Despite tensions: Indonesia looks aheadby Jeffry Babb News Weekly
, June 29, 2002
Indonesia is a vast, sprawling archipelago of amazing diversity. Yet, some still persist in calling Indonesia a "Javanese empire" - the Javanese, presumably, replacing the Dutch as colonialists. Is there anything more to Indonesia than a legacy of Dutch colonialism?
Most tourists to Indonesia go to Bali. Indeed, I was once in the airport at Denpassar, getting a flight back to Melbourne. An Australian of Greek background said "Where have you come from?" "Jakarta'" I replied. "I've never heard of it. What is it?," he asked. "It's the capital of Indonesia," I said. "Oh, you've been to Indonesia, have you? What's it like?" This person had spend the usual ten days in Bali without even realising he had been in Indonesia. I am afraid this is not an isolated case.
Other travellers go to Java, to see "the real Indonesia." Well, perhaps, but Jakarta certainly isn't Indonesia. With its nine million people, it generates a good deal of Indonesia's GDP.Medan
If you want to see something that approximates the real Indonesia, then I suggest you go to Medan, the capital of Sumatra. Medan is Indonesia's third largest city, behind Jakarta and the great port city of Surabaya - both on Java. With its two million people, Medan is a vast melting pot.
In Medan, one can find, living quite amicably, Bataks, Javanese, Malayu, Chinese, Indians and many other ethnic groups. It's a busting city and was important under the Dutch. It came to prominence in late 19th century, after an enterprising Dutch planter in 1865 established that one could grow tobacco - and a whole range of tree crops - on its fertile soil. Still today, one can see rubber and palm oil plantations, coffee and tea.
The lingua franca is Bahasa Indonesia, although most ethnic groups retain a native language. Even today, part of the city is called "Kota Blanda" or "Dutch town." "Blanda" is now taken to mean all Westerners.
At the north-western tip of Sumatra is Aceh, which has been in almost constant revolt since Dutch times and has vast petroleum reserves.
It is an integral part of Indonesia. Despite the rebellion, I was on the border of Aceh, now a special area, and didn't see any additional security measures at all. There's even a renowned dive site just off Aceh the northern tip of which caters for foreign tourists.
Indonesia is still a long way from where it was before the end of Suharto's "New Order" but it's certainly getting back on its feet. Prices are ridiculously cheap. For example, at one small restaurant, I had two cups of coffee - Sumatran coffee is justly famous - a plate of delicious fried noodles, a fresh-made avocado drink with chocolate and a fruit juice for A$2.55.
Tensions do exist, but Muslims, Christians and Chinese live in close contact and rub along alright. With 11 million people, Sumatra is the second most populous island in Indonesia.
Although Medan is a melting pot, the ethnic groups retain their distinctive traditions.
The Bataks, who are mainly Protestants, have their own churches and the Chinese don't try and hide the fact that they are Chinese, even though in other part of Indonesia this can be at times be dangerous.
The Chinese temples are functioning - and as far as I could make out, always had been, even though Confucianism was not an official religion under Suharto.
North of Medan, up in the mountains, are the palm oil plantations. British capital was important in this area. At Bukit Lawang, one can find the orang-utan rehabilitation centre. The Sumatran tiger - the last native Indonesian tiger left - is still occasionally seen in the jungle. Monkeys chatter and the gibbons swing through the tree tops like high-wire artists.
From all the evidence I have seen in 25 years of visiting and studying Indonesian language and culture, Indonesia is past the worst of its problems. The currency is strengthening and the Indonesians have proved resilient in the face of adversity.
Indonesia has a history of thousands of years of civilisation and the common misnomer is that Indonesia is "the world's largest Muslim country."
This is not correct. Other religions exist side by side with Islam and the great majority of Indonesians are "Muslim statisik" - statistical Muslims, in the same way Australians are "statistical Christians."
Islam was brought to Indonesia by Arab traders and is completely different from the militant fundamentalism found in the Arab world. Few Indonesian women wear head scarves or other head dress and Indonesian women are assertive and are certainly not submissive in the home environment.
When I met a group of girls from a school in the Medan museum, they were not backward in asking questions about me, my family and Australia - all typical Indonesian questions.
As an Australian, I found no hostility - indeed, many people dream of going to Australia where they say "you can make a $100 a day" - a fortune by Indonesian standards. The Indonesians remain a friendly and tolerant people with a sense of their own destiny.