About
In late 2011, epidemiologist, writer and adventurer Elizabeth Pisani granted herself a sabbatical from the day job and set off to rediscover Indonesia, a country she has wandered, loved and been baffled by for decades. She was on the road and the high seas for a year, covering dozens of islands in 27 provinces. This site records photos and musings from that journey and beyond. See more about the project


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The bottom line for decentralisation in Indonesia

A banner demands a new Indonesian district, "At All Costs"

Photo: Melanie Wood

Despite various moratoria imposed by an ineffectual central government, the Indonesian decentralisation Hydra continues to grow new heads. We’ve got a 34th province now officially on the books (Kalimantan Utara), and the tally of kabupaten/ kota has nudged over the 500 mark. And still, they ask for more. The photo above was taken by Melanie Wood, of Gangs of Indonesia fame, on Wawonii island in Southeast Sulawesi. To the visiting team from the Ministry of the Interior, it declares: We have only one thing to say: [We demand] Konawe Island District, at all costs!

“Harga mati”, literally “dead price” is the end of the road in any negotiation. It is the non-negotiable bottom line, the absolute final offer. When travelling around the more fractious areas of Indonesia (Aceh, Papua, even Maluku) one most often sees it on a green billboard outside a military installation:

NKRI Harga Mati!

NKRI is shorthand for Negara Kesatuan Republik Indonesia, so the slogan translates roughly as “A Unitary Indonesia: Non-negotiable!” I find it deeply ironic that the “Harga Mati” ultimatum is being used by local politicians in a call to pick apart of the fabric of the state, to atomise it into ever smaller units, each more and more concerned with its own primordial obsessions. Right now, Wawonii if part of Kabupaten Konowe, which boasts fewer than 250,000 souls. That tiny population already has its own arm of every ministry in the country’s bloated bureaucracy. I didn’t get to Konowe; I got stranded in neighbouring Buton. But if my observations in hundreds of other districts are anything to go by, I’d lay a bet that many of the micro-ministries are staffed by cousins of the Bupati and members of his “TimSes”, the team that successfully brought him through the election. Is it really a good idea to recreate each of those little centres of patronage for the fewer than 30,000 residents, of Wawonii? There would probably be a beige uniform for every single one of them, but how much loyalty would anyone have to NKRI? If Indonesia wants to survive as a Unitary state, it’s going to have to stop behaving like an amoeba.

[Since we’re on the subject of bottom lines, this is mine: I have come to the end of my travels and now have to sit down and write a book, at the rate of about a chapter a week. So no more Portraits for a little while.]

The Great Divide: inequity on Indonesia's highways

The Kalimantan busThe Java bus

After many months on the high seas and highways of Indonesia I’ve finally made it into the Javanese heartland, and I’m in shock. The cause of my shock is, principally, shock absorbers: those things that I had assumed had been rattled out of every bus in the archipelago. The bus on the left is one I took earlier this month between Simitau and Putussibau through uninterrupted hours of oil palm in West Kalimantan. But it could have been virtually any bus I have taken over the last year. (The driver, squatting under his rust-bucket for unscheduled maintenance, is fitting a cleaner oil filter with the help of a screw driver and a flattened out Red Bull tin. Which allowed me to go and do some maintenance behind a bush.) The bus on the right is one I took last week, along Java’s southern highway. Not only does it have shock absorbers, it has free juice and buns, air conditioning and flat screen movies. It stops in special rest stations with rows and rows of sparklingly clean loos.

I could (and will) write at some length about the disparities between Java and the rest of Indonesia. But for now I think the stats are enough:

Kalimantan BusJava bus
Distance travelled110 kms105 kms
Time taken10 hours3.75 hours
Cost100,000 rupiah40,000 rupiah
Bruise factorOuch! Very ouch.Bruise? What's a bruise?

On the other hand, the flat screen TVs on the Java bus play those really annoying “innocent people being surprised by stupid gags” videos, on a loop. Where as in Kalimantan, I got to spend my 10 hours contemplating the special positioning of the windscreen sticker montage. The implication, obviously, is that the Father of the Nation had public health on the brain…

Winshield wonders

Note to Papuan politicians: Democracy is for grown-ups

Full-page apology from the district head in a Papua newspaper

When a senior Papuan politician said recently that Papua was not ready for democracy I was mildly shocked. “The people are not mature yet, neither are the political elite. They are not ready to accept defeat, which results in them resorting to violence. Organizers of elections in the regencies are terrorized and intimidated. People are prone anarchic acts,” Yop Kagoya, the deputy speaker of Papua legislative council,told the Jakarta Post.

There’s no shortage of vociferous calls for self-determination for Indonesia’s easternmost region. But the more one reads the papers here, the more one tends to agree that if Papuan politicians and voters really want to determine their own future, inside our outside of the embrace of Indonesia, they have a bit of growing up to do. In Tolikara district, elections that have already been postponed for two years were put off again this month as running battles broke out between supporters of different candidates. Today’s paper reported 46 people killed in the last couple of weeks; the death toll in Puncak in recent months has been even higher. When I heard that the Vice Bupati (Vice Regent, i.e. Number Two in government) in Wamena, the biggest city in the populous highlands of Papua had been wounded by an arrow and his adjutant killed, I assumed they were attacked by political opponents. (In fact, they were trying to put a stop to a brawl that began with an unpaid motorcycle taxi fare, and turned in to a riot several hundred strong.)

Looking for news about the Wamena incident, I came across the full-page ad pictured above. It was taken out by the Bupati of Teluk Wondama district, Albert Torey. He’s apologising to the graduates of a local institute of higher education for calling them all “gutter-snipes” (more specifically, he said they had crawled out of the Konto river, a stinking, garbage-strewn drainage canal in the West Papua provincial capital of Manokwari). His comment was apparently prompted by his disgust with his running-mate, the Vice Bupati, who is a graduate of the school. The Vice-Bupati ran the shop in Teluk Wondama for the eight months that the good Mr. Torey spent in rehab for drug use –he and his wife were caught taking meta-amphetamines last April. According to local journalists I happened to gossip with in a cafe in Manokwari, Mr Torey (now comfortably back in office) is snarky because his deputy did such a good job when he was away. Nothing like a bit of good governance to make your superiors uncomfortable.

The college was so upset by the gutter-snipe comment that it threatened to sue for defamation unless the Bupati printed an apology. This is a slightly more grown-up way of dealing with conflict than reaching for the bows and arrows, but it still smacks of kids fighting in the sand-pit. Needless to say, the constant squabbling and even outright violence that appear to be the hallmark of Papuan politics are a drag on development. As much out of habit as anything, Papuan voters still tend to blame development failures on the wicked government in Jakarta. But sooner or later they are going to have to take a closer look at their own leaders, and indeed their own behaviour, and ask themselves what role they play in holding back development in one of Asia’s richest territories.


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Ceremonial confusion: personality, politics and parties in Indonesia's fiefdoms

It’s party season here in Weda, a newly-bustling town on the east coast of Halmahera island. There are parties and Parties, and the confusion of the two are a pretty good illustration of life in Indonesia’s districts, which are often run very much as personal fiefdoms of the Bupati, or regent.

The Bupati is the elected head of the local government. He (it usually is a he) runs an executive that is supposedly held to account by the local parliament, the DPRD. But the Bupati is usually also the local head of the strongest political Party, which means he controls the fortunes of many parliamentarians — that slightly cramps their syle in holding him to account, then. He’s also often the largest client for one of Indonesia’s most important local industries, the printers of giant banners. The Bupati planting trees, the Bupati eating local staple foods, the Bupati shaking hands with the President. And of course, the Bupati in the colours of his political Party.

Here in Halamahera Tenggah, that colour is red. The Bupati, now entering the fifth and final year of his first term, belongs to PDIP, the Party headed by former President Megawati Soekarnoputri. I happen to arrive on Sunday, PDIP’s birthday. The town is painted red, quite literally. And giant banners hang from every lamppost, flags flutter high above the mosque, the funfair, the marketplace, even the office of the rival Democrat Party. And by early afternoon, virtually all of Weda’s residents are also wearing red – mostly polo shirts declaring their fervent support for Al Yasin Ali, aka Aba Acim. They flood onto the streets, following a (surprisingly good) marching band twirling the red flags of the PDIP, ahead of a motorcade of honking, screeching, gyrating citizens. They shout for the re-election of the man who brought the seat of local government to this, his home town, four years ago. With his rule came paved roads, better transport to other areas of the province, better phone coverage, and some very flash new government buildings, all kept afloat on a sea of cash the like of which this former backwater has never seen. As they go past his house the local citizenry fight to shake his hand; he grins and grips, dispensing general bonhomie. Elsewhere in the district he is said to give out minimg contracts illegally, to violate the zoning regulations made by his own administration and to turn a blind eye to blatantly illegal logging. But let’s not ruin the mood.

This Party party is squeezed between three others. On Friday and Saturday, the Bupati spent “billions” of rupiah (according to the local papers) hosting some 7,000 guests at the back-to-back weddings of two of his daughters. I missed those parties, but what I saw of the left-overs alone would keep some of the islands I’ve visited fed for several weeks. Around the huge tented area where the ceremonies took place are more giant banners — very much larger than life sized photos of the happy couples, but also photos of the Bupati and his wife on holiday, the Bupati in his uniform of office, the Bupati with a list of the achievements of his first four years in office. All, needless to say, topped with huge PDIP Party banners hoisted in preparation for Sunday’s Party party. The fact that the wedding ceremonies revived some of the lost customs of the district surely justified subsidising them with public funds.

Monday, quite by chance (??), was the fourth birthday of the move of the local government to Weda. So another whole round of ceremonies, presided over by the Bupati. During which, along with traditional dances, a reading of Pancasila (the five principles upon which the Indonesian state is supposed to be based), a short history of the district and more marching bands, we heard at least four separate demands that we support the Bupati for a further 5 year term in elections due mid-year. Each in the local language, Indonesian and (GoogleTranslate) English (about which they might have learned their lesson from the recent Malaysia experience). But wait, this is a state occasion, funded out of the public purse, not a political rally. Or is it?

In this part of Indonesia, small Sultanates for centuries enjoyed large spheres of influence. The present system is an advance in that it allows people to choose their Sultans. But patterns of patronage, the confusion of government, Party and private interests and the very likely confusion of government, Party and private funds show that personal fiefdoms still dominate government in Indonesia.

Indonesia gets investment status, but where's the investment?

Indonesia starts the new year hopefully: it has been upgraded to investment status by one of the rating agencies. It’s no huge surprise; rating agencies tend to think quite short term, and short term, the indicators look good. The Financial Times is enthusiastic about what it calls a “demographic dividend” i.e. lots of young people. “Indonesia’s dependency ratio of workers to retirees is dropping from about 55 percent now to 45 per cent by 2025,” says the pink paper. What looks to the FT like “favourable demographics” looks to me like a collapsed family planning programme that will surely be problematic in the longer term.

But the paper’s David Pilling sees three other sorts of trouble: infrastructure, infrastructure and infrastructure. To that I would add pandemic corruption and the gaping absence of an independent judiciary, but I can’t disagree with the observation that there has been an underinvestment in ports and power stations. This little video was shot off a cargo boat “docked” at Lirang in Southwestern Maluku, at the sea border with East Timor (the grey land mass in the background of some of the shots is East Timor — a hazard for the users of cell phones because their powerful comms get passing boat passengers so excited about having a signal that we don’t clock that we’re paying international roaming charges). The scramble to get on board is a pretty good illustration of what many people on the remoter islands deal with if they want to go anywhere else, but since goods have to be offloaded in the opposite direction it also shows why petrol sells at more than five times the government-set subsidised price, and why it is so difficult to build up the other sorts of services that people want.

I’d agree, too, that more power stations are needed. I’ve learned that one of the easiest ways to judge the level of “development” of a town is to ask whether it has electricity 24 hours a day. Even when the answer is yes — and in this part of Indonesia it rarely is, below the sub-district (kecamatan) centre level — brown-outs are a norm; the sound of generators is almost as common in the evenings as the buzzing of mosquitos. I’m in two minds, however, about the underinvestment in roads. Building roads is the most palpable and most immediately achievable way for a newly-elected Bupati, the district heads who in this era of regional autonomy wield an immense amount of power, to show that he is delivering “development”. Building roads has lots of other advantages too. It’s an easy way to repay the favours provided by Chinese Indonesian businessmen (most of whom at least dabble in contracting) during the election campaign, not least because road building is easy to dole out: this 5 km stretch for PT Putra Wijaya, that 12 km block for the more generous PT Sinar Jaya. It involves contracting and buying stuff, so the possibility for kickbacks and skimming cash off budgets through overpricing is manifold. And it is endlessly repeatable. I’ve tortured my rented motorbikes over roads that are beginning to crack and subside at the beginning of the newly tarmacked stretch when the trucks are still out dumping asphalt at the far end of the same stretch, just a few kilometers down the road. They may as well have taken a can of black spray-paint to the existing
earth track.

In this age of transparency there’s often a “Papan Proyek”, a project information board, at the site of a new road construction project, so it’s possible to know what the formal budget is. If you added up all the stretches of road under construction in Indonesia, you’d probably get to a respectable sum. The problem is not an underinvestment in roads on paper, it is an underinvestment in well-engineered, sustainable roads in practice.