Category Archives: Indonesia

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Old lady carries wood in Central Java - Indonesia

It’s over two years since Portrait Indonesia went on the road. For several months now I’ve been rather quiet, hunched down over a computer, trying to pin Indonesia’s riotous diversity to the page. The book that will emerge in June 2014 will be called Indonesia Etc: Exploring the Improbable Nation. It will be published in the UK by Granta, in the US by WW Norton and in Indonesia by Godown, an imprint of always-inspiring Lontar.

The title Indonesia Etc is taken from Indonesia’s declaration of independence, which reads, in full:

We the People of Indonesia declare the independence of the Republic of Indonesia. The details of the transfer of power etc. will be worked out as soon as possible.

As Indonesia gears up for the 2014 elections, it is still working on its political “etc”. “Democracy by trial and error” was how one retired company head described it to me with a mirthless laugh. How far will decentralisation go? Will independent candidates and local parties be allowed? Much is still up for discussion or re-discussion. And yet the improbable nation muddles along remarkably well for such a young country. Re-reading Abraham Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address today, I was reminded that the United States, at a similar stage after its own declaration of independence, still had a bloody civil war ahead of it.

Though it looked touch-and-go for a few years at the start of this century, few people now expect Indonesia to face that kind of chaos in any of its vast territory (except, perhaps, Tanah Papua). In honour of Indonesia’s ongoing Etcs, and of my forthcoming books, this site is migrating to

  • If you’re signed up to Portrait Indonesia by e-mail, you should now get notifications of new posts on Indonesia Etc.
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Thanks for sticking with the journey so far, and selamat jalan to the next incarnations.

Can Indonesia do better than Obamacare?

Malinda Dee
In need of public care? Malinda Dee, pre-leaks.
(Photo from

So 2014 will be an exciting year for Indonesia. Mostly, of course, because of the elections. But also because, if things go well, a national health insurance scheme will be expanded to cover all Indonesians. It’s an incredibly ambitious plan. But in a wonderful report on BBC radio by Claire Bolderson, Health Minister Nasfsiah Mboi is optimistic. Asked if the government can achieve a target that appears to elude even the mighty United States, she replies “Inshallah, by 2014, we’ll be there”. You can listen to Claire’s report here (mp3), and I recommend that you do; my favourite scene is the nurse gilling fish on a ward in Makassar but there are some tragic tales of really good intentions frustrated, as well as of unnecessary death.

In theory, poorer Indonesians already get free healthcare through the Jamkesmas scheme. But in practice, Jamkesmas leads sick people into a rabbit warren of incomprehensible bureaucracy, and often offers third rate services. And it doesn’t only go to the poor. A useful World Bank report on the scheme (pdf) notes that “Not all of the poor are reached by the program, and there is considerable leakage to the non-poor.”

Speaking of leakage, who remembers Malinda Dee, the glamour puss owner of two Ferraris, a Mercedes and a Hummer? She argued that Jamkesmas should foot the bill to fix a botched breast enlargement. At the time her silicon sacks burst, the former “relationship manager” at Citibank was being held on charges of stealing 4.4 million dollars from her clients. Since she was a ward of the state, Malinda said, the Indonesian people should pay for her operation.

Few of the users of Jamkesmas are quite so undeserving. But Indonesia has one of the lowest ratios of doctors and of hospital beds to population of any country at its income level. If all poor people really were able to afford care from next year and immediately started to demand it, the system would be overloaded very quickly. That’s already happening in some parts of the country. In Papua, Indonesia’s easternmost province, indigenous Papuans are spurning (free) local clinics and travelling miles to hospitals because they think they will get better care. The rush to hospitals was so overwhelming that what they actually get is very long queues. When the nation’s capital Jakarta made health care free for all earlier this year, it turned in to exactly that: a free-for-all. People who had never had access to any higher level health care at all suddenly abandoned primary clincis and stampeded the hospitals, sometimes just because they could. Predictably, the result was chaos.

But I do find myself slightly agreeing with the sainted Jakarta Governor Jokowi when he said that with something as necessary as health insurance, it was better to get started and then iron out the wrinkles later than to drag one’s feet for ever. I don’t doubt that many Indonesians will be disappointed and frustrated by the roll-out of universal health insurance from next year. But I salute the government for even putting it on the national agenda, less than 70 years after independence. It took the United States more than 225 years to do the same; and they’re still working on the wrinkles, too.

Another inflamatory headline: A nation of dunces?


Many people took offence at the title of my earlier post about Indonesia’s appalling performance in maths and science in the internationally standardised PISA test.

Those who also read the article rightly pointed out that the headline, which called Indonesian students “stupid”, did not match the contents of the post, which was about the failure of Indonesia’s educational system to prepare children for the needs of a modern economy. I apologise for any offence caused, but am glad that the headline piqued some people into reading about this indicator of Indonesia’s educational melt-down, widely ignored by mainstream media.

Now, over at Inside Indonesia, I’ve written a longer piece with an equally inflammatory title, which gives some of the reasons for that failure. A nation of dunces describes the use of teaching jobs as sources of patronage in decentralised Indonesia, and takes a look at the government’s (so far failing) efforts to increase quality in teaching.

Silahkan membaca.

Indonesian kids don’t know how stupid they are

Spotted on a classroom wall in South Sulawesi
Spotted on a classroom wall in South Sulawesi

Four cars have different engine capacites:

Alpha: 1.79
Bolte: 1.796
Castel: 1.82
Dezal: 1.783

Which of the cars has the smallest engine capacity?

It’s not a trick question. But over 75 percent of 15 year-old school children in Indonesia do not have the mathematical skills to answer it correctly.

Every three years, Indonesia’s education system goes through the ritual humiliation of the PISA tests, comparing the performance of 15 year-olds in 65 countries in reading, maths and science. Indonesia has more teachers per student than most much richer countries, and an amendment to the constitution guarantees that 20 percent of the national budget is spent on education. And yet the 2012 PISA results, released this week, show that Indonesia ranked at the bottom of the heap in maths and science, and did only marginally better in reading.

A full 42% of 15 year-old Indonesians in school don’t reach the lowest defined level for maths, meaning they can’t “perform actions that are almost always obvious, and follow immediately from given stimuli”. Three out of four do not reach level 2 in maths, meaning that they are not capable of making literal interpretations of the results of simply presented data, such as reading values off a bar chart. Just 0.3% of Indonesian students managed to score at level 5, the second highest grade, compared with 55% in Shanghai. Here’s the full table of results (xls),in alphabetical order, though it’s easier to find Indonesia if you look at the ranked chart below, because you just have to go straight to the bottom.

In science, a quarter of Indonesian students did not reach the bottom level of proficiency, and a further 42% were mired at level 1 (for those who can’t do the maths, that means two out of three kids are unable to draw conclusions based on simple investigations — full excel table here). Though every other country that was at Indonesia’s dismal level in the 2009 round has pulled its socks up significantly, the performance of Indonesian students in science has actually fallen since three years ago. We can’t yet blame this on the new policy, instituted recently by all those well-educated people in the Ministry of Education, to remove science from the primary school curriculum. No Indonesian managed to score at level 5 in science.

In reading, they are doing better. A whole 45% of students have managed to demonstrate “a baseline level of proficiency… that will enable them to participate effectively and productively in life” (though of course that leaves over half that have not attained this dizzy goal). Level 5 was reached by 0.1% (full excel table here).

Not one Indonesian student managed to reach the highest level, level 6, in any of the three test subjects.

There’s one table that turns everything upside down, putting Indonesian kids right on top: the proportion who report being happy in school. Over 95% of Indonesians say they are happy in school, compared with 85% in top-performing Shanghai and just 60% in South Korea, which also comes close to the top in maths and science (excel data here). I wondered if they might be happy because so little was demanded of them, and made a little graph comparing happiness in school with maths scores. Here it is:


It does seem that in general, less competent kids feel happier in school. And there’s nothing wrong with being happy. But it worries me that Indonesian children do not even realise how badly the school system is failing them. Though the overwhelming majority have not, by the age of 15, acquired even the basic skills needed to function in modern society, they think they’re all set for the future. Some 95% report that they have learned things that have prepared them for their future jobs, and almost three quarters think that school has prepared them adequately for adult life. Fewer than one in ten think that school has been a waste of time.

Which makes me wonder what kind of future Indonesia will have.

Edit: January 8th, 2014 – This post received many, many comments. Comments on this site are closed. This post is reproduced at You can see all the old comments there. You can also leave a new comment about this post (in English or Indonesian) over there.

Vocab lessons for expat lawyers in Indonesia

Anti-corruption poster in Indonesia

So Indonesia is going to require expatriate lawyers to take an ethics test, in Indonesian. I think this is a splendid idea; though they are not actually allowed to practice law in Indonesia, foreigners certainly have a lot to learn from Indonesian lawyers when it comes to ethics. Here’s some essential vocab to get them started:

“Salary supplementation”. It literally means “to spoonfeed” and some cynics translate it as “bribe”, but they haven’t studied legal ethics in Indonesia.

Cuci uang
To “wash money”. Indonesians are very concerned with personal hygiene. Many Indonesian lawyers feel they have an ethical obligation to ensure that money stays clean.

Itu biasa
“Tax compliance” This is best understood through a recent quote from a lawyer explaining why the head of the Constitutional Court registered his Mercedes in the name of his driver. “Itu biasa, dalam satu orang namanya ada pajak progresif, dia coba untuk pakai nama orang lain. Ya itu kan biasa, Indonesia itu kan semua ini begitu kan.” A literal translation for people not familiar with Indonesian legal ethics would be: “That’s normal, if a person is subject to progressive taxes, it’s normal that they would try and use someone else’s name. In Indonesia, it’s all like that, right?”

“Bank account”. Derived from the word for “suitcase”, this word describes the mechanism through which most Indonesian lawyers get paid.

In common usage, this means foreign. To the Indonesian legal establishment, however, it means “Guilty”

A contraction for Korupsi, Kolusi, Nepotisme, this translates as “Business as Usual”

In the interests of enriching the ethical understanding of foreign lawyers in Indonesia, I offer the Golden Loophole Award for the best additions to this list.

The FPI is (half) right: they must be more responsible thugs


With a first draft of Indonesia Etc: Exploring the Improbable Nation now sitting on my editor’s desk, I finally have time to get back to musing on this blog about Indonesia’s delights and contradictions.

In writing the book, I’ve had a lot of time to think about the way language and culture mirror one another. And I’ve also found myself inadvertently agreeing with the leadership of the ever-more-thuggish Islamic Defenders Front (FPI), though not in a good way.

Back in July, when the Islamic warriors were defending the morality of the people of Kendal by trying to smash up those bars that hadn’t paid enough protection money, the good people of Kendal fought back. Dashing to get away, the FPI ran over and killed a member of the very public whose soul they had hoped to protect through their violence.

FPI leaders have spouted a great deal of nonsense since then. But as FPI Chairman Munarman sought to blame everyone but the organisation he heads for the senseless violence and death that his follower caused, he said something that struck a chord with me. How come when a member of the FPI does something bad the whole organisation gets blamed, he asked, while in any other institution in Indonesia, that person is immediately labelled an “oknum”?

He’s got a point.

The dictionary will tell you that “oknum” means “individual”. Let’s plug that in to some newspaper headlines:

[Minister] Dahlan explains how parliamentary individuals squeeze state companies (Dahlan ungkap cara oknum DPR peras BUMN, Antara 31/10/13)

Three Police Individuals Suspected of Protecting Illegal Mining
(Tiga Oknum Polisi di Duga Beking Tambang Liar, (Sinar Harapan, 13/10/2012))

Army Individual Beats Up Journalist in Ambon
(Oknum TNI Aniaya Jurnalis di Ambon, Suara Merdeka, 01/01/2013)

Oknum does not just mean individual, it means “person in an official position who is doing something naughty”. It is most often used of policemen and soldiers but also of MPs, judges and government officials who have been caught with their hand in the till or on some starlet’s bum. The implication, of course, is that if you are a servant of the state and have been caught doing something you shouldn’t do, you are no longer a member of the armed forces, or the judiciary, or the government; you are disowned.

In other words, the organs of state accept no responsibility for the conduct of their staff; in Indonesia, the State can do no wrong. No-one ever seems to question this side-stepping of responsibility. With the government setting endless examples of bad behaviour by “oknum”, which almost never have repercussions for the institutions to which they belong, it is hardly surprising that bully-boys who like to put on white dresses and orchestrate mass violence are reluctant to stand up and take the heat for the actions of the rabbles that they have roused.

What does it take to get Indonesia into the New York Times?

In an average month, the world’s fourth most populous nation makes it in to the major newspaper of the world’s third most populous nation about three times. I know, because the New York Times has a very handy service that allows you to set up alerts; every time they run a story mentioning Indonesia, I get a heads up in my in-box.

I got one of those alerts today. “Buddhist-Muslim Tensions Spread as 8 Detainees Die in Indonesia”, the headline trumpeted. The Times is fond of stories about religious conflict, especially if they involve Moslems, so this wasn’t a huge surprise. But Buddhists? Really? I clicked on the link and found that the story was actually about a scrap between Burmese people who happen to be in a detention centre in Indonesia.

Now I know that Burma is flavour of the month just now (the expatriate bars of Bangkok have been rather folorn lately as the United Nations and NGO pack has moved wholesale to Yangon to try and get a piece of the newly democratic action). And I don’t doubt that the New York Times story, written in part by a former colleague of mine whom I respect very much, is right to muse about the possible spillover effects of violence involving the Rohingya. The story quotes a UN under secretary general saying that Buddhist-Muslim tensions needed to be controlled for regional security.

“All the governments are conscious that they can’t afford to let this kind of genie get out of the bottle,” he said. Indonesia, with the largest population of Muslims in the world, “is particularly sensitive about these implications.”

But is violence in Myanmar really what Indonesia’s security honchos should be thinking about right now? Let’s just looks at some of the things that have happened in Indonesia in the last week or two.

On March 23rd, 11 masked gunmen attacked a jail in central Java, killing four detainees and injuring two guards. On Thursday, the military admitted that the gunmen were special forces soldiers, taking revenge on common or garden thugs who had killed a colleague of theirs in a bar-room brawl. As if that wasn’t enough, the police fessed up that they had been warned of the attack in advance. Instead of trying to prevent it, they simply shifted the detainees to a less secure prison where they could be killed more easily. (On the good news side, both the police chief and the local military commander have been relieved of their duties as a result.)

On March 27th, a North Sumatra district police chief was bludgeoned to death while trying to arrest the owner of an illegal gambling den. Confronted with the police, the suspect’s wife had yelled that there were thieves in her house. As the Jakarta Post so delicately puts it:

In what is seen as a common practice in Indonesia, a crowd was attracted by the woman’s shouts and attacked the officers, assuming they were thieves.

Indonesians are so fed up with the deeply corrupt police and the fetid court system that they routinely “main hakim sendiri” “play at being judges”. Most of the victims of mob justice are, as the Jakarta Post suggests, thieves, adulterers and other petty criminals, or just bad drivers. Too often, they end up dead, sometimes for stealing a duck or knocking down a pedestrian. Lately though, there has been a constellation of attacks against the police themselves. The Jakarta Globe helpfully lists a passel of assaults on police officers just in the last three months. They include:

Jan. 3: Three members of the Coordinating Minister for the Economy’s security force allegedly beat up a police officer when he tried to break up a scuffle between protesters and the guards outside of the ministry.

Jan. 29: Brig. Anthoni, a member of the Manado city police traffic unit, was beaten up after he tried to redirect a group of people during a funeral ceremony in an attempt to ease traffic congestion.

Jan. 31: Adj. Sr. Comr. Herman Sikumbang, the deputy head of the South Sulawesi police Brimob, was shot in the chest by a home-assembled rifle when he tried to mediate a clash between supporters of two different candidates during the South Sulawesi gubernatorial election in Makassar.

None of this has been reported by the New York Times. It seems to me that chronic distrust of law enforcement, a reflexive resort to mob violence including against the police, and the continued impunity of the armed forces are all far greater threats to security in “Indonesia, with the largest population of Muslims in the world” than a few Burmese acting out their hometown scraps in a detention centre overseas.

Indonesia doesn’t give a fart for satire


As I struggle to pin the gloriously frustrating realities of Indonesia to the page, friends ask: wouldn’t it be easier to write the book as fiction? But as I look at the headlines that are churned out day after day: women must ride side-saddle on motorbikes, MPs will spend over half a million dollars travelling to Europe to check out witchcraft regulations, I think: “Fiction? You couldn’t make this up.”

Indeed when the witchcraft trip hit the headlines, I commented to a friend that Indonesia didn’t need to start a satirical magazine like The Onion; we could just mash together a random selection of real headlines and it would read just like satire. I think it is one of the reasons that slapstick always outguns satire or irony on the battlefield of Indonesian humour: it’s just too hard to tell the difference between reality and satire.

Check out this “news” story about Aceh banning immodest farts and ask yourself: is it any sillier than many of the other stories we see in Kompas?

Better politics is the only medicine for Indonesia’s health system


The picture above was taken in Lombok, in what I thought was an abandoned health centre. There was a little lab, a couple of consulting rooms, a dispensary, all mouldering with neglect. But on a door to a room in the back yard I saw a sign “The midwife is IN”. I knocked on the door, and to my amazement there she was. Could this derelict place be a living Puskesmas, a village health centre? I asked where the rest of the staff were. “Oh they’ve built a new puskesmas down the road, so it’s just me here now,” came the reply.

It’s no bad thing that people get upgraded health facilities. But just down the road? When there are so many remote areas with no facilities at all? This wreck of a building illustrates the distorted incentives in Indonesia’s health sector. It’s more profitable, both politically and financially, to build new stuff in already well-served areas than it is either to maintain existing facilities or to expand to places that qualified staff don’t want to stay in. In this piece in the new edition of Inside Indonesia, I conclude that only healthier politics can cure Indonesia’s sick health system. The whole issue is dedicated to the politics of health: there are pieces on the tobacco lobby, the neglect of mental health, abortion and much else. Check it out.