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 bad boyfriend”.
The book works well despite her decision to adopt an apparently gratuitously perverse approach. Having lamented how little foreigners know about Indonesia, Ms Pisani devotes big chunks of “Indonesia Etc” to parts of the country that even most Indonesians know nothing about: tiny, remote islands reached by erratic ferries; villages accessible only by acrobatic motorcycle journeys down unmade roads; jungles where nomads still sleep under trees. Java, which accounts for nearly 60% of the population, is scantly covered, and Bali, the bit of Indonesia that foreigners do know, hardly at all.
Full Article: Indonesia: The road ahead | The Economist.