All Shorenstein APARC News Commentary August 16, 2021

Good News for Indonesian Studies

Silhouettes carrying a flag of Indonesia with a sunset or sunrise in the background
Hasyir Anshori / Unsplash

This piece was originally published in The Jakarta Post.


Congratulations, Indonesia! What a thrill it was to open my daily copy of The New York Times on Aug. 3 and see a nearly half-page color photo of the jubilant faces and raised fists of Greysia Polii and Apriyani Rahayu as they celebrated their and their country’s Olympic gold medal in women’s- doubles badminton.

Their first-place finish could not have been more timely. Indonesia needs good news. Bloomberg has combined 12 variables to determine where the COVID-19 pandemic is being most-to- least effectively managed.

From April to July, by that measure, Indonesia fell steadily to last place among the 53 countries covered. Such a bad review cannot be explained by domestic underperformance alone. The ferocity of the now ubiquitous Delta variant has played a role. So has vaccine nationalism—the limited and late availability of effective jabs from abroad. Not to mention less well-established variables such as the relative potency of Chinese vaccines. Whatever the reasons, there is little to celebrate regarding the risk to the health of Indonesians.

In this downbeat context, however, and far less well known than Indonesia’s “goodminton” victory in Tokyo, is an upbeat development on Indonesia’s academic front that also deserves Indonesian pride: the five-day inaugural Conference on Indonesian Studies (CIS) held online on June 24-27 Jakarta time. The American Institute for Indonesian Studies and Michigan State University sponsored the meeting with the participation and cooperation of hundreds of students, academics, and educational institutions in Indonesia and the United States. As a long-time would-be Indonesianist, I was happy to attend.

Researchers have more questions than answers. Nationalists reverse the ratio. The scholarly ideal—gathering evidence, testing assertions, birthing, sharing, and comparing ideas— transcends borders. But nationality has long shaped Indonesian studies.

During Dutch rule over the East Indies from 1816 to 1941, with rare exceptions, the archipelago’s past was largely interpreted by Europeans with colonial access. Indonesian studies were dramatically expanded and diversified following World War II. But the birth and growth of “area studies” in Western universities continued to incubate mainly Western scholarly careers.

The recent CIS was doubly important, as an affirmation and a stimulus. Its 326 presentations in 65 different sessions served to remind the roughly 500 attendees from Indonesia and 22 other countries of the breadth and vitality of Indonesian studies and thereby motivate further research.

Included on the program were a first-rate keynote speech by Prof. Aquarini Priyatna of Padjadjaran University on feminist voices in Indonesian literature; the premiere reading in English of Oh by Indonesia’s renowned novelist and playwright Putu Wijaya, whose work I remember applauding at Taman Ismail Marzuki decades ago; and a rousing performance of the wayang lakon (Javanese puppet show) Ciptoning by Ki Purbo Asmoro, ably and simultaneously rendered in English by Kathryn Emerson (no relation).

The conference also conveyed what was on the minds of the more than 300 mainly young and Indonesian panelists who wrote papers and made presentations about their country. Although the topics were diverse, some were more popular than others. A comparison may offer clues as to the subjects for research that are attracting the next generation of Indonesian scholars as they begin to shape the future and focus of Indonesian studies.

The distribution of themes is informative. Nearly half of all the CIS sessions were about culture. Culture in the sense of identity was by far the most popular topic at the conference, including religious and especially Muslim identity, with lesser attention to language and gender. Three genres of performed culture — art, music, and literature—were featured in roughly a fourth of the sessions. Five different sessions took up the blood-shedding watershed of 1965, encouragingly in the light of past silence on the subject. Only three panels focused on the economy, merely three were on climate change, and just two featured foreign policy.


It is tempting to view this evidence for the popularity of cultural identity in Indonesian studies as a local instance of two trends that some scholars have noted: a greater emphasis on identity in political discourse around the world and a related decline in the salience of ideology, including democracy.

Of the 65 conference panels, only two featured democracy, despite the alarm bell that some established Australian and Indonesian scholars had rung in 2020 in a book entitled Democracy in Indonesia; From Stagnation to Regression? Yet human rights and civil liberties in Indonesia were highlighted at the event, including the freedom of creative expression embodied in literature and the arts. A case in point was a session on “Islam Nusantara” featuring scholars from the University o Nahdlatul Ulama Indonesia.


Not even a five-day-long gathering could have dealt with everything. The relative neglect of economics and foreign policy was unfortunate nevertheless. Five days after the conference ended, the World Bank reclassified Indonesia as a lower-middle-income country, down one level from the upper-middle-income status it had previously briefly held. Also basically ignored at the CIS was a key reason for that slippage: COVID-19.

In fairness, these omissions are not unique to Indonesia. Among scholars in area studies worldwide, economists are scarce and health policy experts still harder to find. In my own conversations with foreign advisors in Indonesia during the Soeharto years, some of the number-crunching economists were inclined to dismiss the interpretation-minded anthropologists. Some of the latter reciprocated the disregard. A joke in circulation at the time held that the sole requirement that a development economist needed to meet in order to be a consultant in Indonesia was to have flown over the country once in daylight.

That disciplinary rift may very well be obsolete. But if it isn’t, it should be. Climate-friendly economic development and improved health policies are vital to Indonesia’s future and therefore to the future agenda of Indonesian studies.


As for Indonesian foreign policy, the paucity of CIS panels on that topic has to an extent been compensated for by the laudable efforts of Dino Patti Djalal’s Foreign Policy Community of Indonesia to stimulate and reward the interest and involvement of the younger generation in their country’s future role in the world.

The challenge now is to build on the success of the inaugural CIS to the larger and ongoing benefit of Indonesia’s capacity to navigate these difficult times.


View Emmerson's keynote address at the CIS conference,"Scholarship, Autonomy, and Purpose: Issues in Indonesian Studies" >>

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