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Exploring Indonesia: Past and Present

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This volume is an introductory textbook on the social history of Indonesia, a country of immense diversity. The book is divided roughly into three parts, written in strict chronological order. Part One deals with the physical characteristics of the country. Part Two deals with the historical development of the Indonesian state, and finally, Part Three deals with contemporary Indonesia.

Chapter 1 provides a brief overview of Indonesia, including its geography, natural resources, and peoples. Major ethnic groups, religions and cultural beliefs are all briefly surveyed. Chapters 2 to 5 concentrate on the historical development of the Indonesian society. Chapter 2 concentrates on the early Indonesian empires (Srivijaya, Shailendra, Mataram and Majapahit) and contacts with the great civilizations of China and India, and the influence of the nearby Malay world. The story continues in Chapter 3 with the development of trade and the coming of Islam.

Chapter 4 starts from the age of the Dutch East India Company (VOC) and its attempts to monopolize Indonesian trade with the outside world as well as its attempts to control the different indigenous empires. Chapter 5 begins with formal Dutch colonization and the growth of Indonesian nationalist movements. The author dwells on the major themes of Dutch control (the cultivation system, the ‘liberal’ period, and the Diponegoro and Java uprisings) and the growth of national consciousness.

Chapter 6 discusses the politics and economy of modern, i.e. postindependence, Indonesia. The Japanese occupation and Dutch attempt to take back Indonesia after the Second World War are, unfortunately, covered in brief. The major portion of this chapter deals with Sukarno’s “Guided Democracy” and Suharto’s “New Order” regime.

The strength of the book lies in the individual set of exercises after every chapter. These questions, presented in multiple choice format, true/false, fill-in-the-blanks, and topics for discussion, are useful in provoking thinking on the materials presented. The chronological method is useful in bringing out themes such as exploitation by colonization and the inevitable collision between Western and indigenous Indonesian cultures after the Second World War. The simple, descriptive writing also makes the book easy to read and understand. The illustrations on some major Indonesian articles such as Kris (traditional warrior sword) and Bemo (minibus) are interesting, although it must be said they are highly selective, and one wonders if drawings of pepper, clove, and nutmeg are really that useful to the student. There are far more interesting things that are uniquely Indonesian that should have been featured.

My only criticism of the book is the lack of balance and the brief coverage of most of the material. There is too much emphasis on the early part of Indonesian social history, and not enough on the present, or contemporary history. Much more emphasis should be given to the Sukarno and Suharto regimes. The Sukarno and Suharto years should form a major part of the book and not simply be lumped together into a short chapter. If students are to understand Indonesian society, a deeper understanding of the past forty years of Indonesian history is the key. The materials also need to be presented with more depth, although given the target audience, it might be difficult to do so.

In sum, I found this textbook useful for high school students studying Indonesian history for the first time. It is not suitable for college undergraduates who require something in greater depth.