Book review: Indonesia Etc

Posted on 5 October, 2014

Journalist, epidemiologist and Indonesianist Elizabeth Pisani has been in Australia this week to promote her new book Indonesia Etc. AIYA NSW’s Iona Main had an opportunity to speak with her, and shares some thoughts on the book.

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Pisani has also had an appearance on Q&A as well as presenting a talk at Sydney’s Festival of Dangerous Ideas, on the topic of ‘Corruption Makes the World Go Round’. Members of AIYA NSW were excited to be invited to lunch with her the day before her FODI talk, thanks to Mark Carnegie, a keen supporter of Australia-Indonesia relations. We had a chance to chat to her about her experiences with Indonesia, and particularly her book.

Indonesia Etc. is part travel journal, part analysis of the various things that have united and divided Indonesia, and a study of the quirks that make the country the fascinating place it is today. Through her adventures from Aceh to the remotest corners of Maluku and to many places in between, Pisani gathered ideas of what it is to be ‘orang Indonesia’. In a nation where the differences between islands and ethnic groups often seem more apparent than the similarities, she finds considerable cause for hope and regards Indonesia as a captivating work in progress.

With the benefit of having seen the country through the lenses of working as a journalist, an HIV/AIDS researcher and most recently as a traveller, her insights on Indonesia are all the richer and touch on a wide range of topics. She doesn’t shy away from looking at the issues of HIV infection, deforestation and pervasive corruption, among others. Any reader will enjoy Pisani’s entertaining anecdotes of her shoestring travels, many of which will only be believed by those who have travelled in Indonesia themselves! Pisani also does an incredible job of weaving the fascinating history of the archipelago into her observations on Indonesian society.

While Pisani herself declared her views on corruption to be far from ‘dangerous’, in her Festival of Dangerous Ideas talk she shed fresh light on the issue and urged the audience to think twice about what corruption really means. She differentiated between ‘extractive’ corruption (of the graft variety familiar to NSW’s developers and Indonesia’s judiciary) and ‘distributive’ corruption, which in Indonesia is founded in the cultural expectation of looking after your ‘keluarga besar’. While few would argue that extractive corruption is acceptable, Pisani argues that distributive variety is a matter of interpretation, and what Indonesians may regard as patronage may well be seen as downright corrupt in Australia. Advocating for neither side, Pisani instead encourages her audience to appreciate that corruption is not black and white, and that more nuanced thinking on the topic would go a long way.

Pisani’s book is a very rewarding read for those of us who have a particular affinity with Indonesia. For newbies, this is a one-stop-shop on everything weird and wonderful about Indonesia. Pisani’s personal story is an inspiration to young professionals and students who seek to gain a richer and deeper understanding of Indonesia and involve Indonesia in their careers.

AIYA NSW thanks Mark Carnegie for the opportunity to meet Elizabeth Pisani. Her book is available now at major bookstores and online.