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  • Indonesia: State & Society in Transition by Jemma Purdey, Antje Missbach, and Dave McRae
  • Robert W. Hefner (bio)
Jemma Purdey, Antje Missbach, and Dave McRae. Indonesia: State & Society in Transition. Boulder and London: Lynne Rienner, 2020. 261+ pp.

How are we to understand Indonesia today? Is it best viewed as the rare exception among Muslim-majority countries in having successfully transitioned to electoral democracy? Or is it more truthfully characterized as a fatally flawed oligarchic democracy plagued by money-politics and populist majoritarianism? More than twenty years after Indonesia's return to electoral democracy, questions like these continue to challenge Indonesianists. And it is against this background that Jemma Purdey, Antje Missbach, and Dave McRae offer a timely and intellectually bracing "survey of contemporary Indonesian politics, society, and culture, and its relations with the outside world" (2).

The authors bring varied skills to their task of making sense of Indonesia today. McRae is a senior lecturer at the Asia Institute at the University of Melbourne and author of one of the most important studies of communal violence in the early post-Suharto period, in the Poso region of Sulawesi.1 Missbach is a lecturer in the school of social science at Monash University and the author of several important studies of migration, border regimes, and refugees in Indonesia and the Asia-Pacific.2 Listed as lead author in this book, Jemma Purdey also teaches at Monash and has authored works on everything from Herb Feith and Australian-Indonesian relations to anti-Chinese prejudice in Indonesia; her Anti-Chinese Violence in Indonesia is a classic among studies of racialized violence in the late New Order period.3

With their high-octane credentials as Indonesianists, the authors divide their book into nine chapters, with the aim of "bringing together in one volume aspects of Indonesia's history, politics, international affairs, economics, and society to provide an overall picture of this complex nation" (vii). Chapter 1 opens with the question as to why a country as large, economically powerful, and strategic as Indonesia is "rarely included in lists of emerging powers" (1). The authors review Freedom House scores on the relative decline in the quality of democracy in Indonesia, and assess Gini coefficients to conclude that "inequality has increased steadily" (4). But their general analysis is balanced, noting that "Indonesia's performance in the political and economic spheres has been typical of nations of similar standing" (4). [End Page 115]

Chapter 2 provides an overview of preindependence Indonesia, from the rise of Srivijaya and Mataram to the coming of Islam and Dutch colonialism. The chapter's historical current slows down and broadens as the authors turn to the late-colonial period and the birth of nationalism. They conclude with a tighly woven account of the war for independence, the ascent of Sukarno, and the challenge of national unity within a now mobilized society. Equally well-written, Chapter 3, "The Slide into Authoritarianism," reviews the rise of parliamentary democracy in the 1950s, the turn to Guided Democracy, the advance of the Indonesian Communist Party (Partai Komunis Indonesia, PKI), and the background and aftermath of the 1965 attempted coup, the Thirtieth of September Movement. The chapter then traces the deepening authoritarianism of Suharto's New Order, and ends with a short, two-page description of the fall of the New Order. The brevity of this last section may surprise some readers, but events surrounding Suharto's resignation were amply covered in Purdey's 2006 book. The chapter's conclusion highlights a theme at the core of the remainder of the book: "Although Suharto and a few others had handed over their power, there was little change in who held power, and, in the absence of a cohesive opposition movment … the new Habibie government carried over much from the previous regime" (59).

Chapter 4, "Political Reforms after 1998," opens with a discussion of regime continuities and reforms under the Habibie transition. "Habibie revoked several of the most visible pillars of authoritarianism" (63), especially with regard to elections, decentralization, and civil-military relations. The chapter ends with an incisive analysis of the communal and separatist violence that marked the early years of the Reform era. Chapter...


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