Sunday, May 21, 2023

Review of Indonesia, Etc.: Exploring the Improbable Nation by Elizabeth Pisani

This book review was written by Eugene Kernes   

Book can be found in: 

Watch Short Review


“I can count on one hand the number of times I was treated with anything but kindness.  I can also count on one hand the number of days that I did not have a conversation about corruption, incompetence, injustice and the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune.” – Elizabeth Pisani, Prologue, Page 8

“The Europeans changed the rules of the trading game, it’s true, and they made plantations and extractive industries more efficient.  But the islands’ many kings and sultans had been squeezing the peasantry for taxes and labour to finance their endless wars with one another long before the Europeans arrived.” – Elizabeth Pisani, Chapter 1: Improbable Nation, Page 19

“This made for what World Bank economists called ‘high transaction costs’ and everyone else called corruption.  And yet from the early 1980s foreigners did want to invest in Indonesia, precisely because of the stability that this web of compromise delivered.  Many people saw the pay-offs to generals and cronies as a reasonable price for that stability.” – Elizabeth Pisani, Chapter 2: The Ties that Bind, Page 41



Indonesia is composed of various islands.  An archipelago.  Collectively they are a very diverse community.  Diverse ethnicities, religions, and languages.  The archipelago has very little common culture.  Attempts at creating a national identity, yielded little.  Even decades after Indonesia became a sovereign state, some regions refer to their local region as the political entity rather than the state.  Even with the diverse people, they are considered very kind, but also corrupt. 

The region was a trading hub for various empires, and colonized for their resources such as spices.  The colonizers did not invent exploitation in the islands as the various local leaders had been exploiting their populations before they were colonized.  The colonizers just tapped into the corrupt systems, and made them more efficient.  But in the 1940s, Indonesia declared their independence.  Forming a sovereign state, through violent means. 

Violence that continued after gaining sovereignty, to keep the people together.  Violence had become routine, along with corruption.  Seeking unity through finding a common enemy.  Corruption was very problematic, but provided for more stable investments.  Even with the violence, corruption, and political repression, people’s lives seemed to improve.  Mob violence and justice was a common occurrence, but the law matured over time.  As well as the culture becoming market oriented.



This book is part history, part memoire.  Showcasing the diverse cultural experiences.  This organizational structure had mixed results.  Sometimes getting lost in the local and personal experiences without explaining how everything fits together.  The memoire details can distract from the historic understanding.  Other times the local experiences facilitate an understanding of the improbable nation.  

Questions to Consider while Reading the Book

•What is the raison d’etre of the book?  For what purpose did the author write the book?  Why do people read this book?
•What are some limitations of the book?
•To whom would you suggest this book?
•How diverse is Indonesia?
•How did Indonesia gain sovereignty?
•Who controlled Indonesia before sovereignty?
•Why do people think that Indonesia is corrupt?
•Why was their violence used after gaining sovereignty?
•How has Indonesia changed?
•Who is Sukarno?

Book Details
Publisher:             W. W. Norton & Company
Edition ISBN:      9780393088588
Pages to read:       380
Publication:          2014
1st Edition:           2014
Format:                 Hardcover

Ratings out of 5:
Readability    4
Content          3
Overall          2