Academic journal article SOJOURN: Journal of Social Issues in Southeast Asia

Research on Contemporary Indonesia: Complexities and Intricacies to Explore

Academic journal article SOJOURN: Journal of Social Issues in Southeast Asia

Research on Contemporary Indonesia: Complexities and Intricacies to Explore

Article excerpt

After three decades of autocracy under Soeharto, Indonesia has experienced astonishing changes during the last sixteen years. Political freedom is now something about which Indonesians can boast, while the country's media and civil society now thrive. The country has just held its third direct, highly contested presidential election in a climate marked by a relatively high level of openness, peace and public scrutiny. It has joined the ranks of the G20, displayed several years of annual economic growth of more than five per cent and is projected to become one of the world's major economies within the next decade. This political transformation, accompanied by years of remarkable economic growth, has attracted unprecedented international attention to Indonesia.

Despite these trajectories of political and economic progress, however, serious challenges confront Indonesia. Earlier this year, Freedom House downgraded Indonesia's democracy rating to "partially free" after eight years during which Indonesia had retained the "free" rating (Arifianto 2014, p. 2), and some analysts believe that legislation, now pending, may retard Indonesia's progress towards effective democracy (Arifianto 2014).

Recent years have brought indications that progress towards democracy has stalled in Indonesia, and that the country may be backsliding. Despite the largely encouraging picture of the country's progress and performance as a democracy, these achievements remain vulnerable to a reversal. Particularly worrisome tendencies have been manifest at "the level of behavioural, attitudinal and constitutional commitment to democracy among key elites who retain the ability to diminish or reverse democracy in Indonesia" (Diamond 2010, p. 47).

These tendencies towards reduced democracy may be due to the absence of prominent leaders in the reform movement that culminated in 1998, or of any clear vision among supporters of that movement other than demanding that Soeharto step down. Another explanation for these tendencies is that the core structures of power have remained unchanged. The oligarchic elites who controlled the New Order survived unscathed, and even continued to use the state for rent-seeking purposes. Despite institutional reforms, changes promoting democracy seem to have been superficial. The core oligarchic structures of power and the presence of predatory elites have endured (Robison and Hadiz 2004). The unmistakable transformations since 1998 notwithstanding, "spoilers have been accommodated and absorbed into the system" (Aspinall 2010, p. 21).

Attention to these developments has meant that the study of Indonesia has seen a vibrant, albeit constrained, revival across dispersed geographical "centres" around the globe, in the United States, Australia, Europe and Asia. In the United States, there is a visible growing trend towards comparative, cross-country studies considering Indonesia in a wider perspective (e.g., Diamond 2010; Horowitz 2013; Kunkler and Stepan 2013). In some cases, these comparative studies locate Indonesia in a specifically Southeast Asian context (e.g., Bouderau 2009; Pepinsky 2009; Slater 2010; Vu Tuong 2010). The "area studies" approach, with its regionalist and particularist focus, has declined in importance in the United States, but it has thrived in Australia during the last two to three decades (Aspinall 2013; Liddle 2014, pp. 257-59). This approach to the study of Indonesia is also gaining momentum in Asia, particularly in Japan and Singapore.

However, the work of Indonesian scholars has not been sufficiently recognized, cited, addressed or developed in English-language scholarship on Indonesia. Academic work in the social sciences produced by authors in Indonesia remains minimal. According to a recent study by Suryadarma et al. (2011, p. 1), only about twelve per cent of articles on Indonesia are the work of scholars in the country. As Aspinall (2014, p. 246) has noted, Indonesian scholars have undertaken original research, and even achieved public recognition as media commentators and writers. …

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