Event Report “Sultans Rising: The Reinvention of Local Identities in Contemporary Indonesia – Elizabeth Pisani”

Lui, Arthur | November 30, 2015

A photo of Centre of Southeast Asian Studies and Institute of Islamic Studies event on 19 November, 2015 | Image: Asian Institute, University of Toronto

With more than 17,000 islands in its archipelago, it is no wonder that there exists a vibrant diversity of cultures, traditions and landscapes in the island nation of Indonesia.  It is hardly possible to explore each island’s distinctive characteristics, yet Elizabeth Pisani, a Senior Fellow at the Policy Institute at King’s College London and a former Reuters foreign correspondent, has spent the past 20 years trying to better understand the local context and culture of a variety of these islands. On November 19, Pisani presented her findings in “Sultans Rising: The Reinvention of Local Identities in Contemporary Indonesia,” an event hosted by the Institute of Islamic Studies and the Centre for Southeast Asian Studies.

When Pisani first visited Indonesia in 1989, she was invited to attend the coronation of the Sultan of Yogyakarta, who was also district head. She wore Solo-styled clothes, not knowing about the rivalry between the neighboring sultanates  of Solo and of Yogyakarta at the time. Fortunately, she was reminded by her Javanese photographer to change her clothes before meeting with the Sultan. This sparked Pisani’s interest in the underlying differences between cultural groups on the many  islands of Indonesia.

Why are these differences so significant? Pisani explains that Indonesia used to be a group of decentralized territories under Dutch rule. However, after the country declared independence at the end of WWII, Sukarno, the first president of Indonesia, believed that administration would be easier if all the islands and Sultanates were unified.  Adopting a philosophy called Pancasila, which advocated nationalism, Sukarno carried out a series of projects to promote one nation with one ideology. Sukarno hoped that this would eventually establish a cohesiveness between all state authorities. Indonesia’s national motto, “Bhinneka Tunggal Ika (Unity in Diversity),” which appears on Indonesia’s emblem to this day, was thus enacted. Under Sukarno’s rule, the diversity of Indonesia was not being properly acknowledged. Diversification of culture in Indonesia was disappearing because everything became centralized in Jakarta, especially during the regime of Suharto, Indonesia’s second president.

However, Pisani observes that things began to change yet again, after Suharto was discharged. A gradual decentralization occurred after the independence of East Timor in 1999. Pisani attributes this to the authorities in Jakarta realizing the importance of giving a certain degree of autonomy to the islands. From then on, Jakarta adopted a new form of administration. Indonesia was separated into districts, with each district ruled by a local leader. Pisani states that this reform completely reshaped the political landscape in Indonesia: local elites could now re-establish the cultural practices of their roots, aspiring to have a district that represented their distinct cultural identity.

However, Pisani argues that this new administration system was extremely problematic. The new system increased competition for district leader positions. As such, those that lost an election in one district often tried to justify the establishment of a new district, by claiming that the former district was not reflective of their culture and traditions. Pisani ultimately worries this new system will cause leaders to appropriate local cultures and traditions for political gain. Pisani therefore calls on the Indonesian authorities to re-assess the shortcomings of the district system.

Pisani shares further apprehension by raising a key question: Is the district system even accountable to local populations? Local concerns were often neglected due to the district system, with power-seeking elites exploiting the system for their own good. For instance, Pisani found that on the island of Savu, one of Indonesia’s poorest islands, the only hospital had been temporarily occupied by the district head, until his new office was built. Pisani also found that locals seeking representation of their heritage through the district system only saw the system being manipulated by elites.

Pisani also raises concerns of potential ethnic conflicts due to improper arrangement of districts. She used the current situation in the districts of West Kalimantan as an example, where Dayaks, Chinese and Malays are the long-standing ethnic groups, sometimes in conflict with each other, and sometimes joining forces to oppose people they define as migrants (pendatang), notably people from East Java.  She worries that similar situations are common in contemporary Indonesian politics, and calls for compromise between different ethnic groups whose boundaries seldom neatly align with districts.

Lastly, Pisani questions the sustainability of decentralization in Indonesia. She believes that this process has created income inequality linked to government posts.  Most of the bureaucratic jobs go to “locals” while migrants from other provinces/districts can access poorly paid jobs or lucrative but unstable jobs linked to boom industries (e.g. plantations, mining). Pisani worries that once the economic boom comes to an end, there will be conflicts between the locals and the migrants.

In conclusion, decentralization in Indonesia must be proceed with caution. The noteworthy shortcomings of the decentralization process are likely to obstruct the current economic and social development of this island nation.


Arthur Lui is a 2nd year student studying Peace, Conflict and Justice Studies, and Contemporary Asian Studies. Arthur currently serves as a event reporter and copy editor for Synergy: The Journal of Contemporary Asian Studies.

Arthur Lui
About Arthur Lui 4 Articles
Arthur Lui is a 2nd year student studying Peace, Conflict and Justice Studies, and Contemporary Asian Studies. He currently serves as event reporter and copy editor for Synergy: The Journal of Contemporary Asian Studies, Southeast Asia section.

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