy. Nonperforming loans of roughly Rp.70 trillion were then transferred from the private sector to the government. By setting up the Indonesia Bank Restructuring Agency (IBRA in English, BPPN in Indonesian), the state managed to recover only about 30 percent of the funds already invested to salvage the banks; the burden of the remaining 70 percent—roughly Rp.50 trillion—of nonperforming loans from the property sector ultimately fell on taxpayers. In terms of results, only land resources and profits were privatized; the cost of the failure was borne by the public sector. Neither did these satellite city projects succeed in the task of providing a large number of houses to the majority of urban residents at an affordable price (Arai 2005).

In tracking how a small number of developers got such a vast spread of land under their control, previous studies pointed out the crucial role of the permits issued by the government, especially izin lokasi, or location permits (Cowherd 2002; 2008; Firman 2004; Arai 2005; Rakodi and Firman 2009). In a country where land titles are not well registered and are blurred and multilayered by the complex history of colonialism, revolution, and widespread squatting, legal rights on certain pieces of land stand on a fragile base. Control over land is often determined by which of the contesting stakeholders has the most power. During the New Order, location permits sanctioned by the authoritarian government gave developers (permit holders) the exclusive right to buy, keep, and develop land, thus leaving landholders with almost minimal bargaining power.

However, scholars differ in their view of why location permits were overissued. Firman (2004) stressed the speculative behavior of developers on the one hand, and an uncontrolled land permit system on the other, by both the National Land Agency (Badan Pertanahan Nasional, BPN) and local governments. He also pointed out that local governments had very weak capacity for managing and implementing spatial plans. This explanation stresses the weakness of the government (in terms of capacity or discipline) vis-à-vis private developers (see also Firman 2009, 332). Although this author agrees with each point of the above explanation, Firman stops short of explaining why the government was powerful in raising the position of permit holders vis-à-vis landholders while being weak in controlling the same permit holders it empowered.

Cowherd (2005) and Arai (2005) took the opposite view in stressing that the strong power of the government was a precondition of this process: developers were able to appropriate disproportionate amounts of land resources mainly because they were empowered and supported by the strong authority of the government. Although the resulting land-use patterns often deviated from what was officially planned, developers received extensive support from the government; in this sense, these deviations were intentionally overlooked (Arai 2005). A fuller explanation of this historical process has to include an analysis of the government-business relationship and internal differences of interest within the government. The political economy approach is well suited to this task.

Takashi Shiraishi (1992) pointed out the dual foundation of Suharto’s New Order regime: the formal, functional hierarchy of bureaucracy, and the informal, patron-client hierarchy that was justified with the ideology equating the state with a large family. Suharto stood at the top of both hierarchies. Spatially, the apex of the formal one was the presidential office, and that of the informal one was Suharto’s private residence on Cendana Street in Menteng, Central Jakarta. Members of the most privileged inner circle of this informal hierarchy were allowed to meet him privately in his Cendana home. Initially, Suharto skillfully manipulated these formal and informal aspects. However, as with the generational change within the body of bureaucracy and wider socioeconomic transformation, the two logics increasingly came apart and generated tension and conflict in the late 1980s and 1990s (ibid.). From this perspective, many of the policies of economic liberalization and private-sector-driven development actually functioned for the members of the informal network to utilize the state’s formal apparatus to maximize their chances of rent seeking, appropriating public resources, and accumulating wealth outside of the bureaucracy in the form of privatized capital. Cowherd took a similar view in analyzing urban development in the New Order era, naming the informal ruling elites the “Cendana-Cukong alliance” (Cowherd 2005).

Based on these previous studies, the question remains: If oligopolistic control was enabled and sustained by Suharto’s Cendana-Cukong alliance, why and how did it sustain itself or change after the fall of Suharto? Firman’s 2004 study presented the case that successful new-town developers were securing the support of the growing middle to upper strata by providing them with high security, good urban management, and the image of a modern lifestyle (Firman 2004). He discussed this topic in terms of segregation, but what he observed can also be framed as a “developer-middle class alliance” and counted as an alternative-support base for developers in the post-New Order era. This author finds it helpful in the following analysis. Cowherd did not try to extend his analysis in detail into the post-New Order era but hinted at the binding power of the discourse of “development” as an important factor in the continuity before and after the regime change (Cowherd 2008). Firman’s more recent studies, together with the works of D. Hudalah and other scholars, seem to shift attention and effort into revealing the growing weight of new industrial centers in the Jakarta metropolitan region, and the emerging polycentric metropolitan structure (Hudalah and Firman 2012; Hudalah et al. 2013; Firman 2014). Although these are important issues in themselves, the analyses tend to bypass the issue of power relations, naturalizing the observed phenomena by relating them to some global trend or force (such as post-suburbanization and FDI of globally mobile capital) on the one hand, and the trend of deconcentration of industrial investment and employment on the other.

Just as the concentration of land under the New Order regime was not a natural or inevitable process, its continuation after the collapse of the Cendana-Cukong alliance is also not natural but needs explanation. This paper tries to present a brief outline of how the restructuring of social hegemony and spatial order in the post-New Order era reinforce each another, and how they guarantee the continuation of the highly oligopolistic control of land resources. This paper also argues that privatized security and the resulting employment opportunities as well as the political mobilization of Islam constitute important pillars of the post-New Order regime and guarantee a certain degree of social stability amid a polarized economic and spatial structure.

On the aspect of change, this paper maintains that the contemporary metropolitan order is ruled by a restructured growth coalition characterized by a more formalized relationship between the government and the property business, and a highly commercialized relationship between privatized “municipal governments” and the wealthy middle to upper classes.

II Reorganizing Oligopoly

1 Planned Satellite City Projects Revisited
The first question to be asked is how and to what extent the oligopolistic control of land has changed since the regime change. This author tracks major satellite city projects after the New Order (Table 1; Map 1). Just after the economic crisis and the collapse of the New Order, almost all large developers became temporarily insolvent, and the government—as creditor—had strong bargaining power against them. At that time, the BPN expressed the intent to review the appropriateness of existing development permits of large satellite city projects. However, Table 1 shows that most satellite city projects have survived, albeit with some changes in shareholders. As for projects of more than 1,000 ha, 10 old projects have survived or been revived (sometimes, completely redesigned and rebranded)—Bintaro Jaya, BSD City, Lippo Karawaci, Citra Raya, Grand Wisata, Lippo Cikarang, Kota Jababeka, Sentul City, Citra Indah, and Sentul Nirwana,3)—while another project (Kota Harapan Indah) has been significantly scaled up, and other two projects (Kota Deltamas and Harvest City) were newly started in the post-New Order era. As for projects between 500 ha and 1,000 ha, seven have survived or been revived—Pantai Indah Kapuk, Alam Sutera, Kota Modern, Gading Serpong, Kota Wisata, Bogor Nirwana Residence and, (although with a doubtful prospect) Telaga Kahuripan.4) Only three projects have been significantly scaled down to below 500 ha—Jakarta Garden City, Metland Transyogi & Metland Cileungsi, and Rancamaya Golf Estate, while five projects have disappeared or totally stalled—Kota Tigaraksa, Kota Wisata Teluk Naga, Pantai Modern, Kota Tenjo, and Puri Jaya.5)


Map 1 Large-Scale Satellite City Projects in Jabodetabek

Source: Made by the author

Note: Numbers in this map correspond with those of Table 1.


Table 1 Large-Scale Satellite City Projects in Jabodetabek (>500 ha)


Table 1 continued


Why have so many projects survived? First, during its most difficult and fragile period—between 1998 and 2004—the government prioritized the recovery of public money over the need for radical revision of urban development policy, such as setting up publicly managed land banks for securing the land to provide enough affordable public housing. The mission of IBRA was to recover as much public money as possible and return it to the government coffers—and thus to help finance the governmental budget—not to formulate an alternative blueprint for Jabodetabek development. Therefore, property-related assets under IBRA were quickly auctioned, while large and well-connected debtors were not robbed of their profitability but only prompted to restructure their debt into a sustainable level. The logical consequence was that the regional residential market today is as oligopolistic as in the New Order era, and the developers’ position is even better after their debt has been restructured to a sustainable level.

Table 2 shows some of the 150 wealthiest businessmen from the 2007 Globe Asia magazine. This selection omits those whose business does not include property as a major line of business.6) In the post-New Order era, Sinarmas has become the largest property developer in all of Jabodetabek. The group manages Kota Wisata and Legenda Wisata in Bogor, BSD City in Tangerang, and Grand Wisata and Kota Deltamas in Bekasi. With these mega projects in all three regencies in Bodetabek, the group’s influence on the landed residential market is stronger than any other developers operating in Bodetabek.7) In 2010 the group consolidated all these projects under a new umbrella company, Sinarmas Land, and located the national headquarters in BSD City.8)


Table 2 Property-Business-Related Super Rich among in the Top 150 Wealthiest Indonesian Businessmen


The Summarecon Group has also risen to be a major player. After garnering huge profits from various projects in Kelapa Gading (North Jakarta), the group succeeded in revitalizing the once-stagnant Gading Serpong project in Tangerang and is currently developing a new project in Bekasi (Summarecon Bekasi, 240 ha). The Paramount Group from Singapore has joined in the development of Gading Serpong by purchasing the share previously owned by Batik Keris.

In Bekasi, Kota Jababeka (Cikarang area) and Kota Harpan Indah (Bekasi Municipality) have emerged as unique and influential players. Bekasi is characterized by the presence of several huge industrial estates and is becoming the industrial heartland of Indonesia. Since a substantial number of factory workers migrated to Bekasi, both Kota Jababeka and Kota Harapan Indah until recently grew by marketing relatively affordable housing to factory workers. In the case of Kota Jababeka, the developer also operates one industrial estate, contributing to make Cikarang the industrial center of Bekasi (Hudalah and Firman 2012). As a result, the class compositions of these satellite cities look more balanced and less exclusive than those in Tangerang or Bogor.

In contrast to these “winners,” some business groups have largely dropped out of the property business in Jabodetabek after the New Order. The Salim Group has lost its share in major property projects in Jabodetabek—such as Bumi Serpong Damai, Pondok Indah, Puri Indah, and Pantai Indah Kapuk—and largely withdrawn from the business landscape. The group’s shares in these projects were acquired by the Berca Group (headed by Murdaya Poo). The acquisition of these projects made Murdaya Poo one of the emerging property tycoons in the property industry in Jabodetabek. With the decline of the Salim Group, Ciputra, once renowned as the property king, also lost management control of projects such as Pondok Indah, BSD, Pantai Indah Kapuk, and Puri Indah. Ciputra’s family gave up most of the remaining shares in these projects during the restructuring process in order to save the projects of their own family business, the Ciputra Group. As far as the Jabodetabek region is concerned, the group’s projects are either too peripherally located (Citra Raya and Citra Indah) or too piecemeal (Citra Garden Estate and Citra Gran) for it to be regarded as a dominant player. However, this does not mean the decline of the group itself. It has rapidly expanded business into the residential markets of dozens of smaller provincial cities in the whole of Indonesia, such as Surabaya, Semarang, Pekalongan, Sidoarjo (Jawa), Balikpapan, Banjarmasin (Kalimantan), Lampung, Medan, Pekanbaru (Sumatra), Makassar, Manado, Gowa, (Sulawesi), and Ambon (Maluku).9)

The children of former President Suharto have largely exited from the property business in Jabodetabek. During the New Order, Bambang Trihatmodjo was engaged in large-scale projects such as Bukit Sentul and Bukit Jonggol Asri in Bogor regency (Properti Indonesia March 1996, 20–27; August 1997, 36; November 1998, 20; Soesilo 1998, 134). In 2010, the Bakrie Group bought significant shares of both of these projects and announced that it would develop the 12,000 ha Sentul Nirwana satellite city in Jonggol (Properti Indonesia February 2011, 20), only to release it again amid the group’s financial difficulty and scandal over development permits.10)

2 Back to the City: Apartment Business in the Center of Jakarta
One of the new and important developments of the post-New Order metropolitan region is the rapid proliferation of high-rise apartments. During the New Order, even at its peak in the mid-1990s, the annual supply of apartments was at best a few thousand units. The cumulative supply of apartments throughout the three decades of the New Order era was at most about 20,000 units, mostly targeted at the rental market for expatriates, and therefore had a relatively negligible impact on the general housing condition in Jabodetabek.11) However, with the worsening of traffic congestion, apartments built at strategic locations in or near the center of Jakarta are gaining in popularity among those who work in Jakarta. New developments in the post-New Order era have proliferated, with the cumulative supply of strata-title apartments in 2012 already reaching more than 100,000 units (Colliers International 2012). Although the majority of middle classes still prefer a landed house, living in a high-rise apartment is rapidly becoming part of a normal lifestyle in Jakarta.12)

Within the apartment industry of the post-New Order era, the most conspicuous phenomenon is the rise of the Agung Podomoro Group. As one of the relatively old players, the group itself was established in the 1970s through the development of landed housing estates in places such as Sunter, North Jakarta. Around the year 2000, when many developers were still struggling with debt restructuring, the group succeeded in developing and marketing a new and exclusive housing estate, Bukit Gading Mediterania, in Kelapa Gading, North Jakarta. However, the real breakthrough for the group came when it concentrated its resources into the development of high-rise apartment projects. Mainly through the brand name of Mediterania apartments, the group became the top apartment developer by providing a massive quantity of small-sized apartment units (36–54 m2) at a relatively low price. Since around 2004, the group has succeeded in selling these apartments to the lower middle-strata market in places such as Tanjung Duren, Kemayoran, Ancol, Kelapa Gading, Sudirman, Kalibata, and so on.13)

Another important player in the apartment sector is the Bakrie Group, which entered the apartment market in 1993 when it launched Taman Rasuna Apartments (Arai 2001b, 489). The group’s apartment projects are concentrated in about 53 ha of land near Rasuna Said Road. In the post-New Order era, the group renamed the area Rasuna Epicentrum and marketed new apartment towers, such as The 18th Residence, The Wave, Grove, and so on. However, currently the group is heavily in debt and selling remaining land stocks to other developers, such as the Sinarmas Group.14)

Another noticeable development in the post-New Order period is the growth of sub-CBD (central business district) areas outside of the golden triangle, including the areas alongside T.B. Simatupang Road, Pondok Indah, and Kemang in South Jakarta; Kembangan/Puri Indah in West Jakarta; and Pluit and Kelapa Gading in North Jakarta. These places have one common feature: in the late New Order era, all were well-known as relatively tranquil suburban residential areas for the upper class, although there were also some non-residential facilities such as shopping malls. However, with the rapid increase of the commuter population in the Bodetabek satellite cities, the worsening of traffic congestion, and the steep rise of property prices in the CBD area, developers are targeting these areas as the next growth centers and equipping them with new office buildings, apartments, and ambitious mixed-use complexes.

The most prominent actor in these areas is the Lippo Group. The group grew first as a major private bank in the 1980s and then entered the property development business in the early 1990s. Lippo Karawaci (Tangerang) and Lippo Cikarang (Bekasi) are two of the most prestigious satellite city projects in Jabodetabek. Through the development of these projects, the group acquired various new lines of business catering to upper- to middle-class residents, such as a department store (Matahari), hotel (Aryaduta), private school (Pelita Harapan), and hospital (Siloam). It added a bookstore chain (Times bookstore), an English newspaper and magazine publishing company (Globe Asia), and even a cemetery business (San Diego Hills). The group is most competitive when combining these various businesses together into one township and creating synergistic effects. In the post-New Order period the group applies a similar strategy, but not by developing new satellite cities (which would require acquiring hundreds of hectares of land); rather, it develops high-rise mixed-use complexes. The group’s recent projects include Kemang Village (Kemang, South Jakarta), St. Moritz (Kembangan/Puri Indah, West Jakarta), and Holland Village (Cempaka Putih, Central Jakarta).15) The Pondok Indah Group, which was controlled by the Salim Group and then acquired by the Murdaya family, is also engaged in ambitious CBD developments in both Pondok Indah (South Jakarta) and Kembangan/Puri Indah (West Jakarta).16)

This section has examined the continuities and changes in major satellite city projects and dominant developers. Although the dominant trend is that of modified continuity, there are some interesting changes that also deserve attention. During the New Order era, almost all the big business groups tried to engage in large-scale satellite city projects. In the post-New Order era, each developer tends to focus on a specific sector in which to concentrate its resources and to have a competitive edge over its rivals. The Sinarmas Group is dominant in large-scale satellite city projects in Bodetabek, while the Lippo Group focuses on high-rise mixed-use projects in new CBD areas, the Agung Podomoro Group on high-rise apartments, and the Ciputra Group on dozens of residential projects in many provincial cities in Indonesia.

3 Adapting to Parliamentary Democracy
After learning about the resilience of major satellite city projects and prominent developers, the next question is why their dominance persists even after the collapse of the Cendana-Cukong alliance. One of the key factors is that a formal channel between developers and policy makers, such as business associations and parliament, has replaced the informal Cendana-Cukong alliance of the New Order era.

First, developers today can protect their collective interests by negotiating through formal business associations. In fact, REI (Real Estate Indonesia) has grown to be one of the best-organized business associations since the New Order era. Its leadership posts have also functioned as an entry into a political career for ambitious businessmen (such as Siswono Yudohusodo, Mohamad S. Hidayat, and Enggartiasto Lukita) (Arai 2012, Chapter 5).

Second, developers have strong supporters within parliament. While most political parties are, by and large, accommodating to the interests of large business groups, especially interesting is the reorganization and resurgence of Golkar (Golongan Karya) from the rubber-stamp machine of the New Order regime to a major political party (Partai Golkar). What was salient through this reorganization process was that those who had strong ties with large business groups (such as Akbar Tanjung, Jusuf Kalla, Aburizal Bakrie, Mohamad S. Hidayat, and Enggartiasto Lukita) acquired prominent political positions (ibid.). Even though Golkar has lost some political clout since President Yudhoyono managed to strengthen his own party base with Partai Demokrat (Democratic Party) in his second term, thus pushing some influential Golkar members to other parties, it has played an important role as a representative of the collective interests of dominant domestic business groups, the majority of which have some kind of a property business division.

Third, the Indonesian Chamber of Commerce and Industry (KADIN) has a close partnership with the government and has become very influential in policy formulation (Sato 2011, 195). Yudhoyono’s cabinet included many politicians with a business background, such as Aburizal Bakrie (the chairman of KADIN 1994–2004) and Jusuf Kalla. The series of road maps for economic development formulated by KADIN have heavily influenced the government’s economic policy (Matsui 2005, 300). It is also worth noting that Mohamad S. Hidayat, the former general secretary of REI (1989–92), was the chairman of KADIN from 2004 to 2010 and also became the minister of industry in Yudhoyono’s second cabinet (2009–14). This testifies to the weight and heavy presence of property developers among Indonesian business circles and the top strata of ruling elites.17)

The consequence is very clear. It is highly implausible that the government would take measures against big businesses controlling land. These big businesses have slimmed down their huge debt through restructuring deals with IBRA and have retained control over vast amounts of land in the metropolitan region without much of a debt burden. As long as urbanization pressure remains strong, they will continue to wield significant power to control and keep raising the price of land and houses in the region, regardless of whether tacit cartel agreements exist or not. New large-scale projects such as superblocks, office buildings, shopping malls, and apartments continue to proliferate. Businesses have the confidence that their huge investments on acquired land and infrastructure will never be disputed or disturbed by the government, at least in the foreseeable future. However, it is impossible for the new ruling elites to stabilize the dominance of big business without securing support from the wider urban masses. How does this new coalition of ruling elites sustain the support of the middle to lower strata?

III Constructing New Social Order

1 Privatized Municipal Governments and Middle Class Formation
While securing their business interests via relations with the democratized central government, how do developers consolidate their position at the local level? In the following argument, this author basically extends Firman’s (2004) suggestion and maintains that the developer-middle class alliance is building up another strong base for the stability of the new urban order. In this respect, one of the important factors is that new town developers take on the dual role of property developers and a privatized “municipal government,” and, with the increase in the settled population, the weight of the latter role has been increasing both as an opportunity and as a burden. During the New Order era, except for a few projects such as Bintaro Jaya and BSD, it was not end-buyers but speculators who led the residential property market (ibid.; Arai 2005). As a result, even though houses were built and handed over to consumers, the majority of them were vacant or underutilized. This “hollowness” of satellite cities made the developers’ dominance fragile. In the post-New Order era, however, the rapid expansion of retailers into these satellite cities (in the form of hypermarkets, malls, and trade centers18)) together with the improvement of access to Jakarta (such as new direct-connection roads to highways) make these satellite cities comfortable and convenient enough for a large number of people to settle in. As a result, in such areas as Serpong-Karawaci (South Tangerang), Cibubur-Cileungsi (Bogor), Cikarang, and Bekasi City (Bekasi), the population has grown rapidly.

Who are the people in-migrating to these new satellite cities? The prices of houses in satellite cities vary greatly depending on the location, the targeted segment, and the scale of the projects. However, those who can afford to buy a house in one of these satellite cities are, as a whole, a relatively small proportion of the population in Jabodetabek and collectively constitute the conspicuous core of the kelas menengah (middle class). As Solvay Gerke pointed out, the middle-classes construct their identity by constantly distancing themselves from the poorer “Other.”

Typical in its formation, the culture of the ‘new middle class’ is one marked by an ongoing attempt to demarcate itself against the lower strata of the society. Its formation is thus bounded in a complex process of distancing itself from the poor ‘Other.’ In Indonesia, the ‘new middle class’ was in the strategic social position to construct hierarchies via the creation and promotion of a ‘modern’ lifestyle through consumption. (Gerke 2000, 145)

Developers capitalize on this desire for social distinction and upward orientation by providing an exclusive living environment (Rimmer and Dick 2009, 47–48). Exclusive residential estates function to delineate class lines between the middle to upper classes and the lower “others,” first by filtering privileged residents from the other urban masses by a certain price level, and then by delineating the space inside from the surrounding local sociocultural context and recontextualizing it into an imagined cosmopolitan sphere. It is only with this spatial separation and articulation that people of varied ethnic, vocational, and income backgrounds take on a similar appearance and somehow acquire a coherent identity as a middle class. In this sense, the developers’ capital accumulation goes hand in hand with the formation of a middle class and the construction of a middle-class lifestyle.

The price of houses functions to filter out those who live within a planned residential district of a satellite city. In major satellite cities such as BSD City, Gading Serpong, and Alam Sutera (20–25 km radius from the center of Jakarta), the majority of houses available are being sold at more than Rp.1 billion. Even the smallest and lowest-priced ones in the secondary market cost about Rp.600 million.19) Assuming that one is buying one of these lowest-priced houses with a 20 percent down payment and an 80 percent mortgage, with a fixed interest rate of 9.5 percent and a payment period of 20 years, the monthly payment will be about Rp.4.7 million. Assuming that a sustainable maximum loan payment is a third of monthly income, potential buyers need a monthly income of at least about Rp.14 million. Lower-priced units are available only in more remote or less prestigious satellite cities or the small residential estates scattered around them. For example, buying a small house for Rp.220 million in Citra Raya (about 35 km from the center of Jakarta) with the same assumptions as above requires a monthly income of about Rp.5 million. We can thus assume that the lower limit for buying a modest house in a planned satellite city or residential estate is a stable monthly income of about Rp.5 million.

How many Jabotabek residents meet this requirement? A large-scale study by JICA, the Japanese official aid agency (together with the coordinating ministry of economic affairs of the Indonesian government), divides households in Jabodetabek into five income groups (CMEA and JICA 2012, 36) (Fig. 1). The agency defines households with a monthly income of up to Rp.900,000 as “low income,” Rp.1–5.9 million as “medium income,” and more than Rp.6 million as “high income.” JICA’s threshold of “low income” corresponds roughly with the official minimum wage in 2010 of Jakarta (Rp.1.18 million) and Banten Province (Rp.960,000). This graph highlights several important points. First, the average household income rose significantly between 2002 and 2010, and “low income” households declined from a quarter to less than 15 percent. Second, households that can afford to buy a house from developers are still around 10 percent to 15 percent. The table bundles the monthly income of Rp.3–5.9 million into a single bracket, and hence does not specify the proportion of households with income above Rp.5 million. However, even if we add a third of this income bracket to the “high-income” group, they as a whole comprise only the upper 15 percent of society. This means that what I have viewed as the middle-class core is rather the upper strata in terms of income. Their “middle-ness” should not be understood as average but as the embodiment of a social ideal type or exemplary center of lifestyle. Third, JICA’s “medium income” households (not the above-mentioned “middle-class core”) constitute the actual majority in Jabodetabek (almost 80 percent in 2010). Most of them probably still cannot afford to live in housing estates. However, with the general trend of rising income, many of them—especially the upper half—must have felt that their purchasing power had improved and experienced rising expectations. Many of those with Rp.3–5.9 million living in a kampung may well identify with the middle class or regard themselves as “middle class in the making.” This corresponds with what Aiko Kurasawa calls “pseudo middle-class.” Based on a series of detailed case studies in an urban kampung on the fringe of South Jakarta, she points out that there are many residents in urban kampung who have a strong upward orientation, pay keen attention to educational achievement, and display rational or selective consumerism. They selectively appropriate the attitude, values, and lifestyle of the middle-class core while adjusting to the kampung’s social and economic environment (Kurasawa 2013, 1–8). This is a very heuristic observation in understanding the dynamics of class differentiation in contemporary Jabodetabek.20) In the following analysis, this author only changes the term, calling them “semi-middle class” to avoid the negative connotation of “pseudo.”


Fig. 1Changes in Household Income

Source: CMEA and JICA (2012, 36)


Let us take the example of Bekasi regency to examine the size of the middle-class core from different data. In Bekasi regency in 2009, there were 229,060 persons working in 788 manufacturing companies. This accounted for 14.6 percent of the population of productive age (15 to 64 years old), which was about 1,568,924 (BPS Kabupaten Bekasi 2010). On the other hand, another study by BPS showed that it was generally only those above the levels of managers and supervisors (plus accountants and secretaries) who received a monthly income of more than Rp.2.5 million (BPS 2011, 62, 70, 78, 79). We can assume that Rp.2.5 million was the lowest threshold of potential customers of developers’ housing, because if they got married and worked together, their combined monthly income could reach Rp.5 million.

However, this study does not tell us the percentage of managers and supervisors. Kensuke Miyamoto’s case study of three Japanese manufacturing companies in Bekasi in 2000 showed that those above the level of supervisors comprised only 5.2 percent of total employees (Miyamoto 2002, 146 Table 4-11). Assuming that roughly 5 percent to 10 percent of the manufacturing workers in Bekasi regency were above the supervisor level (supervisors, managers, and other professionals) in 2009, their number would be between 11,454 and 22,906. In addition to this, we may also count some civil public servants (14,187) and schoolteachers (42,557) as stable wageworkers and hence potential consumers of developers’ housing. Even if we sum them up all, their number would be around 68,000 to 80,000, or only about 5 percent of the population of productive age. The actual percentage of those with real purchasing power for developers’ housing would be lower, because many of the above-mentioned people would not attain a monthly income of more than Rp.5 million; only those already married and having a dual-income household would.

Lastly, we have to add the manager class from the non-manufacturing sector (such as hotels and retail), other professionals (doctors, lawyers, etc.), successful businessmen, and the higher strata of military personnel to this wealthy population with real purchasing power. Unfortunately, this author does not have data on their number. However, even if their total number rivaled those of the manufacturing sector and public servants plus teachers, the total population of those with purchasing power for developers’ housing would be between 5 percent and 10 percent of productive-age residents. The proportion would be higher in Jakarta and relatively wealthy cities such as Depok and South Tangerang. However, together with the data from JICA, we can estimate that the proportion of those eligible to form the middle-class core in Jabodetabek would be around 5 percent to 15 percent of households, depending on the regency and municipality.

To serve this limited but growing population, private developers provide various municipal services, such as the construction and maintenance of roads, supply of clean water, waste water disposal, landscaping and gardening, security service, shuttle bus transportation to Jakarta, and so on. For example, BSD City, the largest satellite city, is managed by PT Bumi Serpong Damai Tbk, a listed company with 49 percent stake held by PT Sinarmas Land. According to the company’s 2011 annual report, it had as many as 1,599 employees—35 top management, 185 managers, 604 staff, and 775 “non-staff”—and had such divisions as planning, city infrastructure, estate management, landscape, nursery, and so on (PT Bumi Serpong Damai Tbk 2009, 13; 2011, 71). In short, Bodetabek today is characterized by the existence of dual governments—a public one and a privatized one. The public government greatly benefited financially from various economic activities in the privately managed satellite cities. For example, about 80 percent of the income of Tangerang regency is earned through various permit fees (such as building permits) in Serpong, Cisauk, Kelapa Dua, Pagedangan, and Legok, where BSD City, Gading Serpong, and Lippo Karawaci are located.21) It would be difficult for public local governments to take over the role of these developers and continue to provide the same quality of services, even if the developers handed over all the above “municipal functions” to the former. It is here that the interests of satellite city developers meet and overlap not only with those of local governments but also with those of settled residents who hope to keep the high quality of services, living environment, and asset value. As a result, the increasing population of homeowners provides a kind of “constituency” for the continued presence of developers even long after the completion of residential areas. On the other hand, these developers are profit-oriented private enterprises. Naturally, what “municipal functions” they select and how they manage them follow the principles of profit-oriented business.

Satellite city developers often avoid installing infrastructure in existing settlements (kampung) and instead develop planned districts named perumahan kluster (“clustered housing estates” or gated communities) piece by piece. The resulting land-use pattern is a patchwork of well-planned walled estates and existing kampung. By confining the building of infrastructure to within the walled estates, developers and residents create a simple and direct relationship between the providers and customers of various services. At the same time, the obvious difference in living environments within and outside the walled estates becomes a clear medium to demarcate between the middle class and the poorer “Other.” Differences in income level, profession, and ethnic background among the residents are blurred by this strong contrast against outside kampung residents.

Taking the example of BSD City again, this satellite city consists of various “grand clusters” of about 40 to 70 hectares, each composed of multiple “clusters.” Each cluster is a walled single-gate complex with 50 to a few hundred houses. The grand clusters are often located side by side with existing settlements and administratively belong to local kelurahan (towns) and kecamatan (districts). However, clusters’ residents rarely visit or deal with the town or district government offices. More often, it is the privatized “municipal government” (i.e., the developer) that they find it necessary to negotiate with to improve or maintain the living environment; and for this purpose, they organize forum warga (residents’ forums). All the examples above show how developers acquire a kind of legitimacy to function as a privatized “government” in return for providing a spatial foundation for the distinctive lifestyle and living environment for the aspiring middle to upper classes.

2 Widening Social Cleavages and Urban Problems
For those who cannot afford to buy a house in a walled residential estate or high-rise apartment building, the hurdle to homeownership has been rising, especially for those with a fixed salary. Despite the official minimum wage being revised repeatedly, it has lagged far behind the rapid hikes of land prices in the metropolitan region. Another barrier to homeownership is that regular staff jobs decreased drastically after the massive layoffs during the Asian economic crisis. As a compromise between labor movement groups and globally mobile capital, in 2003 a new labor law was introduced, enabling and encouraging companies to replace regular staff with fixed-term contract workers and outsourced workers (Arai 2011, 185–188). Such changes of employment structure also impact the place of living, because regular staff can apply for mortgage loans while fixed-term workers and agency workers generally cannot do so.

On the other hand, we have to realize that property development affects people’s lives not only through the price and control of land, but in more diverse ways. With the rapid increase in the population with strong purchasing power, satellite cities, to some degree, have become a new source of job opportunities, even for those who cannot afford a house in them. Construction and many related industries have enjoyed a boom. The mushrooming of shopping centers, hypermarkets, and numerous other retail shops has also created significant numbers of jobs in the retail and service sectors. Various businesses targeting the growing middle class strata—restaurants, fashion retailers, auto sales, property brokerages, medical services, and so on—have also enjoyed a boom. The scale of business activities has not yet reached the point of creating a huge demand for office buildings within these satellite cities; most office workers living in them still commute daily to Jakarta. However, the increase in business activity has already attracted enough business travelers to stimulate a boom in new hotel construction. Universities are also setting up new campuses or aggressively expanding existing campuses, for example, Universitas Pelita Harapan (Lippo Karawaci), Swiss German University and Prasetiya Mulya Business School (BSD City), Universitas Multimedia Nusantara (Gading Serpong), Universitas Bina Nusantara (Alam Sutera), Universitas Pembangunan Jaya (Bintaro Jaya), President University (Kota Jababeka), and Institut Teknologi dan Sains Bandung (Kota Deltamas) (Housing Estate March 2011, 46–52). As a result, existing kampung settlements in and around large satellite cities have become denser, receiving growing numbers of immigrants who cannot afford a home inside the residential estates.

The widening social cleavages create serious problems, including housing and traffic congestion. During the New Order, the government tried to resolve the housing shortage by facilitating the development of affordable landed housing (rumah sederhana) in satellite cities. Large-scale development and mass production of housing were expected to have the advantages of scale and enable developers to cross-subsidize the cost of affordable housing. A joint decree by three ministers in 1992, for example, obligated each developer to build six affordable houses and three medium-priced houses for each luxury home.22) However, without any effective sanctions against violation, the decree did not have enforcing power and large satellite-city developers generally skipped the obligation. The advantages of scale were simply absorbed as business profit or by a corrupt bureaucracy (Firman 1996; Cowherd 2005).

In the post-New Order period, the development of affordable housing in Jabodetabek has generally been stagnant. The government’s priority during the debt restructuring process was to recover loans from debtors rather than make fundamental revisions to the existing land-use plan. As long as vast amounts of suburban land are under the control of about three dozen satellite-city developers, it is obvious that most of the land will be marketed to the middle to upper classes at the highest possible price. There is no incentive for developers to build and sell affordable housing with minimum profit margins, particularly since the policy supports for affordable housing have decreased rather than increased under the post-New Order government. In addition, in the highly decentralized post-New Order government structure, various ministries and local governments move more independently and sporadically for their own interests. The government has thus failed to provide a coordinated and integrated business environment for affordable housing developers, such as securing the budget for the subsidization of low-interest mortgage loans (Arai 2003).

Because the government and private developers have not provided enough affordable housing, those who cannot afford to buy expensive houses within planned housing estates tend to concentrate in existing kampung settlements in and around large satellite cities. Statistical data of West Java in 2009 show that a relatively high percentage of households live in their own home or the home of parents or siblings. For example, 73 percent of households in Bogor regency and 78 percent in Bekasi regency live in their own home, while 11.7 percent of Bogor regency households live in the home of their parents or siblings (BPS Provinsi Jawa Barat 2010, 213, 214). These figures are surprisingly high in view of the general price level of commercial housing, suggesting that inheritance and informal housing in existing kampung areas have played a major role in meeting the housing demand. On the other hand, satellite-city developers have, through piecemeal infrastructure development, effectively skipped the burden of improving the infrastructure in these kampung settlements and hence betrayed the original policy justification for large-scale development.

A growing immigrant population further burdens the poor infrastructure in settlements in rapidly urbanizing areas. Available statistical data on West Java Province in 2010 show that almost two-thirds of the residents of Depok city (63.85 percent) and Bekasi city (63.12 percent) were immigrants from outside. This means that there were about 1.47 million immigrants in Bekasi city and 1.11 million in Depok city (BPS Provinsi Jawa Barat 2011, 66, 67).23) In these cities, the percentages of those living in rented rooms or rented houses are much higher than in regency areas: 26.66 percent (103,687) households in Depok city and 20.34 percent (114,542) in Bekasi city (BPS Provinsi Jawa Barat 2010, 213, 214). Even in regency areas, which tend to be more rural, 22 percent of residents in Bogor and 36.7 percent in Bekasi were immigrants.

Worsening traffic congestion is another logical consequence of the population increase in large satellite cities and their surroundings in Bodetabek. During the three decades of the New Order, neither the government nor private businesses invested in opening new commuter lines between Jakarta and Bodetabek. Limited investments in the train sector were used to improve the existing lines inherited from the Dutch colonial period. In contrast, the New Order government constructed four new highways (Jagorawi, Jakarta-Merak, Jakarta-Cikampek, and Outer Ring Road). Almost all the large satellite cities were developed to capitalize on the improved accessibility between Bodetabek and Jakarta via these new highways. From the very beginning, developers assumed that the majority of residents would use private cars as a basic mode of transportation, and they designed the cities accordingly. Indeed, many residents do commute via their own private cars. According to JICA’s studies, from 2002 to 2010 the volume of traffic from Bodetabek to Jakarta increased 1.5 times, becoming about 1.1 million trips a day (JICA 2012, 2–63) (Fig. 2). Registered passenger cars in Jadetabek (without the data on Bogor) doubled to more than 2 million between 2000 and 2008 (Table 3). Among high-income households, 52.5 percent of trips in 2002 were made in private passenger cars (JICA 2004, ii) (Fig. 3). In 2010, 44 percent of their travel was still by private car (JICA 2012, 3–8) (Fig. 4).


Fig. 2 
Increase in Commuter Traffic from Bodetabek to Jakarta; 2002–10

Source: JICA (2012, 2–63)


Table 3 Motorization in DKI Jakarta, Depok, Tangerang, and Bekasi (Excluding army and CD [diplomatic] vehicles)


Fig. 3 Daily Mode Share by Income Group in 2002 (% of trips)

Source: JICA (2004, ii)


Fig. 4 Daily Mode Share by Income Group in 2010 (% of trips)

Source: JICA (2012, 3–8)


With the rise in incomes and proliferation of auto loans, middle-income (about 80 percent of Jabotabek) and low-income households have adapted to the private-car oriented urban structure by procuring motorcycles. The number of registered motorcycles in Jadetabek (without the data on Bogor) jumped from 1.62 million in 2000 to 6.76 million in 2008, meaning 258 vehicles per 1,000 persons (Table 3). Considering that the average household size in this region is about four persons, motorcycles already outnumber households and have shifted from being a luxury item to being an essential commodity. This has resulted in a drastic decline in public transport. In 2002, the share of buses as a mode of commuting was 38 percent, while motorcycles accounted for 21 percent and private cars 12 percent. In 2010, the share of buses dropped to 17 percent (a drop of more than half in eight years), while the share of motorcycles doubled to 41 percent, making it the dominant mode of commuting (CMEA and JICA 2012, 38) (Fig. 5). Especially among low-income households, the share of motorcycle traffic was the highest (56 percent). Although this may be an effective adaptation strategy for individual households, the collective outcome has been a devastating vicious circle. The average travel speed in Jakarta during weekday peak hours is 20 km or even below 10 km per hour on many arterial roads in and around the CBD area (JICA 2012, 2–26). The drop in car usage among high-income households from 2002 to 2010 suggests that even these people may give up some of the comfort of passenger cars because motorcycles run faster on congested roads. The heavy congestion heightens the financial and physical burden on commuters. The estimated opportunity cost of traffic jams (wasted fuel, air pollution, and loss of time and productivity) varies depending on various assumptions, but one estimate gives a figure of about Rp.48 trillion annually (Simanungkalit 2009, 50).24)


Fig. 5 Changes in Mode Transportation for Commuting

Source: CMEA and JICA (2012, 38)


Another problem is poor linkages among satellite cities. Until recently, developers paid attention only to the infrastructure inside satellite cities, and how to improve access to Jakarta. Usually, the main roads within satellite cities are wide and well maintained. Many developers are also willing to invest heavily to connect their projects directly with highways to Jakarta, but they rarely pay attention to synchronizing their development with neighboring “competitor” projects. As satellite cities grow, the traffic between them is already overwhelming existing road networks.25)

In summary, the restructuring of urban space in the post-New Order era is intricately related to sharpening social cleavages. On the one hand, there is the new tendency of many satellite cities in Bodetabek growing to be lively, populated regional cores, making the metropolitan region more polycentric. However, this positive effect is greatly offset by a steep rise in the prices of land and housing, numbers of cars and motorcycles, and piecemeal infrastructure development by private developers, which betrays the original policy justification of large-scale development. For many people, life in the post-New Order metropolis is the same old story of living in the increasingly squeezed urban kampung neighborhood, or commuting long distances (though not in a packed bus now, but by motorcycle) through steadily deteriorating congestion, and working under unstable terms, such as fixed-term contract work.

IV The Resilience of the Post-New Order Regime

1 Narrowing the Cleavages, Containing the Discontent
After examining the close relationship between spatial reorganization and widening social cleavages in post-New Order Jabodetabek, the next question to be asked is how the regime addresses or suppresses these spatial-social cleavages. There have been many attempts on the part of ruling elites to contain serious social disturbances. These attempts will be briefly outlined below.

First, there are efforts by the ruling political and economic elites to increase the beneficiaries of economic prosperity through improvements in public transportation and the provision of affordable housing. In this respect, a democratic framework in the post-New Order era is given all the more important roles to represent the needs and desires of the semi-middle to lower classes, because their interests cannot be represented by the profit-oriented “privatized governments.” So far, the results have been mixed. Policies of the central government and newly strengthened local governments have often conflicted with each other. Even if the concerned parties bear goodwill toward each other, coordination and cooperation are not easy.

As for transportation, the post-New Order government significantly shifted the orientation away from private car ownership toward the improvement of public transport. The improvement has been tackled on four fronts: Bus Rapid Transit (busway), commuter train, Mass Rapid Transit (MRT), and Light Rail Transit (LRT). Bus Rapid Transit is operated by a public company under the Jakarta provincial government. It started in 2004 under the Sutiyoso governorship and has quickly expanded operation into 12 lines. The number of daily passengers increased from 47,589 in 2004 to 238,184 in 2010 (JICA 2012, 2–46; see also Kusno 2010, Chapter 2; Salim and Firman 2011). Although the increase is impressive, this is still a tiny portion of about 18.8 million trips undertaken daily in Jakarta (JICA 2012, 3–5). Moreover, the busway has not yet expanded into major parts of Bodetabek. The Indonesian Railway is also slowly expanding and improving its commuter train services between Jakarta and Bodetabek areas. As for the MRT, the first line between Kampung Bandan and Lebak Bulus (North-South line) is under construction. It is planned to open between 2018 and 2020, while the second line (East-West line) between Balaraja (in Tangerang) and Cikarang (in Bekasi) is planned to be completed in 2024–27.26)

LRT is a new project incepted by Jokowi-Ahok governorship. More than eight lines are being planned, aiming to connect major sub-centers of whole Jakarta, Soekarno-Hatta Airport, and some parts of Bogor, Depok and Bekasi. The construction of the first phase has already started in 2015, planned to connect Cibubur and Bekasi Timur to Dukuh Atas, the transportation hub of Jakarta’s CBD in 2018.27)

The basic framework of these new transportation policies has been formulated through the joint efforts of the central government, local governments, and foreign aid agencies (such as JICA), and, except for the newly incepted LRT, the overall policy orientation has been consistent over the past eight or nine years. However, the implementation has been affected by conflicting interests, lack of coordination, and contestation among various actors. For example, taking over the governorship from Sutiyoso in 2007, Fauzi Bowo prioritized the progress of MRT projects over the betterment of busway services. While the busway’s lines were steadily expanded, the quality of vehicles and services declined. In turn, when Joko Widodo (Jokowi) was elected new governor in 2012, the re-examination of the MRT and new highway projects were among his first policy agendas, to sustain the enormous popularity and support he had been shown during the election campaign. It took several months before Jokowi was convinced of the feasibility of the MRT program and became more enthusiastic. Overall, the government is still struggling to counter the drastic shift from public transportation to motorcycles over the last decade.

As for housing policy, one of the most noteworthy moves was the central government’s initiative to provide 1,000 towers of affordable apartments (rumah susun sederhana milik, or rusunami) with a price of Rp.144 million in five years in major cities in Indonesia, 60 percent of which was said to be built in Jakarta. This program started in the first cabinet of the Yudhoyono presidency. Jusuf Kalla, a Golkar politician with a business background and the vice president at the time, strongly promoted this policy and urged developers to invest in rusunami. Partly due to his strong pressure, the Agung Podomoro Group and several other developers decided to invest in rusunami projects, such as Gading Nias Residences in Kelapa Gading (North Jakarta; about 6,000 units) and Kalibata Residences in Kalibata (South Jakarta; about 15,000 units). However, the central government’s initiative received a skeptical response from the Jakarta provincial government under the Fauzi Bowo governorship. While the central government (the vice presidents and the office of the state minister of people’s housing) promised developers some incentives, such as a special bonus in floor-area ratio and a more simplified process for various permits, the Jakarta government found it incompatible with local decrees and blockaded six ongoing projects.28) This incident showed that even a national policy strongly promoted by the vice president could not be implemented consistently if it was opposed by a local government. Developers quickly lost interest in the rusunami business. Once Kalla left the cabinet in 2009, the policy quickly failed to maintain whatever support it had from the government and became deadlocked.

Another important element of the post-New Order regime is the development of privatized security (Honna 2013, 181–196). The rapid growth of office buildings, apartments, shopping malls, and gated communities has greatly increased the demand for private security guards. Developers also sometimes mobilize an army of guards during conflicts over land. On the other hand, the post-New Order government has deregulated both the setting up of new security companies and the outsourcing of security services, resulting in the mushrooming of new security companies. Masaaki Okamoto’s study provides a noteworthy case of the tie-up between the Agung Podomoro Group, the top apartment developer, and BPPKB, a mass-based security organization (Okamoto 2006). BPPKB was set up in July 1998 and presided over by Noer Indradjaja, the head of the legal section of Sunter Agung Co. Ltd. (a holding company of the Agung Podomoro Group). Both Agung Podomoro and BPPK have experienced phenomenal growth in the post-New Order era; while the Agung Podomoro group has built many apartments, BPPK has provided services in land acquisition and security.

The growth of the private security industry is a privatized form of an answer to the challenge of maintaining social order and security in the growingly polarized urban environment. It also functions as a social stabilizer because it contributes greatly to an increase in employment. As Jun Honna has pointed out, this privatization process has close relations with the co-optation and incorporation of organized thugs, locally known as preman. Preman groups accommodate those who are excluded from the fruit of present economic growth and give them a sort of order. It seems that for the ruling elites in the administration, the kind of hierarchy and order preman create is better suited to controlling and co-opting than allowing an unorganized urban mass that might explode at any time in an uncontrolled manner.

The political mobilization of Islam has also been tried in various ways to suppress the discontent and to attract support for the regime. Islam is a common denominator for both sides of the social cleavage in this region, where roughly 85 percent of residents are Muslim. One example is the 2012 gubernatorial election of the Jakarta provincial government. Incumbent Governor Fauzi in many ways represented the existing establishment (of ruling coalition parties, bureaucrats, leaders of mass organizations, and religious authority). Ken Miichi’s study exemplifies how thoroughly Islam was exploited as a political resource by Fauzi’s election campaign (Miichi 2014). As he pointed out, Fauzi’s appeal to Islam was indeed effective in luring a significant portion of relatively lower-educated and less affluent (mainly Betawi, and also some Javanese) voters, thus providing another example that the banner of Islam is politically very effective in covering wide divisions among classes and sustaining the existing socio-political hierarchy.

2 Change and Dynamics: Semi-middle Class Pressure and Strong Leadership
As has already been mentioned, the democratized political frameworks in the post-New Order era, with all their limits, are given an important role to accommodate the aspirations and discontent of the wider masses, while dominant urban governance is highly privatized. How, then, should we evaluate the victory of Joko Widodo (Jokowi) and Basuki Purnama (Ahok) in the 2012 gubernatorial election, and the subsequent victory of Jokowi and Jusuf Kalla in the 2014 presidential election? The factors behind the victory of the Jokowi-Ahok duo have been analyzed in great detail from multiple perspectives, such as by Okamoto (2014), Abdul Hamid (2014), Ahmad Suaedy (2014), Wahyu Prasetyawan (2014), and Miichi (2014). Here, this author would just like to add a tentative hypothesis to stimulate further discussion. First, the victory of Jokowi and Ahok may suggest the potential influence of the semi-middle class. Miichi pointed out that ethnic Betawi and some lower-educated (and probably less affluent) Javanese voters tended to prioritize religious and ethnic affinity, while the more educated (and probably more affluent) people tended to support Jokowi-Ahok (Miichi 2014, 67–68). On the other hand, what I call the “middle-class core” is wealthy and well educated but comprises only around 5–15 percent of the population in Jabodetabek, hence it is too small in terms of voting power. The “semi-middle class” are probably much larger29) and can have a bigger voice in elections. They generally live in conventional kampung neighborhoods and hence have much to gain from improvements in infrastructure, housing, and other public services. Living side by side with the lower class, they can position themselves as the new mainstream in society, representing the grievances of the wider masses.

Second, Jokowi and Ahok as governor show a clear orientation to rebuilding and reasserting the role of the public sector to counter the various problems exacerbated by the highly privatized urban developments. Most of their high-profile policies have been targeted at low-income people, such as direct cash subsidies for students from low-income households, free medical services for poor families, and relocation of slum residents to better-equipped rental apartments. Other policies, such as improvement of busways and other public transport, also seem to target the semi-middle to lower classes: the benefits of these policies are at best indirect to the middle-class core, who can afford to buy good living environments and amenities from developers-cum-privatized governments.

As for the issue of housing, for example, the duo has visibly been paying great attention to the housing needs of the lower classes. Being aware that even the lowest-priced apartment unit would not be affordable for the lower classes, their policy so far has focused primarily on rental apartments (rumah susun sederhana sewa, or rusunawa). They have devoted significant amounts of time and energy to directly negotiate with residents who occupy the banks of flood-prone rivers and reservoirs about relocating to public rental apartments. Most of these public apartments were planned and constructed during the terms of Sutiyoso and Fauzi Bowo, but they did not receive any serious attention and lack decent facilities such as road access, public transportation, educational facilities, and shopping places. Compounded with rampant mismanagement and corruption, many buildings were left deserted or appropriated by residents who did not meet the proper criteria.30) During the first year of their term, Jokowi and Ahok made the most of these existing stocks of housing, upgrading them to make them livable. They also disciplined the management of existing public apartments, discharging corrupt officials and evicting wealthier residents who had illegally appropriated the units. Their painstaking approach has started bearing fruit, and many of the occupants of riverbanks or reservoirs are moving to rusunawa, making it easier for the government to dredge the rivers and expand the reservoirs, hence decreasing the risk of flooding.31)

As for the traffic problem, Jokowi and Ahok have obviously tried hard to encourage as many people as possible to shift from private cars to public transport. To speed up the process, they have paid great attention to the improvement of the busway, such as rapid upgrading of the number of buses and reorganizing the operators. Since Jokowi became the President, they have cooperated together and exerted leadership in coordinating various public agencies to realize the newly incepted LRT.32) All of the above-mentioned measures need time to bring meaningful changes to the general housing and traffic condition. Until now, the leaders’ strong leadership and commitment to resolve the issues gave a sense of the process speeding up. It also showed that, equipped with a strong leadership and clear orientation, a local government could have the clout to improve the living conditions of the urban masses and narrow the social cleavages. However, the importance of leadership also means that the momentum of change can be easily lost with a change in governorship.

Third, the ascent of Jokowi and Kalla into the presidency creates a unique arrangement of political leadership, and that may be helpful in tackling urban issues of Jabodetabek, especially housing. It is noteworthy that before becoming the president and vice president in 2014, both Jokowi and Kalla had expended considerable time and energy on the issue of urban housing. As already mentioned, Kalla campaigned for the construction of 1,000 towers of affordable apartments in the first cabinet of the Yudhoyono presidency. However, he was frustrated by the resistance of the Jakarta administration, then headed by Fauzi Bowo. Kalla was cut from the second Yudhoyono cabinet in 2009, and he also lost the top position in the Golkar party, while Fauzi Bowo continued to enjoy strong support from Yudhoyono’s Democratic Party. When Jokowi became a candidate in the Jakarta gubernatorial election, Kalla openly supported him, defying the party line of Golkar (headed by Aburizal Bakrie), which had decided to support Fauzi.33) Soon after Jokowi won and became the governor, Jakarta was hit by heavy flooding in early 2013. This pushed the issue of housing to the foreground, with flood refugees to be housed and occupants of riverbanks and water reservoirs to be relocated for future flood prevention. These events and experiences foreshadowed the 2015 presidential election, when Kalla became Jokowi’s running mate while Bakrie’s Golkar chose to support the opponents Prabowo Subianto-Hatta Rajasa. Now, it seems that both the central and Jakarta governments have leaderships that are willing to work together to increase the supply of affordable apartments.34) However, it is too early to say whether the new political arrangement will help to overcome the difficulties of coordination and bring substantive improvements to the various urban problems in Jabodetabek.


This paper has provided a brief political-economic analysis to examine the characteristics of the post-New Order era from the perspective of urban development in the metropolitan region, by addressing several important points. First, by showing a table of major satellite city projects before and after the New Order, this paper argues that the basic patterns of urban development have not changed profoundly. Rather, what has appeared is a modified reuse of the patterns of the New Order. The policies of large-scale, privately developed satellite cities and the oligopolistic control of the land and housing market in Bodetabek have persisted, although the rise and fall of some business actors have modified the composition of the oligopoly. Previous studies on large satellite cities in Jabodetabek have not shown a comparison of the situations before and after the regime change, as detailed as Table 1 of this paper. The mushrooming of new buildings in CBD and sub-CBD areas have also further strained the density without changing the basic city structure established during the New Order.

Second, this paper argues that the continuation in the pattern of urban development owes greatly to the developers’ ability to organize themselves and protect their collective interests through business associations such as REI and KADIN, and also to the fact that developers have deepened ties with dominant political parties and thus have succeeded in having representatives of their voice in the newly empowered parliament. In addition, politicians from a business background (including property development) now occupy the top strata of the central government, and this makes it easier for business circles to reflect their interests in the government’s economic policy. Previous studies on Jabodetabek tended to focus on either geographic, demographic, or social aspects and hence bypass the political dimension of how private developers sustained support for the concentration of land resources into their hands after the total meltdown of the property industry around 1998 and the collapse of Suharto’s New Order.

Third, this study points out that the developers’ capital accumulation and the spatial articulation of the middle class go hand in hand, having created a de facto alliance between developers and the middle-class core. In most cases, it is only after the New Order era that a significant number of residents settled into these satellite cities and made them “real” inhabited cities. Now, Jakarta is surrounded by Bodetabek, with dozens of satellite cities characterized by dual governments—public and privatized. These satellite cities, each more than 500 ha, are developed and managed by private companies as profit-oriented businesses. The population with high purchasing power is rapidly increasing, and its needs are well represented in the spatial structures and the management of these privatized cities. On the other hand, the commercially unviable semi-middle and lower classes are spatially alienated, and their needs are largely ignored under the highly privatized urban governance. Their living environments are poorly managed by the public governments, and their adaptation to the car-oriented urban structure has exacerbated the traffic gridlock.

Fourth, this paper points out several components of the post-New Order regime that function to cover the social cleavages, such as the rapid growth of the privatized security industry, co-optation of large preman groups, and political mobilization of Islamic symbols. While both the central and local governments have failed to significantly ameliorate the hardship of excluded classes, these components help to maintain security and order, alleviating the tension from widening social cleavages. Previous studies generally discussed these topics separately from the spatial dimension of post-New Order regime formation.

Fifth, this paper points out that the dominant spatial-class articulation largely fails to incorporate the growing population of the semi-middle class. While they are highly upward oriented and influenced by the hegemonic values and lifestyle embodied by the middle-class core, they are excluded from the dominant developer-middle class alliance. Under the democratic setting of the post-Suharto regime, they can express their discontent toward the status quo through their voting and other forms of support to politicians, adding dynamics and complexities to the political landscape.

Sixth, the existence of a public and private “dual government,” along with the relationship between the newly strengthened local governments and the central government, makes a coordinated approach to the urban problems more challenging. For example, the failure of Kalla’s initiative to provide massive amounts of rusunami showed both the responsiveness of some political elites to the public aspirations, and the difficulty of effective implementation. On the other hand, Jakarta’s new governor Jokowi and his vice governor and successor Ahok have consciously readdressed the distortions of preceding urban development and the imbalances between privately managed spaces and publicly managed areas. Experiences of the past few years show that they have tackled issues that needed to be addressed. This implies that the leadership of local governments does matter. Jokowi’s enormous popularity as the governor subsequently made him the strongest candidate in the presidential election, and finally led to the presidency. Although this underlines the importance of the issues of the capital city in shaping the future agenda on a national scale, we have yet to see the lasting legacy of this new political leadership arrangement on the urban issues of Jabodetabek.

Accepted: June 16, 2015


The initial versions of this paper were presented in two seminars held in Kyoto and Jakarta as a part of the project “Constructing a Southeast Asian model for co-existence of multiple civilizations in the global era,” held by the Center for Southeast Asian Studies of Kyoto University, Indonesian Institution of Sciences, and Japan Society for the Promotion of Science. The draft has experienced significant changes since the last presentation, reflecting many constructive advices and criticisms by fellow scholars. I express my sincere gratitude to Masaaki Okamoto, Jun Honna, Tagayasu Naito, several anonymous referees, and also to Kathleen Azali and another anonymous copy-editor for good advices and criticisms.


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Properti Indonesia. Jakarta: PT Totalmegah Medianusa.

Weekly NNA Consum. Jakarta: PT NNA Indonesia.

Statistical Data Books
BPS. Various years. Statistik Indonesia. Jakarta: Badan Pusat Statistik.

―. 2011. Statistik Struktur Upah 2009–2010 [Wage structure statistics 2009–2010] (Katalog BPS 2305010).

BPS Kabupaten Bekasi. 2010. Kabupaten Bekasi dalam Angka [Bekasi regency in figures] (Katalog BPS 1403. 3216).

BPS Provinsi Jawa Barat. 2011. Menuju Era Baru Kependudukan Jawa Barat: Analisis Profile Kependudukan Provinsi Jawa Barat [Toward a new era of West Java population: The analysis of population profiles of West Java province] (Hasil SP 2010) (Katalog BPS:3201.32).

―. 2010. Penyusunan Data Sosial Ekonomi Masyarakat Provinsi Jawa Barat Tahun 2009 [The compilation of socio-economical data in West Java province, Year 2009].

Web Sites
Agung Podomoro Group.

Badan Pusat Statistik.

Ciputra Group.

Colliers International.


DKI Jakarta.

Indonesia Investment Coordinating Board.

Indonesia Investment Coordinating Board.

Lippo Karawaci.


MRT Jakarta.

Pondok Indah Group.



Sinarmas Land.

1) Abidin Kusno in his interpretive study of urban space and architecture has repeatedly addressed this issue (Kusno 2000; 2010). Peter Rimmer and Howard Dick, although approaching the subject from a totally different theoretical perspective, also stressed this point in analyzing how the class division of large cities in Southeast Asia is spatially articulated (Rimmer and Dick 2009, Chapters 5 and 8). Also see the analysis of Malaysia’s Multimedia Super Corridor by Tim Bunnell (2003) and Brenda Yeoh’s study on colonial Singapore (2003).

2) If we sum up the population of all regencies and cities in Jabodetabek from the annual report on each regency and municipality by BPS (such as Kabupaten Bogor dalam Angka 2011), the total population of Jabodetabek in 2010 was 279,426,508. The population of Jakarta in 2010 was 9,607,787, according to BPS (, accessed August 27, 2015).

3) Grand Wisata, although succeeding to the land-bank of former Kota Legenda project, is being marketed as a totally new project. Sentul Nirwana (formerly Bukit Jonggol Asri) was launched in 2010, after the Bakrie Group had bought up a significant portion of the shares of PT Bukit Jonggol Asri and its parent company, PT Sentul City. However, the Bakrie Group then fell into financial difficulties and had to give up most of the shares. In 2014 the Corruption Eradication Commission arrested the director of the company along with the governor of Bogor, Rahmat Yasin, on corruption charges. Because of these negative events, it is unlikely that this project, still composed of only a few residential clusters, will develop into a true satellite city in the near future.

4) Gading Serpong is now being developed by two separate developers, but it retains coherence as a single satellite city. Telaga Kahuripan, although still exists and is being marketed, has long been stagnant and remains an ordinary housing estate.

5) Very recently, Jaya Real Property started developing a housing estate named Grand Batavia in Pasar Kemis, Tangerang, probably using a land-bank for Puri Jaya project. However, this is a quite recent event and this author does not have data whether this project signals the rebirth of long-stalled Puri Jaya.

6) Members of the Suharto family (Hutomo Mandara Putra, Bambang Trihatmodjo, Sudwikatmono, Siti Hardijanti Rukmana, and Probosutejo) and those who engaged in business with the Suharto family (Ibrahim Risjad) are underlined and also included in the excerpt, although they are not extensively engaged in the property business any more.

7) The Sinarmas Group developed Banjar Wijaya in Tangerang City, Telaga Golf Sawangan in Depok City, and Kota Bunga in Bogor (Puncak area). These are smaller than 500 ha, so they were not included in Table 1. See Properti Indonesia (March 2004).

8) The company is listed on the Singapore Exchange and headquartered in Singapore on paper, but the company’s projects outside Indonesia are almost negligible. For the company’s projects in Indonesia, Singapore, China, and Malaysia, see the company’s annual report (Sinarmas Land Limited 2012) and homepage (, accessed October 6, 2015).

9) See for the group’s multiple projects spread all over Indonesia (Accessed October 6, 2015). Also see Bisnis Properti (March 2004) and Properti Indonesia (October 2011) for the business strategies of the Ciputra Group in the post-New Order period.

10) “Kasus suap bupati Bogor, Bakrie kembalikan Bukit Jonggol ke Sentul City” (DetikNews, May 9, 2014, accessed September 23, 2015) [].

11) For a fairly comprehensive list of apartment developments during the New Order, see Properti Indonesia (June 1997, 24).

12) In 2011, Weekly NNA Consum magazine conducted a survey on 100 white-collar workers aged older than 20 (both male and female) who lived and worked in Jabodetabek. Asked what kind of house they hoped to live in, the majority of respondents chose a landed house with two floors (60 percent) or a single floor (31 percent). Only 1 percent answered that they hoped to live in an apartment, testifying to the strong desire to live in landed houses (The Weekly NNA Consum, October 21, 2011. No. 159, 5).

13) Gading Mediterania Residences (Kelapa Gading, North Jakarta, 1,650 units), Mediterania Boulevard Residences & Mediterania Lagoon Residences (Kemayoran, Central Jakarta, about 1,200 units), Mediterania Garden Residences I, II (Tanjung Duren, West Jakarta, about 5,700 units; more than 8,000 units in Podomoro City superblock as a whole), Mediterania Marina Residences (Ancol, North Jakarta, 1,900 units). Sudirman Park (Jl K.H. Mangsyur, Central Jakarta, 1,500 units) is also one of the group’s project with a similar price range, although it is not branded as “Mediterania.” For the details of the group’s major projects, see Signature Properties in Jakarta (2010), the group’s official website (, accessed October 6, 2015), and several real-estate directories. For the phenomenal growth of the Agung Podomoro Group in the post-New Order era, see Bisnis Properti (February 2004, 12–26).

14) The Bakrie Group sold 3 ha to the Tiara Marga Trakindo Group in 2011, and another 5 ha to PT Bumi Serpong Damai Tbk under the Sinarmas Group in 2014 (“Lima indikasi bangkrutnya Bakrie,”, February 12, 2014, accessed September 23, 2015,

15) For the Lippo Group’s major activities since the first decade of the twenty-first century, see Globe Asia (August 2007, 162–166), the annual reports of Lippo Karawaci Tbk, and the company’s website (, accessed October 6, 2015).

16) The group is developing Pondok Indah through PT Metropolitan Kentjana while developing the Kembangan area through PT Antilope Madju Puri Indah. See the official website of Pondok Indah Group (, accessed October 6, 2015).

17) Also see Properti Indonesia (March 2004, 28), which interviewed M.S. Hidayat about the relationship between KADIN and the property industry.

18) In Jabodetabek, a “trade center” is a type of shopping center where all or the majority of retail space is subdivided into hundreds of relatively small compartments and sold in lots.

19) Examples of housing prices here are loosely based on the search results of a property Web site (, accessed October 6, 2015) in early February 2014. For example, a house (building 70 m2/ land 72 m2) in Nusa Loka District (one of the old, non-clustered districts) in BSD City was on sale for Rp.590 million (listing ID hos145285), while another house (B: 60 m2/ L: 78 m2) in Neo Catalonia cluster was priced at Rp.760 million (listing ID1029026). In Citra Raya, a house with B: 21/L60 was Rp.185 million (hos1167187), and another one with B90/L72 was Rp.220 million (hos1150987). The assumption of interest rate is based on KPR Bank Permata in early February 2014.

20) Kurasawa’s “pseudo middle-class” is defined primarily by lifestyle and value, and income level is given secondary importance. However, in explaining a typical image of this class, Kurasawa mentions that monthly household income is around Rp.3–5 million. This also fits well with this paper’s analysis that Rp.5 million was the lower threshold of the middle-class core around 2010.

21) “More Malls in Tangerang” (, August 27, 2013), accessed September 23, 2015, “Pendapatan Retribusi IMB dan HO Lampaui Target” (Satelitnews, June 20, 2013), accessed June 4, 2015.

22) Surat Keputusan Bersama Menteri Dalam Negeri, Menteri Pekerjaan Umum, Menteri Negara Perumahan Rakyat tentang Pedoman Pembangunan Perumahan dan Permukiman Dengan Lingkungan Hunian Yang Berimbang.

23) Assuming that the average size of immigrant households is 3.35 persons, about 44,000 households in Bekasi and 33,100 households in Depok city are made up of immigrant families. The average household size in Jabotabek is roughly 4 persons, but in the case of Bekasi regency in 2009 it was 3.35 persons. Because the immigrant population can include a relatively high percentage of singles and young couples, their average household size could be much smaller than 3.35.

24) In comparison, the gross regional product of Jakarta was about Rp.371 trillion in 2009 (from the Web site of Indonesia Investment Coordinating Board, “Display Ekonomi PDRB DKI JAKARTA,” accessed September 23, 2015 (

25) It is worth noting that BSD City and Gading Serpong worked together to build a direct road between the two cities. Hudalah and Firman also report that seven industrial estates in Bekasi decided to coordinate and jointly develop infrastructure (Hudalah and Firman 2012, 46).

26) Tentang PT. MRT Jakarta (, accessed June 2, 2015.

27) For LRT, see the following articles: “Kisah Jokowi-Ahok di Balik Pembangunan LRT di Jakarta” (, September 9, 2015),“LRT Tahap I Diharapkan Atasi Kemacetan dari Bekasi dan Cibubur” (, September 9, 2015), “Presiden: Akhiri Polemik Kereta Ringan” (, August 19, 2015), all accessed September 24, 2015.

28) For a chronology of the blockade, see the following articles: “Soal Penyegelan Rusunami Kalibata Bisa Diselesaikan” (, April 8, 2009), “Enam Proyek Rusunami di Jakarta Disegel” (, April 30, 2009), “Segera Dibentuk, Tim Penyelesasian Perizinan Rusun (, April 29, 2009), “DKI Percepat Proses Perizinan Rusunami” (, May 18, 2009), “Pemprov DKI Beri Keringanan Pembayaran Denda Rusunami” (, May 29, 2009), “Pemerintah Daerah Persulit Bangun Rumah Susun” (, April 15, 2013). For the deadlock of the policy, see “Program 1.000 ‘Tower’ Mati Suri” (, March 9, 2012). All the Web articles above were last accessed September 23, 2015.

29) I cannot provide an estimate of their number, because “semi-middle class” is not defined solely in terms of income or specific professions but also includes lifestyle and upward orientation.

30) For the condition of rusunawa under Fauzi’s governorship, see “11 Rusun di Jakarta Terbengkalai” (, May 26, 2013), “Rusun di Cengkareng Banyak ‘Hantunya’” (, January 19, 2012), “Ada Kabar Mau Dikunjungi Ahok, Rusun di Cengkareng Buru-buru Diperbaiki” (, February 4, 2013), “Isu Anak Hilang Dibawa Gendruwo Gegerkan Rusun Penggilingan” (, December 13, 2013), “Pemerintah Daerah Persulit Bangun Rumah Susun” (, April 15, 2013). All the Web articles above were last accessed September 23, 2015. Data Mengenai Rumah Susun Yang Telah Di Bangundan Belum Dihuni Di Provinsi DKI Jakarta lists the vacant rusunawa as of December 2011 (a document in the databank of the official homepage of Jakarta provincial government [], accessed October 6, 2015).

31) For an example of disciplining measures, see “20 Unit Rusun Marunda dan 200 unit Rusun Tipar Cakung disegel” (, May 24, 2013, accessed September 23, 2015). For examples of relocation, see “Pindah ke Rusun, Warga Sentiong Ucapkan Terima Kaish kepada Jokowi” (, February 10, 2014, accessed September 23, 2015), “Citizen Relocation Process to Pinus Elok Flat Finished, Jokowi Says” (, October 3, 2013, accessed on June 2, 2015), “Warga Bantaran Kali Sentiong Pindah ke Rusunawa” (, February 8, 2014, accessed on September 23, 2015).

32) For example, see “Kisah Jokowi-Ahok di Balik Pembangunan LRT di Jakarta” (, September 9, 2015) accessed September 23, 2015.

33) For Kallas’s support to Jokowi in the gubernatorial election, see “Alasan Jusuf Kalla Dukung Jokowi” (, August 6, 2012, accessed on June 2, 2015).

34) For the comments on housing policies (especially those affecting affordable apartments) by Jusuf Kalla before the presidential election campaign, see “JK Optimis Jokowi Dapat Atasi Banjir” (, January 19, 2014), “Jakarta Banjir, JK Sindir Jokowi Soal Rusun ‘1.000 Tower’” (, February 5, 2014). For the campaign promise, see “Jokowi-JK Akan Bangun 5.000 Menara Rusun” (, June 11, 2014), “Jokowi-JK Bakal Nasionalkan Program Kampung Deret” (Republika Online, June 13, 2014), “Jusuf Kalla janji bangun rumah susun untuk buruh” (, June 21, 2014). For Jokowi-Kalla’s move after the election, see “Jokowi Pilih Urus Rusun ketimbang Gugatan Prabowo ke MK” (, August 6, 2014), “Pemerintah akan permudah izin proyek permukiman kelas bawah” (, November 13, 2014), “Jokowi Sebut DKI Punya Kemampuan Bangun Ribuan Rusun” (, April 29, 2015). All the Web articles above were last accessed on June 2, 2015.


Vol. 4, No. 3, CHANDRA

Contents>> Vol. 4, No. 3

Blossoming Dahlia: Chinese Women Novelists in Colonial Indonesia

Elizabeth Chandra*

*Department of Politics, Keio University, 2-15-45 Mita, Minato-ku, Tokyo 108-8345, Japan; Socio-Cultural Research Institute, Ryukoku University, 1-5 Yokotani, Seta Oe-cho, Otsu, Shiga 520-2194, Japan

e-mail: ec54[at]

In the early decades of the twentieth century in colonial Indonesia, one witnessed the proliferation of novels in which women were thematized as the femme fatale. These novels were written largely by male novelists as cautionary tales for girls who had a European-style school education and therefore were perceived to be predisposed to violating customary gender norms in the pursuit of personal autonomy. While such masculinist responses to women and material progress have been well studied, women’s views of the social transformation conditioned by modernization and secular education are still insufficiently understood. This essay responds to this scantiness with a survey of texts written by Chinese women novelists who emerged during the third and fourth decades of the twentieth century, drawing attention in particular to the ways in which these texts differed from those written by their male predecessors. More important, this essay highlights the works by one particular woman novelist, Dahlia, who wrote with an exceptionally distinct female voice and woman-centered viewpoint.

Keywords: Sino-Malay literature, Chinese women, women novelists, Dahlia, Tan Lam Nio, Indonesia

In the history of modern literature in Indonesia, women regularly served as a thematic subject of representation. Scores of early twentieth century novels in the then Dutch East Indies tell the story of a young woman protagonist who, influenced by Western education, casts aside tradition and as a consequence meets a tragic end—she is disowned by her parents, forsaken by her lover, shunned by her community, and withers away with remorse. These novels, which place women at the center of their moral, were written largely by male novelists as cautionary tales for girls who had a European-style school education and therefore were perceived to be predisposed to violating customary gender norms in the pursuit of personal autonomy.

While such masculinist responses to women and material progress have been studied (Sidharta 1992; Coppel 2002a; Chandra 2011; Hellwig 2012, 127–150), women’s views of the social transformation conditioned by industrialization and secular education are still insufficiently understood, for the simple reason that very few writers in the early decades of the twentieth century were women. While the literary output by female writers is nowhere near that produced by male writers, Chinese women in the Indies actually published quite a number of texts, which taken together are more than what was produced by women of other ethnic groups in colonial Indonesia. A few scholars have accorded these works the attention they deserve (Salmon 1984; Chan 1995; Hellwig 2012, 151–179), while others have found it convenient to avoid them even in discussions about Indonesian women’s writings of the 1930s (Hatley and Blackburn 2000).

This essay examines female subjectivity in early twentieth century Indonesia by surveying the field of Chinese women writers, whose publishing outlets afforded them a comparatively sizeable production in Malay literature. To twist Sigmund Freud’s famous question, this essay asks “What did Chinese women write?” and proceeds to examine literary texts—especially novels—penned by women. It attempts to see whether there are indeed discernible patterns of themes, motifs, genres, or other creative elements specific to women authors. It discusses, among other things, the curious phenomenon of male authors writing in the feminine voice, and what might have motivated such a claim of feminine authorial subjectivity. Most important, this essay spotlights one female novelist by the pen name Dahlia, who was arguably the most promising female author of her generation as she wrote with exceptionally distinct female agency.

Identifying Women Authors

It has been established that although the most prolific and innovative literary productions in Malay in the first half of the twentieth century came out of the Chinese segment of the Indies population, very few of the writers were women. My own accounting, based on surviving literary publications, estimates no more than 50 Chinese women authors—that is, those attributed with book publications—compared with approximately 800 Chinese male writers from the turn of the twentieth century until the end of the colonial period.1) One can speculate that the Confucian patriarchal bias was holding back education for Chinese girls in the Indies, or that as a migrant group, the Chinese population had a demography that was naturally tilted toward the male population. Census data shows that even in 1930, Chinese males outnumbered their female counterparts 2 to 1.2) This factor, however, can be dismissed as most of the Chinese writers in the Indies were not first generation immigrants but were creolized settlers (peranakan) whose mother tongue was Malay rather than a Chinese dialect.3) Likewise, lack of education as a factor is only partly true, because from early on access to formal education was opened up to both Chinese boys and girls. Since its inception in 1901, the community-subsidized Tiong Hoa Hwee Koan (THHK) schools made rooms for Chinese girls to attend and study alongside boys.4) But while access to formal education was accorded to both sexes at the same time, it was the attitude toward education for girls that eventually factored into the gender imbalance in the field of literature.

The establishment of THHK schools was first and foremost intended for boys, as an investment for their social mobility, whereas for girls education was considered not imperative, even problematic. Even in the early years of the THHK school in Batavia, the first school of its kind, female students were admitted as a temporary solution before a special school exclusively for girls was created (Nio 1940, 17, 60). The girls were taught separately from the boys; and in addition to learning Mandarin, English, and other subjects, they learned practical domestic skills such as sewing, embroidering, and other crafts associated with women.5)

While access to education was open to Chinese girls in the Indies, the prevailing view in the early decades of the twentieth century was that education was not essential for their social mobility. While a boy needed formal education in order to acquire gainful employment, a girl was expected to secure her future by marrying well. Many of those who were fortunate enough to experience a school education in their youth would eventually give it up in their adolescent years, when they were withdrawn from school and began the period of customary seclusion (pingitan) until they were married. The practice and stringency of seclusion varied, from strict prison-like confinement to lax observance—freer association under parental supervision—depending on the parents’ cultural orientation and the family’s social standing. In this essay I refer to as “patriarchal” the complex economic arrangement in which the household, including daughters, is subsumed under the authority of the father as the ultimate proprietor (Engels 2004). In public, this arrangement translates into a social system in which the male figure holds authority over the female sex (Walby 1990; McClintock 1993). Under patriarchy, women serve as objects to be exchanged in order for men to build alliances or gain prestige, ultimately to consolidate the system (Levi-Strauss 1969; Rubin 1975; Irigaray 1985). As we shall see below, it was this patriarchal authority—and specifically its utilitarian approach toward marriage—that was challenged in the early twentieth century when Indies society transitioned to modernity.

Early on, until around the 1910s, parents who sent their daughters to school were counted as progressive, until the practice became commonplace and basic education such as reading and writing skills became a practical necessity even for those who did not expect to work in the formal sector. In the second and third decades of the twentieth century, a progressive (moderen, madjoe) parent would not subject his daughter to pingitan but would let her work in the formal sector outside the home and perhaps even allow her to choose her own marriage partner. This type of parent, however, was rare, and intergenerational clash between old-fashioned (kolot) parents and moderen daughters was a frequent theme in novels written by both male and female authors of these decades.

A parent’s social standing could make a difference in terms of education for girls. Before the advent of THHK schools, families of means could afford to hire private European or Chinese tutors for their children or send them to schools that were generally reserved for Europeans but were open to children of privileged Chinese and native Indies families. Chinese parents of such an elite circle could be expected to have developed a more accepting attitude toward school education for daughters. Liem Titie Nio, one of the earliest Chinese women journalists in the Indies, who edited the women’s column in the weekly Tiong Hoa Wi Sien Po (Chinese Reformist Newspaper)—founded in Bogor in 1906—appears to have come from such a privileged background (Salmon 1981). Another pioneering woman journalist, Lie On Moy, was also well connected: she was married to the prominent writer and publisher Lauw Giok Lan, with whom she collaborated in the publication of the weekly Penghiboer (Entertainer), which first appeared in 1913 (ibid.). Many of their publications do not survive for our examination, but Lauw’s Malay translations of Dutch novels and plays signal the couple’s extensive European education and early exposure to literary works in at least Dutch. One imagines the same case for Tan Tjeng Nio, the author (composer) of highly popular verses, compiled by Intje Ismail in Sair Tiga Sobat Nona Boedjang (Verses of Three Bachelorette Friends), which was published by Albrecht & Co. in 1897 and went to the seventh edition in 1924. The book-length poetry itself is so intriguing and provocative for its tone and subject matter—questioning the merit of marriage for women—that it warrants a separate discussion devoted solely to it.6)

At any rate, the proliferation of secular, Western-style education from the early twentieth century provided the material structure for the eventual emergence of Chinese women novelists in the Indies. Initially formal education created a gulf between generations, giving rise to the new social category of kaoem moeda (the young generation)—educated youth whose worldview was radically different from their parents’ (Shiraishi 1990). Education and exposure to emancipatory ideas accorded the young generation a new subjectivity—one that has been identified as uniquely modern—that is, a newly attained consciousness concerning their place in the formerly rigid social hierarchies. While superficially the qualities of being modern have been associated with a range of novel practices, from attending school to going to the cinema and wearing Western-style outfits, on a deeper, cognitive level, being modern signifies “the ability to achieve an identity as opposed to always being defined by identity given by birth” (Siegel 1997, 93). Exposed to new ideas, the young generation in the Indies challenged existing norms, including received notions of morality, marriage, and the family. While in earlier times marriage was largely an economic transaction between families, for the younger generation, compatibility and romantic love became essentials. School education also fostered divergent views and expectations regarding gender roles, a theme that is central in many novels penned by women authors.

Identifying women writers and resurrecting them from the depths of historical obscurity is not an easy task, but it has been made possible by Claudine Salmon’s influential work Literature in Malay by the Chinese of Indonesia: A Provisional Annotated Bibliography (1981), which to this day remains the most comprehensive reference on Sino-Malay literature. Salmon (1984) herself has done a remarkable review of Chinese women authors, whose works she divides into three broad periods based on their outlook toward women’s emancipation: from the beginning until 1924, from 1925 to 1928, and from 1929 to 1942. While my discussion on women writers does not subscribe to Salmon’s periodization, it relies on her works in identifying especially writers who were not novelists or translators, in other words, those who did not leave behind published books. Countless essays and short stories penned by women writers graced popular Sino-Malay magazines, especially because many novelists were also freelance journalists or launched their writing career in journalism. It will take an extensive collaborative effort to compile and study the materials scattered in various magazines, an endeavor Faye Yik-Wei Chan (1995) has initiated with an examination of two Sino-Malay magazines, the weekly Panorama (1926–31) and the women’s monthly Maandblad Istri (1935–42). Tineke Hellwig (2012, 151–179) retraces Salmon’s review of Chinese women authors, drawing attention to a selection of texts that reflect women’s self-definition. While my discussion covers much of the same territory as Salmon’s and Hellwig’s articles, what each of us finds to be noteworthy and the conclusions we draw vary considerably. In addition, this essay problematizes the question of voice, specifically gendered voice, and to a good extent concentrates on one author, Dahlia.

The most straightforward way to identify the women authors is by name. Names with the feminine qualifier “Nio” can be safely assumed to be women, such as the above-mentioned Tan Tjeng Nio and Liem Titie Nio.7) Others used female honorifics, such as Njonja (Mrs.) The Tiang Ek, Miss Kin, Miss Huang, and Miss I. N. Liem—seemingly the female counterparts of the many “Monsieurs” among pen names used by male writers, such as Monsieur d’Amour, Monsieur Novel, Monsieur Adonis, Monsieur Hsu, and Monsieur Kekasih.

Gender identification becomes trickier when it comes to pseudonyms. The “Njonja” and “Nona” in pen names such as “Njonja Pasar Baroe” and “Nona Glatik” no longer function as female honorifics but as synonyms of married and unmarried women—therefore, “Dame of Pasar Baroe” and “Songbird Girl.” The use of the non-honorific “Nona” in pen names was especially popular early on in the poetry genre. Nona Glatik, Si Nonah Boto (Cute Damsel), Si Nona Boedjang (Maiden Girl), and Si Nona Manis (Charming Damsel) were all authors of poetry books from the turn of the twentieth century and the 1920s. Though Salmon (1984, 152) refers to them as women poets, many of their compositions do not indicate that the texts were written by women. Si Nona Boedjang’s Boekoe Pantoen Karang-karangan (Book of Motley Verses, 1891), for instance, contains a collection of poems commemorating the eruption of Krakatoa and the incident of murder and robbery that took the life of the Resident of Tamboen. The collection also carries social pantoen, the traditional Malay verses, addressed to bachelorettes. In the same year, Si Nonah Boto published Rodja Melati (Jasmine Flower Strings), containing, among others, conventional pantoen of courtship, which likewise call out to an unnamed “girl” (nona). In both cases, the narrator (enunciator) takes the voice of a bachelor and the authors might not be women.

One encounters the same problem with other feminine pen names, such as Boenga Mawar (Rose), Melati-gambir (Jasmine), Venus, Mimi, and Madonna—all of whom appear to be male writers. Flowers and plants were especially popular for noms de plume, including, among women writers, Aster and Dahlia. While Mimi (a.k.a. Lim Kim Lip) and Madonna (a.k.a. Oen Hong Seng) were known to be male writers—their real identities were not concealed—one can only speculate about the others based on the tenor and temperament of their works. The voice in Boenga Mawar’s poems, compiled in Boekoe Pantoen Pengiboer Hati (Book of Verses to Please the Heart, 1902), is also masculine, referring to self interchangeably in the first person narrator “I” (saja) and the third person “baba” (term of address for creolized Chinese men). In another case, Venus wrote original novels as early as in the 1910s, when there did not seem to be Chinese women writing novels in the Indies. In the long introduction to Tjerita Gadis jang Genit, atawa Pengaroenja Oewang (Story of a Coquette, or the Influence of Money, 1921), Venus criticizes parents who use daughters as “bait” to lure wealthy suitors in order for the family to secure a comfortable life. Though seemingly critical of many parents’ materialistic tendency, Venus’s stories do not quite side with women either; in fact, they portray women in a negative light. Poesoet, the titular coquette in Tjerita Gadis jang Genit, endorses her parents’ scheme to get her to marry the son of a Chinese officer, while the family’s materialistic and dishonest dispositions are blamed on the mother. It is highly unlikely that Venus was a woman author.

This phenomenon of male writers assuming feminine pen names is indicative of the significance of gendered voice. Si Nonah Botoh, Si Nona Boedjang, Si Nona Manis, Nona Glatik, Boenga Mawar, Venus, Mimi, and Madonna were all (or likely) pseudonyms of male authors. The opposite case, where female writers took on masculine pseudonyms, has not been discovered among Indies Chinese women novelists, and appears to be uncommon. This pattern distinguished them somewhat from Victorian women novelists, who used pseudonyms to protect their reputation. In a society where the public sphere was still largely a male domain, exposing one’s inner thoughts to the reading public, though clothed as fiction, risked being seen as unseemly, unladylike. The Brontë sisters and Mary Ann Evans (a.k.a. George Eliot) used masculine names in part to avoid personal publicity, and so that their writings would be taken seriously by a reading public that still expected “serious” works to be written by men. The Brontë sisters did not want to reveal their gender because, as Charlotte Brontë explained, “without at that time suspecting that our mode of writing and thinking was not what is called ‘feminine’—we had a vague impression that authoresses are liable to be looked on with prejudice” (Bloom 2008, 8). These novelists foreshadowed J. K. Rowling, author of the best-selling Harry Potter series, who abbreviated her name to avoid being typecast by her gender and shunned by potential boy readers (Kennedy 2013).

What we see among authors in the Indies was rather different. While some women authors concealed their identity by using pseudonyms (e.g., Aster, Dahlia, Mrs. Leader) or abbreviations (Miss Kin, Miss Huang, Miss I. N. Liem), they generally did not conceal their gender. In her short memoir, Tjan Kwan Nio (1992) confesses to having used the pseudonym “Madame H” for what would be her first novel, Satoe Orang Sial (A Hapless Person, 1940), before being coaxed by the publisher into using her real name. While I agree with Salmon (1984) that women authors used pseudonyms to protect their reputation, in my view their gender had become an asset in the literary publishing industry at this time and was one of the reasons why a number of male authors published under feminine pseudonyms.

Leafing through popular literary journals like Penghidoepan (Life) and Tjerita Roman (Romance Stories), it does not escape one’s notice that many of the images and illustrations on the cover as well as inside the volumes feature women, often portrayed with “modern” accoutrements. On the covers of Penghidoepan especially, the woman does not gaze directly at the reader. She does not peer at the male reader to elicit masculine gaze, but projects herself in a way that draws non-erotic gaze.8) The woman on the cover usually looks pensive, as if absorbed in her own world. She is contemplative more than inviting; or she invites a different kind of response, one of identification more than erotic attraction. She appears to stand as a mirror, calling out to educated (thus, literate) women who recognize themselves in her image.

The January 1930 issue of Penghidoepan announced an essay contest to explicate the journal’s new cover illustration, which was to be used for one whole year.9) Judging from the journal’s name (“Life”) and contents thus far, the editor notes, readers must already have had some idea about its mission, which was to draw attention to matters essential in life and to present them in the form of stories. The new cover illustration was supposed to reflect this mission. It portrays a woman, a child, a wick lamp, an hourglass, two volumes of science books, an ink bottle, a quill, and a spooled scroll. Each of these items is supposed to relate to life, and readers are invited to submit their interpretations (see Fig. 1).


Fig. 1 Penghidoepan Cover Illustration 1930.

Source: KITLV digital books


Until its abrupt termination in February 1942 Penghidoepan would use cover illustrations of the same theme (see Figs. 2 and 3), with small alterations such as an image of a grown man (representing the husband figure) being added to the original young mother and boy toddler. The author Kwee Teng Hin, commenting on the cover illustration in his novel Maen Komedie (Play-Acting, 1933), sees it as a metaphor for the family: the husband figure leads the way by holding up the lamp, while the wife, gripping the quill, chronicles their life story. It is obvious in these illustrations that the woman is the central figure, surrounded by books, a blank scroll, a pen, a child, and sometimes a man. In each of these scenes, it is the woman who does the writing.


Fig. 2 Penghidoepan Cover Illustration 1933

Source: KITLV digital books


Fig. 3 Penghidoepan Cover Illustration 1938

Source: KITLV digital books


It appears that there was a consistent effort to court women readers on the part of popular literary journals and publishers. This was done by featuring stories where the central characters were women (which had been the case even in the 1910s), by drawing attention to issues and challenges women identified as uniquely theirs, such as arranged marriage, formal education, and career—and naturally by featuring women authors whenever possible. In the introduction to Tjan Kwan Nio’s Satoe Orang Sial (1940), the editor of Tjerita Roman expresses delight that the journal has accepted her manuscript “after not publishing any composition by women authors in a while.” The previous work by a woman author it had published was Gadis Goenoeng’s Anak Haram (Bastard Child, 1938),10) while in 1937 it had published Yang Lioe’s Pelita Penghidoepan (Beacon of Life) and Roro Paloepie’s Janie, and in 1936 it had published Rosita’s translation of the Chinese opera See Siang Kie. The journal did not publish any works by women authors in 1934 and 1935, save for the novels by a male author writing under the pen name “Madonna.” Seen in this light, it is not surprising that there were men authors using feminine pseudonyms, but not the reverse. This begs the question: Do women and men write differently?

Extensive inquiries into the nature of the sexes have shown that very little of what constitutes “man” or “woman” is inherently biological and that it has more to do with social constructs (Wittig 1981; Alcoff 1988). We know now that biological sex and social gender are two dissimilar things, and what distinguishes a female from a male author is to a great extent predetermined by social conventions and therefore mere echoes of the structure in and by which they are (en)gendered. Gayle Rubin (1975) has referred to this structure as the “sex/gender system,” which is a set of arrangements by which a society transforms the biological sex into human activity and in this manner reproduces gender conventions. Judith Butler (1990; 1993) goes so far as to equate gender with performativity—one taking on and acting out a set of prescribed attributes and practices associated with a gender. One important and easily identifiable gender attribute is no doubt naming, usually distinguished along the lines of feminine and masculine. Given the literary conventions of the time, when some degree of autobiographical affinity between authors and their writings was often assumed, the use of feminine pen names was no doubt to invoke and accord feminine qualities to one’s writing. The artistic ruse of taking on the feminine façade is a first step in the authorial attempt to speak in the feminine voice and appeal to potential women readers.

In fact, the romance genre itself, being the most common genre featured in popular magazines, seemed to demand women authors, if not the feminine voice.11) It has been noted that women were the subject of literary writings in the Indies from the early part of the twentieth century (Hellwig 1994a; 1994b; Chandra 2011). But while early novels tend to be antagonistic toward women, written in the tradition of the Decadent literary movement (Pierrot 1981; Chandra 2011), from the late 1920s one detects a gradual shift in tone coming from a younger generation of writers who were more exposed to ideas of equality between the sexes. Romance novels continued to feature female protagonists, and women readers continued to find in the heroines reflections of their own thoughts and desires. However, among the younger and more progressive women and men authors, the focus of conflict gradually shifted to the Chinese parents and customs, which were seen as rigid, irrational, and unfair to women. The dearth of women contributors, combined with the growing number of women readers whom romance publishers liked to court, might have motivated male authors to publish under feminine pseudonyms.

What Women Wrote

Up until the 1920s, women novelists appear to be nonexistent. The women writers were primarily poets—such as Tan Tjeng Nio and Lioe Gwat Kiauw Nio—or translators of Chinese works—such as Lie Keng Nio, Lie Loan Lian Nio, and Lie Djien Nio, who translated Chinese detective stories in the 1920s, before writing original novels and short stories in the following decade.

Women novelists began to emerge in the middle of the 1920s. Chan Leang Nio’s novel of a family drama set in Soerabaja, Tamper Moekanja Sendiri (To Slap One’s Own Face, 1925), was featured in the first year of the literary monthly Penghidoepan, an extraordinary feat for a woman, considering that popular journals such as Penghidoepan and Tjerita Roman featured only approximately one woman writer per year.12) Despite Chan’s accomplishment, the voice of the woman protagonist was indistinguishable from the voices created by male novelists. It is worth noting, however, that the moral of Chan’s story at least sides with the character of the ill-treated wife, Tin Nio, whose domineering husband ultimately regrets his mistakes and begs for her forgiveness. In the novel, the city of Soerabaja and especially the Chinese community’s penchant for gossip is described as an oppressive force in the life of Chinese women: Tin Nio must relocate to Medan in order to start anew after a failed marriage. An original composition by Kwee Ay Nio of Semarang, Pertjintaan jang Sedjati (True Romance), was featured in Penghidoepan in 1927; but, like Chan’s, Kwee’s story is unremarkable in that neither the characters nor the narrator conveys a perceptible woman’s voice or a woman-centered outlook on life. The story’s rags-to-riches motif is presented in an uncomplicated way, with a clear line separating good and evil, like in traditional didactic tales.

Likewise, the novel by The Liep Nio, Siksa’an Allah (Affliction from God, 1931), was written in the mold created by her male predecessors. A native of Probolinggo, The also wrote short stories, poems, and essays for the magazines Liberty and Djawa Tengah Review (Salmon 1981). The opening scene of Siksa’an Allah, where we find the despondent protagonist cuddling and caressing her cat, is unusually tender and tactile in temperament, which at first sight appears to distinguish The from her male counterparts. This promising early signal—that a woman author might in fact write differently from men—proves to be unfounded when the woman protagonist Liang Nio slides into a downward spiral after opting to pursue romance over her filial duty by eloping. Her lover, a spoiled rich brat, proves to be an indolent man who turns abusive when pressed into difficult circumstances. Liang Nio eventually sees what her parents have seen in her lover—an unscrupulous man—but this realization comes belatedly. She dies in agony, and the story repeats when her husband coerces their adolescent daughter Liesje into becoming the mistress of a wealthy old man, setting up an Anna Karenina-like ending with Liesje in front of an oncoming train. Rather than conjuring up a world where women make defensible choices, The Liep Nio seems to confirm the prevalent view that women act on passion, not reason, and as a consequence bring disgrace to their family.

A novel written under the pen name “Gadis Goenoeng” takes issue with the prevailing practice of arranged marriage. Anak Haram spotlights the enduring and tragic consequence of elopement through the figure of Lian Nio, who is born of eloping youths, given up for adoption, and lives with the social stigma of an illegitimate child. Lian Nio moves to the city of Soerabaja, in part to track down her origins, in part to escape her disgraced status. When later she finds love with the son of a prominent family, his father predictably disapproves, because her obscure background will stain his family’s high standing. Heartbroken, Lian Nio returns to Bangil and dies of heart failure, thus replicating her mother’s fate of dying young at the beginning of the novel. Like the character Liang Nio in The’s Siksa’an Allah, at first glance Lian Nio’s sad lot appears to be a persistent punishment for her parents’ disregard of their filial duty. Hellwig (2012, 175) reads the story along this line, that it sends a message to readers “not to be blinded by modern liberties.” My take on it is different, though: the author sympathizes with Lian Nio and, voiced through various characters in the story, questions the oppressiveness of a Chinese custom that takes its toll on an innocent life. As the male protagonist in the story observes, Chinese society (siahwee) holds men in higher regard and treats them better than it does women. Such sympathetic views of women notwithstanding, Gadis Goenoeng’s protagonist fails to challenge the status quo or to offer an alternative scenario that is more equitable for a woman in her situation.

Curiously, a few years before Anak Haram appeared, from roughly 1930, the Sino-Malay literary scene witnessed the appearance of novels with notable female agency written by Indies Chinese women. This group included novelists such as Khoe Trima Nio (Aster), Tan Lam Nio (Dahlia), Miss Kin, Yang Lioe, and the above-mentioned Lie Djien Nio (Mrs. Leader), some of whom counted themselves as women activists and journalists in addition to romance writers. Their novels feature increasingly autonomous female protagonists who are intelligent, outspoken, culturally sophisticated, and self-reliant. They are autonomous in that they exist with a clear sense of their own fulfillment, not for the sake of the family or the husband, and therefore not as an accessory to men’s happiness. These characters are far removed from the male-centered universe of conventional novels such as Kwee Tek Hoay’s Boenga Roos dari Tjikembang (The Rose of Tjikembang, 1927), where wives and concubines persist or perish for the sake of the male characters’ happiness.

Khoe Trima Nio, writing under the nom de plume “Aster,” was a contributor to the popular literary and cultural magazine Liberty and a member of the Indonesian Chinese Women Association, an organization launched in 1928 by another woman journalist, Hong Le Hoa (Salmon 1981; Sidharta 1992). Her novel Apa Moesti Bikin? (What to Do?), which featured in Penghidoepan (February 1930), revolves around the single-mother character Hiang Nio who has to raise her daughter alone after a failed marriage. Estranged from her gambling addict and uncaring husband, Hiang Nio makes the radical choice of widowhood, deserting Tjilatjap—where her husband lives—and starting anew with her infant daughter in Tegal under a new identity as Lim Kay Nio. A wealthy old widow sympathizes with her lot and helps her get back on her feet; she eventually becomes a respectable dressmaker in Tegal, financially stable enough to send her only daughter to Shanghai to pursue a bachelor’s degree. The women characters in Khoe’s story support each other, a motif frequently found in writings by women (Hellwig 2012); the omniscient narrator sees and speaks from their perspectives and stresses the importance of formal education for women as a condition to becoming self-reliant. The novel’s happy ending distinguishes it from Koo Han Siok’s novel on a similar theme, Kawin Soedara Sendiri (Married to One’s Own Sibling), published two years earlier.

The February 1930 issue of Penghidoepan also features a second, shorter story penned by “LSG of Tjilatjap,” whom Salmon identifies as Khoe’s other pen name, and the residency in Tjilatjap appears to confirm this. Unlike the main story, however, the second composition is told from the point of view of a young man first-person narrator whose romantic relationship with a girl falls victim to her “rigid, old-fashioned” parents. Though assuming a male voice, the narrator nonetheless faults “the common practice of Chinese people with adolescent-age daughters, whom they mercilessly place in prison alias pingit,” from which marriage is the only (and inevitable) escape (LSG 1930, 66). Speaking through Kim Lian, the young male narrator, Khoe writes against the patriarchal custom that deprived young women of basic freedoms and severely limited their life’s choices.

If Khoe’s character Hiang Nio refuses to remain in an oppressive marriage, the adolescent heroine in Miss Kin’s novel, Doenia Rasanja Antjoer! (Like the World Is Shattering!, 1931), rebels against arranged marriage. Tjio Hong Nio, the protagonist, is in a romantic relationship with a boy from a humble background, Lim Tjin Seng, but her parents refuse to acknowledge this and instead accept the proposal from Tan Giauw Siang, son of a former Chinese officer (kapitan), to make Hong Nio his second wife. Feeling pressured and powerless to go against her father’s wishes, and lacking the courage or resources to break ties with her parents, Hong Nio resorts to hanging herself; she would rather die than break her promise to Tjin Seng and become a second wife. Fortunately, she is rescued in time and her parents finally relent. The novel expresses surprisingly progressive views about gender equality, properly written by a woman. In objecting to her parents’ denial of her own will and desires, Hong Nio seems to speak for women of her generation. Her insistence that a woman must be able to choose her own life partner because she is the one who has to go through the marriage signals a shift in the conception of marital union—from an affair of the family to the two individuals forming a nuclear unit. Hong Nio’s objection to being made a second wife is even more striking as it stems from a firm conviction in the basic equality between the sexes. A second wife, Hong Nio concurs, is essentially a prostitute because, deprived of legal protections and stability, she is at the mercy of her master, whom she must constantly please. Such an arrangement renders a second wife no more than an instrument (pekakas) for the man’s pleasure, much more so if she is acquired in exchange for money. By deciding to take her own life rather than submit to her father’s demand, Hong Nio seems to convey that a woman holds the ultimate authority over her own life.

Yang Lioe, the author of Pasir Poetih (1936) and Pelita Penghidoepan (Beacon of Life, 1937), appears to be not an actual name, but the pen name (“Willow Tree”) of a woman writer. She also wrote for Liberty, a journal that was quite progressive in its time and was closely connected in terms of personnel with both Penghidoepan and Tjerita Roman. Her novel Pasir Poetih features two adolescent sisters who, orphaned and impoverished by the death of their father, go to live with their miserly maternal uncle in Pasir-Poetih, a tea estate in West Java. Long before that, we are told, their mother was disowned by her family for eloping with their father, a transgression for which she allegedly was disinherited. It is revealed later, however, that the girls’ maternal grandfather had actually passed on his assets to their mother, making them the legitimate beneficiaries of the estate. But their unscrupulous uncle has another plan: to arrange for the elder sister, Kiok Lan, to marry his son Giok Hoo, so he does not have to surrender the estate to the girls. Kiok Lan rejects this arrangement outright, despite her real feelings for the sympathetic Giok Hoo, just so she can disprove her imperious uncle about “woman being a compliant creature, can be pushed around” (Yang 1936, 75), especially in a matter so important as marriage. The characterization of the sisters—well educated and comfortable with modern ways of thinking—seems to be indicative of Yang, the author herself. Both Kiok Lan and her sister, Betty, believe that persons who have been exposed to Western education must necessarily “have a modern outlook and therefore good manners,” meaning that they treat women with respect. The novel is rather Austen-esque in temperament, specifically Pride and Prejudice; in this case, barriers to the protagonists’ romantic union finally fall after Kiok Lan overcomes her pride and Giok Hoo proves that he does not share his father’s prejudice. Yang’s other novel, Pelita Penghidoepan, is similar in nature, with an equally strong and proud female protagonist.

In terms of characterization, the protagonist in Lie Djien Nio’s novel Soeami? (Husband?, 1933) is perhaps the most “modern” among the heroines. A translator of Chinese detective stories early in her career, Lie also wrote articles for Liberty, Sin Bin, and Panorama. She was such an established name that her translations and original works appeared in reputable journals such as Tjerita Pilian, Penghidoepan, and Tjerita Roman—though admittedly, her translation works were poorly done, quite different from her original composition in the 1930s. In terms of storyline, Soeami?, which was published under the pseudonym “Mrs. Leader,” offers nothing new or remarkable. It relates the story of a wife who goes through the pain of neglect and eventual abandonment by a straying husband, left to raise her children alone. What sets the wife figure, Lie Tjoe, apart from other contemporary romance heroines is that she is a journalist. She has all the credentials of a “modern” woman: she is a graduate of the European Elementary School (Europeesche Lagere School), she has been brought up in the Dutch ways, she speaks Dutch with her friends and associates, and she is comfortable associating with men.13) Unlike many of her contemporaries, Lie Tjoe marries by choice, not through an arrangement. Her husband, Ho An, too, is a modern man who never inhibits her professional work; this was an important reason why she chose him. Her goals in life are to become a famous author, like the Dutch woman writer and journalist Anna de Savornin, and to be happily married. At times, however, she wonders whether these goals are compatible. As a journalist, Lie Tjoe writes about the fate of Indies Chinese women and wives; and being a married woman, her writings resonate with many women readers. She is a “genuine” (soenggoean) woman journalist, we are told, unlike the “pretenders” (tetiron), presumably men journalists writing under female pseudonyms. Like the character Lie Tjoe, who speaks through her writings, the author Lie Djien Nio appears to speak through Lie Tjoe; at times their voices seem to conflate. Both seem to ask, “What is the meaning of husband?” as the title suggests, and concur that a husband must be more than just a material provider. Having had a marriage of choice, Lie Tjoe longs for a fuller connection, which is better fulfilled by her old friend and fellow journalist Soey Mo. Curiously, despite her husband’s infidelity, Lie Tjoe does not see it as a license for her to pursue another love, insisting on her principle of boundaries as a married woman. Her faith in it pays off when in the end, betrayed by his mistress, penniless Ho An returns and pleads for her forgiveness. The story ends happily with their reunion and Lie Tjoe gradually withdrawing from journalism in order to focus on being a housewife. Her own question seems to be answered: that for women, professional career and happy marriage are mutually exclusive, and that the latter must always be prioritized—a surprisingly conservative moral from such an unconventional heroine. Lie Djien Nio perhaps signaled this in her choices of pseudonyms: both “Njonja The Tiang Ek” and “Mrs. Leader” mark her status as a married woman, in addition to subsuming her identity under her husband’s. One might say that even in her professional life, she was defined by her marriage.

What the narrator in Soeami? has hinted, however, is relevant in this inquiry concerning female subjectivity: that there might be elementary differences in the way “genuine” women write, because while gender is performative, it is performed on a daily basis and is constantly reproduced by each performance. There is thus an expectable difference between men writers who assume the feminine voice only in imaginative writings and women writers who speak based on experience. A “genuine” woman writer lives her life performing the conventions of her gender, making her representation of women relatively more perceptive and persuasive. It resonates with women readers who are likewise identified. These assumptions, of course, overlook the diversity of women’s experiences in terms of class or ethnicity but might be indicative of the demographic segment that produced and consumed Malay romance novels in the Indies.

Nevertheless, as reflections of (as well as reactions to) the male-centered structure that shaped them, the literary works penned by women authors do not always feature an autonomous woman protagonist or a heroine with strong female agency. The heroines created by the male novelist Madonna are by and large more emancipated compared with those in novels by female authors such as The Liep Nio, Kwee Ay Nio, even Lie Djien Nio. As late as in the latter half of the 1930s, Phoa Gin Hian translated Chinese romance stories that cautioned against Western education for young women, the most conservative of which is Pembalesan Dendam Hati (Revenge of the Heart, 1935). The aforementioned Tjan Kwan Nio, who emerged in the early 1940s, likewise produced novels with rather conventional women characters, including an unexpected rehash of the femme fatale motif in Bidadari Elmaoet (Angel of Doom, 1941).

Despite the novel’s conservative moral, the narrator in Soeami? can perhaps furnish us with a workable parameter of what distinguishes female from male authors: the relative capacity to resonate among women readers, the ability to perceptively communicate the experiences, feelings, thoughts, and desires that women in general identify with. A female writer is presumably better equipped to represent these qualities than a male writer, or a man writing in the feminine voice for that matter. And it is generally true that women authors were more enthusiastic in taking up a certain set of issues, such as marriage, education, career, and equality between the sexes. These issues were defined by the boundaries of the real women’s world, making their writings less commercially oriented than those produced by men (Salmon 1984, 169). The stories and the heroines they paint tend to have a broad authorial brush, suggesting a close proximity to their own experiences as women. The most original and compelling author in exploring “women’s issues” is indeed a woman novelist by the pen name “Dahlia,” to whom we now turn.


Dahlia is the nom de plume of Tan Lam Nio, a writer who in her early 20s produced novels with the most distinct female agency. Tan was born in 1909 in Soekaradja, West Java, and in 1929 married a journalist and writer by the name of Oen Hong Seng, who in the same year served briefly as director of the monthly Boelan Poernama (Full Moon) (Salmon 1981, 273–274). At the age of 20, she was not quite a young bride; her contemporary, the novelist Tjan Kwan Nio (1992, 159), described the age of 18 as preferable for marriage but was herself wedded at the age of 16. Though it appears that Tan began her writing career only after marrying Oen, their book-length works show that Tan actually published ahead of her husband. They appear to have resided in West Java early on, and their works between 1930 and 1931 appeared in Goedang Tjerita (Warehouse of Stories) and Boelan Poernama, both Bandoeng-based periodicals. From 1932 on, their writings appeared in the Soerabaja-based Tjerita Roman, Penghidoepan, and Liberty—all of which were comparatively better known. While Oen, who wrote under the pen name “Madonna,” began as a translator of European and Chinese works, Tan appears to have started out as a full-fledged novelist. Later on Oen would follow in the footsteps of his accomplished wife in writing about Chinese marriage customs, women’s rights, and interracial romance.

Before her life was cut short at the age of 24 by a sudden illness,14) Tan wrote—among other novels—Kapan Sampe di Poentjaknja, atawa Tjinta dan Pengorbanan (Upon Reaching the Top, or Love and Sacrifice, 1930), Hidoep dalem Gelombang Air Mata (Living in the Tide of Tears, 1932), Kasopanan Timoer (Eastern Civility, 1932), Doerinja Pernikahan (Matrimonial Thorns, 1933), and Oh, Nasib! (Oh, Destiny!, 1933), in addition to short stories published in Liberty.15) The last two novels were published posthumously; her husband wrote an introduction to the latter to explain that the manuscript had been completed only days before Tan fell ill. In her last work published by Tjerita Roman—her second in as many years—a short obituary from the editor likens “Dahlia” to a blossoming flower, seemingly at the peak of her literary career. It refers to her as a diligent and loyal staff member (pembantoe) and comments on the popularity of her novels, especially among women readers. It appears that Tan had become a freelance contributor to the journal by the time of her passing, surely a notable achievement for a woman in the male-dominant world of literary publishing.

What is remarkable about Tan’s novels is the audaciousness of her heroines. Her stories explore a range of topics related to the position of women in Chinese society—from education, romance, and marriage to professional career—and with the exception of her last novel, they are anchored by a female character who is intelligent, confident, outspoken, well educated, and fiercely independent.16) While education for young girls was a contentious issue in the preceding decades since the establishment of THHK schools, in the 1930s the battlefield for women’s emancipation had shifted to issues concerning economic autonomy and women’s right to work outside the domestic sphere and in the formal sector. The customary practice of arranged marriage remained an issue but was increasingly contested from the point of view of the daughter and her supposed right to pursue personal happiness, and away from the Confucian moral of filial duty. Tan’s novels Kapan Sampe di Poentjaknja and Kasopanan Timoer in particular take up these issues and reformulate them in remarkably progressive frameworks and language.

Kapan Sampe di Poentjaknja might well have been Tan’s first novel. It features the enduring theme of father-daughter confrontation over her matrimonial choice (or lack thereof). This subject has been dealt with in countless ways, yet it continues to be the novel’s most featured theme, popular among Chinese and non-Chinese readers alike. Here, the affluent Nora Tio befriends and develops romantic feelings for her uncle’s office employee (pegawe) Tjeng Giok, who comes from a humble background. The attraction is mutual, but Nora unwittingly also attracts the attentions of Henri Tjoe, the son of a wealthy family who subsequently sends a marriage proposal to her parents. To Nora’s indignation, her father wants her to break off her relationship with Tjeng Giok and accept Henri’s proposal. When pressured, Nora absconds to Batavia to join Tjeng Giok, who earlier moved to the city for a more promising employment.

Unlike most heroines in contemporary Malay novels, Nora is very assertive. She is confident, knows what she wants, and sets out to accomplish her goals. She is intrigued by Tjeng Giok, but he is especially reserved with her because of his position as a staff member in her uncle’s workshop. So she takes the initiative in approaching him and nudges him to confess that he, too, has feelings for her. In their relationship, she appears to be the one in charge, as when she drives and he sits in the passenger seat when they go to places. When their relationship meets obstacles, due to her father’s objections to Tjeng Giok’s lower social standing, she challenges the timid Tjeng Giok to prove himself worthy of her affection. He leaves Semarang for Batavia to work at a European firm that pays sufficiently well for him to start saving for their future. Nora talks back to her father, an act that is regarded as especially disrespectful according to the Confucian moral of filial piety. When her father declares that there is a “big possibility” that he would accept the marriage proposal from Henri Tjoe, Nora retorts, “On what basis do you say that? Do you know that there is just as big a possibility that I turn it down?” (Dahlia 1930, 61).17)

Nora turns the notions of duty and propriety on their heads. Not only does she reverse conventional gender roles in courtship, she rejects the idea of filial duty. She accuses her father—who covets the prestige his family would gain through a marriage connection with the wealthy Tjoe family—of being “blinded [silo] by riches,” of selling (djoeal) her, and of using her as capital (poko) to acquire material security and add prestige to his name. Reminded that in the Chinese tradition she is under her parents’ authority until she is married, Nora asks whether marriage is essentially a trade transaction (saroepa perdagangan). It used to be proper for parents to demand from a daughter her self-sacrifice for the benefit of the entire family, in this case for Nora to prioritize the overall welfare of her family over her personal desires. This is understood as her filial duty to her parents, as a form of “repayment” to them for bringing her into the world and nurturing her to adulthood. But by Nora, this well-established concept is made foreign and the duty is unacknowledged for the simple reason that she, like any other child, never asked to be born. What comes to the fore instead is a new notion of a woman’s inalienable right to self-determination, including her right to pursue personal happiness, disconnected from that of her family. In other words, she insists on the right to exist for her own gratification, not as an accessory to her family’s happiness. This new concept of rights cancels out any form of filial piety that is predicated on self-sacrifice. When pressured by her father to comply with his choice of suitor, Nora warns him “not to treat her like those girls who do not understand the meaning of liberty [kamerdika’an] and women’s rights [haknja saorang prampoean]” (ibid., 95). Her exposure to these ideas presumably shields her from being subjected to a condition of unfreedom, in this case her father overriding her own free will. In the novel, his stubborn insistence on parental authority is characterized as an existential violation, a “rape” (perkosahan) of her basic liberty, giving her the moral justification to flee to Batavia.

In the story, Nora’s school education is credited as being responsible for her values, the yardstick with which she measures what is proper and improper, as well as the ultimate resource to becoming self-reliant. Her Western name in some ways signals her cultural dispositions; her real name is Tio Kian Nio, but among friends at school she is known as “Nora.” Chinese students usually acquired their Western names at school, given by European teachers. Nora conducts herself in accordance with what she imagines a modern woman is supposed to do. Early on, she develops the courage to approach Tjeng Giok because “it would be embarrassing if as a modern girl she was nervous about being face to face with a man” (ibid., 12). Having gone through the Dutch secondary school (Hoogere Burger School, HBS), Nora is not clumsy in associating with peers of the opposite sex and, at the same time, is intellectually equipped to support herself. When she settles in Batavia, her sense of propriety does not allow her to be dependent on Tjeng Giok for a livelihood because they are not yet legally married. Disowned by her father for eloping, Nora easily secures a teaching job at a Dutch-Chinese School (Hollandsche Chineesche School) and becomes self-sufficient. Like her, Tjeng Giok is well educated; they correspond in Dutch.

In fact, school education and the notion of a self-made identity are important motifs in Tan’s novels. They mark “modern” individuals like Nora and Tjeng Giok. On the other side, there is an almost hostile attitude toward wealth—specifically, inherited wealth—and family connections. In Tan’s novels, sons of wealthy families almost always represent an obstacle that the heroine must overcome. They are the suitors preferred by old-fashioned parents who prioritize worldly status over the daughter’s happiness, or the spurned rivals who resort to violence to eliminate competition. Here, inherited wealth is associated with idleness, lack of independence, backwardness, illegitimacy, even criminality. Henri Tjoe hires a goon to eliminate his rival, Tjeng Giok, and when he fails, he flees to Singapore to elude the long arm of the law. Eventually he is penalized for this and other offenses, even after his father tries to use money and influence to get him out of trouble. Henri’s criminal case is widely covered by the Sino-Malay press, bringing shame to his family and, indirectly, serving as validation of Nora’s decision to choose the humble Tjeng Giok over the wealthy Henri. The novel seems to suggest that sons of affluent families are essentially spoiled brats and potential trouble, undeserving of intelligent women’s affection.

Nowhere is this preferential shift away from family fortune to personal ingenuity more apparent than in the changing quality of what counts as blessed matrimony. The Malay word beroentoeng (fortunate, blessed) was often invoked to refer to the state of material contentment, in which case a match to a suitor with a sizeable family fortune made perfect sense. In the prevailing Chinese custom, a marriage was essentially an alliance between two families, more than a union of two individuals. Hence, the “fortune” that a woman’s nuptial ties would bring was not hers individually, but collective—one from which her entire family could (and theoretically should be able to) benefit. Seen in this light, Nora’s attitude toward marriage is extremely self-centered, benefiting no one else but the couple involved. For this “modern” generation, marriage was less a calculation of collective benefits than the culmination of romantic heterosexual attraction. Thus, romantic love, not family fortune, was regarded as the only legitimate basis of marriage (Siegel 1997, 135). If in the custom of arranged marriage the bride and the groom hardly knew each other until the time they were wed, schooled youth generally had developed a habit of courtship before marriage, thanks in large part to the experience of coeducation. For youngsters who had gone through a period of courtship like Nora had, romantic attraction arose from compatibility in interests and outlook toward life. Thus, beroentoeng for them was largely immaterial, undifferentiated from romantic bliss, an abstract concept whose dissemination in fact owed much to the proliferation of romance novels. Unable to marry legally, Nora and Tjeng Giok wed in a small ceremony, attended by only a few close friends, and proceed to embrace a life that is said to brim with romantic bliss (penoeh madoe pertjintahan). Following her heart, Nora finds true fortune.

The novel’s happy ending sets it apart from many others with a similar theme. At an earlier time, or in works by other authors, heroines who follow their hearts are usually given tragic endings. But in Tan’s story, it is Nora’s father who undergoes a change of heart and regrets the way he treated his only daughter. Realizing that he has been wrong about Henri, Nora’s father finally sees that he has been led too far “astray” (tersesat), made insensible by the promise of the world’s riches (harta doenia). This new framing, forcefully articulated in Tan’s novels, would continue in the novels penned by her husband, Oen Hong Seng (a.k.a. Madonna) after she passed away.

Nevertheless, Nora’s admission of romantic attraction for Tjeng Giok must have been rather problematic. It implies sexual desire when a woman is expected to be chaste in both conduct and thought. Scholars have noted how romance novels, including Western novels in the Indies, were blamed for “putting ideas in women’s heads,” for awakening erotic desire (McCarthy 1979; Chandra 2011). In this story, Nora’s father represents the older generation with conservative values and expectations, who sees erotic desire and propriety as mutually exclusive. When Nora insists that she wants to choose her own marriage partner instead of having the choice made for her, her father likens her to a whore (soendel), an insult she finds especially intolerable. This episode is intriguing as it brings to the surface the underlying masculinist paradigm that sees women in binary terms, as either the virtuous Madonna or the debased prostitute. Sexual desire is associated only with the latter; thus the charge of Nora “acting like a whore” simply for wanting to choose her own marriage partner. While sexual virtue and modesty is arguably a masculinist fantasy projected onto women, this fantasy proved to be so well internalized that it remained relevant even for a progressive woman writer like Tan. The challenge for women writers who were sympathetic to young women faced with such a predicament was to carve out a prototype of a heroine who professed only to marriage based on romance, was self-supporting, made her living outside the domestic sphere, was not clumsy toward the opposite sex, and yet remained as virtuous as the Madonna. Tan’s heroines arguably are prototypes of the modern Madonna.

If Nora represents a properly modern woman’s view of marriage, Siem Kiok Nio in Kasopanan Timoer (1932) exemplifies the right attitude toward profession. The novel tells of Kiok Nio, who must resort to working outside the home after her father falls on hard times in his business and passes away, leaving Kiok Nio and her mother to fend for themselves. For a while they try the conventional alternative, making and selling cakes from home. But the income it generates is inadequate, so Kiok Nio decides to go against the current and makes use of her school diploma to secure a position at a Dutch firm (European firms generally paid better than Chinese firms). Working as a steno-typist, Kiok Nio does very well. She is serious and ambitious, earning the respect and admiration of her colleagues, particularly her supervisor, a young sympathetic Dutchman named Jansen, who soon falls for her. But Kiok Nio’s affection is reserved for Koen San, who, like her, is well educated and relies on personal ingenuity to find success. Kiok Nio’s biggest obstacle is not an old-fashioned, materialistic father but societal prejudice against women who work outside the domestic sphere. The challenge for her is to prove that professional women do not by definition lack virtue.

Like Tan’s other heroines, Siem Kiok Nio is portrayed as unfailingly modern. She is a graduate of secondary school (Meer Uitgebreid Lager Onderwijs) and therefore “no less educated than Dutch girls” (Dahlia 1932b, 24). She also has a Western name: she is known by her friends and colleagues as Johana Siem. Her “modern” qualities go beyond education; Tan emphasizes her manners, taste, and appearance. Kiok Nio dresses in a skirt most of the time, “like most modern girls with Western upbringing” (ibid., 70), not in the traditional kebaja ensemble of a blouse and long wraparound cloth. We are told that she is tall and not too fair, that people often mistake her for a Eurasian. The house she rents, where she and her mother dwell, is a little villa and decorated in such a way that it can be mistaken for a European’s residence.

Early in the story we are told how Kiok Nio sees being a woman as a handicap. She has graduated from secondary school and taken a stenography course, and yet, because she is a woman she is bound to stay at home after graduation. This was a prevalent view in Chinese society at that time, that for girls to work in an office was “unseemly” (koerang netjis)—“comparable to a prostitute walking the streets” (ibid., 9). So for a while, Kiok Nio is forced to shelve her diplomas and certified skills and try other things such as baking and dressmaking. “If only I were a man,” she laments.

Kiok Nio’s eventual success in overcoming this gender handicap is attributed to her modern spirit. Pressured by economic hardship and a sense of responsibility for her mother’s well-being, she finds a job at a European firm. She meets Koen San, who will become her romantic interest, on the job; he is a client of her company. He, too, is highly educated—he is a graduate of HBS and has studied in the Netherlands—and is pleasantly surprised when meeting her. “You must be the first Chinese woman to work in a trading company!” he commends before they exchange business cards (ibid., 34). While he admires her aptitude, she is impressed by his open-mindedness. They converse in Dutch.

Her education also guards her against unwanted overtures by wealthy married men, “who seem to be unaware that an educated woman like Kiok Nio does not capitulate so easily to becoming a concubine” (ibid., 75). Her modern spirit (semangatnja jang moderen) does not permit Kiok Nio to simply accept preconceived ideas and practices. She criticizes the tendency in society to hold women back, calling it narrow-minded, fanatical, and isolated from the fast-changing world. She regrets the “mossy views” (anggapan jang boeloekan) among some women who limit their life-scope to kitchen, appearance, and leisure. As the story progresses, Kiok Nio’s earnestness and determination are validated when her supervisor remarks that even though she is a woman, she is “capable of supporting a household, no less than a man” (ibid., 27). She no longer wishes she were a man, because as a woman she is no less than a man.

In the absence of the father figure, the abstract entity of the public represents the conservative force. In many contemporary romance novels, the father figure regularly assumes the voice of the conservative patriarch whose resistance to change the modern (usually lovestruck) youth must overcome. This is true in Kapan Sampe di Poentjaknja, where Nora’s father constitutes the most significant obstacle to her exercising self-determination. In Kiok Nio’s case, social impediments manifest in the form of a gossip-mongering Chinese public. While Dutch and other Indies women have become accustomed to making a living on their education, we are told that Chinese women are only now starting to follow suit. To the latter, publiek opinie is a constant specter; it has deterred many capable women from utilizing their talents in the proper places, “because they fear being chastised by the public” (ibid., 40). Every time Kiok Nio’s supervisor, a Dutchman, pays her a visit, the busybodies in the neighborhood get busy. But she perseveres, determined to prove wrong the common assumption that working among men and foreigners makes a woman “loose” (binal). This view, she opines, is outdated (koeno) and absurd (nonsens).

There is a discernible attempt to redefine modernity, or to establish an alternative modernity, in Tan’s stories. The modernity that Tan imagines thus far has been unfailingly (and almost indistinguishable from the qualities of being) “Western.” It has been equated with a wide range of practices identified with European norms—from attending school and having a career to driving a car and wearing skirts. It is also associated with intangible concepts such as romance, equality between the sexes, women’s rights, and individual self-determination. This makes Nora and Kiok Nio seem like mere duplicates of Dutch women, as derivatives, at the same time they try to be original and autonomous. In the introduction to Kasopanan Timoer, editor Ong Ping Lok remarks that the quality of being “East” cannot be narrowly defined by the veil or the customary seclusion for women (pinjit or pingit), because like Western civility, Eastern civility also progresses with the changing of time. In other words, adjusting to the changing of time does not make a woman “Western” by default, and one can become modern and Eastern simultaneously. Indeed, the novel’s title, “Eastern Civility,” seems to suggest this alternative—the possibility of an Eastern modernity, exemplified by Kiok Nio’s sense of moral virtues. Like the aforementioned journalist heroine in Lie Djien Nio’s novel Soeami?, Kiok Nio, too, associates freely with men without transgressing a self-imposed line of propriety.18) This line is understood to be private, known only to the one observing it, and does not require societal approval. Kiok Nio remains virtuous not due to fear of societal reprimand, but because she has a firm grasp of boundaries and self-respect. So even though the public deems her “Western obsessed” (gila kebaratan), her conscience (liangsim) remains firmly anchored in Eastern civility.

Curiously, remaining Eastern for a Chinese woman also means disciplining her desire and limiting it to only Chinese man. Faced with two equally eligible suitors—Jansen and Koen San—Kiok Nio is drawn to the latter. She is more comfortable around her own kind. When Jansen proposes, she reminds him that they are of different races (bangsa) and that his family would not approve: “East goes with East, West with West” (Dahlia 1932b, 51). In fact, to be properly modern in this novel is for one to accord proper dignity to one’s national group, which is not unexpected given the rising tide of nationalist sentiment in the Indies at the time (Williams 1960). While intermarriage was the norm among early Chinese migrants to the archipelago (Sidharta 1992; Salmon 1996; Skinner 1996), from the second half of the nineteenth century various colonial legal codes had led to the constitution and stratification of “races” and the sharpening of racial boundaries in the Indies (Albrecht 1890; Willmott 1961; Coppel 2002b). Thus, while Dutch, Chinese, and Javanese students, for instance, might find themselves freely associating with each other as schoolmates at an HBS, or as co-workers once they graduated, social pressures discouraged such associations from developing into interracial matrimony. This is what we see with Kiok Nio, that a modern Chinese woman can be like Dutch women in all regards—education, career, appearance, lifestyle—except in the object of desire. Kiok Nio cannot be like Jansen, whose love does not see race.19)

The distinction between “Western” and “modern Chinese” women is further explored in Tan’s subsequent novel, Doerinja Pernikahan (1933), where the morality of women graduates of Dutch and Chinese schools is compared and contrasted. The modern heroine in this novel does not clash with her father but with her Dutch-educated husband and peers. The Chinese and Dutch names given respectively to the righteous heroine and her shifty antagonist—Sioe Lan and Tientje—are telling. Sioe Lan is modern but was brought up in the “Eastern” way, a graduate of the Chinese THHK school, not a Dutch school. She is supposedly modern and virtuous, not modern and loose like Tientje. Commenting on the novel, Hellwig (2012, 155–157) reads the focal conflict in rather binary terms—Eastern vs. Western, Chinese/Asian vs. Dutch/European, tradition vs. modernity—and concludes that the story conveys a conservative message. On the contrary, I see it as a further attempt by Tan to redefine Eastern civility as a form of alternative modernity, making her an early herald of what would be the postcolonial quest to establish modernity as a plural condition without a “Western governing center” (Gaonkar 2001).

Unfortunately, we do not have many more works by Tan to explain this rather ethno-centric (or early postmodern) turn in her writing, as she passed away not long after the manuscript of Doerinja Pernikahan was submitted to the publisher. Sentiments of ethno-nationalism in general were on the rise among the Chinese population in the Indies ever since Japan annexed Manchuria in 1931. In Tan’s novels, this sentiment might have manifested as her defense of a number of Chinese virtues to balance out her critiques of practices oppressive to women. On the other hand, the desire to refine and redefine progress was not hers alone. The contemporary Chinese women’s monthly Istri (Wife, 1937–42) has been described as a magazine that “tries to achieve progress in harmony with Eastern civilization” (Sidharta 1992, 71).

Regardless, the modernity that Tan expounds for the most part manifests as a challenge to traditional gender roles, specifically the roles prescribed for women. It does not lack substance, as Siegel (1997, 146–147) observes in other contemporary Malay novels’ treatment of modernity, but corroborates his findings that it fails to address relevant issues such as inequality or separation between races. Tan’s modernity reiterates racial preconceptions, because she molds her new woman within the broader framework of the “Eastern/Chinese” woman.


This essay sets out to review the literary works written by Chinese women authors and to provide a sketch of what women in the first few decades of the twentieth century Indies wrote when they finally became published authors. It outlines some patterns of themes, motifs, and narrative angles found in their writings that might distinguish their works from those written by male authors. The question of voice immediately springs forward: Who counts as a woman author or has the authority to speak on behalf of Indies Chinese women? A good number of male writers, as it turns out, wrote in the feminine voice by assuming feminine pen names and speaking through a female protagonist or narrator. Some of them created heroines with compelling female agency, such as the heroines in Madonna’s novels Berdosa (Transgressing, n.d.) and Impiken Kaberoentoengan (Hoping for a Contented Life, 1935). In contrast, a good number of women novelists produced weak and forgettable female protagonists. Thus, female authorship did not guarantee an autonomous female protagonist, or a woman-centered narrative for that matter. But while men authors wrote about a broader range of topics, women authors dealt largely with issues that immediately concerned them. In general, the latter group could be expected to be more candid with respect to gender inequality and the position of women in Chinese society, even when these problems were presented in a pessimistic light.

Other broad conclusions can be drawn. In the Indies, women began to write novels only in the 1920s, and in prose writing early on their voices were largely indistinguishable from those of their male counterparts. Their central characters are generally women, who seem to have come from the same mold created by their male predecessors. The narratives presented are timeless—intergenerational clash between old-fashioned parents and modern daughters—and have been explored in countless ways by writers before them. The possibilities accorded to the fictional daughters are limited: they wilt under social pressure or are overpowered by the modernity they desire to embrace. Only from the 1930s do we witness the emergence of new prototypes, that is, heroines who successfully utilize modern attributes such as education to challenge the entrenched patriarchal order. In such stories, it is the parents (often the father) who undergo a change of heart and find their way back to the moral path.

The most remarkable among the Chinese women novelists was Tan Lam Nio, who wrote under the pen name Dahlia. Her works wrestle with problems related to gender inequality in Chinese society in the Indies, specifically in relation to education, marriage choice, and career. While in the 1930s attending school for women had become less of a contentious issue, gender inequality manifested most visibly in the problems of arranged marriage and women acquiring a formal profession. Tan explores these topics from a woman’s perspective and deals with them in a way that accords agency to the women characters. Her heroines are ardently modern, but modern in the way that makes them almost indistinguishable from Dutch women, at least initially. Becoming like Dutch women appears to be the prototypical modern woman in Tan’s imagination, and this might be jarring to her overwhelmingly Chinese readers. Tan’s interlocutors are indisputably “Chinese,” and this might have compelled her to redefine her heroines into an Eastern version of modern women after her first novel. Reading them, we are to infer that modern is neither identical with Western nor mutually exclusive with Eastern. It is unfortunate that Tan did not have the opportunity to further explore her ideas of modernity, womanhood, being Chinese, and—who knows?—being Indonesian. Passing away at the youthful age of 24, Dahlia withered at the peak of her bloom.

Accepted: May 14, 2015


This article came out of a collaborative research project on women writers in Asia; I wish to thank my fellow researchers—Aoki Eriko, Kuwabara Momone, and Tominaga Yasuyo—for a stimulating, fun, and fruitful collaboration. I am also grateful to Evi Sutrisno, Claudine Salmon, Endy Saputro, Sutrisno Murtiyoso, and Harianto Sanusi for various materials used in this article, and to SEAS anonymous reviewers for their insightful comments. All errors are my own.


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Siegel, James T. 1997. Fetish, Recognition, Revolution. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

Skinner, G. William. 1996. Creolized Chinese Societies in Southeast Asia. In Sojourners and Settlers: Histories of Southeast Asia and the Chinese, edited by Anthony Reid, pp. 51–93. Sydney: Allen & Unwin.

Tan Tjeng Nio. 1899. Sair Tiga Sobat Nona Boedjang: Di Eret oleh Baba Pranakan Tangerang [Verses of three bacherlorette friends: Fleeced by a Chinese baba of Tangerang]. Second Edition. Batavia: Albrecht & Co.

The Liep Nio. 1931. Siksa’an Allah [Affliction from God]. Tjerita Roman 30 (June).

Tjan Kwan Nio. 1992. Kisah Hidupku [My lifestory]. In Le Moment “Sino-Malais” de la Litterature Indonesienne, edited by Claudine Salmon, pp. 154–164. Paris: Association Archipel.

―. 1941. Bidadari Elmaoet [Angel of doom]. Tjerita Roman 147 (March).

―. 1940. Satoe Orang Sial [A hapless person]. Tjerita Roman 140 (August).

Venus. 1921. Tjerita Gadis jang Genit, atawa Pengaroenja Oewang [Story of a coquette, or the influence of money]. Batavia: Boekhandel Tan Thian Soe.

Walby, Sylvia. 1990. Theorizing Patriarchy. Cambridge: Basil Blackwell.

Williams, Lea E. 1960. Overseas Chinese Nationalism: The Genesis of the Pan-Chinese Movement in Indonesia, 1900–1916. Glencoe: Free Press.

Willmott, Donald E. 1961. The National Status of the Chinese in Indonesia, 1900–1958. Ithaca: Cornell University Modern Indonesia Project.

Wittig, Monique. 1981. One Is Not Born a Woman. Feminist Issues 1(2): 47–54.

Yang Lioe. 1937. Pelita Penghidoepan [Beacon of life]. Tjerita Roman 105 (September).

―. 1936. Pasir Poetih. Tjerita Roman 92 (August).

Yuan, Bingling. 2002. Chinese Women in Jakarta during the Colonial Period. Asian Culture 26 (June): 53–67.

1) Claudine Salmon (1984, 152) estimates 30 women writers, including translators, compared with 800 men writers and translators.

2) Departement van Economische Zaken (1935), as footnoted in Nio (1940, 10).

3) I refrain from referring to the Chinese individuals under discussion here as peranakan (mixed blood, creole), as is commonly done in academic writings on the subject, simply because in their writings most Chinese authors refer to themselves and their community as “Tionghoa” (Chinese), rarely the more specific “peranakan”; and only infrequently, when alluding to recent immigrants, do they invoke the term totok (full-blooded). See, for instance, Kwee (1933), Yang (1937), Tjan (1941), or Kwee (1930), who uses both terms for contrast. Also, for the sake of authenticity, in this essay the original spellings of proper names are retained.

4) A Chinese community-subsidized school in Ambon administered by a European, Poi Tik Hak Tong, had close to perfect gender balance, with 46 female students in a total student body of 94; see Nio’s citation of a 1912 study by J. H. Abendanon on education in the Indies (Nio 1940, 116). A 1940 report by the Batavia Kong Koan archive gives a total number of 2,243 male students and 1,529 female students at various Chinese schools in Batavia (Govaars-Tjia 2005, 262).

5) In 1923 the school commission considered abandoning the segregated system for mixed-gender education (coëducatie) in order to keep costs down, as the number of female students was often too small to warrant separate classes. In the following year, Mandarin 1–3 classes were made coeducational; and in 1928, as a result of further cost rationalization, the school became largely coeducational (Nio 1940, 156–161).

6) One can make the opposite argument here, that Tan might not have been educated at all and that since she was illiterate, her composition was published only after being transcribed by Ismail. In addition, the women characters in her poem do not suggest attributes usually associated with “modern” life such as attending school, reading books, or writing letters but the customary conjugal arrangements with suitors who are practically strangers, against which the women in the poem rebel (Tan 1899). The figure of the overprotective parent, ubiquitous in Sino-Malay romance novels, is curiously missing. The characters are women who are conditioned by custom to attach themselves to men, sometimes without ceremony or legal provisions; thus, the nuptial union can be dissolved at any time without legal ramifications. Miss A in the poem simply deserts her partner (baba) after being squeezed out of her possessions. The physical intimacy among the three girlfriends described in the long poem—involving kissing, lip-locking, cuddling, and frolicking in bed—suggests a more innocent time before heteronormativity became well established.

7) Indies-born Chinese women were given names with the (Hokkien) suffix “nio” (lady) to mark their status as free subjects, distinguished from their mothers who might be local slave women (Yuan 2002). Eventually, the name “Nio” simply became a common feminine name rather than a legal or social marker.

8) Laura Mulvey (1989) contends that the male gaze in cinematic representations turns women into erotic objects, both for the heterosexual male characters on screen and for the audience they represent. The structure of gaze is indeed constitutive of power relationship in that the object of gaze loses some degree of autonomy (Hall 1997), even becoming “fixed” by the gazer (Fanon 1967).

9) Later the journal cover appears to change mid-year, that is, every July. Many of the covers were illustrated by Tan Liep Poen, with symbols consistently denoting the journal’s mission “to enlighten, to educate, and to provide worthy examples through stories that are affordable to all groups and ranks [deradjat].” See the editor’s note in Penghidoepan 104 (1933). Tan Liep Poen, a Malang-based illustrator, also sketched covers for Tjerita Roman.

10) One cannot be entirely certain of the author’s gender. Gadis Goenoeng (Mountain Maiden) could have been a male author using a feminine pseudonym. The tone of the novel, however, suggests that it might have been penned by a woman.

11) Such an association of gender and genre was not entirely new. While romance novels were fast becoming a “women’s genre,” crime and detective fiction were still considered men’s genres. Louisa May Alcott wrote potboilers as “A. M. Barnard” but published romance and children’s stories using her real name. Traditionally, male writers in Bali are rarely known by name as they purport to represent a “female” perspective. In Malay oral tradition, an “author” is supposed to be able to assume many different voices. I am grateful to Barbara Andaya for pointing out comparable practices in indigenous literary traditions in Southeast Asia.

12) Lie Djien Nio’s translation of a detective story set among the Chinese migrant community in New York City’s Chinatown, titled Huang Jing Hoa (1925), graced the 17th and 18th issues of Penghidoepan.

13) The second and third names of Chinese persons in the novels are spelled inconsistently with and without a hyphen. For consistency, I use the unhyphenated form; in this case, Lie-tjoe becomes Lie Tjoe.

14) The introduction to Doerinja Pernikahan notes that Tan passed away at the age of 24, but Penghidoepan 104 notes that she passed away only two weeks after completing the manuscript of Oh, Nasib!, or days after falling ill. Her husband Oen Hong Seng’s introduction to the novel notes that Tan fell ill in September 1932, thus she was not yet 24 at the time of her passing.

15) Hidoep dalem Gelombang Air Mata was published by the lesser-known agency Dj. M. Arifin in Medan in 1932, and we have not been able to locate a copy of it. This and Tan’s short stories, such as “Soeda Kasep” (Too Late) (Liberty 53 [August 1932]) and “Pertimbangan Adil” (Fair Judgement) (Liberty 55 [October 1932]) were not available during the writing of this essay and therefore cannot be but glaring omissions in the discussion of Dahlia and her works.

16) Tan’s very last novel, Oh Nasib! (1933), was completed only days before she fell ill and was published posthumously. It features an educated but very young and frail girl protagonist who is orphaned by the death of her mother and subsequently suffers, living under a jealous and domineering stepmother. Tan herself appears to have left behind a toddler when she passed away in late 1932. The novel is not only uncharacteristic of Tan but also lacks thematic coherence. In his introduction to the novel, her husband Oen Hong Seng confesses to being puzzled by the story and wonders whether it was written with a foreshadowing unconscious that Tan herself would soon be gone.

17) In accordance with cultural norms, Nora does not address her father directly in the second person singular “you” but in the deferential third person “papa.”

18) In fact, the heroine in Soeami? (1933) seems to attest to the influence of Tan’s novels. Published a year after Kasopanan Timoer, it follows the mold Tan created for a modern Chinese woman.

19) Interestingly, Kasopanan Timoer (Tjerita Roman 42) follows directly Madonna’s Dr. Lie (Tjerita Roman 41), which tackles the issue of interracial romance. While Tan’s novel takes the perspective of a woman protagonist and portrays Dutch people in a positive light, despite the ultimate message for “East [to remain] with East,” Dr. Lie conveys a negative sentiment concerning interracial marriage. In it, the highly educated physician Lie falls head over heels in love with a beautiful Eurasian and marries her despite his family’s reservations. The woman turns out to be a charlatan who uses him for her own gains. Madonna (a.k.a. Oen Hong Seng) would echo his wife’s progressive take on the issue of arranged marriage in Berdosa (likely published in or after 1933), and again in Impiken Kaberoentoengan (1935), which scrutinizes the Chinese custom of three-generation households that tend to be oppressive toward daughters-in-law.


Vol. 4, No. 3, CHONG

Contents>> Vol. 4, No. 3

Local Politics and Chinese Indonesian Business in Post-Suharto Era

Wu-Ling Chong*

*鍾武凌, Department of South East Asian Studies, Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences, University of Malaya, 50603 Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia

e-mail: chong.wu.ling[at]; chong.wu.ling[at]

This article examines the relationships between the changes and continuities of Indonesian local politics and Chinese Indonesian business practices in the post-Suharto era, focusing on Chinese Indonesian businesses in two of the largest Indonesian cities, Medan and Surabaya. The fall of Suharto in May 1998 led to the opening up of a democratic and liberal space as well as the removal of many discriminatory measures against the Chinese minority. However, due to the absence of an effective, genuinely reformist party or political coalition, predatory political-business interests nurtured under Suharto’s New Order managed to capture the new political and economic regimes. As a result, corruption and internal mismanagement continue to plague the bureaucracy in the country and devolve from the central to the local governments. This article argues that this is due partially to the role some Chinese businesspeople have played in perpetuating corrupt business practices. As targets of extortion and corruption by bureaucratic officials and youth/crime organizations, Chinese businesspeople are not merely passive and powerless victims of corrupt practices. This article argues, through a combination of Anthony Giddens’s structure-agency theory as well as Pierre Bourdieu’s notion of habitus and field, that although Chinese businesspeople are constrained by the muddy and corrupt business environment, they have also played an active role in shaping such a business environment. They have thus played an active role in shaping local politics, which is infused with corruption and institutionalized gangsterism, as well as perpetuating their increasingly ambivalent position.

Keywords: Indonesia, Chinese Indonesians, Chinese Indonesian business, local politics, democratization, regional decentralization

Susanto, a Chinese Indonesian living in Medan, is a distributor of stuffed toys. He runs his business from a shophouse located in the central city area. He started his business in 2003, and the business has remained small-scale. He brings in stuffed toys from Jakarta and sells them to customers in Medan. He has 15 employees working for him, most of whom are indigenous Indonesians.

Susanto revealed to me that after the end of the New Order regime, the central government has become stricter in collecting taxes from business enterprises. Business owners need to declare their revenues, calculate the taxes they have to pay, and make payments accordingly. Tax officers later visit the companies to check their actual revenues. If they find that the business owners have under-reported their revenue, instead of penalizing them, the tax officers usually ask for bribes to cover up the tax fraud. Susanto emphasized, however, that even if a business owner has paid all the necessary taxes, tax officers usually create fictive taxes and charges and request the business owner to pay accordingly. Moreover, tax officers often demand higher bribes from businesspeople who are ethnic Chinese, as they are deemed to be doing better than other businesspeople. For this reason, Susanto and many local Chinese businesspeople have found it expedient not to declare their actual revenues, knowing that honesty does not pay and will lead to even more taxes and bribes. Instead, they wait for the officers to visit and negotiate with them the rates of the taxes and bribes requested and only then pay their taxes. In my interview with him, Susanto said, “Although many other businesspeople and I feel bad about it, we have no choice but to pay them [the bribes] since we have to survive.”1) Susanto also revealed that he and other Chinese businesspeople preferred not to fight against the extortion because they were “afraid of running into trouble” (Mandarin: pa mafan, 怕麻烦) if they did so. They would rather pay the bribes to avoid any further problems. This indicates also that Chinese businesspeople possess enough economic capital to pay the bribes in order to protect their business.

Susanto’s story indicates the ambivalence among Chinese toward democratization in post-Suharto Indonesia. Although democratization has opened spaces for them to live their culture and express their ethnicity, it has not led to the emergence of good governance that promotes the rule of law, transparency, and accountability, as corruption remains endemic in state institutions. This poorly developed democratization creates, therefore, an even more ambivalent situation for Chinese Indonesian businesspeople. On the one hand, they remain the targets of extortion and corruption by power holders; on the other hand, they play a role in perpetuating the corrupt, predatory political-business system. It is also important to note that the local business environment in post-Suharto Indonesia is crucially influenced by local politics, especially after the implementation of regional decentralization in 2001. If corrupt practices plague the local government, this will certainly lead to a corrupt and muddy business environment. Moreover, if institutionalized gangsterism is dominant in a particular locality, the local business community will encounter more harassment and extortion.

This study shows that Chinese Indonesian businesspeople in Medan encounter more harassment and extortion than their counterparts in Surabaya, because institutionalized gangsterism is dominant in Medan. However, it is important to note that although Chinese Indonesian businesspeople in Surabaya do not experience as much harassment and extortion, they still play a crucial role in perpetuating the corrupt local business environment. In this article, I look at how local politics that is infused with corrupt practices and institutionalized gangsterism has led to the emergence of a corrupt and muddy business environment in post-Suharto Medan and Surabaya. I also examine how such a business environment has influenced the ways Chinese Indonesian businesspeople in both cities advance and safeguard their business interests as well as deal with illegal practices by government officials, police, and preman (thugs or gangsters). I argue that in facing the corrupt and muddy business environment, due to the fear of the hassle of fighting back, as well as the economic and social capital they possess, Chinese Indonesian businesspeople on the whole tend to give in to the illegal requests of government officials, police, and preman; they also resort to illegal or semi-legal means as well as opportunistic tactics to gain wealth and protect their business interests. Although there are Chinese businesspeople who fight against the illegal practices, they are rare. This collusion with corrupt practices in turn reinforces negative stereotypes against the Chinese and consequently perpetuates their ambivalent position as well as corruption in local politics.

It is hoped that the case studies in this paper constitute a pioneering representation of Chinese Indonesian business communities in urban centers of post-Suharto Indonesia—primarily Medan and Surabaya, because both are big cities with a relatively high percentage of ethnic Chinese Indonesians. The dynamics of Chinese Indonesian business communities in post-Suharto urban Indonesia are therefore apparent in this study.

This article is divided into 10 main sections. The first section deals with theoretical issues. The second focuses on research methodology. The third section looks at the economic role of ethnic Chinese in post-Suharto Medan and Surabaya. Next, I turn my attention to local governance and the business environment in post-Suharto Indonesia as well as the experiences of Chinese Indonesian businesspeople in Medan and Surabaya. I point out that Chinese big business as well as Chinese small and medium businesses deal with the new business environment in different ways. Then I discuss the changes in the political environment and the political activism of Chinese Indonesian businesspeople in the post-Suharto era. In the remaining four sections, I examine the illegal and semi-legal business practices utilized by Chinese Indonesian businesspeople in both cities to safeguard their business interests. I conclude that there is evidence to suggest that Chinese Indonesian businesspeople in Medan and Surabaya continue to encounter rampant corrupt practices in bureaucracy as well as harassment and extortion from local power holders and youth/crime organizations (in Medan) since the end of the New Order. Using Anthony Giddens’s concept of structure and agency, and Pierre Bourdieu’s notion of habitus and field, I argue that such a corrupt, predatory political-business system continues to exist not only because the predatory political-business interests nurtured under the New Order managed to capture the new political vehicles and institutions, but also because many, if not most, local Chinese businesspeople play a role in perpetuating the system.

Theoretical Framework

This study adopts a combination of Anthony Giddens’s structure-agency theory as well as Pierre Bourdieu’s notion of habitus and field as a framework for examining strategies and tactics that Chinese Indonesians adopt to safeguard their business interests in the post-Suharto era. Both Giddens and Bourdieu perceive social actors as agents that actively respond to and shape their social structures. Giddens argues that our social reality is shaped by both social forces and active human agency. All people are knowledgeable about the conditions and consequences of their actions in their daily lives. Although people are not entirely free to choose their own actions, they do have agency (Giddens 1984). Therefore, Giddens sees social structures as both the medium and the outcome of the actors’ actions:

As human beings, we do make choices, and we do not simply respond passively to events around us. The way forward in bridging the gap between “structural” and “action” approaches is to recognize that we actively make and remake social structure during the course of our everyday activities. (Giddens 1989, 705, emphasis in the original)

Habitus, according to Bourdieu, is a system of acquired dispositions through which people deal with the social world (Bourdieu 1990a, 131). Bourdieu also notes that “[a]s an acquired system of generative schemes, the habitus makes possible the free production of all the thoughts, perceptions and actions inherent in the condition of production” (Bourdieu 1990b, 55). In other words, habitus is an orientation to individual action. The concept of field complements the idea of habitus. A field is a relatively autonomous arena within which people act strategically, depending on their habitus, to enhance their capital. Examples of fields include politics, religion, and philosophy (Bourdieu 1993, 72–74). Bourdieu considers habitus to be the union of structures and agency: “. . . habitus operates as a structuring structure able to selectively perceive and to transform the objective structure [field] according to its own structure while, at the same time, being re-structured, transformed in its makeup by the pressure of the objective structure” (Bourdieu 2005, 46–47). In other words, habitus shapes the objective structure (field) but at the same time is also shaped by the objective structure. This concept is parallel to Giddens’s structure-agency theory. One of the significant strengths of Bourdieu’s notion of habitus lies in its consideration of actors’ social positions in the study of habitus; this is never discussed in Giddens’s theory. Bourdieu argues that a person’s habitus is structured by his or her position within a social space, which is determined by his or her sociological characteristics in the form of volume and kinds of economic capital, cultural capital, and social capital possessed (Bourdieu 1984, 114; 1998, 6–8). Economic capital refers to material resources that can be turned into money or property rights. Cultural capital refers to non-material goods such as types of knowledge, skills and expertise, educational credentials, and aesthetic preferences acquired through upbringing and education that can be converted into economic capital. Social capital refers to networks of contacts that can be used to maintain or advance one’s social position (Bourdieu 1986).

According to Bourdieu, actors who are well endowed with capital and therefore enjoy privileged positions in a particular field tend to defend the status quo in order to safeguard their capital, whereas those least endowed with capital and therefore occupying the less-advantaged positions within the field are inclined to challenge the status quo via subversion strategies in order to enhance their capital and improve their social positions (Bourdieu 1993, 73).

Hence, this is the theoretical framework for this study: Social structures constrain and enable actors’ actions. Actors’ actions are always oriented by their habitus, which is dependent on the volume and kinds of capital possessed. Those who are well endowed with capital in a social structure tend to defend the status quo of the structure in order to safeguard their capital and position, whereas those least endowed with capital within the structure are inclined to challenge it via subversion strategies.

Methods of Research

My analysis is based on fieldwork conducted from July 2010 until May 2011 in Medan and Surabaya.2) Medan and Surabaya were selected as field sites for this study since both cities are economically and politically significant. These cities are the capitals of North Sumatra and East Java respectively, which have been “the sites of vibrant urban and industrial centers” (Hadiz 2004, 623). Medan is a historically important town for plantations, manufacturing, and trade, while Surabaya is a vital port city that functions as a gateway to Eastern Indonesia (Buiskool 2004, 1; Hadiz 2004, 623). According to City Population, an online atlas, Medan and Surabaya were the fifth- and second-largest cities in the country respectively in 2010 (City Population 2012). Both cities also have a significant Chinese Indonesian population: according to the Indonesian Population Census of 2000, the concentration of the Chinese Indonesian population was 10.65 percent in Medan and 4.37 percent in Surabaya,3) figures that are much higher than the percentage of Chinese Indonesians in the total population of Indonesia (1.2 percent) (Aris et al. 2008, 27, Table 2.2). The methods used in this research are library research and individual interviews. I conducted library research at public as well as university libraries. I also interviewed or had personal communications with 12 Chinese Indonesian businesspeople, three politicians, one journalist, eight NGOs or social activists, one leader of the North Sumatra branch of Pancasila Youth (PP, Pemuda Pancasila), seven staff or people in charge of local Chinese-language presses, six academics or university lecturers, and one former staff of a real estate company in Surabaya’s Chinatown (see Appendix). All interviews and personal communications were conducted in Indonesian, Mandarin, Hokkien, or English. All names of informants used in this article, except for public figures, are pseudonyms.

The Economic Role of Ethnic Chinese in Post-Suharto Medan and Surabaya

Sofyan Wanandi (1999), Michael Backman (2001), and Charles A. Coppel (2008) have pointed out that it is commonly asserted that ethnic Chinese control 70 percent of Indonesia’s economy, although official data on the economic domination of Chinese in Indonesia is unavailable. These authors emphasize that such a view is an exaggeration because a large portion of Indonesia’s economy (such as the oil and gas industry) has always been under the control of the state, not the Chinese (Wanandi 1999; Backman 2001; Coppel 2008). In addition, the sociologist Mely G. Tan (陈玉兰) argues that it is impossible for the Chinese minority, who constitute less than 3 percent of the total population in Indonesia, to control 70 percent of the national economy.4) Wanandi suggests that Chinese Indonesian businesses constitute only 25 percent of the national economy, while Backman estimates that Chinese Indonesians “control 70 percent of the private, corporate, domestic capital” (Wanandi 1999, 132; Backman 2001, 88).

In the post-Suharto era, Chinese Indonesians continue to play a crucial role in the economic development of Medan and Surabaya. Since there is no official data available specifically on the economic domination of Chinese Indonesians, I had to rely on individual interviews to obtain information on this aspect. According to an NGO activist in Medan, Chinese Indonesians in the city dominate businesses that are medium-sized and larger, such as manufacturing, food production, and hotels. At the same time, domination of businesses that are medium-sized and smaller is split almost evenly between Chinese and indigenous businesspeople. Businesses that are small and micro are dominated by indigenous businesspeople.5) In addition, three other NGO activists disclosed that Chinese businesspeople engage in nearly all sectors of the economy in Medan except the construction industry, which is dominated by indigenous businesspeople who are Batak and members of youth/crime organizations.6) This is because most construction projects in Medan are local state projects that are usually allocated to members of youth/crime organizations who are well connected to the local government.7) A local economic analyst in Surabaya remarked that Chinese businesspeople dominate 100 percent of the manufacturing business and about 90 percent of the real estate business in the city. In addition, more than 60 percent of bankers and about 70 percent of advertisers in Surabaya are Chinese Indonesians.8) In short, based on the information provided by my informants, Chinese Indonesians continue to dominate the private economy of Medan and Surabaya in the post-New Order era.

Local Governance and Business Environment in Post-Suharto Indonesia

In order to accommodate growing regional and local demands for greater autonomy in access to local resources and control of local political machines, the post-Suharto government introduced regional decentralization and local autonomy policies under two umbrella laws, Law No. 22/1999 and Law No. 25/1999. These laws were later revised and replaced with Law No. 32/2004 and Law No. 33/2004. Under the decentralization laws and regulations, significant administrative powers in industry, trade, investments, agriculture, public works, transport, cooperatives, labor, land, health care, education and culture, and environmental issues transferred from the central government to regional and local governments (Ariel and Hadiz 2005, 261; Hadiz and Robison 2005, 233; Widjajanti 2009, 76). According to the scholar-bureaucrat Ryaas Rasyid, who was appointed by President Habibie to form a group known as the Team of Ten (Tim Sepuluh) to formulate the decentralization laws and regulations, “The [decentralization] policy was intended to provide more scope for local creativity and initiative in making policy and promoting public participation” (Rasyid 2003, 64). Therefore, it can be said that in the context of Indonesia, one of the objectives of regional decentralization is to promote democratization at the local level.

Moreover, international and domestic organizations such as the SMERU Research Institute, the World Bank, and the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) have been actively offering policy advice on decentralization of state authority in the country. The SMERU Research Institute sees regional decentralization as a huge administrative operation that could improve weaknesses in the administration of central and local governments (Syaikhu 2002). The World Bank believes that decentralization will break up stifling central government authority, reduce complex bureaucratic procedures and administrative bottlenecks, as well as “increase government officials’ sensitivity to local conditions and needs” (World Bank Group, n.d.). A USAID publication argues that decentralization will stimulate the development of democratic, accountable, and effective local governance (USAID Office of Democracy and Governance 2000, 7). In particular, the Asia Foundation assists local governments in addressing inefficiencies in the business licensing process and reducing the cost of doing business in Indonesia through developing the One Stop Shops (OSS) program. OSS are service centers that handle applications for various business permits (Steer 2006). As stated in an article that introduces the program, “[OSS] are new institutions that merge authority from disparate technical departments into one office where licenses and permits can be obtained quickly” (ibid., 7).

However, according to some scholars, the end of authoritarianism and the subsequent opening up of politics, as well as the introduction of regional decentralization, have not led to the emergence of good governance that is able to deploy public authority and public resources in a regularized manner for public purposes. Both Marcus Mietzner and Jamie S. Davidson point out that corruption and internal mismanagement continue to characterize the bureaucracy in the country (Mietzner 2008, 244–248; Davidson 2009, 294). Due to the absence of an effective, genuinely reformist party or political coalition, the demise of Suharto’s New Order regime did not end the rampant corruption and internal mismanagement in the country’s bureaucracy. According to Vedi R. Hadiz and Richard Robison, the predatory political-business interests nurtured under the New Order managed to reconstitute and reorganize themselves successfully within the new political and economic regimes. Newly decentralized and competing predatory interests contest to gain ascendancy at the local level of politics as regional decentralization has created new rent-seeking opportunities for local governments (Hadiz and Robison 2005, 232). In other words, corruption, or what Indonesians generally call KKN (the Indonesian-language acronym for corruption, collusion, and nepotism), has devolved from the central to local governments.

For instance, during my fieldwork in Medan, the OSS program, which was established with the aim of addressing the licensing process and reducing the burden on business, actually created more burdens for local businesspeople. According to a news report in Harian Orbit, a local Indonesian-language newspaper in Medan, officials at the center often demand bribes by asking for “service charges” from applicants. If the applicants refuse to pay, they need to wait a long time before getting their permits (Harian Orbit, November 15, 2010). For instance, applicants for a business permit (SIUP, Surat Izin Usaha Perdagangan) need to pay an extra Rp.150,000 of unofficial “service charge” to the officials in order to get a permit on time (ibid.). Such incidents have been highlighted in the press, and the then Medan Mayor Rahudman Harahap said he would summon the persons in charge of the OSS (Harian Orbit, November 16, 2010). But as of December 2013, the local government had not yet investigated the problem and such corrupt practices were still rampant in the OSS of Medan (Batak Pos, December 5, 2013).

Although Joko Widodo, a politician who does not have any ties to the New Order regime, was elected as the new president of Indonesia in 2014 and promised to improve and simplify business licensing procedures in government offices, the House of Representatives is dominated by parliamentarians who favor Prabowo Subianto, Widodo’s only opponent in the presidential election (The Jakarta Globe, October 9, 2014; October 28, 2014). Subianto is a former general who used to be Suharto’s son-in-law.9) He was accused of human rights violations when he was a general (Tomsa 2009). Subianto’s supporters in the House of Representatives declared that they would block every policy made by Widodo. Hence, it might not be easy for Widodo to deliver on his promise to address the licensing process and reduce the burden on business.

In addition, scholars have noted that the implementation of regional decentralization in Indonesia has produced many regional heads who behave like “little kings” (raja-raja kecil) in the sense that they perceive decentralization and autonomy as meaning more power given to them to control local resources and raise revenues rather than as greater responsibility for them to offer better public services to their local constituencies. These “little kings” are unaccountable to central authorities, local parliaments, or local citizens (Azis 2003, 3; Hofman and Kaiser 2004, 26; 2006, 97; Firman 2009, 148). Since the decentralization law went into effect, local governments in Indonesia have had more power to tax the local population in order to raise revenues. According to my informants, the imposition of new taxes has increased the burden on local businesspeople, particularly those running small or medium businesses.10) The local governments in Medan and Surabaya have been levying new taxes and charges on businesses as a means to increase direct revenues, as well as to extract indirect revenues in the form of bribes. Moreover, officials at all levels of government—central, provincial, and local—claim ultimate authority over many kinds of investment activity (Hadiz and Robison 2005, 235–236). This increases unpredictability in business, as well as the necessity to further the common practice of bribing officials for licenses and the like.

At the end of 2010, the Committee of Monitoring for Regional Autonomy (KPPOD, Komite Pemantau Pelaksanaan Otonomi Daerah), an NGO in Indonesia that monitors the implementation of regional autonomy in the country, announced that North Sumatra and East Java, where Medan and Surabaya are located, had more problematic local regulations issued by the city and kabupaten governments than all the other provinces. The committee proposed that 315 local regulations in North Sumatra and 291 local regulations in East Java should be abolished because they were deemed to hamper business activities in the provinces. Nevertheless, as of 2011, the city and kabupaten governments of North Sumatra and East Java had only repealed 98 and 91 of the problematic regulations respectively (Jawa Pos National Network, February 23, 2011).11)

Therefore, it can be said that local politics in North Sumatra and East Java is infused with corruption. However, it is also important to note that there is a significant difference between the two provinces in regard to local politics: the dominance of institutionalized gangsterism in North Sumatra. In other words, youth/crime organizations are influential and dominant in North Sumatra. According to Vedi R. Hadiz (2010), such organizations exist also in Surabaya but are much less dominant. As the capital of North Sumatra, Medan is notorious for its institutionalized gangsterism or premanism and is therefore known as a gangster city (kota preman) (Honna 2011). The origins of preman go back to the 1945–49 Indonesian National Revolution and the late 1950s. According to Ian Wilson, during the revolution strongmen and toughs were at the forefront of the struggle for Indonesia’s independence. Many of them were later incorporated into the new national military (Wilson 2010, 201). In 1954 General Nasution, the head of the armed forces, “deployed networks of gangsters and former militias as part of a campaign to pressure Sukarno into suspending parliamentary democracy, eventually ushering in the period known as ‘Guided Democracy’” (ibid.).12) Pancasila Youth (PP, Pemuda Pancasila), the largest quasi-official youth/crime organization, was formed out of this alliance. In the mid-1960s, the military mobilized PP and local gangsters to confront and crush suspected members of the Communist Party (Ryter 2000, 19; 2001; 2002; Hadiz 2004, 626). Former Governor of North Sumatra Syamsul Arifin, interviewed in The Act of Killing—a 2012 documentary film about the anti-communist genocide—acknowledged the important role of gangsters in eliminating communism in Indonesia: “Communism will never be accepted here, because we have so many gangsters, and that’s a good thing” (cited in the subtitles of Oppenheimer 2012). Under Suharto the institutionalization of local gangsters was further intensified (Wilson 2011, 242). Apart from PP, other quasi-official youth/crime organizations, such as the Army Veterans’ Youth (PPM, Pemuda Panca Marga) and Armed Forces Sons’ and Daughters’ Communication Forum (FKPPI, Forum Komunikasi Putra-Putri Purnawirawan Indonesia), were formed to help maintain political order and stability through violence and intimidation (Ryter 2001; 2005, 22; Beittinger-Lee 2009, 164). These organizations are generally considered to be “fronts for preman activity” (Hadiz 2003, 125–126) and were usually backed and protected by the military during the New Order period (Ryter 2000, 20). Thus, such organizations are also known as “preman organizations” (Wilson 2010, 200). (Hereafter, the terms “youth/crime organizations” and “preman organizations” will be used interchangeably.) Therefore, it can be said that the distinction between preman, soldier, politician, and criminal is often blurry.

After the unraveling of the New Order regime, despite losing their main backer, preman have been able to survive by taking advantage of the inability of the post-New Order regimes to maintain security and the opportunities opened up by competitive electoral politics as well as regional decentralization. Many political parties have established their own paramilitary wings or civilian militia known as satgas parpol (satuan tugas partai politik, i.e., political party militias). Members come mostly from youth/crime organizations such as PP and “[mercenaries] of the disenfranchised urban milieu” (King 2003). Moreover, preman still dominate the protection racket scene in Indonesia.

As ethnic Chinese are often deemed wealthier than other residents in Medan, they become the target of extortion for preman (Hadiluwih 1994, 159). It is also common for local Chinese Indonesian businesspeople in the city to rely on extralegal resources such as preman for their security and protection (Purdey 2006, 117). Preman in Medan are mostly members of major New Order-nurtured youth/crime organizations such as PP, Work Service Youth Association (IPK, Ikatan Pemuda Karya), and FKPPI. When the Indonesian Democratic Party of Struggle (PDI-P, Partai Demokrasi Indonesia-Perjuangan) became the ruling party after winning a majority of national parliamentary seats in the 1999 elections, they formed Satgas PDI-P as the paramilitary arm of the party to compete with the other more established youth/crime organizations in Medan in controlling local state and private resources (Hadiz 2003, 128).13) Although satgas were banned in 2004, they later revived in a less formal way (Wilson 2010, 204–205). In other words, there are more preman organizations in Medan now than before the fall of Suharto.

Indeed, according to Hadiz, the collapse of the Suharto regime did not reduce the influence of local preman linked to youth/crime organizations in Medan, but instead brought new opportunities for them to exploit (Hadiz 2004, 626). These preman are able to provide muscle for candidates during election periods and fund political bids since they dominate lucrative underworld businesses (Hadiz 2003, 128). In addition, many leaders of youth/crime organizations are given opportunities to run local branches of political parties. Some even hold local parliamentary seats and top executive body positions in local government (ibid., 125–126). For instance, during 1999–2004, three members of the Medan city parliament—Bangkit Sitepu (Golkar), Moses Tambunan (Golkar), and Martius Latuperissa (Justice and Unity Party)—were leaders of the local branches of preman organizations. Sitepu, Tambunan, and Latuperissa led the Medan branches of PP, IPK, and FKPPI respectively (Ryter 2000, 19–21; Bambang 2002; Hadiz 2005, 47). Besides that, Ajib Shah, the former chairperson of PP’s North Sumatra branch, is a member of the North Sumatra provincial parliament who was affiliated to Golkar during 2009–14 (Harian Mandiri, May 11, 2012; Harian Sumut Pos, April 23, 2013; Medan Bisnis, August 29, 2013). He was also one of the candidates in Medan’s 2010 mayoral election (Pancasila Youth of North Sumatra’s website, 2010). Therefore, it can be said that members and leaders of local youth/crime organizations in Medan have captured the new local state institutions and political vehicles in the Reformasi era.

This is felt by some of my informants who are local Chinese businesspeople in Medan, who say they have encountered more harassment and extortion from preman in the post-Suharto era, especially during Megawati’s presidency (2001–04).14) A few of my informants disclosed that preman often ask for “protection money” from businesspeople who own factories or shophouses, and if the latter do not pay up the preman vandalize these places.15) To further squeeze money from these businesses, when an owner or their employees load or unload goods in front of their shophouse, preman again force their loading or unloading services on the business. Usually they charge Rp.500–1,000 per item of goods. Even if the business owner or their employees refuse such service, they still need to pay the preman, who will otherwise vandalize their shophouses.16) In addition, preman ask for Rp.300,000–500,000 when a businessperson opens a new company in their area; and if a shophouse is renovated, the owner also needs to pay a certain amount of money to preman.17) Moreover, whenever preman organizations have installation events, they send an “invitation” with a proposal for expenses to be paid by businesspeople and ask for “donations.” Normally, businesspeople need to pay them at least Rp.10,000–20,000.18) Some Chinese businesspeople need to pay uang keamanan (protection money) to more than one preman if there is more than one youth/crime organization that claims authority over that particular area.19) As a “service” to industrialists, preman also help to break up strikes.20)

It is important to point out that preman demand uang keamanan also from indigenous businesspeople.21) But my informants disclosed that they often ask for more uang keamanan from businesspeople who are ethnic Chinese as the latter are deemed to be doing better in business than their non-Chinese counterparts.22)

Why do preman ask for money from the business community? According to the chief of PP’s North Sumatra branch, there are too many unemployed citizens in Indonesia. If they join “youth” organizations such as PP, the organizations arrange for them to help in taking care of the safety of business areas and let them collect money from the businesspeople.23) The sociologist Usman Pelly and criminologist Mohammad Irvan Olii, as interviewed by Gatra and The Jakarta Globe respectively, made a similar argument that poverty and unemployment are the main causes of premanism (Sujatmoko et al. 1995, 27; The Jakarta Globe, February 24, 2012). According to another source, the unemployment rate in Indonesia reached 6.8 percent in 2011, and more than half the population were living on less than US$2 per day in the same year. In addition, more than 65 percent of workers in the country were employed informally (Brooks 2011).24) Poverty and the failure of the Indonesian government to create sufficient employment opportunities for its citizens are seen by many as the main causes of the rampancy of such extortion.

Informants told me that preman have become less active since President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono (2004–14) came to power because the police have become more powerful and have started to arrest preman who extort money from the business community.25) This corresponds to findings by other scholars working on Indonesia (Aspinall et al. 2011, 33; Wilson 2011, 257–258). According to Wilson, high-profile anti-preman campaigns were initially run by the police in 2001 and were limited only to Jakarta, but they became national in scope by 2004 (Wilson 2011, 257). Aspinall and his co-authors, on the other hand, remarked that the influence of IPK, which was once a dominant youth/crime organization in Medan, has declined since the death of its founder, Olo Panggabean, in 2009 (Aspinall et al. 2011, 33).26) The diminution of IPK’s power is due also to a police crackdown on illegal gambling run by the organization. Although the power of preman organizations in the city has declined markedly, it is alleged that business enterprises in certain areas such as Jalan Asia and Jalan Gatot Subroto still encounter harassment and extortion from preman.27)

In Surabaya, on the other hand, youth/crime organizations such as PP and FKPPI are much less dominant and influential. In addition, IPK, which is based in North Sumatra, does not have a presence in East Java. Preman who offer “protection” for Chinese business premises in Surabaya are often unorganized Madurese preman. According to Dédé Oetomo (温忠孝), an ethnic Chinese social activist in Surabaya, there is a system of mutual dependence between Chinese businesspeople and Madurese preman in Surabaya. Chinese businesspeople usually pay about Rp.500,000 a month to the Madurese preman in exchange for protection of their business.28) The preman make sure that the business premises in their territories are free of burglary, theft, robbery, and vandalism.29) Such a system of mutual dependence existed in the city even before the demise of the New Order regime. Although unorganized, Madurese preman normally allocate their territories among themselves so that each area has only one preman in charge of its “safety.” Since in general Chinese businesspeople in Surabaya need to pay only one preman in exchange for protection of their business premises, it can be said that they enjoy a relatively peaceful business environment compared to their counterparts in Medan who need to deal with more preman organizations in the post-Suharto era, and pay more than one preman if there is more than one youth/crime organization that claims authority over that particular area.

In addition, according to Jun Honna (2010, 148) and Hadiz (2010, 156), industrialists in Surabaya often hire Madurese preman or members of Banser, the vigilante corps of Nahdlatul Ulama (NU), the largest mass-based Muslim organization in Indonesia, to break up strikes. NU has a strong base in East Java.

In Surabaya, military and police units are more dominant than youth/crime organizations and Banser in the control of underworld activities. According to Hadiz, it is alleged that the military act as immediate protectors and bodyguards for illegal gambling operations controlled by Chinese Indonesians in Surabaya. Furthermore, navy and marine units in the city are said to have direct links with local prostitution (ibid., 140).30)

It is ironic, therefore, that in attempting to control preman activities, the police have started acting like preman. According to an NGO activist in Medan, local police officers often extort money from businesspeople in the city, especially those who own factories; such incidents have become more rampant, especially throughout the anti-preman campaigns.31) Police officers pay a visit to the factory and ask for money. If the business owner refuses to pay, the police coerce him or her to admit to offenses that he or she did not commit and threaten to close down the factory. Sometimes the police even confiscate machines in a factory if the business owner refuses to pay them.32) Wilson suggests that such phenomena indicate that some police “have used the campaigns as an opportunity to reclaim sources of illegal rent extraction taken from them by street level racketeers” (Wilson 2011, 257). A well-established Chinese businessperson in Medan even remarked that:

During Suharto’s reign, the military was the most powerful institution. Since the fall of Suharto, the military is not as powerful as before. Now the police are more powerful. They often ask for money from businesspeople and will give us a hard time if we refuse to pay them. So the police are no different from a select group of scoundrels.33)

Similarly, in Surabaya, the police often ask for money from local businesspeople, who are mostly ethnic Chinese. According to an informant who used to work in a real estate company in Surabaya’s Chinatown, whenever the police have an event they ask for contributions from businesspeople in their area. If the businesspeople refuse to pay, the police give them a hard time when the former ask for police help.34) In addition, Junus, a university professor in Surabaya, told me that the police often visit nightclubs and discos (which are mostly run by Chinese businesspeople) and ask for a “protection fee.” If the owners refuse to pay, the police conduct a raid and threaten to close down the premises.35)

It is important to note that Chinese big business or conglomerates and Chinese small and medium businesses react and adapt to the corrupt and muddy business environment in the post-Suharto era in different ways. Christian Chua (2008) in his work on Chinese big business in post-Suharto Indonesia points out that Chinese big business or conglomerates manage to deal with the murky business environment well because they have experienced staff to identify and approach the right persons in different political departments, and sufficient capital to bribe regional decision makers. The wealth and strong social networks of Chinese big businesspeople also enable them to establish close ties with local power holders and security forces. Chua further notes that some Chinese big businesspeople establish close links with youth/crime organizations and through such connections have their own vigilante groups at their command. Some control or intimidate critical media through financial coercion to ensure favorable reporting on them and their business. In these ways their businesses are well protected. My study, as will be shown with a few examples later in this article, confirms Chua’s research findings that Chinese big business or conglomerates are in an advantageous position when dealing with the new business environment, which is—paradoxically—more infused with corruption and uncertainties. However, as mentioned, my study also shows that Chinese businesspeople running small or medium businesses generally do not have the necessary economic and social capital to establish close ties with local power holders, local security forces, and preman. Most of them choose to give in to the illegal requests of government officials or preman to prevent further hassles.

Changes in Political Environment and Political Activism of Chinese Businesspeople

The opening up of the political space after the fall of Suharto was followed by an explosion in the cost of election campaigning. Therefore, as Chua (2008) reveals in his work, in the era of Reformasi, those who want to contest and win in general or local elections need to pay large amounts of campaign funds. Consequently, aspiring power holders need to seek harder for the support of rich businesspeople, who can make considerable financial contributions to their political activities and campaign fund. Chinese Indonesian business elites are therefore deemed to be important sources of income for political parties that need significant electoral campaign funds to win local elections. In return, the former often expect to receive political protection, kickbacks, or other benefits should the candidate get elected. In addition, since the advent of competitive electoral politics, it is too risky for Chinese business elites to offer funding for only one particular candidate during general elections. Hence, some hedge their bets by sponsoring more than one candidate, thus creating a higher chance that they will have supported someone who will be elected into office, whom they can seek favors from. For example, during the 2004 presidential elections, it was alleged that Tomy Winata, the owner of the Artha Graha Group, financed the campaigns of both Megawati and Yudhoyono.36) Chua (ibid.) notes that certain Chinese business family members “carefully split their political loyalties” (ibid., 126). For instance, Sofjan Wanandi, the owner of the Gemala Group,37) backed Yudhoyono, while his brother, Jusuf Wanandi, who was a board member of the Jakarta Post, used the daily to secure support for Megawati. Mochtar Riady, the founder and owner of the Lippo Group,38) backed opposition leaders, while his son, James Riady, supported the actual power holders.

My field study in Medan and Surabaya shows similar findings. For example, Yahya, a university professor in Surabaya, disclosed that Alim Markus (林文光), the owner of the Maspion Group in the city, funded three out of five pairs of candidates during the first direct gubernatorial election in 2008, although he was well connected to only one candidate pair: Soekarwo-Saifullah Yusuf. The other two candidate pairs were Soenarjo-Ali Maschan Moesa and Kholifah Indar-Mudjiono.39) The election was eventually won by the Soekarwo-Saifullah Yusuf pair.

Likewise, in Medan, according to a Chinese Indonesian city parliamentarian, many well-established Chinese businesspeople sponsor candidates (usually incumbents) who are deemed to have better chances of winning in general or local elections, in order to get political protection for their own business.40) For instance, during Medan’s mayoral election in 2010, although many Chinese big businesspeople funded the Rahudman Harahap-Dzulmi Eldin pair as Rahudman was the incumbent acting Medan mayor and was deemed to have a higher chance of winning, they also offered to sponsor Sofyan Tan (陈金扬), a well-known social activist, who was also the only ethnic Chinese mayoral candidate, and his running mate after they won the second-highest number of votes in the first round and were qualified to enter the second round.41) These business elites included a well-established real estate tycoon in the city. Sofyan Tan disclosed that the business elites intended to fund him and his running mate in order to obtain business favors if the pair won in the second round.42) Nevertheless, Tan refused their financial offers and made it clear that if he were to get elected and become the mayor, he would not involve himself in corruption and nepotism. In addition, he would not grant any favors to businesspeople who had sponsored him during the election. Tan and his running mate ended up losing in the second round of elections.

On the other hand, there are also Chinese Indonesian businesspeople who make use of the democratic environment in the post-Suharto era to directly participate in formal politics, and some of them even run for public office. Rusdi Kirana, Murdaya Widyawimatra Poo a.k.a. Poo Tjie Goan (傅志宽) and his wife, Siti Hartati Cakra Murdaya a.k.a. Chow Li Ing (邹丽英), and Hary Tanoesoedibjo (陈明立) are examples of Chinese big businesspeople or owners of Chinese conglomerates who get involved in politics. Kirana is the founder and chief executive officer of Lion Air, Indonesia’s low-cost airline. He joined the National Awakening Party (PKB, Partai Kebangkitan Bangsa), founded by former President Abdurrahman Wahid, and was appointed as the vice chairperson of the party in January 2014. He was later appointed as a member of the Presidential Advisory Council (Dewan Pertimbangan Presiden) by President Joko Widodo in January 2015 (, January 12, 2014; Kompas, January 19, 2015). Poo and Siti are the founders and owners of the CCM Group, a conglomerate engaged in the electric utility, footwear, plantation, furniture, and plywood industries. Poo joined PDI-P, led by Megawati, and became the treasurer and financial backer of the party. He also ran in the 2004 and 2009 elections and was elected into the national parliament in both, thanks to his financial status as a wealthy businessman and the support of well-established Chinese businesspeople in Surabaya (Jawa Pos, March 26, 2004; Li 2007, 195; 2010, 122; Detik News, December 2, 2009). In fact, Poo is the only Chinese Indonesian conglomerate owner who has been elected into public office since the end of the Suharto regime. Siti, on the other hand, joined the Democratic Party (PD, Partai Demokrat) led by Yudhoyono and became his benefactor (The Jakarta Globe, September 12, 2012). In other words, the Poo family members split their political loyalties and financial support between PDI-P and PD. But after the presidential election in 2009, when Yudhoyono was re-elected as president, Poo was dismissed from his party membership and his office in the parliament by PDI-P as he allegedly channeled his support to Yudhoyono, the incumbent, instead of Megawati during the presidential election (Detik News, December 2, 2009).43) Moreover, his wife, Siti, was later charged with bribery by the Jakarta Corruption Court and was sentenced to 32 months’ imprisonment in February 2013 (The Jakarta Post, February 5, 2013).44)

Tanoesoedibjo is the owner of the MNC Group, a media company in Indonesia. He initially joined the National Democratic Party (NasDem, Partai Nasional Demokrat), led by the media tycoon Surya Paloh, but later switched to the People’s Conscience Party (Hanura, Partai Hati Nurani Rakyat), led by ex-General Wiranto (Tempo, February 25, 2013). Moreover, he decided that he would become Wiranto’s running mate in the 2014 presidential elections (The Jakarta Post, July 3, 2013). However, Tanoesoedibjo could not fulfill such a wish as Wiranto later decided not to contest in the presidential elections (The Jakarta Post, May 18, 2014). Tanoesoedibjo left Hanura in May 2014 (Tempo, May 23, 2014).

However, it is worth noting that very few Chinese Indonesians who enter politics are well-established big businesspeople or conglomerate owners. A Chinese big businessman in Medan revealed that Chinese big businesspeople were usually reluctant to participate in formal politics because their businesses were already well established and well protected by local power holders or preman. Furthermore, they were afraid that they would make many enemies by getting involved in politics.45) Therefore, Chinese Indonesian businesspeople who get involved in politics are mostly not in big business.

In Medan and Surabaya, there are a few Chinese Indonesian parliamentarians with a background in business. These include Brilian Moktar (莫粧量), North Sumatra provincial parliamentarian from 2009 to the present; Hasyim a.k.a. Oei Kien Lim (黄建霖), Medan city parliamentarian from 2009 to the present; A Hie (王田喜), Medan city parliamentarian from 2009 to 2014; Fajar Budianto, East Java provincial parliamentarian from 1999 to 2004; Arifli Harbianto Hanurakin (韩明理), Surabaya city parliamentarian from 2004 to 2009; Simon Lekatompessy, Surabaya city parliamentarian from 2009 to 2014; Henky Kurniadi (游经善), national parliamentarian representing East Java 1 (covering Surabaya and Sidoarjo) from 2014 to the present; and Vinsensius Awey, Surabaya city parliamentarian from 2014 to the present. They were in small- or medium-scale businesses prior to getting elected as parliamentarians. Moktar was engaged in vehicle trading and servicing.46) Hasyim was a distributor of office stationery.47) A Hie was a hotel owner.48) Budianto ran a grocery shop in Kembang Jepun, Surabaya.49) Hanurakin owned a bakery shop (Jawa Pos, April 10, 2004). Lekatompessy was a billboard entrepreneur.50) Kurniadi was a real estate businessman.51) Awey ran a furniture shop (Surabaya Pagi, September 2, 2014).

Nevertheless, it should be pointed out that at present, none of the Chinese Indonesian businessmen-turned-politicians have the political standing of Joko Widodo, Jusuf Kalla, and Aburizal Bakrie, who were prominent indigenous Indonesian businesspeople. Widodo was a furniture entrepreneur before getting involved in politics. Kalla used to be the CEO of NV Hadji Kalla (now known as the Kalla Group), owned by his family. NV Hadji Kalla is a conglomerate engaged in the automotive, property, construction, and energy industries. Bakrie was the former chairperson of the Bakrie Group, a conglomerate with diversified interests across mining, oil and gas, real estate, agriculture, media, and telecommunications. Widodo served as the mayor of Solo from 2005 to 2012 and governor of Jakarta from 2012 to 2014, and was elected as the seventh president in 2014. Kalla was vice president from 2004 to 2009 and was elected into the same office in the 2014 presidential election, while Bakrie was the coordinating minister for economy under former President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono. The fact that no Chinese Indonesian businessmen-turned-politicians currently have the political standing of Widodo, Kalla, and Bakrie is due mainly to the reluctance of many indigenous Indonesians to fully accept Chinese participation in public life. As Chua puts it, “[T]he label of Chinese would still be a barrier” (Chua 2008, 130). In addition, there have not been any Chinese Indonesians in Medan and Surabaya elected as local government heads, who have greater power to directly control local resources.

In the following sections, I will explore various illegal or semi-legal business practices that some Chinese businesspeople utilize to gain wealth and safeguard their business interests in the face of the difficult business environment.

Dealing with Power Holders, Police, and Military Commanders

As mentioned earlier, according to some of my informants, most of the Chinese businesspeople in Medan and Surabaya—especially those running small and medium businesses—usually just pay the amount of money or bribes requested by government officials in order to get their business permit or other related documents issued on time. Most of them give in to police officers’ illegal requests as well, in order to prevent further problems. Sometimes they try to negotiate with the people who ask for money if the amount requested is too large.52) As mentioned at the beginning of this article, it is alleged that even if a businessperson pays all taxes and charges levied on his or her business, tax officers still pay a visit to check on his or her business and ask for bribes; even when businesspersons pay their taxes honestly, they have to pay more. So, most Chinese businesspeople pay only some of the taxes and charges. Then when tax officers pay a visit to their companies, they just bribe the officers as requested.53) Johan Tjongiran, an ethnic Chinese social activist in Medan, explained such a practice by giving an example:

For instance, if a businessperson needs to pay Rp.500 million of taxes, the officers would normally ask him or her to pay only Rp.250 million and they would keep Rp.220 million for themselves, and submit only Rp.30 million to the government.54)

Therefore, Susanto, the ethnic Chinese toy distributor in Medan mentioned in the opening story of this article, argues that:

The wealthiest people in Indonesia are in fact not ethnic Chinese businesspeople but indigenous bureaucrats in the central and local governments like Gayus Tambunan.55) They become extremely rich after getting many bribes from businesspeople. Their children often spend time shopping in Singapore and bringing back many branded luxury goods to Indonesia.56)

Following Bourdieu’s concept of habitus and field, I argue that most Chinese businesspeople choose to give in to the illegal requests of government officials, police, and preman not only due to their reluctance to run into more trouble and their fear of the hassle of fighting back, but also because they have enough economic capital to pay bribes and extortion to protect their business and avoid further trouble. This is in line with Bourdieu’s notion of habitus and field that social actors well endowed with capital tend to defend the status quo of the field (social structure) they are in, in order to safeguard their capital.

Although there are also Chinese businesspeople who refuse to be extorted by the police and choose to get themselves organized and protest against the extortion, such people are rare. These businesspeople often do not have the necessary economic capital to pay the bribes and extortion. They therefore decide to protest against the extortion in order to safeguard their business. This is in line with Bourdieu’s notion of habitus and field that social actors least endowed with capital are inclined to challenge the status quo of the field (social structure) they are in. One well-known example is Yap Juk Lim (叶郁林), a Chinese businessperson engaged in the snack production industry near Jalan Metal, Medan. Yap used to have to pay the police Rp.300,000–400,000 every time they visited his factory. Eventually, he could not bear the extortion; and in 2007 he refused to pay. As a result, the police alleged that his factory used expired ingredients in snack production and detained him for eight days.57) As noted in a news report in Waspada, the Medan branch of the Regional Forum of Small and Medium Enterprises (FORDA UKM, Forum Daerah Usaha Kecil dan Menengah) supported Yap and launched a public protest together with other small and medium businesspeople from different ethnic backgrounds on March 25, 2008 (Waspada, March 25, 2008). The protest took place in front of the North Sumatra Police Headquarters, governor’s office, mayor’s office, provincial parliament, and Medan city parliament. The approximately 2,000 people who joined the protest demanded that the police stop extorting small and medium businesspeople.58) According to Yap, after the protest the police officers stopped harassing the factories around Jalan Metal for a long time. In 2010, however, they began to again visit some factories in that area, asking for payments; Yap’s factory, however, was free from the harassment.59) This indicates that the police recognized that Yap would fight back if they tried to extort him.

Sofyan Tan, a candidate in Medan’s 2010 mayoral election, revealed that many local Chinese businesspeople viewed Yap’s action positively, although it was not a common practice among Chinese businesspeople.60) Yap talked about the reluctance of most Chinese businesspeople to fight against extortion by government officials and police, and their reluctance to spend time getting themselves organized:

We have to get ourselves organized if we want to fight against such illegal requests. Many Chinese businesspeople regard this as time-consuming and would rather give in to illegal requests of government officials and police to avoid any further problems.61)

Another Chinese businessperson made a similar remark: “The Chinese are generally afraid of getting in trouble. If paying money to those extorting them can save them from further trouble, they will just pay the money instead of fighting back.”62)

In short, most Chinese businesspeople prefer to give in to the illegal requests of government officials and police because they are afraid of the hassle of fighting back, and of the trouble it is likely to cause them. Moreover, they have the necessary economic capital to pay the bribes and extortion to protect their business and save them from further troubles. Very few of them choose to fight against the extortion, because they feel that getting themselves organized to fight back is time consuming. By giving in to the illegal requests, Chinese businesspeople continue to make themselves the targets of extortion and perpetuate a corrupt, predatory political-business system.

Additionally, in order to obtain protection for their businesses, many well-established Chinese Indonesian businesspeople in Medan and Surabaya have utilized their social capital to establish close relationships with heads of security forces. The following quotation from an interview and the excerpts from a Chinese-language newspaper report on a welcome and farewell dinner for the East Java Regional Military Command in 2010 illustrate such political-business relationships between local Chinese Indonesian business elites and heads of security forces in both cities:

The ceremony of North Sumatra police chief transfers was held recently [in March 2010]. I was there too. [Do you] want to know who most of the attendees were? About 90 percent of them were Chinese big businesspeople!63)

East Java Entrepreneur Charitable Foundation, Surabaya Chinese Association (PMTS, Paguyuban Masyarakat Tionghoa Surabaya), and Chinese community leaders jointly organized a welcome and farewell dinner for the East Java Regional Military Command on October 6 at 7pm. The event was held at the Grand Ballroom of Shangri-La Hotel, Surabaya.

During the dinner, Alim Markus [president of East Java Entrepreneur Charitable Foundation and PMTS] delivered his speech with enthusiasm: “Thanks to the mercy of the Lord, tonight we have the opportunity to get together with the former and new military commanders of East Java. On behalf of the Chinese community in Surabaya, I would like to wish our former military commander [Suwarno] all the best in his future endeavors. I would also like to call upon the Chinese community to cooperate with the new military commander [Gatot]. (Medan Zao Bao, October 9, 2010, my translation from the Chinese original)

As referred to in the excerpt from the Chinese-language newspaper report above, the local Chinese business community in Surabaya led by Alim Markus (林文光) organized a welcome and farewell dinner for the former and new regional military commander of East Java in 2010. Junus, one of my informants—a university professor in Surabaya—revealed that Markus was well connected with President Suharto during the New Order. After the collapse of the Suharto regime, Markus established close ties with Imam Utomo, the then governor of East Java.64) Markus is the owner of Maspion Group, a Surabaya-based conglomerate that manufactures household appliances.

Many well-established Chinese businesspeople in Surabaya have also established close relationships with the governor, the regional police chief (Kapolda, Kepala Polisi Daerah), and the regional military commander (Pangdam, Panglima Daerah Militer), all of whom are paid by the former on a regular basis.65) Bambang, a Chinese big businessman whom I interviewed, disclosed that he was a good friend of Soekarwo, the governor of East Java. Bambang owns a ceramic tile factory.66) Junus, who knows many local Chinese businesspeople, commented that Bambang is free from harassment and extortion by the police due to his good relationship with the governor.67) A few well-established Chinese businesspeople who run nightclubs in the city are well connected to the mayor and local police. Therefore, their businesses are protected and their clubs are free from police raids.68)

It is alleged that some Chinese businesspeople who run big businesses in Surabaya are connected to Anton Prijatno (王炳金), a Golkar member who served in the East Java provincial legislature and the national legislature (DPR, Dewan Perwakilan Rakyat) during the Suharto era, and later, after the end of the New Order, became a prominent businessman and political patron for many Chinese businesses in Surabaya.69) In my interview with him, Prijatno revealed that he left Golkar in May 1998 because he was very disappointed with the rampant corruption within the Suharto regime.70) Unlike most local Chinese politicians with business backgrounds, Prijatno became actively engaged in business only after spending many years in politics. He became the chairperson of an asphalt distribution company in 2003.71) Since Prijatno is close to the governor, his business flourishes and is protected from harassment and extortion by the police. He is also a business partner of Sudomo Mergonoto (吴德辉), who owns Kapal Api Group, a coffee production company, and Bambang (the ceramic tile factory owner).72) In addition, Prijatno is a supplier of asphalt for many well-established Chinese real estate developers and contractors in the city.73) Since he is a prominent politician and close to the governor, it is alleged that he also acts as a political patron for most well-established Chinese businesses in Surabaya, except Markus’s Maspion Group, the largest conglomerate in Surabaya.74)

Similarly, in Medan, according to a local media activist who knows many local businesspeople of Chinese descent, in order to obtain protection and privileged access to permits and contracts from local power holders, many well-established Chinese Indonesian businesspeople in the city have established close relationships with local power holders and heads of security forces who hold the most power in North Sumatra, i.e., the governor, the regional police chief, and the regional military commander. They often group together to “contribute” money to those power holders and heads of security forces in exchange for protection and permits.75) Another NGO activist disclosed that it is common for Chinese businesspeople who operate big businesses in the city to group together and form close ties with local police officers. They pay money to the police regularly in exchange for protection.76)

Benny Basri (张保圆) is a good example of a well-connected Chinese businessman in Medan. Running PT Central Business District (CBD), a well-established real estate company in the city, Basri is said to be close to regional military officers and local police officers.77) He has also held the position of treasurer in the North Sumatra branch of the Democratic Party (PD, Partai Demokrat) since 2003.78) It is alleged that because of his close relationship with local power holders, he was able to purchase land previously owned by the Indonesian Air Force in Polonia, Medan, for a real estate development project.79)

While Chinese businesspeople who run large-scale businesses are able to establish close ties with local power holders and heads of security forces because they have a strong social network, those who own small- and medium-scale businesses generally do not have the ability and opportunity to establish close ties with local or potential power holders.

Relations with Preman
As mentioned, institutionalized gangsterism is dominant in Medan. Some local Chinese businesspeople who run large-scale businesses have established close relationships with youth/crime organizations to get protection for their business. According to an NGO activist in Medan, many well-established Chinese businesspeople hire preman to protect their business and to break up strikes.80) Some of them have also become advisers of youth/crime organizations. For instance, one of my informants disclosed that Vincent Wijaya, a local Chinese businessperson engaged in the frozen seafood industry, was an adviser of PP’s North Sumatra branch, a major youth/crime organization in the province, and hence his business was well protected by PP.81) In addition, according to the person in charge of Harian Promosi Indonesia (《印广日报》), a Chinese-language press in Medan, the founder of the press, Hakim Honggandhi (关健康), used to be the treasurer of IPK, a youth/crime organization based in Medan. Honggandhi was also connected to the North Sumatran military because he used to distribute consumer goods to them.82)

Another good example is the support that Indra Wahidin (黄印华), the then chairperson of the North Sumatra branch of the Chinese Indonesian Association, and a group of Chinese community leaders (who were mostly businesspeople) gave to Ajib Shah-Binsar Situmorang, one of the candidate pairs in Medan’s 2010 mayoral election (Harian Global, March 30, 2010; Harian Analisa, May 7, 2010; Waspada, May 7, 2010).83) Wahidin is an insurance agent and paint distributor.84) He openly supported Ajib-Binsar because of his connections with Ajib, the former chairperson of PP’s North Sumatra branch. Wahidin and several other Chinese businesspeople, some said, believed Ajib would offer more protection to their business if he was elected,85) as opposed to Sofyan Tan (the only ethnic Chinese mayoral candidate), who refused to promise any favors to those who supported his candidature.86) One informant, however, has a different interpretation of this support: that Wahidin supported Ajib in order to secure the safety of the local Chinese community. This is because Ajib was initially the candidate chosen by the Prosperous Peace Party (PDS, Partai Damai Sejahtera), but the party later revoked its support in favor of Sofyan Tan. Since Wahidin was afraid that Ajib would blame the local Chinese community for this turnaround and make trouble for them, he decided to openly support and campaign for Ajib.87)

Besides that, according to some of my informants, the local governments of post-New Order Medan/North Sumatra often allocate local state projects to indigenous contractors who are members of youth/crime organizations.88) But it is also not uncommon for them to subcontract some of their projects to Chinese contractors who are their friends. An indigenous contractor may subcontract his projects to his Chinese friends at 20 percent less than his original tender cost. What this means is that the contractor would get a 20 percent cut from the cost.89) In other words, some local Chinese businesspeople who are well connected with youth/crime organizations could informally work on local state projects.

Conversely, in Surabaya, the relations between Chinese businesspeople and preman are different since the youth/crime organizations there are much less dominant. As mentioned, Chinese businesspeople in Surabaya often pay Madurese preman in exchange for “protection” for their business premises. In addition, during workers’ strikes, Chinese Indonesian industrialists often hire Madurese preman or members of Banser, the vigilante corps of Nahdlatul Ulama (NU), to apply pressure on striking workers. With regard to the allocation of local state projects, according to a university professor in Surabaya, unlike in Medan, contractors who get local state projects in Surabaya are not necessarily members of youth/crime organizations, since such organizations are less dominant in the city. However, these contractors are generally well connected to local decision makers.90) A Chinese Indonesian politician-turned-businessman in Surabaya disclosed that during the New Order era, the local government of Surabaya often allocated state projects to indigenous Indonesian contractors; very few Chinese Indonesian contractors got the projects. Hence, it was common for indigenous contractors to subcontract some of their projects to Chinese contractors. But since the end of the New Order, the local government of Surabaya has become more open and less discriminative: about 50 percent of contractors who get state projects are well-established Chinese contractors.91) Therefore, in the Reformasi era, very few Chinese contractors in Surabaya work on state projects that are subcontracted by indigenous contractors. This is certainly very different from the triangular collusion (Chinese contractors-youth/crime organizations-local government officials) that their Chinese counterparts in Medan have developed.

Financial Coercion against the Media

After the unraveling of the Suharto regime in May 1998, many discriminatory measures against the Chinese were removed. Most significantly, Suharto’s policy of forced assimilation was abandoned.92) In 2001 President Wahid sanctioned the publication of Chinese-language print media through the repealing of laws that had prohibited the local publication of Chinese characters in Indonesia since 1965, and thus Chinese-language materials became more freely available. Many schools were allowed to conduct Chinese-language courses. Besides that, ethnic Chinese were allowed to openly celebrate Chinese festivals (Turner 2003, 347–348; Hoon 2008, 104).

The advent of democratization and the removal of restrictions on Chinese cultural expression brought about press freedom and a new beginning for Chinese-language presses in Indonesia. Several Chinese-language presses were established across the country after the end of the New Order. In Medan, five Chinese-language presses were established after the end of the Suharto regime: Harian Promosi Indonesia (《印广日报》), Su Bei Ri Bao (《苏北日报》), Xun Bao (《讯报》), Hao Bao (《好报》), and Zheng Bao Daily (《正报》). All of them except Harian Promosi Indonesia are still in business at the time of writing. Harian Promosi Indonesia ceased publication at the end of December 2014 due to low readership. It was later re-launched under a new name, Zheng Bao Daily, in February 2015 (Zheng Bao Daily, February 16, 2015). In Surabaya, four Chinese-language presses were established in the post-Suharto era: Harian Naga Surya (《龙阳日报》), Harian Nusantara (《千岛日报》), Rela Warta (《诚报》), and Si Shui Chen Bao (《泗水晨报》).93) However, Harian Naga Surya and Rela Warta ceased publication after a few years due to various reasons.94)

It is worth noting that press freedom appears to be a double-edged sword for Chinese businesspeople. On the one hand, Chinese businesspeople can establish Chinese-language presses to promote Chinese culture and discuss issues related to ethnic Chinese in Indonesian society. They can also use the presses as a cultural space to showcase themselves and their business. But on the other hand, press freedom allows the media to expose the corrupt practices of Chinese businesspeople and the politicians to whom they are connected.

Chinese-language presses in Medan and Surabaya generally run at a loss due to low readership. The prohibition of Chinese-language education in New Order Indonesia produced a younger generation of Chinese who are mostly Chinese illiterate. Therefore, there is no general readership beyond the older generation, and this leads to a diminishing market.95) The presses need to depend on the financial support of local Chinese businesspeople in order to survive. Some well-established Chinese businesspeople support Chinese-language presses in Medan and Surabaya by becoming their shareholders or advertisers. In this way, they also make sure that the presses report in favor of them and their business. Such patrimonial power relations between Chinese-language presses and well-established Chinese businesspeople have deterred the presses from reporting negative news about local Chinese businesses. Therefore, news about corrupt business practices involving Chinese businesspeople is rarely reported in local Chinese-language presses. For instance, in October 2010, while Indonesian-language newspapers in Medan such as Waspada and Harian Orbit covered the alleged tax evasion by PT Indo Palapa, a real estate company owned by Benny Basri, an ethnic Chinese real estate tycoon in the city, most of the local Chinese-language newspapers did not report on the case. PT Indo Palapa allegedly submitted false information to the tax offices in the city about the number of shophouses that had been built by the company, so as to avoid paying taxes.96) When Xun Bao later published a news report on the case, it did not mention the name of Benny Basri.97)

Chinese businesspeople who fund Chinese-language presses are mostly connected to national- and local-level power holders. In order to survive, the presses must refrain from being critical of these power holders, otherwise they might encounter a withdrawal of their funders’ sponsorship. The fate of Rela Warta (《诚报》) in Surabaya vividly illustrates the carrot-and-stick method used on a critical press. Rela Warta was the only Chinese-language newspaper in Surabaya that did not cover many of the sociocultural activities organized by local Chinese organizations. It was also the only Chinese-language newspaper that often published in-depth and critical editorials and opinion pieces on current affairs and politics in Indonesia. The newspaper published a few editorials and opinion pieces on the general election and the role of Chinese Indonesian voters during the 2004 parliamentary election.98) It also published news on Dédé Oetomo (温忠孝), an ethnic Chinese social activist in Surabaya who contested in the East Java regional representative council (DPD, Dewan Perwakilan Daerah) election in 2004.99)

Shortly after the 2004 election, Rela Warta suddenly announced that it would turn into a weekly paper due to low readership and the increase in printing price (Rela Warta, April 8, 2004).100) But according to the former person in charge of the newspaper, the change was actually due to the main advertiser’s decision to stop advertising in the newspaper after the editorial team refused to openly support Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, the soon-to-be presidential candidate at that time, as requested by the main advertiser. The main advertiser was a member of the Chinese business elite who ran various types of business in East Java. He had been contributing Rp.2 million in advertising fees to the newspaper every month. Prior to the polls, the main advertiser, who was close to Yudhoyono, urged Rela Warta to openly support Yudhoyono and call upon the local Chinese community to do the same. But the newspaper’s editorial team refused to do so because they maintained that the Chinese community had the right to support any electoral candidate they liked. In addition, the newspaper published a few news articles that were critical of Yudhoyono prior to the election. The main advertiser was upset and subsequently decided to withdraw his regular contribution of advertisements to the newspaper. Moreover, he urged other local Chinese business elites to boycott the newspaper. Consequently, Rela Warta lost many subscribers and a considerable amount of advertising revenue. Therefore, shortly after the parliamentary election, the founders decided to turn Rela Warta into a weekly paper.101) But even after the weekly circulation of the paper was reduced to 2,000 copies, the publication continued to lose money. Later, in June 2007, Rela Warta was taken over by the East Java branch of the Chinese Indonesian Social Association (PSMTI, Paguyuban Sosial Marga Tionghoa Indonesia), led by Jos Soetomo (江庆德), and became the bulletin of the organization (Li 2008, 360). In 2009, the paper ceased publication as it was no longer supported by PSMTI’s East Java branch (ibid.).102)

The decline of Rela Warta clearly shows that some Chinese business elites do not hesitate to resort to financial coercion against a media outlet in order to safeguard their business interests. It also shows that it is extremely difficult to establish and maintain a Chinese-language press without financial support from the Chinese business community. Without the money, it is impossible for a press to survive in the long term. This illustrates the ambivalence of press freedom for the Chinese in the post-Suharto era. The patrimonial power relations between local Chinese-language presses and Chinese business elites in Medan and Surabaya have also played an important role in shaping local politics, which is infused with corruption.

Land Disputes in Medan and Threats against Chinese Indonesians

Due to the absence of a well-established rule of law before and after the end of the New Order, there have been several cases of land disputes involving illegal seizure of state and residential land by real estate developers, who are mostly Chinese Indonesians. However, as I will discuss later in this section, land disputes in Medan tend to turn into violent conflicts and threats against Chinese Indonesians. Conversely, violent conflicts and threats against Chinese Indonesians related to land disputes rarely occur in Surabaya, due to two reasons. The first has much to do with the interethnic relationships between Chinese and indigenous Indonesians in these two cities. According to Judith Nagata (2003, 375), Medan has a long history of tensions between local Chinese and local indigenous groups. The use of Hokkien, a Chinese dialect originating from the southern part of Fujian Province in China, among Chinese in Medan creates a gulf between them and indigenous Indonesians. The Chinese are also considered wealthier and often encounter opposition and antagonism from indigenous Indonesians.103) The situation is quite different in Surabaya; according to an article in Gatra magazine (July 18, 1998), and also mentioned in an interview with Dédé Oetomo—an ethnic Chinese social activist in Surabaya—Chinese in Surabaya, who often speak Indonesian instead of Chinese languages, generally maintain a good relationship with indigenous Indonesians.104) This good relationship is due also to the dominance of NU in East Java. According to Suhaimi, a university lecturer in Surabaya, NU is a mass-based Muslim organization that embraces moderate Islam and emphasizes tolerance for minorities, including the Chinese minority. Its teachings have influenced many East Javanese Muslims.105) A second reason has much to do with the way the local government and developers in Surabaya deal with land disputes. As Howard W. Dick notes in his book on Surabaya, the local government and developers in the city prefer negotiation to violence in dealing with land disputes. Prompt resettlement with a higher rate of compensation is the usual compromise (Dick 2003, 406). In other words, residents in Surabaya enjoy better institutional protection compared to those in Medan. Hence, land disputes in Surabaya seldom turn into threats against ethnic Chinese Indonesians.

There are a few land disputes involving Chinese Indonesian real estate developers in Medan that I want to showcase here to show how some Chinese Indonesian developers have willingly resorted to illegal practices to further their business interests. These cases have received fairly high coverage in the local and national press and have kept alive the general national view of Chinese Indonesians as being collusive and willing to engage in corruption to maintain their wealth.

In November and December 2011, Indonesian-language newspapers in Medan reported that three ethnic Chinese tycoons had been implicated in the illegal seizure of state and residential land in the city. The tycoons involved were Benny Basri (张保圆), Tamin Sukardi, and Mujianto (郑祥南). All of them were real estate developers (Harian Sumut Pos, November 8, 2011; November 9, 2011; Harian Orbit, November 17, 2011; November 30, 2011; December 5, 2011; December 7, 2011). It was alleged that they had managed to take over the land by bribing local government bureaucrats. Basri, the owner of PT Central Business District (CBD), was alleged to have obtained the land title for Sari Rejo Sub-district (Kelurahan Sari Rejo) through illegal means. The land was previously under the ownership of the Indonesian Air Force, but it had later become a residential area. However, residents who had been living in Sari Rejo for decades did not get their land title, while Basri managed to get it within a short period of time and planned to turn the land into a commercial property. In other words, the ownership of the land had been transferred from the air force to Basri’s company.

As mentioned earlier in this article, Basri was a real estate tycoon well connected to local power holders and local military as well as police officers. He was also the treasurer of PD’s North Sumatra branch since 2003. So, it was quite possible that Basri managed to take over the land in Sari Rejo within a short period of time because of his close association with local power holders and officers at the local air force base.

Both Sukardi and Mujianto were implicated in land seizures at Helvetia, Deliserdang Regency (Kabupaten Deliserdang), North Sumatra. Sukardi, the owner of PT Erniputra Terari, had taken over former state land in Helvetia for commercial purposes. The land was earlier given by the state to the residents of Helvetia. Sukardi was allegedly involved in the hiring of gangsters to kidnap and assault an NGO activist who led residents of Helvetia to defend their land rights. The activist was later released, after being repeatedly assaulted by gangsters for several hours. Mujianto, the owner of Agung Cemara Realty, was implicated in the seizure of another piece of former state land in Helvetia in 1968. The land had been given to residents of Helvetia, who later turned it into a football field. According to a local social activist, as cited in Harian Orbit, Mujianto suddenly claimed ownership of the land in 2011 with a title deed. Although the title deed did not show the correct address of the land, Mujianto still fenced the land with the help of the police to prevent residents from entering. Therefore, the activist believed the incident was “a game of land mafia” with the collusion of government officials (Harian Orbit, November 30, 2011, my translation from the Indonesian original). As a result, the residents could no longer use the field for leisure and exercise. This angered the residents, and they subsequently demolished the fence, leading to a clash between the residents and gangsters hired by Mujianto. Police officers showed up during the clash; but instead of protecting the residents, they joined the gangsters in attacking the residents. Several residents were injured in the confrontation.

The land disputes in Helvetia drew the attention of a few North Sumatra provincial parliamentarians, who paid a visit to the site of the land disputes on April 9, 2013. They promised to hold a meeting with the residents to discuss the issue and a search for a solution. By June 2013 the promise had not yet been fulfilled, so on June 7, 2013, the Islamic organization Al Washliyah, which owned land in Helvetia that had been taken over by Sukardi, officially lodged a complaint with the Corruption Eradication Commission (KPK, Komisi Pemberantasan Korupsi) about Sukardi’s seizure of land in Helvetia. Apart from protesting against Sukardi in front of his office, members of Al Washliyah also held demonstrations in front of the North Sumatra chief attorney’s office and the North Sumatra High Court, urging law enforcers to take action against Sukardi (Harian Orbit, June 10, 2013). The protesters carried a coffin when they protested again outside Sukardi’s office on June 24, 2013 (Harian Orbit, June 25, 2013).

Harian Orbit referred to the three developers as “slanted-eye businesspeople” (pengusaha mata cipit), clearly indicating their Chinese ethnicity, since it was common for non-Chinese in Indonesia to refer to the Chinese as “slanted-eye” or mata cipit (Harian Orbit, December 5, 2011). To some extent, the alleged involvement of the three Chinese developers in land disputes reinforced the stereotypes of Chinese businesspeople as being heartless, corrupt, and opportunistic.

On another occasion, PT Jatimasindo, a real estate company owned by Arsyad Lis, another ethnic Chinese tycoon in Medan, was involved in the demolition of the Raudhatul Islam Mosque in Medan on April 11, 2011 (Suara Nasional News, January 30, 2013). The mosque was situated behind Emerald Garden Hotel, which was also owned by Lis. According to the chairperson of the Muslim People’s Forum (FUI, Forum Umat Islam),106) Indra Suheri, as interviewed by the Jakarta Post, the demolition of the mosque was to make way for the establishment of a shopping mall and a housing complex (The Jakarta Post, January 28, 2012). The company carried out the demolition after getting approval from Medan’s Council of Indonesian Islamic Scholars (MUI, Majelis Ulama Indonesia). Suheri accused Medan’s MUI of gaining material benefits at the expense of a mosque (Harian Orbit, February 7, 2012). Since then, FUI and several local Islamic activists have staged demonstrations in front of Emerald Garden Hotel from time to time. In early February 2012, banners with the provocative words “[Kalau] 1 mesjid lagi digusurr.1000 rumah cina kami bakarr!” (If one more mosque is demolished, we will burn 1,000 Chinese houses!) were even displayed during the demonstrations. It was also rumored that the protesters carried out sweeping raids on every car passing the area and asked the drivers to lower the car window. Although the sweeping never really occurred, the rumor—which was circulated via mobile phone text messages in Medan—caused panic among local Chinese in the city (Tribun Medan, February 4, 2012).

Later, in February 2013, PT Jatimasindo promised to rebuild the mosque at the same location. But as of May 2014, the company had not yet provided the rebuilding funds, and this was perceived by local Islamic activists as breaking the promise. So, the activists continued to stage open demonstrations in front of the Emerald Garden Hotel (Harian Sumut Pos, March 23, 2013; Harian Andalas, May 17, 2014).

At the time of writing, there has been no further news on land disputes involving the above Chinese tycoons.

The Chinese Indonesian developers’ involvement in land disputes not only violated the land rights of local communities but also perpetuated the corrupt, predatory political-business system in Medan. In addition, their alleged corrupt business practices reinforced the negative perception of ethnic Chinese among indigenous Indonesians, and this sometimes led to violence and threats against Chinese Indonesians.


The corrupt local politics and murky business environment in post-Suharto Indonesia are the result of corrupt practices and internal mismanagement that continue to characterize the bureaucracy in the country. This study shows that Chinese big business or conglomerates and Chinese small and medium businesses react and adapt to such a political-business environment in different ways. Chinese big businesses or conglomerates have experienced staff to identify and approach the right persons in different political departments as well as sufficient capital to bribe regional decision makers. Moreover, Chinese big businesspeople utilize their wealth and strong social networks to establish close ties with local power holders, security forces, and youth/crime organizations. Some control or intimidate critical media through financial coercion. In other words, Chinese big businesses or conglomerates are in an advantageous position in dealing with the corrupt and muddy business environment. Chinese businesspeople running small or medium businesses, however, generally do not have the necessary economic and social capital to establish close ties with local power holders, security forces, and youth/crime organizations. Most of them just choose to give in to the illegal requests of government officials or preman to prevent further hassles. On the other hand, there have been a few Chinese Indonesian businesspeople getting involved in politics and being elected as parliamentarians after the opening up of a democratic political space. However, I argue that the political power of Chinese Indonesians in Medan and Surabaya is overall still limited, because there have not been any Chinese Indonesians elected as local government heads, who have more power to directly control local resources.

It is important to note that all the different semi-legal and illegal means utilized by Chinese Indonesian businesspeople in dealing with the new political-business environment have perpetuated and reproduced the corrupt, predatory political-business system. By giving in to the illegal requests of power holders, police, and preman, Chinese businesspeople have colluded in and indirectly perpetuated such corrupt practices, as well as reinforced the stereotype that the Chinese can pay, will pay, and should pay for everything, including a peaceful business environment. By colluding with local power holders, heads of security forces, and youth/crime organizations to get protection and access to permits and contracts, Chinese businesspeople have directly become an integral part of the problematic political-business relationships and the local politics infused with corruption and institutionalized gangsterism. Although there are a few Chinese businesspeople who refuse to become victims of extortion and choose to fight back, these appear to be rare. By intimidating critical media through financial coercion, Chinese businesspeople have seriously threatened press freedom in post-Suharto Indonesia. Such a problematic political-business system is a vicious circle: Following Giddens’s structure-agency theory, corrupt local politics in post-Suharto Indonesia prompts Chinese businesspeople to resort to various illegal and semi-legal business practices to gain and protect their business and personal interests. Such business practices in turn perpetuate and reproduce the problematic business environment, as well as reinforce and reproduce the ambivalent position of ethnic Chinese in Indonesian society. I therefore argue that the corrupt local politics and murky political-business environment continue to exist in the Reformasi era not only because of the capture of new political vehicles and institutions by the New Order-nurtured predatory interests, but also due to the active role of many Chinese businesspeople in perpetuating the system. Many, if not most, Chinese businesspeople in post-Suharto Medan and Surabaya are agents who maintain the status quo (of the corrupt local politics, the problematic political-business system, and the ambivalent position of the Chinese minority) instead of being agents of change.

Accepted: March 11, 2015


This article is adapted from part of my Ph.D. thesis. An earlier version of this article was presented at “The International Seminar on Chinese Indonesian Businesses in the 21st Century: Historical and Contemporary Dynamics,” Yogyakarta, Indonesia, September 9–10, 2011. I wish to take this opportunity to thank Associate Professor Maribeth Erb, Associate Professor Douglas A. Kammen, Professor Vedi R. Hadiz, Associate Professor Eric C. Thompson, and Dr. Charles Caroll for their guidance and useful comments. I would also like to thank two anonymous reviewers for their valuable comments and suggestions. In Medan and Surabaya, I am particularly grateful for the advice and assistance offered by Mr. Elfenda Ananda, Ms. Suci Al-Falah, Dr. Dédé Oetomo, and Mr. Anton Prijatno. Funding for the fieldwork was obtained from the Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences, National University of Singapore.



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List of Informants

Public Figures


Mely G. Tan (陈玉兰) (sociologist), June 8, 2010.


Dirk A. Buiskool (historian), July 14, 2010.

Brilian Moktar (莫粧量) (member of North Sumatra provincial parliament, 2009–present), July 16, 2010.

Johan Tjongiran (章生荣) (social activist), August 3, 2010.

Hasyim a.k.a. Oei Kien Lim (黄建霖) (member of Medan city parliament, 2009–present), August 11, 2010.

Sofyan Tan (陈金扬) (candidate in Medan’s 2010 mayoral election; social activist), August 23, 2010.

Anuar Shah (chairperson, Pancasila Youth’s North Sumatra branch), October 30, 2010.

Yap Juk Lim (叶郁林) (ethnic Chinese businessperson engaged in the snack production industry; chairperson, Medan Deli Regional Forum of Small and Medium Enterprises [FORDA UKM Medan Deli]), November 16, 2010.


Dédé Oetomo (温忠孝) (social activist), December 24, 2010.

Anton Prijatno (王炳金) (ethnic Chinese businessperson engaged in the distribution of asphalt; former member of the East Java provincial legislature, 1977–87; former member of the national legislature, 1987–97), February 24, 2011.

Henky Kurniadi (游经善) (ethnic Chinese businessperson engaged in the real estate industry; national parliamentarian representing East Java 1, 2014–present), March 9, 2011.

Harry Tanudjaja (陈国樑) (chairperson, Surabaya branch of the Partai Kasih Demokrasi Indonesia (PKDI); candidate in 1999 and 2009 general elections; lawyer), March 31, 2011.

Samas H. Widjaja (黄三槐) (former chief editor, Rela Warta [《诚报》]; former adviser, Harian Naga Surya [《龙阳日报》]), May 5, 2011.

Other Informants (with Pseudonyms)


Daniel (deceased) (former media activist), July 13, 2010; September 17, 2010.

Farid (ethnic Chinese businessperson engaged in the garment production industry), July 15, 2010.

Ivan (ethnic Chinese businessperson engaged in real estate), July 16, 2010.

Halim (NGO activist), July 26, 2010.

Usman (NGO activist), July 30, 2010.

Susanto (ethnic Chinese businessperson engaged in the distribution of toys), August 4, 2010.

Christopher (ethnic Chinese businessperson engaged in the frozen seafood industry), August 18, 2010.

Erik (ethnic Chinese businessperson engaged in the iron and plastics industry), August 25, 2010.

Surya (media activist), September 17, 2010.

Andi (journalist), September 20, 2010.

Melani (person in charge, Medan Zao Bao [《棉兰早报》] and Su Bei Ri Bao [《苏北日报》]), October 22, 2010.

Janice (staff, Medan Zao Bao/Su Bei Ri Bao; former staff, Hua Shang Bao [《华商报》]), November 12, 2010.

Joe (person in charge, Xun Bao [《讯报》]), November 5, 2010.

Setiawan (person in charge, Harian Promosi Indonesia [《印广日报》]), November 8, 2010.

Eddie (ethnic Chinese businessperson engaged in the distribution of mechanical power-transmission products), November 10, 2010.

Joko (NGO activist), November 11, 2010.

Patrick (person in charge, Hao Bao [《好报》]), November 15, 2010.


Harianto (ethnic Chinese businessperson engaged in the beverage production industry), November 23, 2010.

Yahya (university professor), December 31, 2010.

Junus (university professor), January 11, 2011.

Atan (ethnic Chinese businessperson engaged in the real estate industry; developer-cum-contractor), February 28, 2011.

Bambang (ethnic Chinese ceramic tile factory owner), March 3, 2011.

Vincent (adviser, Si Shui Chen Bao [《泗水晨报》]), April 7, 2011.

Yati (former staff of a real estate company in Surabaya’s Chinatown), April 8, 2011.

Suhaimi (university lecturer), April 27, 2011.

Wahyu (economic analyst; university lecturer), May 18, 2011.

1) Interview with Susanto, an ethnic Chinese businessperson engaged in the distribution of toys, Medan, August 4, 2010.

2) I also had a personal communication with an academic in Jakarta.

3) Calculated from Central Statistics Agency of North Sumatra (2001, 40, Table 6) and Central Statistics Agency of East Java (2001, 75, Table 10.9). These are the latest official figures on the Chinese Indonesian populations in Medan and Surabaya.

4) Personal communication with Mely G. Tan, sociologist, Jakarta, June 8, 2010.

5) Interview with Halim, NGO activist, Medan, July 26, 2010.

6) Interview with Daniel (deceased), former media activist, Medan, September 17, 2010; interview with Surya, media activist, Medan, September 17, 2010; interview with Halim, July 26, 2010.

7) Interview with Halim, July 26, 2010. This point is elaborated in the section titled “Relations with Preman.”

8) Interview with Wahyu, economic analyst and university lecturer, Surabaya, May 18, 2011.

9) Subianto and his wife (Suharto’s daughter) were divorced after the end of the Suharto regime.

10) Interview with Johan Tjongiran, social activist, Medan, August 3, 2010; interview with Sofyan Tan, a candidate in Medan’s 2010 mayoral election and social activist, Medan, August 23, 2010; interview with Harianto, an ethnic Chinese businessperson engaged in the beverage production industry, Surabaya, November 23, 2010.

11) These are the latest data available. There is no further update after 2011.

12) For the background and characteristics of Guided Democracy, see Ricklefs (2008, 292–321).

13) Among all political parties, PDI-P has the largest number of members with a preman background. The party greatly appealed to preman through its populist approach and pro-“little people” rhetoric (see Wilson 2010, 204).

14) Interview with Susanto, August 4, 2010; interview with Eddie, an ethnic Chinese businessperson engaged in the distribution of mechanical power-transmission products, Medan, November 10, 2010.

15) Interview with Hasyim a.k.a. Oei Kien Lim, member of Medan city parliament, 2009–present, Medan, August 11, 2010; interview with Sofyan Tan, August 23, 2010; interview with Halim, July 26, 2010; interview with Joko, NGO activist, Medan, November 11, 2010.

16) Interview with Johan Tjongiran, August 3, 2010; interview with Andi, journalist, Medan, September 20, 2010.

17) Interview with Johan Tjongiran, August 3, 2010.

18) Interview with Daniel (deceased), September 17, 2010; interview with Johan Tjongiran, August 3, 2010.

19) Interview with Andi, September 20, 2010.

20) Interview with Halim, July 26, 2010.

21) For instance, an indigenous businesswoman who owned a restaurant in Medan was beaten by two preman on November 4, 2010, as she refused to pay the Rp.500,000 “protection money,” which she deemed too high (see Harian Orbit, November 12, 2010). In addition, preman often extort money from small and medium businesspeople, including street vendors (pedagang kaki lima), who are mostly indigenous Indonesians, in exchange for “protection” (see Tan 2004, 134-136).

22) Interview with Susanto, August 4, 2010; interview with Sofyan Tan, August 23, 2010.

23) Interview with Anuar Shah, chairperson, PP’s North Sumatra branch, Medan, October 30, 2010.

24) These are the latest data available at the time of writing.

25) Interview with Johan Tjongiran, August 3, 2010; interview with Susanto, August 4, 2010; interview with Dirk A. Buiskool, historian, Medan, July 14, 2010.

26) See also Harian Global (April 30, 2009).

27) Interview with Andi, September 20, 2010.

28) Interview with Dédé Oetomo, social activist, Surabaya, December 24, 2010.

29) Interview with Dédé Oetomo, social activist, Surabaya, December 24, 2010.

30) Ironically, in May 1998, when riots against the Chinese broke out in several major cities in Indonesia, it was reported that the local Chinese Indonesian business community in Surabaya was able to guarantee relative peace in the city by paying generously for local military protection, in contrast to many other cities such as Medan, Jakarta and Solo, where all troops mysteriously disappeared when the riots broke out (Dick 2003, 475; Purdey 2006, 113–122).

31) Interview with Joko, November 11, 2010.

32) Interview with Joko, November 11, 2010.

33) Interview with Erik, an ethnic Chinese businessperson engaged in the iron and plastics industry, Medan, August 25, 2010.

34) Personal communication with Yati, former staff of a real estate company in Surabaya’s Chinatown, April 8, 2011.

35) Interview with Junus, university professor, Surabaya, January 11, 2011.

36) There were five pairs of candidates contesting in the 2004 presidential election: Wiranto-Solahuddin Wahid (nominated by the Party of Functional Groups, Golkar), Megawati Sukarnoputri-Hasyim Muzadi (nominated by the Indonesian Democratic Party of Struggle, PDI-P), Amien Rais-Siswono Yudo Husodo (nominated by the National Mandate Party, PAN), Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono-Jusuf Kalla (nominated by the Democrat Party, PD), and Hamzah Haz-Agum Gumelar (nominated by the United Development Party, PPP) (Aris et al. 2005, 71–74). The Yudhoyono-Kalla pair was elected.

37) The Gemala Group is a conglomerate engaged in automotive and property development businesses.

38) The Lippo Group is a conglomerate engaged in retailing, media, real estate, health care, and financial businesses.

39) Interview with Yahya, university professor, Surabaya, December 31, 2010.

40) Interview with Hasyim, August 11, 2010.

41) Interview with Sofyan Tan, August 23, 2010; interview with Surya, September 17, 2010.

42) Interview with Sofyan Tan, August 23, 2010.

43) There were three pairs of candidates contesting in the 2009 presidential election: Jusuf Kalla-Wiranto (nominated by Golkar), Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono-Boediono (nominated by PD), and Megawati Sukarnoputri-Prabowo (nominated by PDI-P) (Rizal 2010, 61).

44) However, Siti was granted parole by the Ministry of Justice in September 2014 (The Jakarta Globe, September 2, 2014). The case of the Poo family indicates that splitting political loyalties and financial support between different political elites does not necessarily bring long-term protection and guarantees for the family members’ business or political career.

45) Interview with Christopher, an ethnic Chinese businessperson engaged in the frozen seafood industry, Medan, August 18, 2010.

46) Interview with Brilian Moktar, member of North Sumatra provincial parliament, 2009–present, Medan, July 16, 2010.

47) Interview with Hasyim, August 11, 2010.

48) Interview with Yap Juk Lim, an ethnic Chinese businessperson engaged in the snack production industry and chairperson of the Medan Deli Regional Forum of Small and Medium Enterprises (FORDA UKM Medan Deli), Medan, November 16, 2010.

49) Interview with Harry Tanudjaja, chairperson, Surabaya branch of the Indonesian Democratic Party of Devotion (PKDI); candidate in the 1999 and 2009 general elections; and lawyer, Surabaya, March 31, 2011.

50) Interview with Simon Lekatompessy, member of the Surabaya city parliament, 2009–14, Surabaya, May 5, 2011.

51) Interview with Henky Kurniadi, an ethnic Chinese businessperson engaged in the real estate industry and national parliamentarian representing East Java 1, 2014–present, Surabaya, March 9, 2011.

52) Interview with Daniel (deceased), July 13, 2010; interview with Johan Tjongiran, August 3, 2010; interview with Susanto, August 4, 2010; interview with Atan, an ethnic Chinese businessperson engaged in the real estate industry and a developer-cum-contractor, Surabaya, February 28, 2011.

53) Interview with Johan Tjongiran, August 3, 2010; interview with Susanto, August 4, 2010.

54) Interview with Johan Tjongiran, August 3, 2010.

55) Gayus Tambunan is a former tax official who was arrested by police on March 30, 2010, for alleged tax evasion of Rp.25 billion (see ANTARA News, March 27, 2010; March 31, 2010). Although Tambunan is of Batak origin, an ethnic minority group in Indonesia, his ethnicity is never problematized by the public because Batak are one of the indigenous groups in the country.

56) Interview with Susanto, August 4, 2010.

57) Interview with Yap Juk Lim, November 16, 2010.

58) Interview with Yap Juk Lim, November 16, 2010.

59) Interview with Yap Juk Lim, November 16, 2010.

60) Interview with Sofyan Tan, August 23, 2010.

61) Interview with Yap Juk Lim, November 16, 2010.

62) Interview with Ivan, an ethnic Chinese businessperson engaged in real estate, Medan, July 16, 2010.

63) Interview with Usman, NGO activist, Medan, July 30, 2010.

64) Interview with Junus, January 11, 2011.

65) Interview with Junus, January 11, 2011.

66) Interview with Bambang, an ethnic Chinese ceramic tile factory owner, Surabaya, March 3, 2011.

67) Interview with Junus, January 11, 2011.

68) Interview with Junus, January 11, 2011.

69) Interview with Junus, January 11, 2011. Prijatno was a member of the East Java provincial legislature from 1977 to 1987 and a member of the national legislature from 1987 to 1997 (interview with Anton Prijatno, an ethnic Chinese businessperson engaged in the distribution of asphalt; a former member of the East Java provincial legislature, 1977–87; and a former member of the national legislature, 1987–97, Surabaya, February 24, 2011).

70) Interview with Anton Prijatno, February 24, 2011.

71) Interview with Anton Prijatno, February 24, 2011.

72) Interview with Junus, January 11, 2011.

73) Interview with Anton Prijatno, February 24, 2011.

74) Interview with Junus, January 11, 2011.

75) Interview with Daniel (deceased), September 17, 2010.

76) Interview with Joko, November 11, 2010.

77) Interview with Usman, July 30, 2010; interview with Christopher, August 18, 2010; interview with Joko, November 11, 2010.

78) Interview with Sofyan Tan, August 23, 2010; interview with Joko, November 11, 2010.

79) Interview with Usman, July 30, 2010.

80) Interview with Halim, July 26, 2010.

81) Interview with Joko, November 11, 2010.

82) As Harian Promosi Indonesia had been running at a loss due to low readership, Honggandhi eventually lost all of the capital he had invested in the press. He later moved to Jakarta and worked in a hotel (interview with Setiawan, person in charge, Harian Promosi Indonesia [《印广日报》], Medan, November 8, 2010).

83) For more details of Medan’s 2010 mayoral election, see Aspinall et al. (2011).

84) Interview with Christopher, August 18, 2010.

85) Interview with Farid, an ethnic Chinese businessperson engaged in the garment production industry, Medan, July 15, 2010; interview with Ivan, July 16, 2010.

86) Interview with Sofyan Tan, August 23, 2010.

87) This interpretation was given by Surya, a media activist in Medan (interview with Surya, September 17, 2010).

88) Interview with Ivan, July 16, 2010; interview with Halim, July 26, 2010.

89) Interview with Halim, July 26, 2010.

90) Interview with Junus, January 11, 2011.

91) Interview with Anton Prijatno, February 24, 2011.

92) For a background to Suharto’s policy of forced assimilation, see Suryadinata (1992) and Coppel (1983).

93) Si Shui Chen Bao is a subsidiary paper of Guo Ji Ri Bao, the largest Chinese-language daily in Jakarta.

94) The closing down of Rela Warta was due mainly to the withdrawal of advertising by its main advertiser. The closing down of Harian Naga Surya was due to low readership. For more details, see Huang (2005).

95) Interviews with people in charge and staff of local Chinese-language presses in Medan and Surabaya.

96) See Harian Orbit (October 15, 2010) and Waspada (October 15, 2010).

97) See Xun Bao (November 2, 2010).

98) For examples, see Rela Warta (March 11, 2004; April 2, 2004; April 3, 2004; June 25–July 1, 2004).

99) For example, see Rela Warta (March 3, 2004).

100) See also Li (2008, 360).

101) Interview with Samas H. Widjaja, former chief editor, Rela Warta (《诚报》), and former adviser, Harian Naga Surya (《龙阳日报》), Surabaya, May 5, 2011.

102) PSMTI is a major ethnic Chinese organization formed in Indonesia after the end of the New Order.

103) In fact, Medan was the site of the first violence against Chinese in May 1998 (Purdey 2006, 114).

104) Interview with Dédé Oetomo, December 24, 2010.

105) Interview with Suhaimi, university lecturer, Surabaya, April 27, 2011.

106) Muslim People’s Forum is an Islamic organization in Indonesia.


Vol. 4, No. 2, Sumanto

Contents>> Vol. 4, No. 2

Christianity and Militancy in Eastern Indonesia: Revisiting the Maluku Violence

Sumanto Al Qurtuby*

* Department of General Studies, King Fahd University of Petroleum and Minerals, Dhahran, 31261, Saudi Arabia

e-mail: squrtuby[at]

During the Maluku interreligious violence from 1999 to 2002, both Islam and Christianity contributed to the initiation and intensification of the collective conflict. This article examines the role of religion, especially Christianity, and discusses how Christian identities, teachings, doctrines, symbols, discourses, organizations, and networks became some of the contributing factors in the early phases of the Maluku mayhem. It also examines the complex roles played by Moluccan Christian actors, especially the religious militias, in initiating and intensifying the strife, highlighting how Ambonese militant religious leaders framed the violence, recruited, and mobilized the masses in the combat zone, and how the local ordinary Christian fighters portrayed the violence and transformed their everyday experience in the warfare.

Keywords: religion, violence, militancy, Christianity, Ambon, Maluku, Indonesia


This article discusses the destructive contributions of religious identities, discourses, doctrines, teachings, symbols, actors, organizations, and networks, especially within Christianity, in the intensification of communal violence in the Moluccas, particularly in the city of Ambon and the province of Maluku more generally. I have analyzed elsewhere (Sumanto 2015) the damaging roles of Islam and Moluccan Muslim jihadists in the exacerbation of collective violence, so I will not repeat it here. What is striking in the literature on the Maluku conflict is that some scholars tend to emphasize, if not overemphasize, the central role of the Laskar Jihad, a Java-based Islamist paramilitary group, in intensifying the violence, while neglecting the contribution of Ambonese or Moluccan jihadist groups, and to a greater degree Ambonese/Moluccan Christian ones. Some scholars (e.g. Sidel 2006) even tend to portray Christians as victims and Muslims as perpetrators of the havoc. This article will thus complement the existing otherwise fine literature on the Maluku conflict.

It is imperative, however, to note that even though this article focuses on the roles of Christians and Christianity in the fighting, this does not mean that all Christian communities in Maluku were engaged in the battlefield and in the opposition against Muslim groups. As I wrote elsewhere (Sumanto 2013; 2014), there were a number of Christian-Muslim peace groups such as the Peace Provocateurs, the Concerned Women Movement, the Young Ambassadors for Peace, the Baku Bae Movement, the Team 20 Wayame, the Titian Peace Institute, the Maluku Interfaith Center, to name but a few. While some groups were no longer active after the end of the collective conflict, others are still working on peace-related activities, establishing intergroup trust, rebuilding communal ties, healing traumatized war victims, and so forth. There are also numerous individuals—religious leaders, academics, activists, journalists, village chiefs, conflict resolution practitioners, and the like—who have been working tirelessly for peaceful coexistence and interreligious conciliation since the beginning of the violence in 1999.

As for the role of the church, particularly the Moluccan Protestant Church, the region’s largest Christian congregation, this also varies from place to place and from era to era, depending on who ran the Protestant Synod and Catholic Diocese, and on local pastors, church officials, and local Christian communities. Whereas in some areas of the “hot spots” (such as Rumahtiga, Poka, Paso, and some places in Ambon city such as Kudamati and Mardika), the Church directly led the violence, it was in the opposing camp in other places. While some Christian elites forced the Synod to back and provide financial and institutional resources for warfare and Christian militias groups, others (such as the former chairman of GPM Synod, Rev. I. J. W. Hendriks and his successor Rev. Dr. John Ruhulessin) defended the Church and Christianity as a source of peace and reconciliation. Similarly while some pastors and church elites established a group of Christian warriors (see below), others created a group of peacemakers.

In addition, although this article focuses on the role of religion, nevertheless I do not argue that religion in itself is the sole source of violence. Certainly religion does not cause communal violence. Just as “guns do not kill people,” religion does not slaughter human beings. However, religion provides teachings, doctrines, rituals, symbols, metaphors, and discourses that can be easily used, misused, or manipulated by those (such as actors of violence, agents or “managers” of conflict, and interest groups) with material or immaterial interests. This is precisely what happened in Maluku where radical Christians (and militant Muslims)—both elites and lay people—utilized, translated, and transformed religious symbols, doctrines, and discourses into Moluccan social settings, not only to awaken a spirit of fighting or justify their violent acts, but also to protect and safeguard their lives.

Throughout the region’s communal violence, particularly from 1999 to 2002, factors such as religious sentiment, material interest, and political motives interacted with one another, magnifying and altering the influence each would have had in isolation. Take away one factor, such as religious tension, economic inequality, or political competition, the violence would not have occurred. This is to say that although religion did matter during the outburst of violence in Maluku—and this article will explain how—it is too simplistic to reduce the complexity of the riots to just a matter of religion, without investigating the political economy of Christians and Muslims in the broad and varied social field of Maluku.

Bruce Lincoln (2006, 5–7) divides religion into four domains of varying significance as follows: (1) “a discourse whose concerns transcend the human, temporal, and contingent and that claims for itself a similarly transcendent status . . .”; (2) “a set of practices whose goal is to produce a proper world and/or proper human subjects, as defined by religious discourse to which these practices are connected . . .”; (3) “a community whose members construct their identities with reference to a religious discourse and its attendant practices . . .”; and (4) “an institution that regulates religious discourse, practices, and community, reproducing them over time and modifying them as necessary, while asserting their eternal validity and transcendent value.”

Building on Lincoln’s model of religion, this article understands “religion” not only in terms of religious doctrines, teachings, and symbols, but also religious agents (actors, adherents, communities, and organizations) who produce and reproduce religious practices, knowledge, and cultures. This is to say that religion is not simply about belief, doctrine, norm, or even ideology. It is also about the social capital that is social networks created by religious actors, namely, in Appleby’s (2000, 9) phrase, “people who have been formed by a religious community and who are acting with the intent to uphold, extend, or defend its values and precepts.”

Since the nature of the Maluku conflict shifts from time to time, this article concentrates on the early periods of the violence, especially from 1999–2002, where religious identities played a big role. This does not suggest that during this period, all Christian fighters (or Muslim jihadists) engaged in the battlefield across the archipelago were motivated purely by religious reasons. There were undoubtedly various motives, both secular and religious. Nonetheless, the contribution of religion in the Maluku conflict settings was stronger and more apparent during this period than after 2002.

After the signing of the Peace Accord in 2002, religious identities were in general no longer a vital ingredient for local religious militants. Some ex-combatants told me that they stopped attacking other religious groups once the security forces and political leaders and elite members of society intervened intensively and started to manipulate local discord and interreligious rivalry for their own political and economic interests. While some members of militia groups—both radical Muslims and Christians—continued to attack their religious rivals for revenge and other “secular” motives, others ceased to fight once they realized that their sacred, passionate struggle, as they claimed, to defend Christianity or Islam, were being abused and “hijacked” by local and national political elites for their own agenda.

As stated earlier, the battle between religious-cultural priorities was evident from the early stages of the sectarian strife from 1999 to 2002 (Goss 2004; Pieris 2004). During this era, Moluccan Muslim and Christian social actors—war radicals and peace activists alike—correlated local social events to authoritative texts by engaging in theological discourse, commentary, and exegesis. Furthermore the radical groups from both Christianity and Islam selected particular religious ideas, discourses, and texts to provide a theological basis and religious legitimacy for their vision of the “sacredness” of the Maluku war. More specifically, Maluku’s militant anti-Muslim Christians tried to justify their violent acts by quoting verses from the Old Testament narrating the glorious wars of the Israelites and their commanders, such as Saul, David, and Solomon, as well as by referring to particular events within Christian history that sustain the just war tradition.

Thus for Moluccan militant Christians, authoritative texts are not limited to the Bible or Gospel and Christian teachings, but also include historical narratives of Christian-Muslim antagonism such as the Crusades, and Christian-Muslim rivalry during the colonial period in the Moluccas. It is worth mentioning that, as historian of Maluku Richard Chauvel (1980; 1990) has rightly noted, Christian-Muslim opposition has taken place since the European colonials landed in the Moluccas (in Maluku and North Maluku provinces), as a result of unfair political, economic, and religious colonial policy towards local religious communities.

During the Portuguese and particularly the Dutch colonial era, most Moluccan Christians became the colonials’ “golden boys.” They enjoyed some privileges while most Moluccan Muslims suffered from discriminatory colonial policy. As such, Ambonese/Moluccan Christians were seen as “Dutch stooges,” with the exception of anti-Dutch heroes such as Martha Christina Tiahahu (1800–18) and Thomas Matulessy (known as Pattimura, 1783–1817). On the other hand, during the brief period of the Japanese occupation in the early 1940s, most Muslims in the archipelago tended to see the Japanese as the “helping gods” (dewa penolong) come to rescue the Muslim communities from the Dutch. It was thus natural that this should arouse jealousy and abhorrence on the part of local Christians, leading to tensions and conflict. Indeed, the Japanese established Islamic jihadist groups in the islands of Ambon, Seram, and Lease, and mobilized Moluccan Muslims to fight against what they called “un-Islamic allies” led by the Dutch and Australia (Chauvel 1980; 1990).

A Brief Overview of the Maluku Conflict

Just months after President Suharto’s resignation in May 1998, Indonesia underwent a series of sectarian conflicts, ethno-religious violence, and communal riots across the archipelago. Of all collective conflicts that erupted in post-Suharto Indonesia, the Maluku conflict that began in January 1999 and lasted for more than three years, was the most disastrous for the province, causing thousands of deaths and injuring thousands, with about a third or half of the population displaced and countless properties burnt down (Bohm 2005; ICG 2000a; 2000b; 2001; 2002). The fights between Christians and Muslims in the province of Maluku, especially in Ambon city, as well as in North Maluku, made this region the theater of one of the most shocking conflicts in the modern history of Indonesia.

The tragic saga of Christian-Muslim violence began with a minor incident on January 19, 1999, between an Ambonese Christian public transport driver and a Muslim passenger of Bugis (South Sulawesi) origin in Batumerah in the heart of Ambon city, the capital and hub of Maluku province. Once called the Queen of the East, Ambon City was a bustling, prosperous regional hub serving countless picturesque islands. Unlike previous fighting, which had been quickly resolved by local community leaders, this quarrel soon escalated throughout Ambon and other areas of Maluku province (Seram, Haruku, Saparua, Buru, Kei, Tual, Banda, and so forth) and North Maluku (Ternate, Tidore, Tobelo, Halmahera, among others), with large sections of the population drawn into a continuous stream of rioting. Less than three months after the “Ambon tragedy,” more violence broke out in Tual in Maluku on March 31, 1999. This fell three days after the Muslim Idul Adha festival and two days before the Christian Good Friday. This Christian-Muslim fighting in a remote region of Maluku left hundreds dead and tens of thousands displaced from their homes. Lesser incidents erupted in many other villages around the far-flung regency of Maluku (see, for example, van Klinken 2001; 2007; Bohm 2005; Bertrand 2002; 2004; Wilson 2008).

Collective violence between the majority Muslims (about 88 percent of a roughly 240 million population) and minority Christians (about 8 percent) has been rare in post-colonial Indonesia. When it did happen, it was usually an outbreak of anger against Chinese shopkeepers, who were dubbed Christians although not all Chinese in Indonesia are Christian, such as the anti-Chinese riots in Pekalongan and Surakarta (Central Java), Bekasi (West Java), and Jakarta in 1998 (Sidel 2006). At the end of the New Order, however, the country witnessed an increasing number of Christian-Muslim tensions and disturbances.1) The Maluku province, where the population is almost equally split between Muslims and Christians, also saw such conflicts. Christian-Muslim communal violence (not “state violence” against Christians or Muslims before, during, and after colonial times) had been rare in this region until the fall of Suharto’s regime.

It should be noted, however, that violent conflict in Maluku went through several phases, with varying natures or root causes, agents involved in the fighting, and motivations behind the individual actors who participated directly or indirectly in the violence. In other words, the dynamics behind the Maluku violence was ever-shifting, and so was the role of religion at different phases. When the violence erupted on January 19, 1999, at stake were ethnic sentiments and migration issues. Some elite members of society tried to wave the flag of “ethnic chauvinism” and mobilize ethnic groups to oppose each other. Posters, pamphlets, and writings about the hazard of “migrant groups,” especially those from Buton, Bugis, and Makassar in Sulawesi Island, for the continuity and development of the “native” (Moluccan) economies were scattered in public places in Ambon city. At the start of the conflict, religion seemed unpopular and had not emerged on the scene.

In brief, in the earliest chapter of the violence, issues at stake were natives (Ambonese/Moluccan) called “anak negeri” (“sons of the soil”) versus migrants (particularly those from Sulawesi but also those from Java) dubbed “anak dagang” (“sons of trade”). However, since manipulating ethnic identity did not seem to attract the masses, the “managers of conflict” turned to religious issues to initiate and exacerbate intergroup violence, which worked very well. It is this stage—roughly between 1999 and 2002—that is the focus of my article. During this period, religion became a crucial factor of violence and an important source of mobilization. Indeed, it was religion that aggravated the conflict. In other words, the violence would not have taken the form it did without the role of religion—for both Islam and Christianity.

The next phase of violence in Maluku was dominated by issues of separatism (waged by members of the Moluccan Sovereignty Front headed by Alexander Manuputty) and terrorism (supported by groups linked to Laskar Mujahidin and Jamaah Islamiyah), which is beyond the focus of this article. The most recent communal riots in Maluku that broke out in 2010 and 2011 were also complex. In some areas in the province, the riots took place among Muslims from different clans (such as in Pelauw of Haruku Island), while in other regions (such as in Pattimura University in Rumahtiga and some places in Ambon city), the riots between Christians and Muslims were mainly driven by non-religious factors. Still, in some areas (e.g. Central Maluku), it was “regional fanaticism” that motivated the masses. Disputes over borders are also common in today’s Maluku. In short, unlike the previous conflicts, religion is no longer a determining variable for those involved in the riots in Maluku nowadays.

Scholarship on the Maluku Violence

Prior to discussing the role of religion and Christianity in the Maluku turmoil, it is useful to briefly review existing literature on the Maluku conflict in order to locate this article’s theoretical position. Previous works on the Maluku carnage have focused mainly on the socio-historical roots of the violence, highlighting how and why previously relatively peaceful religious communities descended into large-scale violent conflict. Scholars’ opinions vary regarding the root causes of the Maluku conflict, and how local small-scale fighting escalated to a large-scale warfare. Brauchler (2003) elaborates on the importance of cyberspace, particularly the Internet, which was used by “conflict actors” to spread grievances, provocations, and complaints of victimization by the war, which aroused anger and tension among the various warring groups. Aditjondro (2001) underscores the special role of preman (street hoodlums), provocateurs, and security forces, whom he identifies as the main actors of the violence. Turner (2006) stresses issues of nationalism and ethnic identities, while Spyer (2002) underlines the role of imagination, the media, and agency in the escalation of the conflict.

Bertrand (2002; 2004) analyzes conditions that augment the potential for violence to erupt. He highlights three major factors: (1) uncertainty over a secular definition of the nation that leaves open the question of an Islamic state; (2) patrimonial features of the New Order authoritarian regime; and (3) a rapid democratic transition after the downfall of Suharto. Unlike Bertrand, who focuses on a macro analysis of historical features of political patterns and national policies of the New Order, van Klinken (2001; 2007) devotes more attention to micro dynamics and conditions. He maintains that the violence was an outcome of struggles among Maluku’s state and non-state elite actors at provincial, municipal, and district levels, over scarce local resources, driven by the “critical junctures” of political transition and the shortcomings of local socio-political structural conditions such as rapid urbanization, high dependence on the state sector, and the speed of de-agrarianization.

To conclude, scholars of the Maluku conflict have generally emphasized politico-economic dimensions of the violence as well as the central role of state institutions, government, and Suharto’s cronies, including the military, in stirring up the violence aimed at destabilizing the nation and regaining political power. Some scholars have indeed blamed the paroxysm of violence on Suharto’s New Order regime (1996–98) and the security forces, especially the police and the army, and have left the matter there2) (see, for example, Aditjondro 2001; Tomagola 2000; Bertrand 2002; 2004; Sidel 2006; Muhammad 2011). Although Adam (2009; 2010) emphasized the role of “the masses” in maintaining the continuity of the riots, he nonetheless argues that the driving forces for the conflict were political-economic issues such as land access and forced migration.

As we can see, analysis emphasizing the role of religion in the Maluku violence is clearly missing from existing scholarship. If it does exist, it usually focuses on the role of Islam and non-Maluku Muslim paramilitary groups—not Christianity and Christian warriors. There have indeed been research on the role of religion in communal violence in regions outside the Maluku province conducted by scholars such as Chris Wilson (2008) and Christopher Duncan (2013) for North Maluku, and Dave McRae (2013) for Poso, Sulawesi. Although Schulze (2002) and Sidel (2006) recognize the contribution of religion in generating conflict in Maluku, they tend to see it as an instrument for political and economic ends and ignore other ways in which religion can influence people’s social and political actions. Indeed some analysts and commentators argue that religion was simply a tool that Moluccan and non-Moluccan, military or civilian, political and religious elites instrumentalized to achieve economic and political aims.

In short, as Duncan (2013) has rightly pointed out, despite the significance that Christian fighters and Muslim militias placed on religion and religious identity in the fighting, observers—academics, researchers, policy-makers, journalists, NGO workers, political commentators, among others—quickly dismissed the religious framing of the violence. They argue, moreover, that what appears to be a religious war is upon closer analysis really motivated by material-based political interests, socio-economic reasons, and territorial grievances that were mobilized and manipulated by the greedy elites, external provocateurs, or “agents of riots.” Last but not least, religious moderates—both Christian and Muslim elites—have also tended to reject the religious factor for the Maluku violence, noting that religion does not teach its followers to commit violence but instead preaches peace, love, and tolerance. Many argued that the violence was not about religion; rather it was a story of how “greed” manipulated “creed” for political and economic ends.

Religious Significance of the Conflict

Contrasting with claims made by the scholars and religious moderates mentioned above, the “grassroots people” of the Maluku province and Ambon city who took part in the violence and whom I interviewed, namely Christian warriors and Muslim jihadists, were not interested in issues of migration, political ambitions, the market, democratization, decentralization, and the like. While outside observers and religious moderates claim that creed was a camouflage for greed, the “foot soldiers,” the masses engaged in the warfare, declared that political and economic issues were actually just a mask for the true religious goals of the strife. Religion and religious identity were also primordial for Christian and Muslim fighters during the communal riots in North Maluku (Duncan 2013; Farsijana 2005).

This suggests that what the religious moderates think of or idealize as religion might differ from the conceptions of “religious radicals.” While moderates denounce radicalism as irreligious, un-Christian, or un-Islamic, the radicals believe that violence is part of a sacred mission and strongly rooted within their traditions, beliefs, doctrines, and teachings.

Against this backdrop, in a departure from previous analyses and studies that tend to place a singular emphasis on the political economy of the conflict, this article maintains that religious identities and discourses figured prominently in the framing and exacerbation of the Maluku strife. Although later on some local Maluku elites (members of the Moluccan Sovereignty Front and some Christian elites) and “foreign actors” (e.g. those linked to the Laskar Jihad, Laskar Mujahidin, KOMPAK, and other radical wings of Islamic groupings) tried to turn the initial conflict into separatism and terrorism, the Christian and Muslim masses engaged in the fighting still considered religion as a focal point for their involvement in the violence.

Although this article focuses solely on Christianity, this does not mean that Muslims who took part in the strife did not express religious vitality during the Maluku clash. Ex-Muslim jihadists of Ambon and other regions of Maluku whom I interviewed also articulated the same religious concerns and motivations as their Christian counterparts. The militant groups of both religions portrayed the wars as a sacred duty for adherents to defend their religion. The Muslim jihadists framed the fighting as Perang Sabil (a war in the path of God) and therefore their engagement in the combat zones was considered jihad fi sabilillah (struggle in God’s trail) to protect Islam from Christian invasion and missionary activities (see Sumanto 2012).

Similarly the Christian warriors regarded the Maluku conflict as a Perang Salib (the Crusades) intended to guard (1) Christianity from the Muslim dakwah (Islamic propagation) and forced conversion (Islamisasi), and (2) the Maluku territory, which they saw as a Christian land, linking it to the land of Canaan in the Biblical tradition. Over the course of the communal conflict, religious symbols, texts, teachings, and discourses were scattered throughout the island. The findings of a survey questionnaire I distributed to 100 ex-Christian fighters and Muslim jihadists, mostly under 30 years of age during the turmoil, on the islands of Ambon-Lease, also confirmed this portrayal, highlighting how religion had contributed to the escalation of the Maluku wars and how unearthly motivations became among the major contributing factors for actors involved in the violence.

The Maluku chaos, moreover, had involved non-state local actors (e.g. religious leaders, local Christian fighters, Ambonese Muslim jihadists, the masses, and civilian groupings) in initiating and exacerbating the mass violence.3) Throughout the communal conflict, Maluku’s local actors were active agents and not passive victims, as commonly portrayed by political observers and social scientists.4) The Maluku case thus illustrates the appearance of not only “Muslim politics” (cf. Eickelman and Piscatori 1996; Hefner 2005) but also Christian politics. During the communal violence, both Muslims and Christians displayed violent and antagonistic behavior. As in Muslim politics, Christian politics also involved competition and contest over both the interpretation of symbols and control of the institutions, formal and informal, that produce, reproduce, and sustain them. By focusing on Christianity, this article will balance previous studies that have tended to overemphasize the central role of the Muslim jihadists (e.g. Sidel 2006; Schulze 2002; Noorhaidi 2006) in initiating and intensifying the Maluku bloodshed.

Christianity, Militancy, and Radicalism

To begin this section, let me quote a statement from Rev. John Sahalessy, one of the respected pastors of the Protestant Moluccan Church and one of the Christian delegates during the signing of the Malino Peace Agreement in Sulawesi. John Sahalessy was the initiator of the “Tim 20 of Wayame,” a group consisting of Christian and Muslim leaders in the village of Wayame on the island of Ambon, whose main objective was to establish peace and social stability in the region and to create mutual trust and understanding between the two religious communities. Wayame was one of the small areas in Ambon that was safe during the communal violence (Sumanto 2013; Pariela 2008). This group later inspired political elites in Jakarta, most notably the late President Abdurrahman Wahid and M. Jusuf Kalla, to initiate a peace pact for Maluku known as the Malino II Peace Accord.

In my interview with him, Rev. Sahalessy said:

All [Protestant] pastors on Moluccan Islands, directly or indirectly, were involved in the Maluku wars, except me. You can note this [statement]. Thus it is wrong if they declare in public that they were not involved in the fighting. Before going to war, the pastors brought their followers to the church for praying and blessing. They said: “God will accompany you.” This is a little example of how pastors were engaged in the fighting. Going to war [against Muslims] was an initiative of the local churches, from the pastors, and not from the Synod [i.e. the Moluccan Protestant Church Synod]. They convinced followers that the “Ambon War” was a “religious war” to defend God. In fact, God does not need our defense; God will defend us. They also believed that if Christians prayed faithfully and went to the battlefield, they would get victory. They went into the combat zone while singing the “Onward Christian Soldiers” song.5)

This statement by Sahalessy is a hard slap in the face for Christian apologists who have denied the engagement of Ambonese Christian leaders and institutions in the Maluku violence. It is also a strong critique of academics who have neglected the religious nature of the conflict. Sahalessy himself may not have believed that the Ambon conflict was a religious war, but his comment indicates that most Christian leaders and lay adherents of Christianity in Ambon and other areas of Maluku province were convinced that the war was religious and sacred. An ex-Christian fighter of Rumahtiga in Ambon city told me eagerly, “The role of religion during the Maluku wars was not only important but very important. Christians and Muslims fought and killed each other due to their religion being humiliated by other religious communities. Because of religion, Christians and Muslims in Ambon were involved in the wars for about five years since 1999.”6)

Indeed, many Moluccan Christian fighters (and Muslim jihadists too) have considered the conflict as a sacred war and a means of purifying previous sins, misconduct, and bad deeds committed before the wars. PM, an ex-field commander of the Christian militia group revealed, “For me, the Ambon war was a sacred war so that whoever killed (Muslims) will be rewarded a place in paradise by God.”7) PM also believed that the war was a medium for self-purification. For him, self-purification includes not only unworldly matters (e.g. repenting from sins) but also worldly matters such as changing from negative behavior to a positive one.

The findings of a survey I distributed to 50 ex-Ambonese Christian fighters also confirm Sahalessy’s comment. During my field research in Ambon and surrounding areas from 2010 to 2011, I administered a questionnaire to 100 former members of Moluccan/Ambonese militia groups: 50 ex-Christian fighters and 50 ex-Muslim jihadists. Christian respondents I surveyed were residents of Rumahtiga, Wailela (Ambon Island), Kudamati (Ambon city), Kariu, and Aboru (Haruku Island in the Central Maluku regency), all of which are the stronghold of Christians. I deliberately selected former combatants as my respondents partly because I wanted to hear from those directly engaged in the warfare. The questions were categorized into three main parts: (1) respondents’ educational, religious, political, and social backgrounds; (2) respondents’ motivations in getting involved in the wars and their perception of the Maluku carnage; and (3) respondents’ responses toward the future of Christian-Muslim relations in Maluku.

It is startling to discover that the majority (76 percent) of the respondents of the survey believed that the Ambon war was a religious war. As reflected in the survey findings, their primary motivations for engaging in the warfare were as follows: (1) to defend religion/Christianity and the Christian community (90.2 percent); (2) Jesus Christ had been humiliated (80.4 percent); (3) churches were destroyed (80.2 percent); (4) the Bible was burnt (70.5 percent); (5) Christian pastors/ministers had been murdered (64.7 percent); and (6) to guard Christian territory (82.4 percent). Moreover, about 98 percent of respondents rejected the war as an opportunity to gain new belongings and other Muslim properties. Interestingly, 94.1 percent of respondents admitted that prior to leaving for the battlefields, they had been “blessed” by local pastors or ministers, 86.3 percent sang the “Christ Soldier” song during the riots, and 80.4 percent brought along “Christian symbols” including a small Bible in their pockets, the crucifix, and the “Jewish flag” (Star of David) as an amulet on the battleground. It should be noted that for most Moluccan Christians, Jewish/Israelite identity is equivalent to Christian identity, thus it should not be surprising if they adopted Jewish symbols during the war.

My conversations and interviews with most ordinary ex-Christian fighters also confirm the survey findings, namely, that most of them portrayed the Maluku mayhem as a holy war. Indeed, throughout the communal conflict, they represented themselves as Abel while Muslims were portrayed as Cain. Moreover, even if Sahalessy’s remark that all Protestant leaders except him were involved in the conflict were an exaggeration—since there were in fact some Christian religious leaders who advocated peace from the outbreak of the violence—it is hard to deny the fact that most Protestant ministers were directly or indirectly involved in the warfare.

Hartford Seminary-trained Ambonese Protestant reverend and activist, Jacky Manuputty, whom I interviewed, also recognized the participation of Ambonese Christian leaders, either in the form of administering blessings and motivating combatants before they left for the battlefield, or by directly participating in the fighting. Jacky Manuputty admitted that, prior to his involvement in the peace and reconciliation process with the Baku Bae Movement and later with the interfaith group called “Peace Provocateurs,” he participated in the war as Christian communities were being attacked and their properties devastated. He even added, “Today’s Ambonese Protestant pastors might be ashamed to recognize their involvement in the previous wars. In fact, there were no Christian warriors who moved forward to the battleground without prayers and blessing from the priests and Church ministries. Indeed, they used to consider the Ambon conflict as a sacred war. The attacks of the Gambus Market in the first stage of conflict, for instance, were released with worship rituals in the Maranatha Church led by Rev. No Pattinaya. During the conflict, whoever acted as Moses would be respected by the Christians. They preferred to choose Moses as an ideal figure to Jesus.”8)

Indeed, there is no doubt that since the beginning of the conflict, Christian leaders and institutions were directly or indirectly involved in the warfare. One of the main Ambonese Protestant centers was in the fiercely religious Kudamati suburb, on a hill a few kilometers west of the Maranatha Church. Hundreds of Christian fighters were stationed at the home of Agus Wattimena, former civil servant, devout church activist, and supporter of a secular nationalist political party PDIP (Partai Demokrasi Indonesia Perjuangan). They could be instantly deployed to any trouble spot in Ambon and to neighborhoods where local fighters risked being overwhelmed. In addition to these main centers, the Protestants also built posko (centers for communication and gathering) at the village level under the auspices of local churches, jemaat (the smallest unit of Protestant congregation), majelis gereja (church ministries), and klasis (the unit of Protestant churches at the district level).

The Bankom (Bantuan Komunikasi, Communication Assistance), an Ambonese Protestant communication office at the Maranatha Church, and the posko at Kudamati were created to gather information about the conflict, identify victims of the wars, collect funds, and mobilize Christian fighters, especially youths and men. Kirsten Schulze (2002) estimates that over the three years of mass violence from 1999 to 2002, there existed about 25 Christian militia groups with roughly 100 to 200 members operating all over the island of Ambon. About 60 percent of these militia fighters were youths between 12 and 25 years old; a few were women. The young Christian fighters were referred to as Agas, a small mosquito with a nasty bite. Agas also stands for Anak Gereja Allah Sayang (Child Church God Love).9) Explicit in its name is the notion that the formation of Agas was regarded as a blessing from God. Agas was vital during the collective conflict and militia members were very often in the frontline during the attacks. Ronald Regang, an ex-Agas militia member who had fought since he was 10 years old, related at the Unicef Asia-Pacific meeting held in Yogyakarta, his brutal experiences of killing people (Muslims) and destroying their places of worship (mosques) and houses. When asked by a Unicef staff member why he committed violence and murdered Muslims, Regang replied, “Because that was a holy war, and I had already submitted myself to Jesus of the Christ.”10)

Boy warriors were an integral part of the Christian military force in Ambon. The Agas formed disciplined fighting units that were headed by adults and they were given specific assignments in battle. Herry Penturi, a 16-year-old Christian, was known as a small commander in the Agas due to his regular involvement in the fighting. Herry and his family were affiliated with the Bethabara Church community in Ambon. Although he was only 16, Herry was clever enough to make and detonate bombs. He claimed that his participation in the battle was to save the Christian community. His mother, Maria Penturi, always allowed him to leave for the battlefield because she believed that God had a plan for him. She explained, “If I do not permit him to go to the battlefield, then I am opposing God’s plan.” It is obvious that for Maria Penturi, God had given permission to commit acts of violence against Muslims.

In his study on Ambon’s child militias (pasukan cilik), both Christians and Muslims, Rizard Jemmy Talakua (2008) argues that religion was the strongest reason and motive for their involvement in the warfare. An ex-Agas member from Kudamati said, “Since the first days of the communal riots, my friends and I were involved in the combat zone to defend Christian communities, help Christian brethren, in the name of Jesus” (ibid., 37). Agas members, aged between 8 and 16 years old, mostly came from the crowded troubled areas of Kudamati, Batugantung, and Benteng. Talakua discussed not only Christian child soldiers but also Muslim child militias group called Linggis (“crowbar”). Interestingly, their engagement in the battlefield was also driven by “religious passion.” An ex-Linggis member from Air Kuning in Ambon town said, “We [Muslim child militias] were involved in the violence because of ukhuwah Islamiah [Muslim brotherhood], to aid and protect Muslim communities from Christian infidel attackers. We were not afraid of death since we defended God’s religion” (ibid., 37–38).

In addition to Agas, there were two famous Christian fighter groups linked to the Moluccan Protestant Church, based in Kudamati in the uplands of Ambon city. These were (1) the Kudaputih (“white horse”) under the leadership of Agus Wattimena, a member of the Rehoboth Church, who was depicted by The Economist (2001) as “a latter-day Jesus with his wiry frame and long flowing locks” and (2) the Coker, under the direction of Berty Loupatty (a member of the Emanuel Church at OSM in Ambon town). Agus Wattimena was a renowned Ambonese war commander who claimed to be the leader of approximately 20,000 Christian fighters across the Moluccas. Although the numbers could be exaggerated, he nevertheless played a primary role during the war. In an interview with The Age, Agus Wattimena stated, “Ambonese are traditionally strong fighters. If we are attacked, and the enemy is not strong, we counterattack. This is a real war. We have to protect ourselves” (cited in Murdoch 2000, 1). After the death of Agus Wattimena on March 22, 2001, the Kudaputih came under the headship of Emang Nikijuluw, Femmy Souissa, and Melkianus Tuhumury, in addition to Hendrik Wattimena, the son of Agus Wattimena.

The Coker originally stood for cowok keren (the handsome boys), a name given by its leader Berty Loupatty, a leader among Jakarta-based Ambonese street hoodlums. This group existed even before the communal conflict erupted. At first, the group consisted of dozens of unemployed youths, but they were soon joined by many Ambonese Christian young men. Coker members stood out during the conflict due to their fighting capacity and their bravery in the face of Muslim fighters. An Ambonese Protestant priest described the Coker as “a group of Christian fighters who were willing to die (pasukan berani mati) in the battlefield against Muslim jihadists and rioters, and were always in the forefront in each act of violence.”11) The Coker gained fame as the vanguard of Christian communities and territories. Headquartered in Kudamati, members of the Coker fought in many areas in Ambon and surrounding areas where Christian-Muslim communal violence took place. My Christian informants told me that whenever and wherever Christians needed help to fend off attacks from Muslim jihadists, the Coker would send its fighters. For this reason, Ambonese Muslims called the Coker cowok Kristen (the Christian boys) and not cowok keren (the handsome ones).

It is imperative to note that the Kudamati Christian militia groups were also supported by local churches (such as Gereja Sinar, Gereja Paulus, Gereja Rehoboth, Gereja Christy, and Gereja Natalia), jemaat (the smallest unit of Protestant group), and klasis, the Protestant congregation of Ambon city. Protestant ministers who were in charge at Kudamati during the conflict included Rev. Simon Maskikit, Rev. O. J. Tetelepta, Rev. N. Pattinaja, and Rev. N. Latuihamallo. During the period of conflict, their jobs included first, leading ritual ceremonies for the Christian militias before they left for the combat zone and second, delivering religious sermons and motivating the militias by quoting verses from the Bible, particularly the Old Testament, that justified their actions. Verses from the Old Testament about David’s struggle against Goliath were applied, in particular, to provide a theological explanation of the war. Christian militias associated themselves with David as a symbol of truth and goodness, while Muslims were portrayed as Goliath, symbolizing wickedness and immorality.

The third role of the Protestant ministers during the conflict was blessing the weapons to be used in the wars. These included tombak (spear), parang (blade), panah (arrow), senapan (guns), senjata rakitan (homemade guns), peluru (bullets), granat (grenades), and bom ikan (dynamite). The ammunition was placed in a particular spot or altar in a church, and the ministers would anoint it by using blessed water. After anointing the weapons, the church ministers, wearing clerical suites, prayed to God and asked Him to protect “His sons” in the battlefield and give them triumph over “God’s enemies,” that is, Muslim jihadists. After the ritual ceremonies were over, the Christian warriors then took the weapons and left for the combat zone.

Besides these groups, each Christian village across Moluccan Islands also had the Laskar Kristus (“Army of Christ”) or Laskar Kristen (Christian militias), which were responsible for protecting their regions and attacking Muslim rioters.12) The Laskar Kristus, which was primarily if not entirely Protestant, was mainly coordinated by local churches and the klasis (the Protestant Church unit at the district level). Officially and institutionally, sinode (a Protestant congregation at the provincial level named the Protestant Moluccan Church Synod or the GPM Synod for short) did not give a direct command to Christian communities to take part in the warfare, but the Synod did not prohibit Ambonese Christians from engaging in the wars either. The Synod was unable to ban Christian fighters since many pastors, ministries, and church officials were also involved in the fighting.13)

The Laskar Kristus or Laskar Kristen existed before the arrival of the Laskar Jihad in May 2000. University of Indonesia sociologist Thamrin Amal Tomagola, a native of North Maluku, even argued that the Laskar Kristus existed before the January 19, 1999 incident. But the group gained its fame after the arrival of Java-based Islamist paramilitary groups. The village-based Christian fighter groups were also called akar rumput (the grassroots). It is unclear who named the Christian militias Laskar Kristus, but it indicates that the Maluku conflict was seen as a holy war. The above Christian fighter groups were formed at the beginning of the conflict and gained momentum with the destruction of Ambon’s old Silo church by Muslims.

On November 22, 2001, a Jakarta-based national newspaper Tabloid Adil reported on the Laskar Kristus from the Ambon-based Petra Church. After witnessing a series of bloody religious communal conflicts in Ambon, the Petra Church organized the Maluku Prayer Movement (Gerakan Maluku Berdoa or GMB) as part of the Church community’s response to guarantee the safety of people in Maluku. On Friday, November 9, 2001, religious services of GMB included the baptizing of a Laskar Kristus member. The minister delivered a sermon entitled “To Become a Model of Faith, You Should Be Loyal Unto Death” (Menjadi Pahlawan Iman, Hendaklah Engkau Setia Sampai Mati). One of the self-acknowledged members of the Laskar Kristus warriors was 15-year-old Roy Pontoh (see Sukidi 2003). When he died in the village of Hila in Leihitu Peninsula, Ambon Island on January 20, 1999, just a day after the initial outbreak in Ambon City, his last statement was “I am Laskar Kristus.” It is believed that Pontoh’s death made him a martyr of Christ. On August 13, 2000, clergyman Timotius Arifin delivered a similar story at the church’s founding anniversary, recounting how a martyr of Christ in Ambon also proclaimed: “Beta Laskar Kristus (I am Laskar Kristus)!”

However, it should be noted that, unlike the Laskar Jihad, the Laskar Kristus did not receive special training. In the words of Ongky Siahaya, a grassroots field commander in the region of Talake, near UKIM (Universitas Kristen Indonesia Maluku, the Protestant Church’s main university in Ambon city), “we prayed first and then there were only two options—kill or to be killed.”14) Whereas Muslims had access to modern guns from Pindad (Perusahaan Industri Angkatan Darat, the army’s industrial arm), as well as support from Java-based holy war militias, particularly the Laskar Jihad, and some elements in TNI (Tentara Nasional Indonesia, the Indonesian military forces) (Schulze 2002, 63), the Christian militias mainly used traditional arms such as knives, machetes, poisoned arrows, homemade guns, and a few automatic weapons, either acquired from deserted police stations or smuggled in from Kupang, Nusa Tenggara Timur (NTT). Some Ambonese Christians were experts in the making of guns. They included Thom Pelmelay, who was widely known as the “professor” due to his expertise in making bombs. The bombs were then distributed to Christian fighters across Ambon and Maluku. In general, however, Ambonese Christians were painfully aware that they were technologically disadvantaged, with limited finances and difficulties in obtaining arms and ammunition. As a result, many Christian fighters were killed during the wars of 1999–2002.

Christian fighters did not receive financial support from the GPM Synod to purchase guns and ammunitions. As a result, Christian individuals voluntarily conducted fundraisings through Christian networks and communal ties, not only throughout Ambon and Maluku but also in Java. Some funds were collected through family ties of Ambonese Christians who had settled in the Netherlands since the time of KNIL (Royal Netherlands East Indies Army) in the 1950s, while other funds were distributed through FKKM (Forum Komunikasi Kristen Maluku, Forum for Communications of Moluccan Christians), chaired by Jan Nanere, the former rector of Pattimura University, and Yunus Tipka, a member of the regional parliament from PDKB (Partai Demokrasi Kasih Bangsa, a Protestant-affiliated political party) and his secretary.15) The grassroots (the Laskar Kristus) agenda, some ex-Christian fighters have claimed, was defending Christian faith, territories, and communities, and was never a voice for separatism as Muslims or the central government widely assumed.

Since Ambonese Christian warriors saw the Maluku conflict as a sacred war, performing religious songs was a feature of the battleground. On January 20, 1999, a large group of Christian warriors left the Rehoboth Church in Ambon City, repeatedly singing the following:

We don’t want to go back (three times)
We had won with the Blood of Christ
We had won with His blood.

Furthermore, the Christian fighters—both the ordinary flock and church elites—moved forward while the church choir solemnly sang “Maju Laskar Kristus” (Onward Christian Soldiers) to the accompaniment of trumpets. The song was taken from the Dua Sahabat Lama No. 339, a book, written in Ambonese-Malay language, containing a collection of religious songs authored by C. Ch. J. Schreuder and I. J. M. Tupamahu. This book was translated into Bahasa Indonesia and had spread throughout Ambon and surrounding islands. Ambonese Christians, particularly the warriors, used this song as a march of war. During the conflict, the song was used to galvanize troops. A Christian woman in Waai in Ambon Island told me, “When we were attacked or engaged in the war, we, along with other Christian women, sang that song [Onward, Christian Soldier] while beating dustpans to awaken enthusiasm for fighting. By singing this song, we felt we were getting a ‘new spirit’ and courage in the face of enemies [Muslim jihadists]” (Patty 2006, 33).

Early one morning at around 4:30 a.m. in December 2000, a group of about 40 Christian young men from the neighborhood of Batumeja Dalam in Ambon city walked down Pattimura Street in town, brandishing long knives (parang) and spears, and singing the Indonesian version of Onward, Christian Soldiers. In front of them walked a young female, a then unemployed Protestant minister in the official black vestment, carrying a “Moses’ stick” that “she had found in the woods.” She claimed to have been inspired by a dream that she had. The procession walked up to the A. J. Patty Street, just inside the Muslim quarters, then marched down Ambon’s business center toward the Al-Fatah Mosque. The military had no choice but to shoot at them (Bohm 2005, 113). In addition to the song Onward, Christian Soldiers, slogans such as “I Love Jesus” (Beta Cinta Yesus) or “Jesus is Victorious” (Yesus Raya) were also used by the Christian warriors to boost the war mentality.

Protestant priests and church ministries played a central role during the communal conflict. They served not only as a channel to distribute information about the development of the violence received from other Christian centers to the local Christian communities and fighters, but also led ritual ceremonies before the fighters went to the combat zone, blessed combatants, and conducted Sunday sermons to motivate the Laskar Kristus and Christians attending the church. Sermons (khotbah Minggu) delivered often revolved around the theme of Israel’s struggle to occupy the Land of Canaan in the times of King David and Solomon, as stated in the Old Testament. Ambonese Christians depicted themselves as part of the tribes of Israel and portrayed the Land of Ambon as the Land of Canaan, whereas Muslims were represented as Goliath conquering and taking over Ambon, which they saw as belonging to their ancestors.

Verses in the Bible about the Israelites who entered the Land of Canaan and were ordered by God to drive out the Amalek (later known as the “Theology of Amalek”) were used by some pastors and church leaders to justify the wars against the Muslims (e.g. Joshua 1, 1–10). This “religious duty” is set forth in the verse, “The Lord will have war with Amalek from generation to generation” (Exodus 17, 16). Thus, if any people seek to destroy us, declared some Christian leaders, we are commanded to do battle against them, and this battle of ours, on the basis of that verse, is an obligatory war. For Christian fighters, in the context of Maluku, the Muslims were considered as the destroyers of their land. Amalek, a descendent of Esau, was not only the ancestor of those who attacked Israel in the wilderness but also, by rabbinic reckoning based on I Samuel 15: 8 and Esther 3: I, the ancestor of Hamman in the Esther story. In Rabbinic literature, Amalek thus becomes a cipher for evil in the world, the arch enemy of Israel and, by implication, of God. Some Christian informants told me that certain priests justified going to war by citing the following verse from the Old Testament: “We are obliged to defend and preserve the life which God has given to us, and if there are people who want to destroy the life, we need to guard it, even through the wars.”

Over the course of the conflict, local pastors, church ministries, and officials were responsible for choosing certain Biblical verses and religious texts for the Sunday sermons and other religious services, based on the socio-political context and adapting to developments. Generally pastors and church ministries selected popular Biblical verses in the Old Testament revolving around violence and the struggle of the Israelites against their enemies, from the Books of Genesis, Deuteronomy, Exodus, Joshua, Judges, Samuel (I, II), Kings (I, II), and Psalm. During the conflict, ordinary Protestants also recited these verses. Whenever they went to other places or to the battleground, they carried a small Bible in their pocket for self-protection, making it easier to recite selected verses and stoke the spirit of war (see Patty 2006).

Common verses in the Bible which the Christian fighters “ritualized” during the war included (1) tales of the Jews freed from the Egyptian nation (Exodus 1–19); (2) stories of war between the Jewish tribes and other peoples, and stories related to the rules of war (e.g. Deuteronomy 3, 7–9, 11, and 20); (3) accounts of how the Israelites fought with other peoples before entering the Land of Canaan under the leadership of Joshua (Joshua 1: 1–11); (4) Jewish narratives of fighting against the people of Moab, Amori, Midian, Edom, Amon, and Amalek under the headship of Israeli Judges (Judges 1–15); and (5) accounts of Israeli tribes against the nation of the Philistines under the command of Israeli kings, especially Saul and David (e.g. I Sam 7; 17, 40–54; I Kings 18, 20–46).

Regardless which verses were cited by the pastors and church elites (majelis jemaat), one thing is clear: they used the Bible, particularly the Old Testament, to seek a theological foundation or to legitimize acts of violence or, in their terms, wars of “self-defense.” Many Ambonese Christians, as Rev. I. J. W. Hendriks has remarked, associated themselves with the suffering Israelites (the Bangsa Israel Alkitab); consequently they needed to fight against Muslims to gain victory and freedom from suffering. What is more, Ambonese Christians imagined themselves as the Israelites, so if the Israelites had fought against the people of the Philistines, Amalek, Egypt, and so forth, Ambonese Christians had to battle against Muslims whom they saw, at the time, as a representation of the foes of the Israeli people. Ambonese Christians believed that God would be on their side during these difficult times and would let them triumph as He had led the Israelis to victory.

In addition, they were convinced that God would protect them from the Muslim enemies as He had helped and protected the Israelis (e.g. Deuteronomy 20, 1–4; Psalm 3, 11, 23, 27). In other words, God was portrayed as the hero, helper, and guardian of the Ambonese Christians. Ambonese Christians claimed, furthermore, that they were part of the umat perjanjian (“the covenant people”), that is, present-day Israeli tribes, the chosen people and God’s heroes, and that the Land of Maluku was the Land of Canaan granted by God to their forerunners—the Alifuruese. Just as God had made a covenant with the Israelis, the same God had “made a contract” with the Ambonese since they became the followers of Jesus and received the Gospel. Since the Ambonese Christians believed that the Ambon war was a sacred duty granted by God, throughout the conflict, they—especially the Christian fighters—purified themselves by actively conducting ritual practices, religious sermons and services, reading the Bible, following the rules of war, and avoiding wrongdoings as instructed by the Holy Book (e.g. Deuteronomy 20, 1–20).

According to the Christian fighters, as confirmed by my survey findings, the rules of war they practiced during the conflict included: a ban on initiating attack, plundering, mocking or ridiculing the other, torturing the enemy, and so on. In addition, the Christian fighters were prohibited from conflict with their wives or parents before going to battle, from mentioning the name of Jesus in improper places, from insulting other religions, and from transgressing the Ten Commandments of the Torah. All these were considered “taboos of war” that would contaminate the mission of holy war against the Muslims.

Why did Ambonese Christians use the Old Testament and not the New Testament as Biblical justification? Why did they prefer David to Jesus in the time of conflict? The answer is because the New Testament, my Christian Ambonese informants said, teaches peace not violence, love not hate, and brotherhood not conflict, while the Old Testament contains heroic stories of warfare. Whereas Jesus taught his followers and pupils to “love their enemies,” David went to the battlefield against Goliath. An ex-Ambonese Christian fighter told me that during the time of conflict, the verses he recited every Sunday were those of the Old Testament, particularly the gloomy and heroic stories of the Israeli people and kings of the Israelites (Saul, David, and Solomon), which were regarded as fitting for the Ambon socio-political setting.

Concluding Remarks: Bringing Religion Back In

The analysis above suggests that religion did matter during the Maluku conflict. Christian leaders and the masses (and their Muslim counterparts) who were involved in the fighting used religion as a source and legitimation of violence, and they considered the war as a sacred one, rewarded by a place in paradise for those who joined the battle. While Muslims considered death on the battlefield as mati syahid (martyrdom) and an honorable act, Christians believed that death in war is a symbol of sinfulness and dishonor on the part of the deceased. They were convinced that Christian fighters who died in the combat zone were killed mainly because they had committed bad deeds or had transgressed the rules of (holy) war such as the ban on theft, mocking, or adultery, which they considered to be taboos. For Ambonese Christians, salvation is equal to living. Survivors of the battlefield were deemed as not having committed any wrongdoings nor transgression of any taboos.

Moreover, in the concept of Charismatic Christian theology, the war was perceived as a process of selection for Christians, a sort of “survival of the fittest.” Those who survived the war were regarded as the “chosen people,” while death was a natural consequence for those who had engaged in unlawful activity during wartime. This conception differs significantly from the Moluccan Muslims, who consider both death and survival as part of the holy jihad, as long as they followed the “Islamic rules of war.”

It is interesting to note that during the war, some Christian Charismatic groups in Ambon city built a minaret of prayer (menara doa) on the highest floors of hotels or other buildings, on the assumption that prayers from the highest spot would be heard and answered by God. The founding of the minaret of prayer was in part a reaction to Muslim attacks. They attributed their defeat to (1) the lack of prayer on the part of Christians, and (2) their Christianity being not pristine enough such that they needed purification. In order to be victorious over Muslims, Ambonese Christians should become “true Christians” by practicing norms and values taught by the Bible. This is, among other reasons, the root causes of the growth of Charismatic Christianity in Maluku, which came to challenge the mainstream Moluccan Protestant Church congregation.

Although I do not agree entirely with statements put forth by one of the Christian militia commanders Agus Watimena (as well as by the main ideologue of Laskar Jihad Rustam Kastor), purporting that the Maluku violence was a “truly religious war” (Rustam 2000; ICG 2000a; 2000b), neither should we dismiss the religious justifications of violence by those involved in the conflict as evidence of “false consciousness” or “public falsehood” (Goss 2004). In brief, violence in God’s name is not simply a spurious cover for grievance or greed (see e.g. McTernan 2003).

Religion plays an important role in communal conflict because, as Scott Appleby (2000, 4; cf. Gaylin 2003) has noted, “its confessional loyalty translates into clearly defined and durable community and its model of faith counters rational calculation and enlightened self-interest, cultivates a righteous sense of persecution, and provokes passion against evil that fuels the excesses of group hatred.” Although religions are indeed manufactured or invented within particular historical and political contexts, Appleby (2000, 57–61) has argued, “[religions] are represented as fundamental truths, providing some security in times of uncertainty, and countering the challenges of relativism and secularism of late modernity.”

This is precisely what religious radical groups (both Christian and Muslim) had presented in Maluku. Moluccan and Ambonese societies have for centuries been defined in terms of religious adherence (see, for instance, Aritonang and Steenbrink 2008; Chauvel 1980; 1990). Even in urban Ambon, the geographical and social inter-mixing of populations is limited such that the religious “other” is easily discriminated against. The historical origins and experiences of religious communities are distinct, and a contemporary and current conflict could be presented as continuous with an older conflict, as well as with a modern struggle on a global scale (see Goss 2004).

World religions, particularly Abrahamic religions (Judaism, Christianity, and Islam), as well as other faiths, also possess a stock of material metaphors and military imagery, and promise reward for violent sacrifice. The concept of some transcendent authority—the will of God—translates into the absolute authority of church officials and religious myths of election (e.g. the concept of the “chosen and blessed people” for the Christians or the “best religious community of believers” for the Muslims). This provides a powerful alternative to the delusional formation of paranoia, transforming victimhood into vengeful action (Gaylin 2003, 115; Smith 1999). This is among the reasons why doers of violence, the “religious extremists,” rarely or never regret their violent acts.

Religion has the potential to translate secular differences between an “us and them,” the known and the unfamiliar, to the cosmic plane and thus into a moral struggle between amorphous forces of order versus chaos, good versus evil, for which the ultimate sacrifice—murder or martyrdom—is possible (Juergensmeyer 1992, 114; cf. 2003). If public statements by top leaders of Christian communities were more tolerant on the whole, the churches distributed exaggerated images of their victimization, as evidenced in their sophisticated web presence through sites such as Ambon Berdarah Online (Bloody Ambon Online), Masariku Networks, and Crisis Center of the Diocese of Ambon (Brauchler 2003). Lay leaders, moreover, promoted increasingly fundamentalist radical interpretations of the conflict, especially after the arrival of the Laskar Jihad and an increase in Christian losses.

Furthermore, religion did matter during the Maluku conflict since it provided a more powerful and effective force for mobilization than other forms of collective identity. This is because religion is “not only strongly linked to a sense of self, but also provides a far-reaching and uplifting ideology, powerful institutional structures and an enduring and clear-cut definition of an ‘other’” (Wilson 2008, 148). Militias that take part in religious violence, unsurprisingly, often emerge to be driven by religious zeal. As described above, the mobilization of the militias in Maluku’s sectarian conflict was full of religious symbolism. Religious institutions became a main conduit for mobilizing people to commit violence in the name of faith and God. These institutions, moreover, exercised vast emotional influence over adherents of Christianity (also Islam), and provided social meeting places, communication networks, and pools of resources.

Last but not least, religion provides the concept of a “sacred territory” and a set of ready material and symbolic targets whose desacralization provokes intense feelings. Accordingly, during the Maluku turmoil, mosques and churches were desecrated and destroyed, sacred texts and beliefs were ridiculed, prophets were slandered, and other symbols of faiths violated. For instance, the Laskar Kristus gained significant momentum after the destruction of the old Silo church in 1999, while Muslim villagers from Leihitu Peninsula turned on their Christian neighbors early in the conflict in Ambon, in retaliation for rumors of the violation of the great Al-Fatah mosque. To conclude, while religion was never an autonomous cause of conflict, ignoring its role completely would preclude a proper understanding of much of the violence in Ambon city and Maluku more generally.

Accepted: January 8, 2015


I would like to thank anonymous reviewers and the editorial board of this journal for their valuable comments on the previous draft. As always, my thanks also go to my mentors and teachers, particularly Robert W. Hefner and Augustus Richard Norton at Boston University, and Scott Appleby at the University of Notre Dame in Indiana, United States. Thanks are also due to the National Science Foundation (United States) and Boston University’s Graduate Research Abroad Fellowship for providing research grants that enabled me to conduct fieldwork in Maluku from 2010 to 2011. My gratitude also goes to the University of Notre Dame’s Kroc Institute for International Peace Studies, which provided generous research fellowships (2012–14) that enabled me to write this manuscript, and to the Department of General Studies at the King Fahd University of Petroleum and Minerals, which enabled me to complete this article. Lastly, I want to express my deepest thanks to my Ambonese and Moluccan Christian friends, acquaintances, and informants, especially Rev. Elifas Tomix Maspaitella and Rev. Jacky Manuputty, who were willing to share their stories, thoughts, joys, and feelings with me during my research and fieldwork in Maluku. Any remaining faults are of course mine.


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1) Examples of Christian-Muslim tensions during and after the fall of the New Order are: (1) the destruction of churches on October 10, 1996, in Situbondo, East Java; (2) the fight between Protestants and Muslims in Ketapang, Central Jakarta on November 22, 1998, resulting in 14 persons killed and 27 Christian buildings damaged; and (3) anti-Muslim riots that destroyed at least 15 mosques in mostly Christian Kupang in East Indonesia on November 30, 1998 (see, e.g., Sidel 2006).

2) Compare their studies to Colombijn and Lindblad (2002). Although the contributors of this volume do not speak in one voice, they offer a more nuanced perspective on the violent conflicts, pointing out that the “cultures of violence” in Indonesia reach far back into the country’s socio-political history.

3) This focus certainly differs from studies of the Maluku conflict, which stress the central role of Jakarta-based civilian and military elites, Suharto’s cronies, “foreign provocateurs,” or Java-based Laskar Jihad and other paramilitary groups, with a few notable exceptions such as the fine studies of Gerry van Klinken (2001; 2007) or those of Jeroen Adam (2009; 2010).

4) It is interesting to note that despite the fact that local actors, masses, and unions have participated actively in the post-Suharto collective conflicts, including the Maluku warfare, their role has been largely neglected in analyses and studies on the communal violence.

5) Interview with Rev. John Sahalessy, Ambon, August 14, 2010.

6) Interview with ML in Ambon, September 2, 2010. Since there was a plurality of actors and motives during the conflict, it is hard to arrive at a generalization whether religious identity had played a central role in the conflict or did it only provide the symbolism and ideological conviction for those involved in the campaign to achieve more worldly goals. It is vital to recognize that just as there were some who were motivated by “worldly orientations” in their involvement in the conflict (cf. Adam 2009; 2010), there were also others who were driven by “religious passion” and “unworldly goals” in their engagement.

7) Interview with PM, Ambon, August 10, 2010.

8) Online chats with Rev. Jacky Manuputty, September 1, 2010.

9) Muslims also used young fighters or child militias known as linggis (“crowbar”) because in every riot, these child soldiers would use a crowbar to uproot and destroy targeted buildings—houses, shops, churches, etc.—before plundering and burning them.

10) Online chats with Rev. Jacky Manuputty, September 5, 2010. Jacky later adopted Ronald Regang and transformed him into a peace-maker and a peace ambassador for Maluku in international forums.

11) Interview with AL, Ambon, April 26, 2010.

12) Information on the Laskar Kristus can be found, for instance, in the Presidential Decree (Keputusan Presiden No. 38/2002) in the section Pembentukan Tim Penyelidik Independen Nasional untuk Konflik Maluku (Establishment of the National Independent Investigation Team for the Maluku Conflict). Headed by I Wayan Karya, the team was mandated to investigate (1) the incident of January 19, 1999, (2) Republik Maluku Selatan (RMS), the South Moluccan Republic, (3) the Christian RMS, (4) Laskar Jihad, (5) Laskar Kristus, and (6) coercive religious conversion and human rights violations.

13) Online chats with Rev. Jacky Manuputty, September 1, 2010.

14) Interview with Yongky Siahaya, Ambon, June 12, 2010.

15) Founded in 2000, FKKM was part of the networks of FKKJ (Forum Komunikasi Kristen Jakarta, a Jakarta-based Christian forum) and FKKS (Forum Komunikasi Kristen Surabaya, a Surabaya-based Christian forum led by Paul Tahalele), which had existed long before the Ambon conflict. The FKKM’s goals, Yunus Tipka said, were (1) to help Christians who had become victims of the Maluku conflict by providing medical assistance or food supplies; (2) to help Christian fighters find guns and ammunitions; and (3) to link Moluccan Christians with non-Maluku Christian communities.


Vol. 4, No. 2, Feener

Contents>> Vol. 4, No. 2

ʿAbd al-Samad in Arabia: The Yemeni Years of a Shaykh from Sumatra

R. Michael Feener*

* Department of History, National University of Singapore, 21 Lower Kent Ridge Road, Singapore 119077

e-mail: hisfm[at]

This paper provides an in-depth exploration of a previously under-utilized Arabic source for the history of Islam in Southeast Asia. This text, Al-Nafas al-Yamani was compiled in the Yemen by ʿAbd al-Rahman b. Sulayman al-Ahdal (d. 1250 H./1835 C.E.), and includes a biographical sketch of the Sumatran scholar ʿAbd al-Samad b. ʿAbd al-Rahman al-Jawi al-Palimbani. Through a close, annotated reading of that text this article develops new insights into the configuration of people and ideas populating specific nodes of trans-regional networks in Sumatra and Arabia in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. At the same time, it also brings to light important dimensions of Sufi belief and ritual practice during this important transitional period of Islamic history in Southeast Asia. This material is then further explored through a discussion of some ways in which documents of this type might be approached by historians working on the intellectual and cultural history of early modern Southeast Asia more broadly.

Keywords: Islam, Indonesia, Sumatra, Arabia, Sufism, history

This article aims to contribute to our understanding of the history of Islam in pre-modern Southeast Asia through the critical examination of previously under-utilized source material.1) In particular, it presents a translation and close examination of an excerpt from a work written in the tradition of Arabic “biographical dictionaries” (tabaqat) that may serve to supplement the source bases traditionally consulted for the history of Islam in Southeast Asia and its “inter-Asia connections” in the eighteenth century.2) The discussion begins with the contexts in which the Sufi scholar discussed in the text was born, focusing on the Sumatran city of Palembang and the Arab diaspora in the Indonesian Archipelago. I will then introduce the main character of our story, ʿAbd al-Samad al-Jawi “al-Palimbani,” with a focus on his scholarly pedigree, and the place of his work in the reconfiguration of Sufi thought and practice in Southeast Asia. From there the focus shifts to the site where his Arabic biography was composed, the “scholars’ city” of Zabid in the Yemen—and thence to a close reading of the text that reveals ʿAbd al-Samad’s position in contemporary debates on Sufi thought and practice that established his place in the global scholarly networks that came together in Arabia during his lifetime.

The article concludes with reflections on how documents like this tabaqat text might be approached by historians working on intellectual and cultural histories of early modern Southeast Asia. There attention turns to frameworks for the interpretation of such biographical texts of individual scholars, and how they might be read in relation to the magisterial macro-histories of Southeast Asia and the Indian Ocean world produced by scholars like K. N. Chaudhuri (1990), Anthony Reid (1993; 1988), and Denys Lombard (1990). These works have helped us immensely in identifying some of the most significant broad historical patterns across the region during the early modern period. Moving back and forth between such “oceanic” perspectives and the individual focus presented by documents like this Arabic biographical text can, I argue, help us to better appreciate the specific character of inter-personal network linkages crucial to developing more nuanced understandings of the intellectual and cultural history of early modern Southeast Asia. For that, however, a brief introduction to this genre of Arabic biographical texts is first necessary.

Arabic Biographical Dictionaries (Tabaqat)

Tabaqat are collections of individual biographical entries in a more or less standardized format, and arranged in one of a number of ways, including alphabetically, by generation, or chronologically by one’s year of death. Such works have long served historians of Muslim societies, particularly those focusing their work on the Arabicized “Central Lands” of Islam, as primary sources for intellectual and social history.3) Some scholars, though far fewer in number, have also turned to such texts as sources for the history of Islam in Southeast Asia.4) This paper presents a close reading of one such text with an eye to highlighting ways in which readings of works of this type may be integrated into discussions of various aspects of the history of early modern Southeast Asia. In doing this, however, I am not claiming that studies of such materials will completely solve the problem of sources facing historians working in this field. Rather I would like to more modestly suggest that their careful use may help us in glimpsing aspects of certain developments that feature less prominently, if at all, in contemporary documents in European and Southeast Asian languages from the early-modern period.5)

The text upon which I will focus here is entitled, Al-Nafas al-Yamani (al-Rahman 1979), has yet to receive such treatment.6) It was compiled by ʿAbd al-Rahman b. Sulayman al-Ahdal (d. 1250 H./1835 C.E.),7) a scholar who descended from a long line of South Arabian sayyids distinguished for their religious learning (Löfgren 1960 I, 255–256).8) While active mainly in the Tihama and the Hijaz, the al-Ahdal family were linked through scholarly circles in Arabia to extensive networks of scholars from all around the Indian Ocean world and beyond. The author of our text, ʿAbd al-Rahman b. Sulayman al-Ahdal, in particular is reported to have both received ijazas from, and issued the same to, scholars “from every corner of the Muslim world” (Haykel 2014). These connections are clearly reflected in the biographies of ʿAbd al-Samad “al-Jawi” (and others) discussed in our text. Since the fifteenth century, scholars of the Ahdal family produced works across a broad range of the Islamic religious sciences, with many of them devoting considerable attention to Sufism. Some of the most illustrious scholars of their line, however, also composed important works of history and biography (Voll 2014).

ʿAbd al-Rahman b. Sulayman al-Ahdal’s biographical dictionary contains entries on dozens of the most prominent figures in the Muslim scholarly networks of the eighteenth-century Yemen, and is thus a source with great potential value for research into this period of Southeast Asian Islamic history. The importance of al-Ahdal’s Nafas al-Yamani for the study of the world of Islamic scholarship during this dynamic period has been demonstrated by Stefan Reichmuth (1999) in his study of the great South Asian hadith transmitter and lexicographer, Murtada al-Zabidi (d. 1791). This paper will focus on this biographical dictionary’s entry on a figure more generally known through Malay-language sources: Shaykh ʿAbd al-Samad b. ʿAbd al-Rahman al-Jawi, often referred to in Southeast Asia as “al-Palimbani.”

Arabs and the Malay-Muslim World of Palembang

ʿAbd al-Samad hailed from Palembang, South Sumatra in the early eighteenth century and it is from this place he takes the name (nisba) by which he is most commonly referred to in Malay sources, al-Palimbani.9) However his Arabic biography neither supplies this name associating ʿAbd al-Samad with Palembang nor gives any information about his early years spent in Southeast Asia. Instead he is referred to by the Arabic nisba “al-Jawi”—signaling an association with the broader region of the Indonesian Archipelago.10) This Arabic source thus presents us with some new perspective on the life of this important figure that compliments the information known to us through sources in Malay and European languages.

Much has been written toward a biography of ʿAbd al-Samad, despite the fact that few contemporary sources have been available to reconstruct aspects of his life beyond his own surviving writings.11) ʿAbd al-Samad is known to be the author of a number of works in both Malay and Arabic, including works in the Islamic religious sciences and an influential invocation to jihad.12) The bilingual body of work that he produced reflects the cultural milieu that characterized his South Sumatran birthplace, as well as the cosmopolitan world of Islamic religious scholarship that linked Southeast Asia to the broader Muslim world at that time.13)

In the eighteenth century, Palembang was home to a number of prominent Muslim scholars and authors of Malay literature.14) The emergence of Palembang as a center of Islamicate culture in the region was significantly linked to the growing Arab community there and its role in facilitating increased contact between Southeast Asia and the Middle East (Syamsu As 1996, 36–46). The increased Arab, and especially Hadrami, immigration during ʿAbd al-Samad’s day was stimulated in part by the patronage offered by the contemporary rulers of Palembang. Attracted by such measures, Arab scholars migrated to the banks of the Musi River where they came to take prominent places in the local economy and religious hierarchy (B. W. Andaya, 1993, 204–241).

Such developments, however, were not peculiar to Palembang during that period, as Arab immigrants and their descendants in other port cities and towns of the Indonesian Archipelago became increasingly active in not only in the literary and cultural life, but also in the politics of sultanates across the region during the eighteenth century (Ho 2002). This may be seen partially as a result of changes that accompanied the Dutch East India Company’s (VOC) consolidation as a territorial power in the archipelago and their concomitant withdrawal as a hegemonic naval force in the region. A number of historians have noted that this had the result of temporarily recreating something of the “open and pluralistic” patterns of commerce and communication on the sea routes that had been characteristic of earlier periods (Chandler et al. 1987, 57).

These developments mark the acceleration and proliferation of processes that had been at work across the broader region for some time. In the eastern isles of the Indonesian Archipelago, for example, Arabs and their descendants born in ports ringing the Indian Ocean were ascending to prominent local ranks, as attested to by the late seventeenth-century tomb of Shaykh ʿUmar Ba Mahsun in the royal cemetery at Bima, on the eastern Indonesian island of Sumbawa (Noorduyn 1987, 85, 109). This is one of the earliest recorded examples of patterns of close association between Arab immigrants and local elites that was reproduced with variation across the region in the centuries that followed. In Aceh, for instance, the descendants of an embassy of Meccan sayyids established itself as a new dynasty that ruled there from 1699–1726 (Crecelius and Beardow 1979). Soon thereafter, in 1737, a Javanese royal embassy to Batavia returned to the court of Pakubuwana II, bringing with them an Arab shaykh named Sayyid ʿAlawi. This new arrival at the central Javanese capital quickly rose to prominence, being granted one of the Sultan’s concubines for a wife and charge over religious affairs for the realm (Ricklefs 1998, 198–199).15) As a result of such collaborations, cosmopolitan Muslim immigrants came to assume primary leadership roles in numerous communities stretching across the archipelago, including Siak and Pontianak in the eighteenth century (Andaya and Andaya 1982, 93; Heidhues 1998). While ʿAbd al-Samad’s hometown was not governed by an “Arab” dynasty per se, the Palembang elite too came to include a number of migrant Arabs during his day—one of whom is known to have married the sultan’s sister in 1745 (Azra 2004, 112). Later, as the British established themselves in Batavia during their Napoleonic-era interregnum, news of that major shift in the power dynamics of the Indonesian Archipelago were communicated to the sultan of Palembang via Arab emissaries.16) As the life and work of ʿAbd al-Samad further demonstrate, movement between and among the ports and polities of the Middle East and Southeast Asia was complex and multi-vectored during the long eighteenth century.

Teachers and Texts

With this context established we can take up with the account of ʿAbd al-Samad’s life contained in our Arabic biographical text. The entry opens by noting the date of his arrival at the Yemeni town of Zabid in 1206 H./1791 C.E. The author then goes on to praise this Sumatran sojourner as, “the very learned friend of God, the deeply understanding and pious notable of Islam, [a] productive ulama and [one of the] masters of knowledge of many fields.” These accolades were due in no small part to his prestigious scholarly pedigree, which established ʿAbd al-Samad firmly within the Muslim scholarly elite of his day. As our text tells us:

He studied under the scholars of his age, from among the people of the two noble sanctuaries such as the learned Shaykh Ibrahim al-Rais . . .17) Shaykh ʿAta al-Misri . . .18) Shaykh al-ʾAlama Muhammad Jawhari . . .19) and Shaykh Muhammad b. Sulayman al-Kurdi,20) among others.

At Zabid, ʿAbd al-Samad was fully integrated into the heart of a network of Arabophone Muslim scholars that extended across the entire range of the Indian Ocean littoral and beyond, from West Africa to China. This is a milieu in which the author of our text, al-Ahdal, was fully at home—working as he did in that cosmopolitan center of Islamic learning during what has been characterized as “a period of intense and international scholarly interaction among Sunnis” (Haykel 2014).

In addition to an extensive listing of the people he studied with during his time at Zabid, this biographical entry on ʿAbd al-Samad moves on to highlight some of the subjects and, importantly, even mentions some of the specific Islamic texts, that he studied with those teachers:

. . . he turned toward Sufism and directed most of his work toward studying and teaching al-Ghazali’s Ihya ʿulum al-din. He called on people to occupy themselves with this book, and thus increased its prestige and maximized its benefits. . . .

Our text then goes on to emphasize, through reference to classical Arabic poetry and pious anecdotes, the exceptional qualities of Ghazali’s (d. 1111) work and the benefits which its study brings to those who pursue it.

It is told that one of those who occupied themselves with this work read a book entitled, Tanbih al-Ihya . . . and turned towards studying it, but when he was just about to finish it, he lost his sight. He wept and supplicated God. . . . He then turned toward God, Great and Exalted, in repentance, and God restored the man’s sight. Shaykh Husayn b. Abd Allah al-Hadrami21) says, “the Ihya treats against the poisons of forgetfulness; it arouses the exoteric ulama and extends the knowledge of the firmly established scholars.”

Al-Ghazali’s Ihya occupied an increasingly prominent place in the scholarship of reform-minded Sufis during ʿAbd al-Samad’s day. A number of scholars have commented on a perceived shift in orientation in Indonesian Islam in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries—one that included a renewed appreciation of al-Ghazali’s work. Such developments have parallels extending well beyond Southeast Asia, for as John Voll has noted a resurgence of interest in al-Ghazali’s work was one of the hallmarks of Sufi reform movements in Arabia, Africa, India, and elsewhere during the eighteenth century (Voll 1982, 36, 58, et passim).22) Debates over the terminology used to refer to reformist trends among Sufi scholars of the period aside, it is clear that across the Muslim world major shifts in Islamic thought were taking place.23)

These complex developments were, moreover, by no means limited to Sufism, but were integrally related to the reorientation of work in other fields ranging from jurisprudence and hadith scholarship to historiography and lexicography. ʿAbd al-Samad himself was to become a major figure in this project of reforming Sufism in Southeast Asia during this period, as is clear from his most popular surviving works in the form of Malay-language interpretations of and elaborations upon al-Ghazali’s writings.24) The influence of these texts on the subsequent development of the Malay kitab curriculum of Southeast Asian circles of Muslim learning can be traced through the works of major Malay authors such as ʿAbd al-Samad’s younger colleague Daud al-Patani, who hailed from what is today southern Thailand and flourished in the early nineteenth century.25) Al-Patani spent most of his scholarly career at Mecca, which has long been recognized as an important center for Southeast Asian Muslims studying in the Arabian peninsula. However for earlier generations of such itinerant Islamic scholars, other cities also held considerable appeal. Prominent among such regional centers of scholarship in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries was Zabid, located in the Tihama west coastal plain of the Yemen.

Zabid: A Southern Arabian Center of Islamic Learning

Zabid was founded in 820 CE when, in response to several local revolts, the Abbasids appointed Muhammad b. ʿAbdullah b. Ziyad as governor of the Tihama. Soon, however, this appointed official took advantage of the distance from Baghdad to establish his own dynasty, which continued to rule the region for over two centuries with Zabid as the capital (Wilson 1985). The city remained the center of administration under the Ayyubids (1173–1229), who expended great energy in reconstructing its walls and building a number of mosques and madrasas. By 1391, a survey conducted under the auspices of the Rasulid Sultan al-Ashraf documented some 230 such institutions in Zabid (Hibshi 1977). Over the centuries that followed the city came to develop a far-flung reputation as an important center of Muslim learning.26) In the seventeenth century, for example, Zabid attracted Southeast Asian Sufi scholars including Yusuf al-Maqassari, who spent his first years in Arabia there (Azra 2004, 89–91). Zabid continued to attract students from throughout the Muslim world until the early nineteenth century, as evidenced by various entries contained Nafas al-Yamani. Modern scholarship on ʿAbd al-Samad’s life and work have tended to repeat very similar remarks on the importance of his studies at Medina, and the composition of his most important works at Mecca and Taʾif.27) The time that this scholar spent at Zabid, on the other hand, has been largely neglected in earlier studies—although as our text makes clear it proved a formative part of ʿAbd al-Samad’s Arabian experience.28)

Our text gives us a valuable description of the time that ʿAbd al-Samad spent in Zabid, as well as an intimate view into some of the ways in which particular inter-personal bonds were formed and remembered between individuals across the expansive scholarly networks of the eighteenth century. In reading this account, furthermore, one cannot escape an impression of the admiration that the author of this text—an Arab sayyid from the prominent Yemeni family of al-Ahdal—held for this Jawi shaykh from Palembang, as we read that:

When our scholar arrived at Zabid, he continued to increase his exhortations toward the study of Ghazali’s Ihya, and I read under him, thanks be to God, the first quarter of every chapter. I asked him for an ijaza (document of certification) for the study of this book, to relate that which is good in it and to benefit from its knowledge. He wrote for me in his own noble hand a very long ijaza, it being his way that if a student came to him asking detailed questions and he saw something good in the student, he would lengthen his praise of the student in the ijaza. He would also explain to the student about law and literature to increase his adherence to it, and the student would see clearly that which was presented to him. The Shaykh continued to explain for me the literature of legal decisions and the requirements of a mufti: it is not enough only to inquire [into the facts of a certain case] but if he has knowledge of the situation he must call attention to it in the writing of his decision. . . .

Here our text opens a window on to the micro-dynamics of the specific ways in which Sufism and the study of Islamic law were integrally related for many of his contemporaries in the networks. This aspect of eighteenth-century Muslim intellectual culture contributed to various movements for religious reform and continued to influence developments throughout the Muslim world for at least two centuries. Beyond this, our text also provides a glimpse of the personal touch that ʿAbd al-Samad had as an inspiring teacher, and how he was remembered by his former students.

The intimacy and generosity highlighted in al-Ahdal’s account here testify to the importance of personal relationships in the construction and maintenance of scholarly networks—something that, while rarely glimpsed in surviving sources, is crucial to appreciate in developing our understanding of the broader processes through which the Indonesian Archipelago came to be a significant part of the global umma (Johns 1978, 471). Such passages in this Arabic biography of ʿAbd al-Samad also convey a sense of the respect that this Sumatran shaykh commanded from his Arabian co-religionists. The text then can serve as a point of critical reflection upon abiding, un-critical assumptions about Islamic religious authority that tend to view the Middle East as a place where Muslims from many parts of Asia and Africa came to learn from “Arab” masters. The relative positions of this scholar hailing from Palembang and his Arabian sayyid disciple presented in our text thus point to a far greater range of possibilities in the kinds of relationship formed between natives of the holy land and migrants from Southeast Asia (and elsewhere) during the pre-modern period.

Sufi Practice and Scholarly Polemic

The next section of the Arabic biography of ʿAbd al-Samad moves on to provide a detailed treatment of his place within the Sufi circles of his day. These passages elaborate ʿAbd al-Samad’s credentials in renouncing the vanities of this world, as well as his generosity in the sharing of his knowledge:

Our shaykh did not see any value in this world, and his magnanimity and generosity are regarded as a wonder of wonders. He was asked by one of his best students for a book . . . and our shaykh went to his book cabinet and said, “Please take from it what you like,” and the student took from it a number of precious books of great price.

However most of the “Sufi” material of this biographical entry is concerned not with hagiographic portraiture of the shaykh’s spiritual virtues, but rather with technical discussions of aspects of devotional practice that were being energetically debated across the Indian Ocean networks of Muslim scholarship during his day:

ʿAbd al-Samad took the [Sufi] way of dhikr (ritual “remembrance of God”) from his shaykh, the great saint Muhammad b. Abd al-Karim al-Samman al-Madani.29) He stayed with Shaykh al-Samman for a considerable time and took from him his way, as he in turn took it from the famous Shaykh Mustafa al-Bakri.30) Al-Samman and al-Hifni31) both had the same shaykh and their way is to pronounce the dhikr aloud, the recitation coming together [to a crescendo at its conclusion].32)

Over the paragraphs that follow in the entry it becomes clear that practices such as jahr (the audible pronunciation of Sufi dhikr) were the subject of considerable controversy among the original audience of this text:

It is clear that this [vocalized dhikr] is not forbidden or discouraged, as its detractors would have it, for a group of scholars including al-Jalal al-Suyuti33) and the very learned al-Kitan34) have written on the evidence for the permissibility of reciting the dhikr aloud. Among those who have written extensively on this subject is Shaykh Mulla Ibrahim al-Kurani35) who has a great treatise36) on the evidence for vocalized recitation (jahr). . . .37)

 Shaykh Ibrahim continues on to say, and this is clearly indicated in the hadith of Abi Musa al-Ashari, in the two sound collections, and elsewhere in the texts of Bukhari on jihad: “Abu Musa said that we were with the Prophet (prayers and peace be upon him) and when we approached a valley we pronounced the tahlil and takbir, raising our voices, and the Prophet (prayers and peace be upon him) said, ‘Oh people, stay your voices’.
 . . . The Prophet exhorted gently to abandon this practice of extreme shouting, but not to abandon jahr altogether. And among the evidence for this is the meaning of jahr in the Holy Qurʾan, “And you (O reader!) bring your Lord to remembrance in your very soul, with humility and in reverence without loudness in words. . . .”38) Thus that which must be abandoned is the loud shouting and not jahr altogether. This verse and the sound hadith indicate the legality of jahr in the recitation of dhikr and its thorough recommendation.

In this discussion of jahr included within his tabaqat entry on ʿAbd al-Samad, al-Ahdal goes to considerable lengths to contextualize and re-interpret texts of Qurʾan and hadith that were frequently deployed by critics of vocalized dhikr in his own attempts to defend the legitimacy of the practice. The fact that so much attention is given to debates on the permissibility of the practice of jahr in this short biography of ʿAbd al-Samad indicates something of the importance of this issue to him and those, like our author al-Ahdal, who studied under him in the Muslim scholarly networks of the period. It also enables us to delineate some of the significant fault lines that created internal divisions even among scholars who moved and assembled along the same network pathways across the Muslim world at that time.39)

Nodes in the Scholarly Networks

After this rather lengthy digression on the technical aspects of ʿAbd al-Samad’s devotional practice, and some notes of praise for ʿAbd al-Samad’s teacher Muhammad al-Samman, our text draws to a close with his authority for these practices being linked back once again to the specific teachers he studied with in the networks:

. . . among his shaykhs is the above-mentioned Shaykh Muhammad b. ʿAbd al-Karim al-Samman, and Shaykh al-Kabir al-Mustafa Bakri, [and] a group of them, al-Shaykh Muhammad al-Daqaq and al-Sayyid Ali al-ʿAttar,40) living in Mecca with their scholarly lineages reaching back to Nakhli41) and Basri.42)

With this last list of scholars in ʿAbd al-Samad’s lineage, we are once again reminded that the networks of this Sumatran-born scholar in southern Arabia had connections that extended from the most distant corners of the Muslim world to the very center of Mecca itself. As Azyumardi Azra’s work has so clearly mapped, Arabia was a site of productive encounter between scholars from widely diverse ethnic and geographical origins who had become integrated into a shared culture of Islamic learning (Azra 2004, 8–31). The life and work of the scholar as presented by texts like the tabaqat entry discussed here presents us with a focused look at the construction of a particular node in the networks that shaped the development of Islam in Southeast Asia and beyond until the early twentieth century. It must also be noted, however, that these networks were reconfigured in significant ways over this period. Indeed, what might strike modern readers as the conspicuous absence of any mention of either “ethnicity” or geographic origin in this biography of ʿAbd al-Samad highlights the fact that such concerns were not at the forefront of how this individual was configured within the cosmopolitan scholarly networks of his day—and should also caution us against attempting to view that period through the lenses of our own contemporary conceptions of “identity.” The Arabia of ʿAbd al-Samad was rather different from that of the “Jawi” scholars who settled in Arabia in far greater numbers a century later, who as a group were both identified, and increasingly self-identified as sharing a common identity based on their origins.43)

In conclusion, I’d like to comment a little more broadly on the use of previously under-utilized Arabic biographical sources for the history of Islam in Southeast Asia. Such texts hold the potential to highlight aspects of various sociological “subsets” of total history—especially the intellectual, the cultural, and the religious—that might otherwise escape our attention. Through the sweeping, synthetic works of scholars like Chaudhuri, Reid, and Lombard we have come to recognize the development of some of the most significant broad historical patterns across Southeast Asia and the Indian Ocean world during the early modern period.

Gazing at these wide horizons from within the textual confines of our entry on ʿAbd al-Samad, we might now be able to more clearly discern in the particulars recorded in this text, reflections of these broader trends as they made themselves felt in the specific times and places that he lived. These would include, inter alia, the rise of Islamic renewal and reform currents and the growth of regional cities, like Zabid and Palembang, during his day. Carefully contextualized readings of biographical materials such as the text explored here thus might be pursued as a way in which to view some of these macro-structures of la longue durée in relation to the micro-mechanics of continuity and change in a mutually informative way.

In contextualizing our readings of specific accounts of written lives we must of course acknowledge that historical structures involve more than just the sum total of innumerable individual biographies. At the same time, we should distinguish our use of such biographical sources from that of Romantic historians—and their post-modern avatars—with their pervasive penchant for particularism. In our reading of these texts we are not primarily looking for either “guiding personalities,” or the atomistic amplification of isolated, internally-verified narratives. Rather, what I would like to suggest is an approach to biographical materials that traces the paths of unique human lives with an eye toward viewing the ways in which interaction with various areas of society’s “set of sets” (Braudel 1982, 458-599) is integrated within the experience of individuals. Dilthey might see such an approach as enabling us to “apprehend . . . an historical whole in contrast to the lifeless abstractions which are usually drawn from the archives” (Dilthey 1989, 85). I would simply suggest that biographical texts such as the one discussed here comprise a potentially valuable source of detailed information for illustrating broader themes set forth in more synthetic, structuralist works of historical scholarship.

Braudel once framed his critique of histoire événementielle in relation to an anecdote about observing fireflies in Brazil:

I remember a night near Bahia, when I was enveloped in a firework display of phosphorescent fireflies; their pale lights glowed, went out, shone again, all without piercing the night with any true illumination. So it is with events, beyond their glow, darkness prevails. (Braudel 1980, 10–11)

In my approach to this Arabic biography of ʿAbd al-Samad, however, I have been concerned not with the “flash” of one individual life as “event” in the darkness of the uncharted past, but rather reading it in the somewhat brighter shadows of larger, more enduring, historical structures. Working in this way, readings of texts like al-Ahdal’s tabaqat could be seen as a process of simultaneously trying out different lenses to help in refining our field of vision; with the hope that some of them might manage to catch and magnify some of the warmer light of such firefly flashes in a way that may just give us a better view of the broader structures of “Inter-Asia” Islamic connections.

Accepted: October 2, 2014


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1) I would like to thank Merle Ricklefs, and the anonymous reviewers of the journal for their constructive comments on an earlier draft of this paper.

2) My thinking in these terms has benefitted much from my ongoing collaboration with Prasenjit Duara and colleagues at the National University of Singapore’s Asia Research Institute in our reading group on the “Historical Sociology of Asian Connections.”

3) For more on this genre of literature, see Gibb (1962); Hafsi (1976; 1977); al-Qadi (1995).

4) The most notable work in this direction has been that of Johns (1978); Azra (2004). For work tracing even earlier connections between Southeast Asia and the Arabian peninsula through Arabic language sources, see Feener and Laffan (2005).

5) For an overview of this earlier history of Islam in Southeast Asia, see Feener (2010).

6) In the preface to this print edition, the full title is given as: al-Nafas al-Yamani waʾl-ruh al-rahayni fi ijazat al-qudat baniʾl-Shawkani. Serjeant (1950, 587) refers to this text under the title of, al-Nafas al-yamani fi ijazat baniʾl-Shawkani. See also O’Fahey (1994). The use of the word nafas in the title plays upon a well-established Sufi trope in the form of a tradition in which the Prophet is believed to speak of Uways al-Qarani with the words, “The Breath of the Merciful (nafas al-Rahman) comes to me from the Yemen.”

7) He studied at both Zabid and Medina under several prominent shaykhs, including Muhammad b. ʿAlaʾuddin al-Mizjaji, Muhammad Murtada al-Zabidi, and Muhammad b. ʿAli b. Muhammad al-Shawkani. He eventually went on to become mufti of Zabid in 1197 H./ 1783 C.E., and was host to the Maghribi saint Ahmad b. Idris during his visit to this city in 1243 H./1827-28 C.E. See al-Shawkani (n.d., 267–268); al-Sanaʿi (1929, 30–31); and Brockelmann (1937–42, 1311)

8) Their line is traced back to the sixth Shiʿite Imam Jaʿfar al-Sadiq through such well-known saints as the miracle-working Abuʾl-Hasan ʿAli b. ʿUmar b. Muhammad al-Ahdal, whose tomb to the north of Bayt al-Faqih in the Tihama remains a pilgrimage site to this day. See al-Zabidi (1986, 195–198). Another work on this prominent family of Sufis and scholars, entitled al-Nasiha al-ʿalawiyya liʾl-sada al-ahdaliyya, is attributed to Muhammad al-Samman (Hunwick and O’Fahey 1994). Muhammad al-Samman is one of the scholars listed in al-Ahdal’s work as being active in the same Arabian Sufi circles as ʿAbd al-Samad.

9) From internal evidence from his surviving works we know, for example, that ʿAbd al-Samad dated his work entitled Hidayat al-Salikin at Mecca in 1192 H./1778 C.E., and the Sayr al-Salikin at Taʾif in 1203 H./1789 C.E. These dates are taken from the colophons of the Dar Ihya al-Kitab al-Arabiyya Indunisiyya letter-press edition of the Sayr al-Salikin, 4 vols. (Jakarta: n.d.), and the lithograph edition of the Hidayat al-Salikin published in Indonesia by Sharika Maktaba al-Madiniyya, 1354 H./1935 C.E.

10) On the use of “Jawa” and “Jawi” to refer to the Indonesian Archipelago, its people, and its products, see Feener and Laffan (2005); Laffan (2009a; 2009b).

11) Beyond ʿAbd al-Samad’s own writings, another source base that has been used by some in attempts to reconstruct his biography comes from later Malay-language texts such as the Tarikh Salasilah Negeri Kedah (1968); See Abdullah (1980, 95–107). The validity of such texts as reliable sources of information is, however, subject to question in light of such claims as their account of his death as a centenarian martyr in a jihad against the Buddhist Siamese. While there is no other information suggesting that ʿAbd al-Samad ever returned from Arabia to Southeast Asia, some local Muslims find support for this claim in sites regarded as his burial place in both Palembang and Patani (Southern Thailand). See, for example: Accessed June 1, 2015.

12) This last text is entitled Nasihat al-muslimin wa-tadhkirat al-muʾminin fadaʾil al-jihad fi sabil Allāh, and is regarded as having inspired the prolific genre of prang sabi (“holy war”) texts in nineteenth century Aceh. For more on this, see Hadi (2011). Aside from his formal treatise on the subject of jihad, ʿAbd al-Samad also wrote letters from Arabia to rulers in Java encouraging them to take up arms against the expansion of Dutch colonial power in 1772. See Ricklefs (1974, 134; 150–155).

13) Synopses of his works in both languages can be found in Drewes (1977, 222–224). There and elsewhere Drewes (1976) included in that list the Tuhfat al-raghibin fi bayan haqiqat iman al-muʾminin wa ma yufsiduhu fi riddat al-murtadin. More recently, however, Noorhaidi Hasan (2007) has demonstrated that this work is more likely attributed to ʿAbd al-Samad’s younger contemporary, Muhammad Arshad al-Banjari.

14) For more on this environment and the writings that were produced in it, see Drewes (1977, 219–237).

15) Michael Laffan has recently reconstructed the subsequent course of Sayyid Alawi’s life after his rapid ascent in Javanese court circles, and through his transportation, detention, and later career among the expanding Muslim community of Cape Town, see Laffan (2013).

16) The royal receptions of Said Zain Bafakih, Said Bakar Rum, and Syarif Muhammad are recorded in a Palembang Malay manuscript edited by Woelder (1975, 88–89).

17) Abu al-Fawz Ibrahim b. Muhammad al-Raʾis al-Zamzami al-Makki (1110–94 H./1698–1780 C.E.), a teacher of Murtada al-Zabidi and a student of al-Basri and ʿAta al-Misri who took an ijaza in the Khalwatiyya from Mustafa al-Bakri (see below). This scholar also had a number of important connections with the al-Ahdal and Mizjaji families in the Yemen (Azra 2004, 114).

18) ʿAtaʾAllah b. Ahmad al-Azhari al-Misri al-Makki, the renowned muhaddith and teacher of Ibrahim al-Raʾis and Murtada al-Zabidi. He also may have had some connection with the leading family of the Egyptian Tasqiyaniyya al-Ahmadiyya order, who continued their dominance of the organization into this century. See de Jong (1978).

19) Muhammad b. Ahmad al-Jawhari al-Misri (1132–86 H./1720–72 C.E.), a well-known Egyptian traditionist with a highly-regarded isnad who strengthened his connections to our networks of scholars through his extended study and teaching visits to the Haramayn (Azra 2004, 115).

20) Muhammad b. Sulayman al-Kurdi (1125–94 H./1713–80 C.E.), a Sufi and legal scholar who was a student of al-Bakri, al-Nakhli, and al-Basri (see below).

21) The published edition of the Arabic text has a footnote here that reads: “He is Husayn b. ʿAbd Allah Ba Fadl (d. 979 H./1571–72 C.E.). Please see our book Masadir al-fikr al-Islami, 286.”

22) For more on the dynamics of debates on and within Sufism during this period, see collected essays in de Jong and Radtke (1999) by Esther Peskes, Bernd Radtke, Kamel Filali, R. Sean O’Fahey, Marc Gaborieau, Jonathan N. Lipman, and Azyumardi Azra.

23) For a brief overview of these recent debates within Islamic Studies, see Reichmuth (2002).

24) Entitled Hidayat al-Salikin and Sayr al-Salikin, these works are still printed in Jawi script and available in kitab shops in various parts of the Southeast Asia. Drewes (1977, 222–223) mentions other editions of these texts that were published at Mecca, Bombay, Cairo, and Singapore. The Hidayat al-Salikin has generally served as a beginner’s introduction to Sufism, drawing in part on Ghazali’s Bidayat al-Hidaya (and other works), and arranged broadly along the Bidayat’s organizational scheme. More advanced students then continue with the larger, four-volume Sayr al-Salikin on a path that should lead adepts eventually to al-Ghazali’s Ihya itself (Kushimoto 2014).

25) Daud b. ʿAbd Allah b. Idris al-Patani was one of the most prolific authors of such books, and among his works are Malay adaptations of al-Ghazali’s Mihaj al-Abidin. Biographical material on this important Malay kitab author can be found, van Bruinessen (1998, 19–20); L. Y. Andaya (2012, 235). For more on the production of Islamic scholarship in his milieu, see: Matheson and Hooker (1988); Hassan Madmarn (2002); and Bradley (2010).

26) Attested to not only in the medieval texts of local histories (e.g. al-Dayba 1983, 47), but also in local historical memory today by drivers on the Tihama road whom I have heard shouting: “Zabid, madinat al-ʿulamaʾ!” (“Zabid, City of the Scholars!”) upon approaching the (now nearly ruined) town.

27) A popular recent example of this is found in the section on ʿAbd al-Samad in Iskandar (1996, 441–443).

28) The major exception to this is Azyumardi Azra’s groundbreaking work (2004). Unfortunately, however, he was unable to consult the text of the Nafas al-Yamani in preparing that study.

29) Muhammad b. ʿAbd al-Karim al-Samman al-Hashimi al-Madani al-Khlawati al-Qadiri al-Shadhili al-Shafiʿi (d. 1190 H./1776 C.E.) was a student of al-Hifni and Mahmud al-Kurdi (d. 1780), khalifa of Mustafa Kamal al-din al-Bakri in the Khalwatiyya order. He was born and died at Medina, 1132–89 H./1719–75 C.E. The listing of his works in Brockelmann (1937–42, SII, 535, 629) has been revised in Drewes (1992). Muhammad al-Samman is of particular importance here as the order he established at Medina gained considerable popularity in Muslim Southeast Asia, due to a considerable extent to the work of his “Jawi” pupil ʿAbd al-Samad and his contemporary Palembang countrymen including Muhammad Muhyiddin b. Shaykh Shihabuddin. By the latter half of the nineteenth century, the order had established itself in several centers in the region, including the Dutch capital of Batavia (Drewes 1977, 224–225). By the late nineteenth century Sammaniyya practices came under considerable critique from a number of prominent members of the Arab community in Southeast Asia, including Salim b. ʿAbd Allah b. Sumayr and Sayyid ʿUthman b. ʿAbd Allah b. ʿAqil b. Yahya (Drewes 1992, 83–84). For more on his al-Samman and his students from Southeast Asia, see Muthalib (2007). The Sammaniyya order was also widely propagated in Ethiopia and the Sudan. See O’Fahey (1994, 91).

30) Mustafa b. Kamal al-Din b. ʿAli al-Siddiqi al-Hanafi al-Khalwati Muhyi al-Din al-Bakri (d. 1162 H./1749 C.E.) was an eighteenth-century khalifa of the Qarabashi branch of the Khalwatiyya order. He also issued the ijazat khilafa of the Khalwatiyya order to the later Egyptian founder of the al-Afifiyya branch of the Shadhiliyya order (Elger 2014).

31) Najm ad-Din Muhammad b. Salim b. Ahmad al-Shafiʿi al-Misri al-Hifni al-Husayni (d. 1181 H./1767–68 C.E.) was an author of Shafiʾi legal and devotional works (Brockelmann 1937–42, SII, 445) who was the Shaykh al-Azhar and head of the Khalwaityya order in Egypt during his day. See Marsot (1972, 150). For more on the sub-order founded by him (al-Hifniyya): de Jong (1978, 114–116). The networks he was involved in extend even further, as his brother Yusuf al-Hifnawi was a colleague of Muhammad Murtada al-Zabidi and his students included Jabril b. Umar, the foremost teacher of Uthman dan Fodio (Voll 1982, 81).

32) The interpolated rendering of the last sentence is based upon the practice of a Sammaniyya dhikr session as I have observed it at a session led by a Sudani shaykh and his disciples in Sanaʿa during early August, 1997.

33) i.e. Jalal al-Din al-Suyuti(d. 911 H./1505 C.E.). This renowned Egyptian scholar was the author of several works which have long been popular in Muslim Southeast Asia and continue to be used there today. For more on al-Suyuti, see Sartain (1975). For the adaptation of one of his more well-known works in Southeast Asia, see Riddell (1990).

The published edition of the al-Ahdal’s Arabic text has a footnote here that reads, “His book is entitled, Natija al-fikr fi al-jahr biʾl-dhikr.”

34) The published edition of the Arabic text has a footnote here that reads, “Perhaps this is the Sufi Muhammad b. ʿAbd al-Wahid al-Kitani (d. 1289 H./1872–73 C.E.).”

35) Ibrahim b. al-Sharazuri al-Hasan Shahrani al-Madani al-Kurani (d. 1101 H./1690 C.E.), the Kurdish scholar and mystic who studied throughout the Muslim world before settling in Medina where he succeeded his famous teacher al-Qushashi upon the latter’s death in 1071 H./1661 C.E. (EI2, V: 432b, 525b). This particular scholar had a profound effect on the development of Islam in Southeast Asia during the seventeenth century via the mediation of his Sumatran colleague ʿAbd al-Raʾuf al-Singkli. See Johns (1978).

36) The published edition of al-Ahdal’s Arabic text has a footnote here that reads, “Entitled al-Jawabat al-Ghurawiyyat.”

37) Kurani’s position on vocal dhikr had also influenced earlier generations of Muslim scholars from Southeast Asia, including the seventeenth-century Acehnese shaykh ʿAbd al-Raʾuf Singkili (Le Gall 2005, 101–102).

38) Qurʾan (7, al-Aʿraf, 205).

39) Polemics over the legitimacy of vocalized, as opposed to silent dhikr, pursued by Sufis involved in the scholarly circles of eighteenth-century Yemen came to be part of significant social and political cleavages in several parts of the Muslim world, including China. For more on this see Lipman (1997, 85–93).

40) This reference may be to al-Sayyid Ali al-ʿAttar (d. 1250 H./1834 C.E. or 1254 H./1838 C.E.), an Egyptian writer to whom several works of history and grammar are attributed (Brockelmann 1937–42, SII, 720).

41) Ahmad b. Muhammad al-Nakhli (1044–1130 H./1634–1718 C.E.), a hadith scholar resident in Medina who was a student of the prominent Egyptian Shaykh Muhammad b. ʿAla al-din al-Babili (d. 1077 H./1666–67 C.E.). See Voll (1980, 266).

42) ʿAbd Allah b. Salim al-Basri (1040–1134 H./1640–1722 C.E.), an important hadith scholar whose students included Mustafa al-Bakri and the South Asian muhaddith Muhammad Hayya al-Sindi (d. 1750). See Voll (1975, 38).

43) For more on the “Jawah colony” of Southeast Asian Muslim students and teachers at Mecca, see: Hurgronje (1970); Laffan (2003).


Vol. 3, No. 3, Mujiburrahman

Contents>> Vol. 3, No. 3


Islamic Theological Texts and Contexts in Banjarese Society: An Overview of the Existing Studies*


* I would like to thank Martin van Bruinessen for his valuable comments on the earlier draft. I also thank Syuan-Yuan Chiou for sending me some materials for this article. The first draft of this article was presented at the Fourth al-Jami’ah International Conference, State Islamic University, Yogyakarta, 14-16 December 2012.

** State Institute of Islamic Studies, Antasari, Jl. Jend. A. Yani KM. 4, 5 Banjarmasin 70235 Kalimantan Selatan, Indonesia

e-mail: mujib71[at]

This article will describe and analyze the continuities and changes of Islam in Banjarese society, Indonesia, by looking at the existing studies of theological texts produced and transmitted by the Banjarese ulama since the eighteenth century up to the early twenty-first century. There is a scholarly controversy on the authorship of Tuẖfat al-Râghibîn, but there is strong evidence that it was written by Muhammad Arsyad al-Banjari in the eighteenth century. In this theological text, the author proposes a wider view of Sunnism, and at the same time attacks some local religious rituals considered opposed to Islamic monotheism. From the eighteenth to nineteenth century, the theological texts were written in Jawi. By the twentieth century, the ulama had also produced theological texts in Indonesian language, but the use and production of Arabic and Jawi texts still continued. From the early twentieth century, the Sanusi’s conception of Sunni theology has become the dominant among the Banjarese. However, since the 1920s, this dominant theology has been challenged by Salafism introduced by the reformist Muslim group, the Muhammadiyah. By the 1990s, some of the ulama had proposed the theology of God’s Beautiful Names as an alternative to the Sanusi’s conception. All of these theological conceptions, however, seem to pay too little attention to the challenges of the increasing religious plurality of Banjarese society.

Keywords: Islam, theology, Banjarese, Indonesia

According to the statistics compiled for the year 2000 on ethnic identities, the Banjarese ranked 10th among the largest ethnic groups in Indonesia (Suryadinata et al. 2003, 31–68).1) Most Banjarese live in South Kalimantan, and many of them live in Central and East Kalimantan, as well as in Sumatra, especially in Bangka Belitung, Riau, Jambi, and North Sumatra.2) The Banjarese are generally identified as Muslims. Starting around the sixteenth century, the Banjarese Kingdom was converted to Islam by the Javanese Sultanate, Demak, as a compensation for the latter’s military aid.3) The process of Islamization apparently became more intense by the eighteenth century after the return of Muhammad Arsyad al-Banjari from his study in the Muslim holy cities of Mecca and Medina. During the Banjar war (1859–1905), and the revolutionary war in the first half of the twentieth century, the Islamic leaders and organizations also played an important role. Presently, Muslims constitute 97.3% in South Kalimantan.

Islamization is a continuing process, and probably would never end. One of the ways to see the development and dynamics of Islam among the Banjarese is to study Islamic theological texts written and taught by the ulama in the region. During the last three decades, there has been a number of studies on the subject, undertaken by Banjarese scholars, and most of whom are of the State Institute of Islamic Studies (IAIN), Antasari, Banjarmasin. Given the fact that most of these studies are largely unknown, unpublished, and simply sitting on the library shelves gathering dust, I am interested in investigating these texts, hoping that, through my own interpretation and analysis, we can find a general picture of change and continuity in Islamic theological thought in Banjarese society.

Muhammad Arsyad al-Banjari’s Theological Text and Context

There is no doubt that Muhammad Arsyad al-Banjari (1710–1812) is a very important figure in the Islamization of Banjarese society. At the age of 30, he was sent to Mecca by Sultan Tamjidillah (1734–59) to perform hajj and to study all branches of Islamic knowledge with the prominent ulama in Mecca and then Madina. After more than 30 years of study, he came back home, and then became the advisor to the Banjarese sultanate.4)

As an Islamic scholar, Arsyad al-Banjari wrote a number of works on Islamic teachings, including Islamic theology.5) There are at least two works of al-Banjari discussing the Islamic theological doctrines, namely al-Qawl al-Mukhtașar fî ’alâmât al-Imâm al-Mahdi al-Muntazhar (A short explanation on the signs of the expected Imam al-Mahdi), and Tuẖfat al-Râghibîn fî Bayâni Haqîqat Îmân al-Mu’minîn wa Mâ Yufsiduh min Riddat al-Murtaddîn (A gift to the seekers, explaining the essence of faith of the believers and its damages due to the apostasy of the apostates). The former is academically less studied than the latter.6) It is probably because al-Qawl al-Mukhtașar is only concerned with eschatological doctrines, while Tuẖfat al-Râghibîn, besides describing basic Islamic theological doctrines, also attacks certain existing traditional rituals. In addition, its authorship also triggers a scholarly controversy.

Therefore, this section will only analyze the studies of the Tuẖfat al-Râghibîn. The treatise was written in 1774, two years after al-Banjari’s return to the Banjarese Sultanate (1772). Like most works of the ulama of the archipelago in that period, this work by al-Banjari was written in the Malay language using Arabic script or the so-called Jawi script. The earliest print edition known to a researcher is the one published in 1887 by al-Mathba’ah al-Haj Muharram Affandi, Istambul (Hasan 2007, 71). The transliteration of the book into Latin script was carried out by Abu Daudi (2000) and M. Asywadie Syukur (2009). The existing research on this treatise raises the following questions: Is Tuẖfat al-Râghibîn the work of al-Palimbani or al-Banjari? What are the theological views presented in the work? What are the possible sources of al-Banjari’s theological views? Are these theological views relevant to our times? What influence does it have on Banjarese society?

The Author of Tufat al-Râghibîn: al-Palimbani or al-Banjari?

It seems that the question of whether Tuẖfat al-Râghibîn is the work of Abd al-Shamad al-Palimbani or Muhammad Arsyad al-Banjari had emerged, particularly among the Banjarese intellectuals, after the publication of M. Chatib Quzwain’s dissertation in 1985. In his dissertation, with reference to two Dutch Scholars, P. Voorhoeve and Drewes, Chatib Quzwain argues that Tuẖfat al-Râghibîn is the work of al-Palimbani (Chatib Quzwain 1985, 14–25). This issue gave rise to serious discussion during the seminar on the research report on Muhammad Arsyad al-Banjari, held at the IAIN Antasari on November 17, 1988, and another discussion attended by Banjarese intellectuals on December 25, 1988 (Analiansyah 1990). The question of the authorship of Tuẖfat al-Râghibîn is also analyzed in an undergraduate thesis written in the same year by a student of the Ushuluddin Faculty at IAIN Antasari (Yusran 1988). M. Asywadie Syukur, a professor of Dakwah Faculty at IAIN Antasari also wrote a research report on the same controversy in 1990 (Asywadie Syukur 1990). Finally, 17 years later, it was to be discussed again by Noorhaidi Hasan, a Banjarese by origin and a lecturer at the State Islamic University (UIN) Sunan Kalijaga, Yogyakarta (Hasan 2007).

All of the researchers agree that Tuẖfat al-Râghibîn is the work of al-Banjari, not al-Palimbani. Yusran, without any mention of the opposing view, proposes some arguments to prove that al-Banjari is the author of the treatise. First, Yusran indicates that there is a clear similar diction of the introduction, particularly the doxology, of Tuẖfat al-Râghibîn with that of Sabîl al-Muhtadîn, another and most famous work of al-Banjari. Second, there are several Banjarese words found in the text. Third, the text mentions two Banjarese traditional rituals, namely manyanggar and mambuang pasilih. Fourth, some authoritative books on Arsyad al-Banjari’s biography also mention that Tuẖfat al-Râghibîn is one of his works. Fifth, some prominent Banjarese ulama and descendants of Arsyad al-Banjari also affirm that it is the work of al-Banjari.

Moreover, M. Asywadie Syukur, besides mentioning similar arguments, attempts to extend these arguments by examining the text in more detail, comparing it with the works of al-Palimbani and, refuting the arguments of Voorhoeve and Drewes (Asywadie Syukur 1990, 18–32). First, Asywadie Syukur does not only show the same dictions of the doxology between Tuẖfat al-Râghibîn and Sabîl al-Muhtadîn, but also indicates their differences from that of the works of al-Palimbani. He also finds that al-Banjari usually uses the personal pronoun of “aku” or “daku” (means “I”), while al-Palimbani uses “hamba” (which means “slave”). Likewise, to begin each chapter, and to indicate the year of writing of their respective works, al-Banjari and al-Palimbani use different phrases and style. Finally, unlike al-Palimbani, al-Banjari never mentions the place where his work was written.

Second, Asywadie Syukur also finds a number of Banjarese words in Tuẖfat al-Râghibîn. While Yusran draws attention to only two words, kasarungan (possessed by spirit) and manyarung (possessing), Asywadie Syukur adds the following words: simpun (concise), pataruhan (treasure), manyaru (to call), lamuhur (ancestor), disambur (being sprayed by water through mouth), mahangusakan (to burn), and lanjuran (trap). Asywadie Syukur particularly finds that al-Banjari also uses the word simpun in his two other works, namely Luqaṭ al-’Ajlân and al-Qawl al-Mukhtaşar.

Third, like Yusran, Asywadie Syukur argues that the rituals called manyanggar and mambuang pasilih mentioned in the Tuẖfat al-Râghibîn are Banjarese traditional rituals. For Asywadie Syukur, manyanggar is a ritual in which people give certain offerings to evil spirits to appease them and to avoid their bad influences. The ritual is usually held when people suffer from natural disaster or moral troubles such as adultery and quarrel. In contrast, mambuang pasilih is a ritual held for a family who is believed to have a hidden brother or sister. It is believed that, the hidden person will do harm to the family if the ritual is not carried out. Like manyanggar, in mambuang pasilih, the family also gives certain offerings to the hidden brother/sister.

Moreover, in 1987, Asywadie Syukur observed the manyanggar ritual being held in Barikin village of Central Hulu Sungai District, South Kalimantan.7) He also found the mambuang pasilih ritual held in Banjarmasin and Barito Kuala of South Kalimantan. The evidence, argues Asywadie Syukur, indicates that Drewes’ assumption that the rituals are found in the hinterland of Palembang is weak. Moreover, Drewes only mentions the manyanggar ritual, not mambuang pasilih. The latter is clearly a Banjarese ritual because it is based on the local belief in the existence of hidden people (urang gaib), which nowadays can still be found in Banjarese society. In addition, the discussion on rituals in Tuẖfat al-Râghibîn is quite detailed. The author describes a dialogue (real or imagined) between himself and the participants of the rituals. This is certainly difficult to do for al-Palimbani who already left Palembang as a teenager, and never came back.

Fourth, in his introduction to Asywadie Syukur’s research report, Analiansyah cites a number of books which confirm that Tuẖfat al-Râghibîn is the work of al-Banjari. Most of the books are also mentioned by Yusran in his undergraduate thesis. Asywadie Syukur, however, makes no mention of them, but refers to another evidence, namely the second printing of the book, published by al-Ihsan Surabaya in 1929 based on the request of Abdurrahman Shiddiq (1857–1939), a Muslim scholar and a descendant of Arsyad al-Banjari. This edition clearly puts al-Banjari as the author of the Tuẖfat al-Râghibîn. In contrast, the Voorhoeve manuscript, which is believed to be the work of al-Palimbani, does not mention the name of the author.

Fifth, Asywadie Syukur also refutes the arguments made by Voorhoeve and Drewes. Voorhoeve manuscript is a gift from Braginsky. It is written on the manuscript “Van Doorninck 1876,” the name of a Dutch official who worked in Palembang in 1873–75. It was, argues Voorhoeve, the period when Abd al-Shamad al-Palimbani produced a lot of writings. Moreover, this manuscript is also accompanied by a treatise on jihâd (holy war), which is, according to Voorhoeve, a special expertise of al-Palimbani. Drewes speculates that the work was written in Mecca based on the request of Sultan Najmuddin or Bahauddin, and was brought to Palembang by returning pilgrims. For Asywadie Syukur, all of these arguments are weak. The fact that Van Doorninck worked in Palembang does not necessarily mean that the manuscript is the work of al-Palimbani. Moreover, in that period, the Banjarese Sultanate was already abolished by the Dutch. It was not surprising, therefore, if many Ducth people came and forth to Banjarese region at that time. Regarding the treatise on jihâd, for Asywadie Syukur it is clearly another independent work, not part of Tuẖfat al-Râghibîn, because at the end of the manuscript, we find that it is closed by prayer which indicates that the work is already finished. In addition, the manuscript of Tuẖfat al-Râghibîn and the treatise on jihâd are written in different fonts. Finally, like al-Palimbani, al-Banjari was also prolific in this period.

Sixth, Drewes argues that Tuẖfat al-Râghibîn rejects the Sufi doctrine called wujûdiyyah which may indicate that this Sufi doctrine was found in Palembang, as it was also criticized by al-Raniri in seventeenth century Aceh. This argument, for Asywadie Syukur is not strong enough to support that Tuẖfat al-Râghibîn is the work of al-Palimbani because in Sair al-Sâlikîn, he accepts wujûdiyyah as the peak spiritual achievement. On the other hand, for Asywadie Syukur, al-Banjari opposes wujûdiyya doctrine and even gave a fatwa of capital punishment for Abdul Hamid Abulung, a Banjarese Sufi believed to embrace the wujûdiyyah doctrine. Asywadie Syukur assumes that the fatwa is expressed in the statement of Tuẖfat al-Râghibîn: “. . . tiada syak pada wajib membunuh dia karena murtadnya, dan membunuh seumpama orang itu terlebih baik daripada seratus kafir yang asli” (there is no doubt about the necessity to kill him because of his apostasy, and killing such a person is better than killing a hundred of genuine unbelievers).

Those are the arguments put forward by Asywadie Syukur to affirm that Tuẖfat al-Râghibîn is truly the work of al-Banjari rather than al-Palimbani. It is noteworthy that almost all of the arguments analyzed in Noorhaidi Hasan’s work are the same as those in Asywadie Syukur’s work. It seems that the only new argument from Hasan is that, a Malaysian scholar, Wan Mohd. Shagir Abdullah wrote that Dawud al-Patani (1740–1847) mentioned Tuẖfat al-Râghibîn as the work of al-Banjari. If this information is true, argues Hasan, then it is an early piece of evidence that the author of the work is al-Banjari because Dawud al-Patani was al-Banjari’s friend when both studied at Mecca (Hasan 2007, 71–72).8) Moreover, in his article Hasan directly refers to the existing manuscripts, and the fact that he had communicated with V. I. Braginsky who gave the manuscript to Voorhoeve. Last but not least, Hasan successfully put the issue for the international scholarship, because his work was published in Bijdragen tot de Taal-, Land- en Volkenkunde (BKI).

All of the arguments proposed by the above researchers are apparently convincing, except Asywadie Syukur’s view that the execution of Abdul Hamid Abulung was based on al-Banjari’s fatwa in Tuẖfat al-Râghibîn. Did that truly happen? As far as I know, historical evidence for Abulung’s life is very scarce.9) Steenbrink maintains that Abulung’s story is very similar to that of Siti Jenar in Java. Since Banjar has close relationships with Java, it is possible that Abulung is a Banjarese version of Siti Jenar, and Siti Jenar is a Javanese version of al-Hallaj (Steenbrink 1984, 96). Moreover, Feener argues that, although Siti Jenar’s narrative (and Abulung) are similar to that of al-Hallaj, it does not mean that the teachings of al-Hallaj were already introduced to Southeast Asia. The narrative, he said, “may in fact be a reflection of an earlier indigenous or Hindu-Javanese motif recast in a Javanese Muslim setting” (Feener 1998, 578).

In addition, Asywadie Syukur’s quotation from the Tuẖfat al-Râghibîn regarding the death penalty is not specifically related to Hallajian teachings, or to wujudiyyah as he claims, but to a false saint claiming to be beyond the shari’a law.

Kata Imam Ghazali, jikalau menyangka seorang wali akan bahwasanya ada antaranya dan antara Allah ta’ala martabat, dan hal yang menggugurkan wajib sembahyang, dan menghalalkan minum arak seperti disangka oleh kaum yang bersufi-sufi dirinya, maka tiadalah syak pada wajib membunuh dia karena murtadnya dan membunuh seumpama orang itu terlebih baik daripada membunuh seratus kafir asli. (Arsyad al-Banjari 1983, 32)

[Imam Ghazali said, if a saint assumes that there is a position between him and God that abolishes the obligation to perform daily prayers, and allows him to drink alcohol as it is believed by pretending Sufis, then there is no doubt about the necessity to kill him because of his apostacy, and killing such a person is better than killing a hundred of genuine unbelievers.]

In fact, only after those sentences al-Banjari starts describing the wujûdiyyah. In his description, he does not say that the followers of wujûdiyyah should be punished with the death penalty. He only said that the wujûdiyyah mulẖid is one form of kâfir zindîq (true unbeliever), without mentioning any punishment for the followers of this doctrine. Moreover, in Tuẖfat al-Râghibîn, al-Banjari said that there are two kinds of wujûdiyyah, mulẖid and muwaẖẖid. He only opposes the former, not the latter. In his explanation, the former seems to be the view that the entire universe, including human beings are God. However, he does not explain what wujûdiyyah muwaẖẖid is. Probably, for him, the wujûdiyyah muwaẖẖid is the teachings of Ibn al-’Arabi and his students, which strike a balance between God’s immanency and transcendency. In fact, this is also the position of ’Abd al-Shamad al-Palimbani which is probably shared by al-Banjari. Moreover, one of the important works of Banjarese ulama of the eighteenth century, al-Durr al-Nafîs by Muhammad Nafis al-Banjari, apparently follows the same line (Muthalib 1995). It seems, for Arsyad al-Banjari, al-Palimbani and Nafis al-Banjari, the works of al-Ghazali do not contradict those of Ibn ’Arabi and the like because they are aimed at different audiences. The works of al-Ghazali are for elementary and intermediate levels (mubtadi’ and mutawassi), while those of Ibn ’Arabi are for the muntahi, the advanced level.10)

The Tufat al-Râghibîn, Its Teachings, Relevance, and Influences

What are the theological teachings presented in the Tuẖfat al-Râghibîn? If we compare this work with other popular Islamic theological texts in South Kalimantan or even in the archipelago, the structure of this work is obviously unique. The contents of the work are divided into three parts: on the essence of faith, on the things endangering faith, and finally on repentance. All researchers find that the work follows the line of Sunni theological thought of Ash’ariyyah and Maturidiyyah. In addition, the research team at the IAIN Antasari has discovered that the description in Tuẖfat al-Râghibîn on deviant sects (based on the hadith which predicts that Muslims will be divided into 73 groups), is similar to that of al-Milal wa al-Niẖal by al-Shahrastani, although the latter describes them in more detail.11) In contrast, after careful investigation, Khairil Anwar finds that the names and classification of the deviant sects in the Tuẖfat al-Râghibîn are not similar to those of al-Milal wa al-Niẖal, but to another theological book, namely Uşûl al-Dîn by al-Bazdawi (d. 1100) (Khairil Anwar 2009, 69–70).

As a follower of the Sunni theological school, al-Banjari explains in the first part of the Tuẖfat al-Râghibîn that the essence of faith is believing with one’s heart (taşdîq), while the oral confirmation (iqrâr) and its actualization through action (’amal) are not the essence but the perfection of faith (kamâl al-îmân). Al-Banjari, however, also quotes Abû Hanîfah and some Ash’arite figures, who argue that faith includes both believing and oral confirmation. The latter’s view, for al-Banjari, is also found in Sunnism, but it is not sanctioned (ghair mu’tamad). Moreover, to support his criticisms of those sects considered deviant, al-Banjari refers to al-Ghazali (an Ash’arite figure), ’Umar al-Nasafi (a Maturidite figure), and Ahmad Ibn Hanbal (a Salafi figure).

Scholars have different views of the relevance of the Tuẖfat al-Râghibîn’s theological viewpoints. Khairil Anwar, for instance, indicates that some ulama do not accept the authenticity of the hadith mentioned in the treatise, which predicts that the Muslim community will be divided into 73 groups, but only one will gain salvation.12) Khairil Anwar even notices another hadith with the opposite meaning quoted by the ulama, namely that 72 groups will go to heaven, and only one will go to hell. He argues that the prominent Indonesian Muslim scholars such as Quraish Shihab, M. Thalhah Hasan, and Nurcholish Madjid, prefer this hadith, because it is more inclusive and relevant to the present plurality of Muslim groups. Shihab and Thalhah Hasan quote ’Abd al-Halim Mahmud’s al-Tafkîr al-Falsafî fi al-Islâm in which the author said that the hadith is sahîh according to al-Hâkim, while Nurcholish Madjid refers to al-Ghazali’s Faishal al-Tafriqah which quotes the same hadith (ibid., 70–71).13)

On the other hand, as has been mentioned earlier, al-Banjari believes that the essence of faith is believing with one’s heart, while oral confirmation and its implementation are only the perfection of faith. This minimalist view of the essence of faith, according to the research team at the IAIN Antasari, is relevant to the present plurality of Muslim people. This view would enhance religious tolerance and inclusiveness because if the essence of faith is believing with one’s heart, then no one knows the quality of a person’s faith except God, and that a believer whose conducts do not accord to the teachings of Islam does not necessarily become an infidel. Moreover, the fact that al-Banjari refers to different figures of Sunni theological schools, namely of Asha’rite, Maturidite, and Salafi, indicates that he has a wider conception of Sunnism (Tim IAIN Antasari 1989, 49–50; Khairil Anwar 2009, 95). Al-Banjari’s view is actually wider than that of the Indonesian Muslim traditionalist organization, the Nahdlatul Ulama (NU), which in theory follows the Ash’arite and the Maturidite, but in reality, only follows the Ash’arite. Similarly, as we shall see, the later dominant theological views in Banjarese society only follow the line of Ash’arite formulated by al-Sanusi.

Moreover, the research team at IAIN Antasari points out that, although al-Banjari has a minimalist view of the essence of faith and a wider view of Sunnism, he does not neglect the importance of making one’s faith functional in daily life. This is indicated by the fact that al-Banjari explains various beliefs and actions that may endanger one’s faith, and therefore, should be avoided. As has been alluded, al-Banjari also criticizes the traditional rituals called manyanggar and mambuang pasilih. For him, these rituals may lead to polytheism because they are based on beliefs that there are other unseen forces, rather than God alone, who have power over human life. In this regard, al-Banjari’s theological assessment is based on Asy’arite view regarding cause and effect relationship. He said, if the actors believe that the ritual itself can protect them from harm, then the actors are infidels. If the actors believe that only God, not the rituals, who can protect them from harm, then their action is heterodox innovation (bid’ah dhalâlah). Moreover, in the rituals, various cakes are given as offerings to the hidden people, and this for al-Banjari, represents a waste of food (tabdzîr), which is religiously forbidden (harâm). For the team at IAIN Antasari, al-Banjari’s criticisms of the traditional rituals, are still relevant today because some pre-Islamic rituals have been revived and supported by the government, partly for tourism (Tim IAIN Antasari 1989, 37–38, 41–44).

In contrast, in his MA thesis, M. Rusydi, an alumni of the Postgraduate Program of the State Islamic University, Yogyakarta, has more critical views of the Tuẖfat al-Râghibîn (Rusydi 2005, 93-133). With reference to the Egyptian philosopher, Hassan Hanafi, Rusydi argues that al-Banjari’s theology is based on faith and defense method. This type of theology is characterized by theocentric views, which glorifies God, while the position of human being is neglected. In the political realm, this type of theology tends to defend, and subject to, the rulers. For Rusydi, this is clearly indicated by the opening remarks of Tuẖfat al-Râghibîn in which al-Banjari says that he was asked to write the treatise by the Sultan (namely, Sultan Tahmidillah). Likewise, the execution of Abdul Hamid Abulung who was considered heretic based on al-Banjari’s fatwa mentioned in this work, argues Rusydi, is another indication of how this theology operated through political power.

Moreover, for Rusydi, al-Banjari actually could not escape from the theological debates inherited from Muslims of the Middle Ages, and therefore, he was trapped in a defense of the Sunni views against other theological views. This becomes more obvious, says Rusydi, when al-Banjari strongly attacks the traditional rituals of mambuang pasilih and manyanggar. Al-Banjari’s attack on traditional rituals, is actually an attempt to defend the purity of Muslim beliefs. Thus, for Rusydi, al-Banjari’s minimalist view of the essence of faith, and his wider conception of Sunnism, did not lead him to be tolerant towards other theologies.

For Rusydi, therefore, al-Banjari’s theological views are not something to be maintained for the present society. This type of theology belongs in the past, not the present, nor the future. In other words, it is irrelevant to the problems of the twenty-first century. For Rusydi, in order to be relevant, Islamic theology, especially for the Banjarese people, should think of current problems of environmental destruction such as deforestation, excessive exploitation of natural resources, and the pollution of rivers. These problems, he said, are real problems for the Banjarese people in particular, and the people in Kalimantan in general.

The above conflicting views of the relevance of al-Banjari’s theology demonstrate the dynamics of Islamic theological thought among the Banjarese Muslim scholars. In this regard, I would like to make some comments. First, it is important that we do not view the past through the lens of contemporary beliefs and values, because if we do this, we may come to two extreme conclusions: we will either glorify the past, or condemn it as decadent and backward. Therefore, it is important for contemporary scholars who study history, including history of ideas, to depict the past in an objective historical and social context. This certainly demands us to find a relatively complete description of the past in question. In the case of al-Banjari’s Tuẖfat al-Râghibîn, so far we have very scarce historical sources, and therefore, our description of the past is far from satisfying. For instance, is it historically true that al-Banjari wrote this treatise because the Sultan asked him to issue a fatwa for Abdul Hamid Abulung as a Sufi heretic? On the other hand, did al-Banjari’s minimalist view of the essence of faith, and his wider conception of Sunnism lead him to be tolerant towards theological differences? Honestly, if we rely on the available historical evidence, we cannot convincingly answer these questions.

Second, for believers, a religious tradition, including theological views contained in the works of the ulama in the past, is something that defines their lives at the present, and at the same time connects them with the past and the future (Asad 1986). In this regard, the Moroccan scholar, Muhammad ’Abid al-Jâbirî said that there are three approaches to studying religious tradition. First, reading the tradition within the framework of the tradition itself. This kind of study is usually ahistorical and simply intended to preserve the tradition. Second, reading the tradition as something of the past without any relevance to the present day. This is exemplified by the works of the orientalists. Third, reading the tradition with critical historical analysis, and at the same time, trying to find its relevance to the present and the future (Jâbirî 1986, 1–23). If we look at the contesting views of the researchers of al-Banjari’s theological heritage from al-Jâbiri’s framework, then we may say that the Muslim scholars actually try to do their best to find the relevance and irrelevance of the tradition for their present and future. Their studies, therefore, are engaged scholarships. The only problem for them, as has been said, is the limited historical evidence to support their respective views. Apart from this problem, the controversy indicates that theological studies at the IAIN are not very dogmatic, and therefore, even a young scholar like Rusydi has the courage to propose strong criticisms of the views of highly respected figure like al-Banjari.

Apart from the debates on the relevance and irrelevance of Tuẖfat al-Râghibîn, it is important to know whether the Banjarese society at large know and study this treatise. In 1988, Yusran interviewed a number of prominent ulama, and found that only 10 of them knew that the Tuẖfat al-Râghibîn was one of the works of Arsyad al-Banjari (Yusran 1988, 62-63). Around the same period, the research team at IAIN Antasari interviewed 23 prominent ulama in six cities of South Kalimantan (Marabahan, Banjarmasin, Martapura, Kandangan, Negara, and Amuntai), and found some interesting facts. The interviewees generally knew of Arsyad al-Banjari not as a writer of religious texts, but as a saint imbued with the power to perform miracles, and whose tomb was frequently visited by pilgrims. Only a few of the ulama, most of whom were descendents of al-Banjari, used the Tuẖfat al-Râghibîn for teaching Islamic theology. Most of the ulama did not know about al-Banjari’s theological views in the treatise either, including the fatwa on the heresy of the wujûdiyyah mulẖidah. On the other hand, they knew that al-Banjari opposes the traditional rituals of manyanggar and mambuang pasilih. The majority of the ulama also take the same stance as al-Banjari, in opposing any traditional rituals which may lead to polytheism, but they do not always succeed in stopping them. It is said that a strong attack is not effective, but a persuasive propagation is slow in achieving the goal. Some of the ulama tolerate certain traditional rituals because they have been Islamized, while others say that syncretism cannot be tolerated because it pollutes the purity of the Islamic faith (Tim IAIN Antasari 1989, 101–102).

These findings are very similar to those of the previous and subsequent studies. In the early 1980s, Alfani Daud found in the field that manyanggar ritual was not practiced anymore, but other rituals accompanying the passages of life, from birth to death, were still practiced by many. Alfani Daud, however, also found that the contents of the rituals have been Islamized (Alfani Daud 2000). Likewise, in 1985, the research team of the Ushuluddin Faculty at IAIN Antasari, found that many Banjarese Muslims in Martapura and Amuntai (both are known as the cities of ulama) still believe in certain taboos, and practice traditional rituals like tapung tawar,14) shower ritual for pregnant women or for bride and bridegroom. However, most of the Muslims no longer adhere to the beliefs underlying the ritual anymore. They perform these rituals simply to pay respect to the tradition of their elders (Tim Fakultas Ushuluddin 1985). Another source of empirical evidence is found in the undergraduate theses of the students of the Ushuluddin Faculty from 1995 to 1999. The theses show that Banjarese Muslims believe in sacred places, times, goods, and symbols, and some of them are of pre-Islamic origins. Similarly, the Banjarese Muslims still practice certain traditional rituals in which pre-Islamic and Islamic elements are mixed.

The above empirical evidence indicates that the influence of Islamic theological views on traditional rituals has become increasingly stronger in society, and perhaps, this is partly because of al-Banjari’s attack on these rituals in Tuẖfat al-Râghibîn. On the other hand, one may ask, why many Banjarese ulama interviewed by the researchers in the late 1980s did not know about the Tuẖfat al-Râghibîn? The research team at IAIN Antasari try to answer this question. First, the works of al-Banjari are written in Jawi which is difficult for younger generation to understand. Second, the economic malaise during the Japanese occupation forced people into a struggle for economic survival, which left them little time and energy for learning religious texts. In contrast, during the period of Dutch colonial rule, al-Banjari’s works were read in many religious gatherings by the ulama. This explains why the ulama who were familiar with al-Banjari’s works were at the age of 50 or older in 1988. Third, after independence (1945), formal education at schools was open for all the people, including religious education. In this educational system, texts used in religion classes are mostly in the Indonesian language, which is easier to understand for the younger generation. On the other hand, the students of Islamic boarding schools who are specialized in Islamic studies, would prefer Arabic to Jawi texts (Tim IAIN Antasari 1989, 98–105).

Islamic Theological Texts Taught in Banjarese Society

It would be naive to say that the development of Islam in the region, including the Banjarese Muslims’ theological views, simply depends on Arsyad al-Banjari’s influences. The social, political, and cultural changes from the nineteenth century to the early twenty-first century, undoubtedly exerted a great influence on their Islamic theological views. In this regard, there has been a number of studies carried out by the scholars of the Ushuluddin Faculty at IAIN Antasari, which provide empirical evidence of the development of Banjarese Muslim theological views following Muhammad Arsyad al-Banjari’s period to the present. These studies explore various research questions, namely: What are the theological texts taught in Islamic study gatherings (pengajian)15) in South Kalimantan? What are the theological texts written by Banjarese ulama? What are the theological texts taught in Islamic boarding schools (pesantren) in South Kalimantan? What are the theological schools represented by the texts? What are the philosophical elements contained in the texts? What are their possible influences on Muslim daily life?

The Theological Texts Taught and Written by Banjarese Ulama

In 1982, a team of students of the Ushuluddin Faculty at IAIN Antasari were assigned to study the theological texts taught in various pengajians in South Kalimantan. The scope of the research is quite impressive. The students investigate 109 pengajians in three districts, namely 51 pengajians in Hulu Sungai Utara district, 29 pengajians in Banjar district, and 29 pengajians in Banjarmasin City (Tim Fakultas Ushuluddin 1982).

The findings of the research indicate that there are 24 titles of theological texts used in the pangajian, and Tuẖfat al-Râghibîn is not one of them. Many of the pengajians use more than one theological texts, even though they are taught by the same ulama. However, most of the texts follow the Ash’arite school formulated by ’Abdullâh al-Sanûsi (d. 1490). The most widely used text is Kifâyat al-’Awâm, the work of Muhammad Syâfi’i al-Fudhâlî (d. 1821), which is used in 47 pengajians. It is followed by Hâshiyah ’ala Matn al-Sanûsiyyah by Ibrâhîm al-Bâjûri (d. 1861) used in 37 pengajians, and Hâshiyah al-Hudhudî ’alâ Umm al-Barâhîn by Abdullâh al-Sharqâwî (d. 1812), used in 29 pengajians. The work of al-Sanûsi, Umm al-Barâhîn is only used in 12 pengajians. This is probably because, al-Sanûsi’s work is very concise and difficult to understand. Therefore, the texts used are mostly commentaries on this work. Interestingly, the work of the founder of the Ash’arite school, Abu al-Hasan al-Asy’arî (d. 935), al-Ibânah ’an Uşûl al-Diyânah is only used in one pengajian in Banjarmasin. The text is taught by Gusti H. Abdul Muis (d. 1992), a prominent Muhammadiyah ulama.

Besides the Arabic texts, there are also nine texts in Jawi. If we look at the names of the authors and the publishers of the Jawi texts provided in the research report, we may conclude that they are mostly written by Banjarese ulama except the ’Aqîdat al-Nâjîn by Zain al-’Âbidîn Ibn Muhammad al-Pattâni, and the Sirâj al-Hudâ by Muhammad Zainuddin from Sumba. As we can see from Table 1, a significant number of Jawi texts are used. The use of Sirâj al-Hudâ is 18, ’Aqîdat al-Nâjîn is 17, Kifâyat al-Mubtadi’în and Sirâj al-Mubtadi’în, each of them is 16. In total, the use of the Jawi texts reaches 86. This is much lower than the use of the Arabic texts which reaches 170, but it is still a significant number. In other words, following the example of Muhammad Arsyad al-Banjari, the Banjarese ulama of the twentieth century also wrote theological texts in Jawi, in order to help ordinary people to learn Islam.


Table 1 Theological Texts Used in Religious Gatherings (Pengajian)


The table clearly shows that some texts do not follow Sanusi’s Ash’arism, and some of them are written by modern ulama. The texts include Fatẖ al-Majîd Sharh Kitâb al-Tawîd by Abdurrahman Ibn Hasan, a commentary on the work of Muhammad Ibn ’Abd al-Wahhâb (the founder of Wahhabism), Al-’Aqîdah al-Islâmiyyah by Sayyid Sâbiq (d. 2000), Al-Hușûn al-Hamîdiyyah by Sayyid Husein Affandi al-Ṭarablusi (d. 1909), and Al-’Aqîdah al-Islâmiyyah by Bașri Ibn H. Marghubi. It is not surprising that these texts are mostly used by ulama in Banjarmasin, the capital city of the province, and in Amuntai where the theological contest between the reformist Muhammadiyah and the traditionalist Nahdlatul Ulama was strong.

In another research conducted in 1994, the team of the Ushuluddin Faculty at IAIN Antasari found almost the same theological texts used in different pengajians in Banjarmasin and Hulu Sungai Utara. However, there are a few new titles found in the pengajians, namely Aqâid al-îmân by Abdurrahman Siddiq (d. 1939), Hidâyat al-Mubtadi’în by Muhammad Sarni, and Risâlah ’Ilm Tawîd by Ja’far Sabran, all of which are written in Jawi (Tim Fakultas Ushuluddin 1995). There are other Banjarese ulama who wrote Islamic theological texts in Jawi, Indonesian, and even Arabic (Tim Fakultas Ushuluddin 2008). Among these texts are Risâlat al-Tawîd by Muhammad Kasyful Anwar (d. 1940), written in Arabic; Ibtidâ’ al-Tawîd by Abdul Qadir Noor (d. 1940), written in Jawi. Other texts are written in Indonesian, namely Sendi Iman, Risalah Ushuluddin, Ilmu Tauhid and Pengetahuan Agama Islam by Abdul Muthallib Muhyiddin (d. 1974); Iman dan Bahagia and Akidah dan Perkembangan Ilmu Kalam by Gusti Abdul Muis; and Pelajaran Ringkas Agama Islam, Majmu’ah Shuhuf Pelajaran Agama Islam, Simpanan yang Berguna, and Ilmu Ketuhanan dan Kenabian by Darkasi (d. 2003).16)

In 2004 and 2005, a research team of the Ushuluddin Faculty, tried to find out the theological texts taught in traditional and modern Islamic boarding schools (pesantren) in South Kalimantan (Tim Fakultas Ushuluddin 2004b; 2005). The traditional pesantrens include Darussalam in Martapura (founded in 1914), Ibn al-Amin in Pamangkih (founded in 1958), Darussalam in Muara Tapus (founded in 1967), and Arraudhah in Amuntai (founded in 1992). Although these four cannot represent all traditional pesantrens in the region, which number more than 200, they probably can give us a more general picture, particularly because, other traditional pesantrens follow the curriculum of Darussalam in Martapura, the oldest pesantren.17)

If we look at the findings of the research, we can see that only three theological texts are taught in pesantren but not in pengajian, namely the Sharah Tîjân al-Durari by Nawawi al-Bantani (d. 1897), the Kashf al-Asrâr by Abd al-Mu’ti Ibn Salim Ibn Umar al-Shibli, and the Tuẖfat al-Murîd ’alâ Jawharat al-Tawẖîd by Ibrâhîm al-Bâjûri. The texts found in the research are also in line with Martin van Bruinessen’s list of popular theological texts among Indonesian Islamic boarding schools. However, in the South Kalimantan case, Bruinessen does not include the Tîjân al-Durari (perhaps because in this region, the text used is its commentary), while the Kashf al-Asrâr is not mentioned by him at all (Bruinessen 2012, 175).

On the other hand, the modern pesantrens—mostly founded by the alumni of modern Pesantren Darussalam, Gontor, East Java—use different theological texts. There are four modern pesantrens studied in this research, namely Darul Hijrah (founded in 1986), Ibnu Mas’ud (founded in 1990), Darul Istiqamah (founded in 1990), and Darul Inabah (founded in 1995). All of these pesantrens use the theological texts taught in Pesantren Darussalam, Gontor, namely Uşûl al-Dîn by Imam Zarkasyi, and Kitâb al-Sa’âdah by Abd al-Rahîm Manâf. In addition, Pesantren Darul Istiqamah and Ibnu Mas’ud also use a text produced by the Ministry of Religious Affairs, namely al-’Aqîdah wa al-Akhlâq. The modern pesantrens also use theological texts of Salafi-Wahhabi leanings. For instance, Ibnu Mas’ud uses a text called al-Tawîd published by Yayasan al-Shofwa, Jakarta; Darul Inabah uses al-Ma’lûmât lâ Ya’lamuhâ Katsîr min al-Nâs by Muhammad Ibn Jamil; and Darul Hijrah uses al-’Aqîdah al-Wâsithiyyah by Ibnu Taimiyyah (d. 1328), and Ta’lîqât al-Mukhtaşar al-Mufîd by Șalih Ibn Fauzân, a commentary on Kitâb al-Tawîd by Muhammad Ibn ’Abd al-Wahhâb (d. 1792), the founder of Wahhabism.

The findings of the studies described above, highlight certain features of the development of Islam, especially in terms of theology, in Banjarese society. First, the studies conducted in the early 1980s and 1990s show us that the theological texts used in most pengajian follow the Ash’arite school conceptualized by ’Abdullâh al-Sanûsi. The same case is also found in traditional pesantrens, even up to the present time. On the other hand, certain pengajian use different kinds of theological text, either modern or classic, that do not follow the conception of al-Sanûsi. In the modern pesantrens, we find the theological texts with Salafi-Wahhabi leanings. Thus, we can see that the production of Islamic theological knowledge in Banjarese society has eventually become fragmented, and the dominant school of Sanusi-Ash’arism has been contested by Salafism/Wahhabism. This does not mean, however, that Salafism had only started developing by the late 1980s, because the reformist organization, Muhammadiyah, whose theology mostly follow the Salafi school, was already established in 1925 in this region.18) Apparently, what happened was that, previously the Salafi theological texts were only taught in various pengajians and schools of Muhammadiyah, but since the second half of the 1980s, they have been taught in modern pesantrens as well. It is noteworthy that, unlike religious education in pengajian and schools, religious teaching in pesantrens is given to students who are prepared to become ulama. Thus, we may say that the Salafi theological school has been strengthened in Banjarese society since the late 1980s.

Second, we can see from the findings of the above studies that the Islamic theological texts written by Banjarese ulama since the eighteenth century have been in Jawi or Arabic, but since the early 1970s, some Banjarese ulama have also published theological texts in the Indonesian language. The use of Indonesian is no doubt, due to educational developments. After the independence, the younger generation had more opportunities to study at schools where Indonesian language is used. Thus, the new generation of ulama and their students are more familiar with Indonesian texts. Moreover, if we look closely at the use of the texts in terms of their language, we find that Jawi texts is mostly used in pengajian, while the Arabic texts are mostly taught in pesantren and some in pengajian. Pesantren apparently prefers Arabic texts because they are intended for students who specialized in Islamic studies.19) On the other hand, at schools, including the state Islamic schools (madrasah negeri), the texts used in religious instruction are mostly in Indonesian.

The Contents and Relevance of the Theological Texts

As has been mentioned earlier, in 1982 the research team of students of the Ushuluddin Faculty found that the dominant school represented by the theological texts taught in pengajian was Ash’arism conceptualized by al-Sanusi, or we may call it, “Sanusi-Ash’arism.” The research team arrived at this conclusion by analyzing the contents of the texts, particularly those on major theological issues such as the relation between reason and revelation, and the attributes of God. These texts follow the Ash’arite’s view that reason is totally dependent on revelation for knowledge of the attributes of God, good and evil, and God’s commands and prohibitions. Likewise, following Ash’arism, the texts explain that God has certain attributes. The attributes are different from, but inherent in, God’s substance (dzât).

However, unlike the founder of Ash’arism, Abu al-Hasan al-Ash’ari, ’Abdullâh al-Sanûsi classifies God’s attributes into three ontological categories, the necessity (wâjib), the impossible (mustaîl), and the possible (jâ’iz). In al-Sanûsi’s classification, God has 20 necessary attributes, and 20 impossible attributes (as the opposite of the necessary attributes), and 1 possible attribute. The 20 necessary attributes (and automatically the impossible attributes as their opposites) are then classified into four: (1) the selfness (nafsiyyah), namely the attribute of being and existence (wujûd); (2) the negative (salabiyyah) which includes: without beginning (qidam), without end (baqâ), the opposite of temporary beings (mukhâlafatuh li al-hawâdith), standing on Himself (qiyâmuh binafsih) and oneness (wahdaniyyah); (3) the potential attributes (ma’ânî) which include power (qudrah), will (irâdah), knowledge (’ilm), life (hayâh), hearing (sama), seeing (bașar), speaking (kalâm); and (4) the actualization of the potential attributes (ma’nawiyyah). Finally, the possible attribute of God is doing and not doing the possible. In the same line of reasoning, al-Sanûsi also classifies the attributes of God’s messenger (rasûl) into four necessary attributes, namely honest (şidq), trustworthy (amânah), delivering God’s messages (tablîgh), and intelligent (faanah), and four impossible attributes as their opposites. Moreover, a messenger has one possible attribute, namely possible weakness as a human being. In short, the total of God and His messenger’s attributes are 50, and these represent the Muslim confession: There is no god but God, and Muhammad is His messenger.

The Sanusi’s conception known as “Sifat 20,” is actually very philosophical, but why is it very popular? Perhaps, there are at least two reasons for this. First, many ulama of the archipelago learned this conception of Islamic theology, particularly from the nineteenth century commentaries on al-Sanûsi’ treatise, with their masters in the Middle East, so when they returned home, they transferred it to the Muslims in the archipelago. The Jawi text called ’Aqîdat al-Nâjîn by Zain al-’Abidîn Ibn Muhammad al-Patani, which contains the Sanusi’s conception, was completed in 1308 H or 1891 CE (Patani no date, 139).20) Second, apart from its philosophical arguments, this conception is simple in terms of the number of God’s and His messenger’s attributes, 20 and 4 respectively. So, they can be easily memorized by ordinary people, including the illiterates. In fact, most teachers in pengajian encourage their audiences to memorize them.

On the other hand, the popularity of al-Sanûsi’s conception drew critical responses from the ulama, especially the Muslim scholars at IAIN Antasari. Many of them say that, because of this conception, people have had only a narrow understanding of Sunni theology, which is limited only to al-Sanusi. In fact, Sunni theology includes many important figures such as al-Ash’ari, al-Mâturidi, al-Ghazâli, al-Juwaini, al-Bâqillâni, and even Salafi figures like Aẖmad Ibn Hanbal. As has been mentioned earlier, Muhammad Arsyad al-Banjari has this wider conception of Sunni theology, and does not refer to al-Sanûsi at all. Thus, from this perspective, the popularity of al-Sanûsi’s conception is somehow a regression (Tim Fakultas Ushuluddin 1982, 25).

The Muslim scholars of the Ushuluddin Faculty also observed that because the philosophical arguments are not easily grasped by ordinary people, the teaching of Islamic theology eventually becomes very formal, i.e., memorizing doctrines without clearly understanding them. Therefore, it is difficult to expect that people can internalize Islamic values through learning this conception of theology (Tim Fakultas Ushuluddin 1995, 100). Moreover, because the arguments are mostly rational, the experiential and spiritual dimensions of faith tend to be neglected. The scholars also observed that, in a number of pesantrens, the method of teaching is apparently ineffective because the teacher explains the meaning of the Arabic text without trying to find its relevance to daily life. Consequently, it would separate the discourse of theology from ethics (Tim Fakultas Ushuluddin 2004b, 104–107).

On the other hand, there are some studies undertaken by scholars who try to explore and appreciate the philosophical contents of the texts. In 1993, a lecturer of the Ushuluddin Faculty at IAIN Antasari, Bahran Noor Haira, attempted to understand the idea of ta’alluq (relation) developed in al-Sanûsi’s conception. For Bahran Noor Haira, this idea is apparently related to the Ash’arite’s view that God has eternal attributes different from, but inherent in His substance. The differentiation of God’s substance from His attributes, is important partly in explaining the relationship between the eternal and the temporal, the creator and creature. In other words, God’s attributes become the medium between the eternal and the temporal. For instance, God has the attributes of power (qudrah) and will (irâdah), and these attributes are related (ta’alluq) to the possible things. So, the eternal God creates the temporal world through the “mediation” of His will and power. This view is obviously conceptualized to oppose Mu’tazilite, who maintains that God, as a perfect being, has no attributes, and that God’s substance and attributes cannot be differentiated (Bahran Noor Haira 1993).

Besides Bahran Noor Haira’s explanation above, there is also another important reason behind the idea of ta’alluq. If we look at al-Sanûsi’s arguments, it is clear that this idea is related to his basic three ontological categories, namely the necessary, the impossible, and the possible. The idea of ta’alluq is set up in order that we will not fall into an inconsistent logic which may lead to confusion. For instance, God’s attribute of knowledge is related (ta’alluq) to the necessary, the impossible and the possible, but why God’s attribute of power is only related to the possible? This is set up to avoid inconsistent logic, like someone asking you: Can God by His power create another God? This question is absurd because it confuses the impossible with the possible. To avoid this, al-Sanûsi makes the idea of ta’alluq, namely that the relation of God’s power is only to the possible, not to the necessary or the impossible.

Another interesting research is by a professor of Islamic theology of the Ushuluddin Faculty at IAIN Antasari, M. Zurkani Jahja. He undertook a study of a theological text written in Jawi by a Banjarese ulama, Asy’ari Sulaiman (d. 1981) entitled Sirâj al-Mubtadi’în (Zurkani Jahja 1995). Zurkani Jahja concentrates on finding the philosophical elements contained in the text. Because this text is based on al-Sanûsi’s conception, it is actually a sample which represents a wide range of popular texts of the same line. In this study, he shows that al-Sanûsi’s conception is full of philosophical elements, drawn from Greek and Islamic philosophy, both in terms of material, as well as method of arguments.

Zurkani Jahja observes that Sirâj al-Mubtadi’în uses several philosophical terminologies such as șifah, dzât, jirm, jawhar, jins, nau’, and gerak. For him, dzât is actually an Arabic translation of substance and șifah of accident, originally from Aristotle. A substance is something whose existence is independent from something else, while accident is something whose existence is dependent on substance. If we look at a red hat, then the hat is substance, while red is accident. For Zurkani Jahja, the use of these philosophical terms was also found among Muslim theologians in the Middle Ages. Likewise, the term jirm was used by Muslim philosophers to refer to celestial bodies, jawhar to substance, jins to genus, and nau’ to species. The origin of these terms can also be traced back to Greek philosophy.

However, Zurkani Jahja finds that the meaning of the term gerak (harakah/movement) in Islamic theological texts, including the Sirâj al-Mubtadi’în, is different from that of Aristotle. In Islamic theology, according to Zurkani Jahja, the term harakah was initially introduced by Abu Hudzail al-Allâf (d. 784), and subsequently by other theologians. For them, gerak or movement simply means spatial change, as opposed to diam (sukûn/calm), while for Aristotle, movement means the change of potentiality into actuality. The wood has the potential to become a chair, so when it becomes a chair, there is a movement. On the other hand, the Muslim theologians, including Asy’ari Sulaiman in his Sirâj al-Mubtadi’în, follow Aristotelian cosmological argument that the movement is finally moved by the unmovable mover that is God. To support this argument, they reject the idea of infinite chain of causes (tasalsul) and infinite rotation of causes (dawr).

Another important philosophical issue discussed in Sirâj al-Mubtadi’în is causality. Zurkani Jahja explains that, according to Aristotle, knowledge is to know the causes behind an object. This idea leads to Aristotelian beliefs in the necessity of cause-effect relationships. In this regard, Muslim philosophers such as al-Kindi, al-Fârabi, and Ibn Sînâ follow Aristotle. However, the Ash’arite theologian, al-Ghazâlî (d. 1111), disagrees with them. For al-Ghazâlî, the relationship between cause and effect is not necessary. It is simply God’s custom to act in this world. In other words, the cause-effect relationship totally depends on the will and power of God. According to Zurkani Jahja, the Muslim theologians before al-Ghazâlî like al-Juwainî and al-Bâqillânî actually had a similar idea, but it was al-Ghazâlî who introduced it in more detailed manner. Again, Sirâj al-Mubtadi’în simply follows it.

In addition to the issue of causality, Sirâj al-Mubtadi’în also touches upon the problem of human freedom in the face of God’s absolute power, or the issue of determinism versus indeterminism. For Zurkani Jahja, Aristotle apparently was not interested in discussing this issue because for him, God as the unmovable mover is far away from events in this world. In contrast, following Ash’arism, Sirâj al-Mubtadi’în argues that a person does not create his/her own acts, but God creates them. This view, according to Zurkani Jahja, is in line with that of the Christian theologian, Augustine (d. 430). In this context, it is curious why Zurkani Jahja does not discuss the idea of kasb developed by Ash’arism, which explains that a person acquires his/her act when God agrees with his/her will.

In terms of method, Zurkani Jahja also finds some philosophical elements in this treatise. When the author of Sirâj al-Mubtadi’în starts introducing Islamic theology as a discipline, he follows what is called mabâdi’ ’asharah (10 foundations). The 10 foundations include its definition (adduh), its object (maudhû’h), its founder (wâdhi’h), its name (ismuh), its value (fadhluh), its religiously legal consequence (hukmuh), its fruit (tramaratuh), its sources (istimdâduh), its affiliation (nisbatuh), and its issues (masâiluh). For Zurkani Jahja, at least the idea of definition comes from Aristotle, while the 10 foundations as a whole apparently come from Muslim scholars. In this case, the author of Sirâj al-Mubtadi’în refers to a scholar named Ahmad Ibn Suhaimi who is quoted to say that the 10 foundations are necessary to identify a certain discipline. Zurkani Jahja argues that if we look at the common identification of three aspects of a discipline in modern philosophy of science, i.e., ontology, epistemology, and axiology, then we may say that the idea of 10 foundations is more comprehensive.

In addition, as one may rightly expect, like other Sanusi-Ash’arism texts, the Sirâj al-Mubtadi’în also bases its reasoning on three ontological categories called hukm al-’aql (which literally means rule of reason), namely the necessary (wâjib), the impossible (mustaîl), and the possible (jâ’iz). Each of the three is then divided into dharûrî (axiomatical), and nazharî (theoretical). According to Zurkani Jahja, the three ontological categories were created by the Muslim philosopher, Ibn Sînâ. The difference is only in the names, not in their meanings. Ibn Sînâ calls the impossible mumtani’ instead of mustaîl, and the possible mumkin instead of jâ’iz.

Zurkani Jahja also explores the way in which the author of Sirâj al-Mubtadi’în presents rational arguments. It is obvious, argues Zurkani Jahja, that this treatise follows the reasoning structure devised by Aristotle called syllogism. A simple syllogism starts with a general proposition, then followed by a specific case, and finally it comes to a conclusion. For instance, it is argued in this treatise that anything that changes is temporal, and the world is changing, then it is temporal. Aristotelian syllogism is known among the Muslim scholars since the Middle Ages, when the Aristotle Logic was translated into Arabic as Manṭiq. Thus, like other philosophical elements mentioned earlier, Sirâj al-Mubtadi’în and similar texts of Sanûsi-Ash’arism simply follow this classical Muslim heritage.

Having analyzed the philosophical elements in Sirâj al-Mubtadi’în, Zurkani Jahja poses this important question: What can we learn from this, to develop material and method of Islamic theology today? M. Zurkani Jahja then answers that, if the classical Muslim Scholars were able to keep an open mind towards Greek philosophy, and to use some of its elements in their explanation of Islamic theological doctrines, then we should adopt a similar attitude towards modern philosophy and scientific findings. By keeping an open mind, modern Muslim scholars can make Islamic theological terms and arguments familiar with, and relevant to, the contemporary society and culture.

Besides analyzing the texts of Sanûsi-Ash’arism, researchers also look at other texts of Salafi orientation as well as texts written in Indonesian language. The findings of their research indicate that the theological texts written in Indonesian apparently try to explain Islamic theological doctrines in terms familiar with, and relevant to, daily life. These texts generally do not use the intricate philosophical arguments, nor restrict themselves to explain the attributes of God and His messengers, but move on to the whole six pillars of the Muslim faith (the other four pillars are beli