Indonesia and the West: An Ambivalent, Misunderstood Engagement *

Article excerpt

Indonesia troubles the West. It is big, strategically important, and potentially highly influential in world affairs. Its success as a nation is crucial to the stability of Southeast Asia. Its behaviour, then, is important to the West. When Indonesia ignores or rejects Western advice on how to behave, the West is puzzled that its efforts at helpful intervention and assistance are rebuffed or apparently misunderstood. The West's perplexity, I will argue, is a result of its failure to comprehend the long and complex history of Indonesia's continuing self-creation, and especially the central role in that chequered process played by Indonesia's engagement with the West.

A recent example of such dissonance came in the wake of the Bali bombings of late 2002. While Western attention, especially in Australia, was focussed on the miserable fate of young white tourists killed or injured whilst enjoying cheap beer and romance in the "paradise" of Bali, some Indonesians used the occasion to highlight the undesirable effects of unrestrained (and almost exclusively Westernised) international tourism in Bali. Some noted that the kind of behaviour characteristically indulged in by young Western tourists in Bali (drinking, promiscuity, gambling, drugs, topless sunbathing and so on) was an affront to Indonesia's dignity and sense of morals. Others pointed to the baleful effects of places like Kuta on the integrity of Balinese culture, and pointed to the need to reshape tourism policies to preserve that "culture". (1) More generally on the Indonesian side, there was stubborn resistance to the Western accusation that Indonesia had been less than energetic in pursuing the terrorists who had perpetrated the enormity of Bali and in closing down the network which had sponsored them. (2) And, as always, Indonesia remained as sensitive as ever to Western demands that it improve its human rights record. (3)

Yet it would be wrong to think that resistance to and resentment of Western desires are the dominant motifs of Indonesia's attitude towards the West. There is amongst many Indonesians a deep attraction to the globalising content of Westernism. Many love the allure and liberation of the ideas of the West, as well as its command of the skills of technology and, of course, the material benefits which access to the West can bring. Many deeply admire the political, economic and cultural success of the countries of the West and long for something similar for their own country. I want in this article to explore and explain this tension in Indonesia between the repugnance and the allure of the West. It has been a key feature of at least the last century of Indonesia's modern history, and promises to remain so for the foreseeable future.

The Search for the Modern

At the heart of Indonesia's felt attraction for things Western has been the sense that the West provides the avenue, the direction, to "becoming modern". This shrieking for the modern first became evident in what was to become Indonesia in the first decade of the twentieth century. Both its stridency, and the consequent tense ambivalence about the West, resulted from two related aspects of Indonesia's experience of colonialism. The first was the extreme lateness of Indonesia's introduction to modernity. The Dutch were determined to keep the Netherlands Indies "traditional" as a means of keeping it stable and under their control, which meant that very few Indonesians received any kind of Western (Dutch-language) education until the twentieth century, much less the chance to pursue their studies in Western countries. (4) There were no vernacular newspapers in the Netherlands Indies until the publication of Bromartani in 1855, and the appearance of indigenous-owned and edited newspapers had to await the first decade of the twentieth century. (5) The result of this policy of educational containment was a sharply divided society (by race and hierarchy) in which the potentially liberating forces of Western capitalism were deliberately prevented from working their emancipatory magic on Indonesians themselves. …