Imagined Community, Imagined Study

INDONESIAN study was directly and indirectly shaped by dynamic of the conflict between the West-capitalist and East-communist blocks throughout the Cold War drama.

Indeed, like the others newly independent countries emerged after the end of the Second World War, Indonesia has been trapped at this juxtaposition. Meanwhile, following the end of the communist block influences, during the Soeharto’s New Order regime, the Indonesian study has been merely constructed by the US-led block political and economical interests in the region and archipelagic country.

Rethinking Indonesia: Postcolonial Theory, Authoritarianism, and Identity (2000)
By Simon Philpott, New York: McMillan, xx+234 pp.

At this background, Simon Philpott’s major attention in mapping the Indonesian study is based on the epistemological and ontological assumption in which Indonesia is imagined and constituted. At the same time, Philpott understands that the contemporary Indonesian (politics) studies as an Orientalist in the sense that it is shaped and reshaped by the dynamic of Western scholars’ interests and perceptions.

Indonesia like many other countries in the world formally became a nation at the historical moment that the US became not only a superpower in geopolitical/military terms, but also as the economic, cultural and intellectual center of ‘the West’ (p.xix), thus that the sovereign states of the Southeast Asia were primarily defined by colonial boundaries. Moreover, in the US foreign policy and academic discourses, the nation states quickly became the basic unit of analysis (p.56).

Philpott relies his methodology in studying the ‘so-called Indonesia’ on the Michel Foucault’s The Order of Things (1971) and Edward Said’s Orientalism (1978), saying that “all system of intelligibility are regarded as arbitrary because they are result of struggle between competing ideas, paradigms, and perceptions… and studies on Indonesia are conditioned by a range of rules that specify what is admitted as ‘knowledge’, and what is rejected (p.3)” and that “the Orient is a long, complex and productive labor of the part of Western travelers, statesmen, scholars, colonial civil servants, painters, writers, military officials, and journalists… the Orient did not exist, it had to be invented in the deeds, words, and practice of those mentioned above (p.xiii).”

Using those set of methodologies, Philpott argues that colonial Indonesia is the subject of the imperial pax-Americana extensive cultural studies research agenda, and that the idea of Indonesia is very much shaped by the US ideas and perceptions about the world.

In other words, “the American military, economic and cultural/intellectual power are integral to the ways in which Indonesia took shape in post-war social science (p.4),” where many of the ‘new states’ were quickly located in the so-called Third World by academic and US government discourses so then that the Third World became the object of the ‘West’ pity, meanwhile the US became a center of academic power (p.47).”

Regarding to the logical streams, Philpott arrives to the conclusion saying that it is, especially after the fall of Soeharto’s New Order regime in the 1998, the right time to construct the indigenous and original study of Indonesia base on its scholars and intellectuals group understanding on the indigenous cultures, traditions and sources. Despite of all odds that so far many of Indonesian studies have been funded by external powers, mostly the US through its administration’s program or private corporations, Philpott implies the need for Indonesian scholars to develop their own point of view on the country’s contemporary social and political studies. I will give short comment on this particular theme at the end of this review.

Earlier Study on Indonesia and Its Influences

Philpott mentions some studies on Indonesia that has contributed to the contemporary study. He credits George Kahin’s Nationalism and Revolution in Indonesia (1952) as the primary information on the character of Indonesian nationalism during the revolution and postcolonial era. Kahin’s close relationship with many of Indonesian prominent figures during the revolution in 1945-1949 provides very fundamental understanding about the idea of Indonesia as an independence and sovereign state.

Kahin’s major contribution is the notion that the former colonized country has made use of the colonial legacies, such as map and administration organization in establishing its own territory and government, and developed the saga of two ancient kingdoms i.e. Sumatran Sriwijaya and Javanese Majapahit in imagining its sense of nationalism from the past.

This thought provides recognition that, despite of its name (and image) was created and suggested by many of Western scholars such as Englishmen George Earl and James Logan in 1830s, Indonesia has had an original idea as a sovereign state. The ability to provide a historical claim was one of basic reasons for international community to recognize and acknowledge Indonesian sovereignty. Thus, at this point, Kahin’s study was able to develop a bridge for the US to move closer to the new state in the future.

Herbert Feith’s work, The Decline of Constitutional Democracy in Indonesia, is another study accredited by Philpott. Unlike Kahin, Feith is seemed less optimistic about the idea of pan-Indonesian nationalism at the initial years of the country especially during the Sukarno’s Guided Democracy era. Kahin seems to ignore the dynamic among the locality during the independence revolution, meanwhile Feith takes a step backward arguing that Indonesia is a nationalist project over the geographical entity and conceives empirical complexity of the existence of hundreds of traditionally self-awareness.

Similar to Feith’s work, Harold Crouch’s The Army and Politics in Indonesia provides micro narrative about the cultural and ethnicity dynamics at the opposite to the Indonesian nationalism grand narrative. Crouch argues, for instance, Suharto’s performance during the New Order era was based on Javanese tradition and cultures. Nevertheless, in this sense both of Feith and Crouch complete the basic understanding of modern Indonesia politics studies.

Their works invite more attention from the US administrations and private foundations, following the superpower gigantic interests to control Indonesian natural resources, to support and fund a bunch of researches on the Indonesian social and political subject. Indeed, this phenomenon is still happening in current Indonesia after the fall of Suharto.

Thanks to the absence of nationalist regime, the US together with its MNCs and TNCs now has more control over the country. The Reformation saga in 1998 so far has failed to provide nationalistic Indonesian nation-state. Based on this fact, I am pretty sure that the attempt to find Indonesian ‘indigenous’ political knowledge and science as suggested by Philpott is almost impossible in the short time to come.

Thus, based on Philpott’s idea on the construction of the contemporary Indonesian study and the major power’s influence we simply can assume that the more the political and economic interest of the major power, the lesser the ability of native scholars and intellectuals to find the original study on the imagined community named Indonesia.

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Born in Medan, lives in Jakarta, loves Indonesia.

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