Monday, April 21, 2008

Indonesian History as an autonomous history

This Article was originally published in The Jakarta Post Sunday edition, May 29 2005
Indonesian history as an autonomous history Yosef Djakababa, Contributor, Jakarta
Indonesia: Peoples and Histories Jean Gelman Taylor 448 pp Yale University Press

Jean Gelman Taylor's book titled Indonesia: Peoples and Histories is an important addition to the study of Indonesian history.
In this book, Taylor uses an original and unique approach in not having any citations in the book. Instead, she uses what she called capsules. These small capsules appear frequently to give the reader specific examples of a particular topic that is currently being discussed in a particular chapter.
For example in chapter five, titled "New Comers in the Muslim Circle", she discusses the arrival of foreigners in the archipelago, among others, the Chinese.

In that particular chapter, one of the capsules explained the dynamic relationship between the local elites and the Chinese. She described the relationship that forced the Chinese to be depended on local elites who in turn empowered them as the principal tax collectors from the common people. As a result, the commoners saw the Chinese as their oppressors. (Page 128-129).

From her narratives we can see the influence of an idea of history. "Autonomous history" approaches history from local perspectives in contrast to the more common approach (especially in Indonesian history) that comes from foreign perspectives. Much of her influence on autonomous history came from her mentor, John R.W. Smail, her Ph.D advisor at the University of Wisconsin-Madison's department of history. Smail is well known as a scholar who wrote an important essay about the possibility of autonomous history in Southeast Asia.

Taylor tries to place local people not merely as victims of foreigners, and especially not as victims of the Dutch. She also criticizes many narratives on Indonesian history that only emphasize nationalism. In the nationalist version of history, Indonesians are always portrayed and perceived as heroic and dramatic, but in the end, losers and victims. This view of Indonesian history is not only narrow but totally ignores the intellectual and cultural exchanges between the indigenous peoples and the foreigners.

By focusing on social, cultural and intellectual exchanges, Taylor is trying to eradicate the view of Indonesians as merely heroic losers, instead showing them as major players.
The book has a clear and yet concise style of writing which makes the texts easy to grasp and understand. Moreover, the book also provides criticism and overviews on the development of approaches to Indonesian historical writing.

Nevertheless, the book also has some drawbacks. First, without any citations, the book lacks credibility on some of the data the writer presents. Hence, it is also difficult to cross check some of her statements and narratives in the book. One example would be what she wrote concerning the 30th September 1965 event. Taylor wrote that the bodies of the slain generals were hidden inside the Indonesian Air Force base Halim, while in fact, the bodies were actually found in an old well located in a former rubber plantation called Lubang Buaya.

Moreover, she also discusses how the New Order regime banned the teaching of Weber and Chinese language in Indonesian universities (page 359). In fact the New Order never banned the teaching of Weber, and actually allowed very restricted Chinese language instruction in the Chinese literature department of the University of Indonesia. Again without any citations, it is difficult for the reader to check or to find out where she obtained such information.

Second, Taylor's account of Indonesian autonomous histories needs to be questioned. In the book's introduction Taylor states: "My aim in this book is to place Indonesians at the center of their own story". In fact, most of the sources she used for this book are in English and written by foreigners. Her book actually gives the impression that only foreigners can write general histories of Indonesia as she has not placed Indonesians at the center of their own story as she sought to do.

However, despite the weaknesses and drawbacks, the publication of the Indonesia: Peoples and Histories should be received as part of recent developments in Indonesian history writing.
Jean Gelman Taylor wants to promote new perspective on Indonesian history, a perspective that hopefully is not only filled with indoctrination of narrow political and nationalist ideas. We also need to realize, however, that it is not easy to write Indonesian history that covers every aspect of this diverse nation while at the same time being general one, because the writer will always be faced with the problem of deciding which aspects to leave in or out in the narrative. Hopefully, this new book will stimulate more fresh writing on Indonesian history.

Yosef Djakababa is a PhD candidate in Southeast Asian history at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, U.S.A. He is currently conducting research for his dissertation on modern Indonesian history.