Indonesia Etc: Exploring the Improbable Nation. By Elizabeth Pisani
6/23/2014 / The Economist
The road ahead
Decoding a nation of 13,466 islands, 360 ethnic groups and 719 languages
Jun 21st 2014 | From the print edition
Indonesia Etc: Exploring the
Improbable Nation. By Elizabeth Pisani.
Norton; 404 pages; $26.95. Granta; £18.99.
ON JULY 9th the Indonesian presidential election will pit a charismatic, down-to-earth,
former furniture-maker against a retired general dogged by allegations of past human-rights abuses.
The military man is Prabowo Subianto, the former son-in-law of Suharto, the country’s one-time
dictator. If, as (just) seems likely, the former businessman, Joko Widodo, wins, then for the first time
since Suharto fell 16 years ago, Indonesia will be led by someone from outside its entrenched elite.
It is a remarkable story, but one that will probably soon pall abroad. Talk of the world’s
fourth-most populous country, as Elizabeth Pisani notes in her new book, tends to provoke
“a mildly panicked look in people’s eyes…at drinks parties in London or New York”.
Widespread ignorance about the place is compounded by its bewildering diversity and the
subtle complexity of its politics and society. And there are very few good books in English to
help the general reader to understand it.
Ms Pisani’s is probably the best. Into a beautifully written, richly entertaining account of a
year spent travelling around the archipelago, she weaves a deep knowledge of the country
acquired first as a reporter there, and then as an epidemiologist. Her first book, “The Wisdom
of Whores”, which came out in 2008, was about Indonesia’s HIV/AIDS epidemic.
In her new book Ms Pisani takes on many big themes—democracy, decentralisation,
corruption, inequality, the failings of Indonesia’s education system and radical Islam, as well
as the ghosts of the hundreds of thousands slaughtered as Suharto took power in 1965. Her
erudition is never dull. This is Indonesia both for the mildly panicked and for those who, like
the author herself, are besotted—if far from starry-eyed; Ms Pisani looks on Indonesia as “the