Book Review— Beginning to Remember: The Past in Indonesian Present

Rommel Curaming

Mary Zurbuchen (ed.)
Beginning to Remember: The Past in Indonesian Present
Singapore and Seattle: Singapore University Press, with University of Washington Press, 2005

The past decade or so has seen proliferation of studies on different facets of memory and history. The rise to increasing prominence of memory studies coincides with the mounting recognition of the limits within which conventional historical accounts have been formulated. It was to a great extent spawned by the need to allow space for people whose voices, for various but usually political reasons, have been muted. While memory is often framed as counterweight to history, the relationship between the two is extremely complex, and any study worthy of notice cannot but demonstrate and suggest ways through such complexity. To a great extent, this volume has achieved the first, and it takes some significant  strides towards the second.

The volume is  a  much needed, long-awaited contribution that fills a void in Indonesian, even Southeast Asian, Studies. The fall of Suharto in 1998 ushered in floods of commentaries, newspaper accounts, and conference or seminar papers indicating the spirited efforts to remember, interrogate, and re-write the past. However, seven years since then only a handful of serious memory-history studies in English (as in Indonesian) in the form of MA or PhD theses, refereed journal articles or monographs have appeared so far. Considering that Indonesia stands out along with few other countries for having experienced killings of genocidal proportion, and for having to deal with the crisis of historical representation such killings entails, one can only wish that there would be many more.  The field is particularly fertile for new seeds to germinate and grow.

There are 15 articles in the volume written by Indonesian and foreign scholars, artists and poets/writers. It emanates from a conference on ‘history and memory’  held at the UCLA in April 2001. While it is not unusual for conference-proceedings-turned-into-book to be beset by problems of unevenness of quality of the papers as well as lack of sustained focus, this volume fortunately avoids  such pitfalls. Each chapter, if not truly gripping or deeply penetrating, is at least engaging and insightful. Moreover, all papers cohere in  dealing with the complex facets of the memory-history interface, as well as with the difficulties attendant in such undertaking.

The first part of the book consists of 4 articles that are anchored in  the arts and the humanities. The first is Ki Tristuti Rachmadi’s powerful autobiographical account of his sufferings under the New Order. He was (still is) a dalang, a puppeteer in the shadow play wayang kulit, who had been imprisoned for 14 years by the New Order government and upon release experienced further difficulties and humiliations for having been ‘tainted’ by his past.  The simplicity of the narrative, weaving a moving story not just of tribulation but indomitable personal resistance, cannot but drive home a message that personal memory  is itself a political act. A compelling autobiography is a fitting gesture to emphasize  memory’s individual character and there are, I think, only few other ways to usher in a volume on memory and history better than this.

beginningThe second article is the text of Goenawan Mohammad’s opera Kali: A Libreto.  A brief preface written by Goenawan himself accompanies the text. As a political tool, the efficacy of poetry and theater, along with other art forms, is often not readily apparent. It is precisely in art’s  indirection, however, that its power lies and one strength of this volume rests on paying much more than lip service to this. Laurie Sears’ piece, “The Persistence of Evil and the Impossibility of Truth in Goenawan Mohamad’s Kali,” is an intensely penetrating commentary on the opera, both the text and the performance. By unraveling the   semantic knots, and by explicating the opera within the broader historical and theoretical frame, Sears unlocks its subversive messages. She also helps the readers in appreciating the sophisticated manner by which Goenawan had woven this tale of subversion. Her contribution however goes beyond interpreting Goenawan’s piece. By locating the open-ended character of this capability for subversion –what she calls the impossibility of truth—within the theoretically informed frame of reference, she in effect lays the benchmark for the analysis of sites of memory that, to me, aptly rejects the notion of ‘authenticity of space’—a notion that  lends theoretical support to reified and essentialist claims. Such a benchmark has, to a certain extent, been successfully adhered to by some contributors in the volume. Others however did not, either by being silent about it or by transgressing it altogether.  

Completing the first part of the volume is Hendrik M.J. Maier’s provocative “How Malay Tales Try to Shape History.” It demonstrates the lack of precision of the Malay languages in expressing events, actions and progress, specifically their tenses or their ‘location in time.’ He argues that because of this, closure of meaning is difficult as readers are faced with an open-ended process of meaning-formation.  He then draws connection between this ‘problem’ and the difficulty of creating a distinct memory that is supposedly imbued with ‘moral meaning.’ As ‘history,’ according to him, requires an ‘in-depth and well organized memories,’ this may have an adverse consequence on the writing and consumption of history in Indonesia. 

The importance of this article rests on three things. First, it provides hints on why Indonesians, as observers often note, have a very short memory. For that it occupies a salient space in the book. If other articles exemplify facets of memory-history interface, this explains the lack or the dubiousness of such interface.  Unfortunately, however, an overly essentialist tone pervades his analysis. Maier seems bent on pinning down the ‘essential’ problem with Malay language and used it in explaining the difficulties of forming and retaining memories. 1 He bewails several ‘lacks’ in it – distinct past tense, precision, temporal depth, temporal hierarchy  – and inadvertently sends booming echoes of Orientalism through the pages of the otherwise critical and reflexive book.

Second, Maier does not find comfort in the notion, quite pronounced in most other articles in the volume, that  memory is a contested terrain—that it is constituted by an open-ended process of meaning formation. While most other articles see strength in such fluidity, he complains about it.  It seems to deny the notion that there is such a thing as ‘memory and history.’ At the very least, there is only history, and memory is nothing but one among many building blocks needed to write it (history). The autonomy, and the power, of memory, well recognized in the editor’s introduction as in most other articles in the volume, is thereby lost.  For that, Maier’s article occupies the distinction for being the volume’s odd-man-out.

On a positive note, the oddity of Maier’s article is a glaring reflection of the controversial character of ‘memory and history’ project. There is simply no consensus as to what constitutes memory and how it differentiates itself from and how precisely it interacts with history, if in fact the two are separate entities.  Zurbuchen’s introduction, while recognizing the tension between individual and social memory, nevertheless settles to the idea of ‘historical memory’ that hardly helps in clarifying the issues. Memory as analytic category cries out for definitive conceptualization, the lack of which could result in the erasure of its autonomy, as Maier in fact did in his article. Or perhaps, Maier wants to send a message that we could not in fact claim conceptual autonomy for memory—a debatable yet certainly not an insensible suggestion.

The thread that binds the second set of articles is yet another contentious concept—the  notion of collective of memory.  Andi Bakti’s Collective Memory of the Qahhar Movement demonstrates how various, sometimes conflicting other times complementary, memories of Qahhar—the charismatic leader of separatist movement in Sulawesi circa 1950s-1960s—coalesce as ‘collective memory’ to serve different  purposes in contemporary South Sulawesi and beyond. Although the author does not appear interested in questioning the notion of collective memory, he nonetheless provides clear picture that can serve as basis for doing so. The article succeeds in laying bare whose interests will be served by emphasizing, in the face of appearance of diversity, the collectiveness of memory of Qahhar,.

In a manner less than straightforward,  but nonetheless thought-provoking,  Fadjar Thufail’s “Ninjas in the Narrative of the Local and National Violence in Post-Suharto Indonesia”  explains, among other things, why the idea of ‘collective memory’ may  be dubious at best in the context of Post-Suharto Indonesia. He used the multiple and conflicting narratives about the ninja killings in 1998 not only to demonstrate the contested character of the public sphere but also to extract possible insights on how people cope with the anxiety which may be attendant to the emerging new political culture. One could only wish, however, that the theoretical aspect of his analysis had been handled in less contrived, less arcane manner so as to maximize, not subvert, the heuristic function of theories as tools for illuminating relevant empirical data.

Problematic the concept of ‘collective memory’ maybe but the fact that it is often invoked gives one no recourse but to confront it. Essential in such effort is asking the question whose collection of memory is it, and how has such collective appearance been attained? Certainly, before a fairly high level of homogeneity was achieved, conflicts and contestation marked the process. Anthony Reid’s “Remembering and Forgetting War and Revolution,” perhaps without intending to,  threads along this line. Initially, he wonders why the year 1995, 50th anniversary of the 2nd World War, was not a focus of enthusiastic remembering in Indonesia, as it was in other countries. To him, this collective forgetting seems striking considering the centrality of the period in the formation of Indonesian nation. He then traces back the historical roots of the sharp contestations for meaning  and resulting  ambivalence which marked the attitudes of Indonesian political elites towards the event. His paper thus reminds us of the historicity of every ‘collective memory’ and that can help in resisting the tendency to reify such a notion.

 The third set of articles revolves around the formulation and consumption of  ‘official’ and non-official histories. Gerry van Klinken’s The Battle for History After Suharto provides a comprehensive, yet penetrating look both at the context and the on-going efforts to define and re-define various Indonesian historiographies. He hints at the multipilicity of  Indonesian histories and that the efforts to present a unified picture reflect nothing but the structure of power relations within the country. The idea of contested public sphere raised in Thufail’s article (on the Ninjas)  is greatly reinforced and expanded here. More than that, van Klinken’ article underscores the  place of history in the on-going contestation for a space in the public sphere. What van Klinken describes as ‘battle for history’ is a forceful reaction to the monolithic and overbearing posture of Suharto regime’s ‘official history.’ So much has already been said to critique such version of history but not much has been done to understand the process of its formulation. Katharine McGregor’s article “Nugroho Notosusanto: Legacy of a Historian in the Service of an Authoritarian Regime” is an important contribution towards such understanding.

The article describes the life and major works of Nugroho Notosusanto, the main architect in Suharto regime’s engineering of history. Rather contentiously, McGregor describes him as historian who has “willingly compromised his integrity as a scholar in order to further legitimate the New Order regime…” (p. 209) She weaves a compelling story of the man’s life as possible answer to the questions why Nugroho made such a choice and why he was so devoted to the military. Of particular interest here lies in the intersection of  Nugroho’s double life as a historian and as a military man.

Despite the clarity of expression and the lucidity of analysis, I was left with a nagging feeling that the author may have missed something important. I suspect that the problem lies in that the  author allowed herself to fall into Manichean trap characterised by false dichotomy between ethical scholarship and politics. She seems to carry the taken-for-granted liberal assumption that scholarship and politics should not mix. But in the context of authoritarian-dominated societies like Indonesia, the importance of a Nugroho Notosusanto precisely lies in the fact that he personified the fusion of the two. Judging Nugroho as bereft of integrity merely exposes the author’s or other observers’ political stance. It does not help illuminate the process that made a Nugroho Notosusanto possible, nor does it confront the question what does a Nugroho Notosusanto imply?  It also tends to draw us away from the often ignored yet very important question, why and how do scholarship and politics constitute each other.  Rather the seeing history merely as tool for legitimation, as is often done, how about we also ask why should the process of legitimation be framed within historical template, and what does this imply on the interface between knowledge and power.

 On a slightly different tack, Daniel Lev deals with official history by focusing on its (mis)consumption. His article Memory, Knowledge and Reform is a searing indictment of the ‘absence of historical memory’ in the on-going efforts for reforms in Indonesia. He revisits the controversies surrounding the interpretations and assessments of the period of Parliamentary Democracy and regrets that even among the most reform-minded groups understanding of this period remains misted up by myths and inaccuracies and this cannot but ‘limits reform imaginations.’ More than any other contributions in the volume, he provides a vivid and concrete example of how the ‘distorted’ images past could stall reform efforts in the present.

Lev’s article, however, is interesting and important for another reason. He reminds us: “Where memory fails or subverted, knowledge has to be cultivated.” By doing so, he posits sharp oppositional relationship between memory and knowledge, and this brings us to yet another ambiguous terrain that begs clarification. What indeed is the relationship between historical memory and historical knowledge? For Lev, it seems quite straightforward. Historical knowledge is an authoritative knowledge. It undergoes rigorous and continual process of verification to ensure that it is nearer to the truth, if not the truth itself.  It should thus act as basis for or guardian of memory whose fluidity makes it liable to inaccuracies and manipulation. Like Maier, he assumes the superiority of history over memory and he points to the danger that is immanent in the power ascribed to memory.  While such views go against the grain of the volume’s apparent intent, the inclusion of Maier’s and Lev’s articles is suggestive of and it enriches the on-going debates among scholars as to the ‘proper’ shapes of historical and memory studies, if the two are indeed separable.

Three in four of the final set of paper focus on the analysis of sites of memories.  More than any other papers, barring Zurbuchen’s introduction, they raise salient issues germane in the effort to understand the relationship between history and memory. The first is Klaus H Schreiner, Lubang Buaya: Histories of Trauma and Sites of Memory. This is a theoretically informed analysis of  the monument and museum in Lubang Buaya as a site of memory. The author aptly demonstrates the monument and the museum as “symbolic, material and functional manifestations of the regime’s power to define the collective meanings of events.” He notes the fluidity of meanings which may be ascribed to a monument as a site of memory but nonetheless emphasizes the government’s effort to use Lubang Buaya as a means to regulate such meanings.  Successful as he is in this undertaking, he seems to be not in his elements in handling the trauma aspect of his analysis. The paradoxical nature of trauma, as he himself alludes to, has not been clearly demonstrated, and this may be due to lack of clear explication of the relations between memorialising and trauma. Whereas he considers the monument and the museum as “negative expression of the trauma surrounding the generals’ death and the mass killings” of 1965-66, he was nonetheless unclear about whose trauma was inscribed in it. This question is important because to the extent that the event is ‘memorialised’ or ‘monumentalised’ by certain individuals or groups, trauma as analytic category ceases to be operative. It is of course implied that he was referring to the victims, their friends and relatives, as well as perhaps the witnesses and perpetrators of the mass-killings of 1965-66 who for decades have in traumatic silence, cannot find the means to deal with, much less the voice to narrate what happened. To these people, however, Lubang Buaya hardly qualifies as a site of memory through which their trauma may be expunged. This only goes to show that trauma is a slippery concept which without clear explication can cloud one’s effort to explain. Nevertheless, it deserves further exploration as potentially efficacious conceptual or analytic construct.

Degung Santikarma’s Monument, Document and Mass Grave: The Politics of Representing Violence in Bali offers a complementary, in some ways contrasting, approach to that which is exemplified by Schreiner’s and Thufail’s. Devoid of any explicitly theoretical support,  he presents a  simple, yet riveting account and persuasive explanation for starkly different tenor by which power relations in Indonesia defines the protocol of representation of the Bali bombing and the killings of 1965-66. Seen through the pained  eyes of an individual, Pak Nyoman, Santikarma’s powerful narrative pierces through the intellect, on to the visceral. One cannot but be reminded that the ultimate power of memory rests primarily in its individuality and that maybe no monument is necessary to ensure the act of remembering. Yet, the article also emphasizes the sociality of remembering and such sociality imposes on the individual  certain limits that cannot be easily transcended. The beauty of this approach lies not only in its simplicity but also in its implied critique of the idea of ‘collective memory.’ It also saves the individual (rememberer) from drowning in the sea of ‘social’ sciences. 

Another site of memory is the photograph.  Karen Strassler’s  Material Witnesses: Photographs and the Making of Reformasi Memory is an inspired, engaging and at some points provocative article on the use and the unrecognized misuse of photography as ‘witness to history.’ It argues that the use of photography as authoritative evidence of history is at once empowering and limiting in so far as students participation in the reformasi movement is concerned. It empowers to the extent that photography cements the memory of students’ active role in such a movement—a stark reminder to the current and future Indonesian leaders of what students could and did in fact do. On the other hand, the frozen character of  photographs if  detached from the context which they were captured makes them liable to manipulation. And this is a possibility often ignored, by the students and the general public as well.

One enduring contribution of the article is that it convincingly demonstrates some of the efforts and the successes of the state ideological apparatuses in framing the student movement as part of the hegemonic New Order metanarrative of ‘youth struggle.’ Rather than as a radical break from the past, an interpretation which the students would have preferred, its continuity with past youth struggle has been emphasized, thus domesticating and denying it of temporal specificity and historical agency. The article, in effect, explodes the popular myth among the students themselves that photographs are unassailable ‘witness to history’ and as a locus of memory, they are useful in challenging the official version of history. It emphasizes that the ‘photographic efficacy has no predetermined effects’ and they can be invested with meanings apart from those produced in the actual context of their production.  The article warns us “how impossible it is to sustain a romantic notion of popular memory as a oppositional reservoir of alternative historical truths untainted by the ideological effects of official history.” In my own estimation, this, along with Sear/Goenawan’s  piece, offers the most significant contribution towards theoretical understanding of the relationship between history and memory. 

What seems to weigh down heavily on her otherwise splendid analysis is her unstated assumption as to how things should have been. What she considers as the ‘failure’ of the students to ‘grapple in a profound way with the historical…construction of their own movement’  betrays her choice not to see the ‘movement’ through the myriad eyes of its participants. It is their ‘movement,’ that we should not forget,  and it requires a dose of pretensions to stand on higher moral ground and proclaim that they failed to achieve a goal we as outsiders might have merely imposed upon them. For all we know, being active participants in such a movement—considering all the risks it entails—is a ‘personal success’ in itself for each of these students. Who are we do deny them the pleasure of reaping the fruits of their daring and labor? The author chides the students for ‘luxuriating in nostalgia for the heroic history’ they helped create as if being a part of such heroic history is not in itself a great achievement. Rather than being nostalgic, the students, so the author prescribes, should continue participating in the efforts to reform Indonesian society and politics. This prescriptive tone hinders, rather than help, in understanding the student movement, on one hand, and the nature of the photographs as sites of personal memory, on another. Lest we forget, they are ‘mere’ students, and their being necessarily poses limits to what they can and will do. The continuity of  reform efforts, the momentum for which was helped achieve by the student movements, depend to a great extent, as the author herself admits, on forces beyond the confines of the campuses. It seems to require setting the benchmark too high to call the non-continuance of student participation in reformasi a failure of some sort. 

More importantly, how each student uses the photographs as sites of memory is his/her prerogative. It is a testament to their personal powers to inscribe in these photographs memories imbued with personal meanings.  The author herself  emphasizes the open-ended nature of photographs—that they have no predetermined effects, no fixed meanings. It is thus ironic that by prescribing what should have been, she imposes on the students her own preferred way  of seeing or using the photographs. By so doing, she joins the Indonesian ideological state apparatus that she warns us against in subverting the very function of photographs as sites of personal memory. 

The volume is capped by Paul van Zyl’s article Dealing with the Past: Reflection on South Africa, East Timor and Indonesia. It compares the ‘transitional justice’ initiatives in the three countries and argues that while learning from other countries’ experience would be beneficial, it warns against uncritical adoption of certain model without regards to local specificities. Alongside the Zurbuchen’s editorial introduction, this article helps tremendously in locating the 13 other more specifically-focused papers within the broader context of scholarship on the field. It is to Zurbuchen’s credit that the volume is able to achieve  balance between depth and breadth, not to mention unity amidst enormous diversity of views and approaches. This is an engrossing read.

Rommel Curaming
PhD Candidate, Faculty of Asian Studies
Australian National University

Kyoto Review of Southeast Asia. Issue 7. States, People, and Borders in Southeast Asia. September 2006


  1. There is nothing inherently wrong in an essentialist explanation.  In fact, strictly speaking, all explanations are essentialist. What is objectionable about it, in this instance, is that Maier’s certainty obscures more compelling reasons for the alleged difficulty of remembering among Indonesians. Had Maier included Tagalog in the sphere of the Malay, he would have considerable doubt about his proposition that Malay languages do have the ‘lacks’ he has identified and that such ‘lacks’ make the process or remembering more difficult. Tagalog, for all its Malayness, is very meticulous about the tenses. The conjugation of verbs reflects not just the simple past, present and future, but also the past participle and perfect tenses (past perfect, present perfect and future perfect). Even adjectives are conjugated based on number of referents. But for all such grammatical precision, the Filipinos just like Indonesians have always been accused of having a short memory. Perhaps, their ‘forgetfulness’ may be a sort of a coping mechanism to deal with the difficulties of their existential situation. For people whose present life is difficult, always preoccupied with worries where to get the money for viand for today or rice for tomorrow, should it surprise that the past is easily forgotten? Or perhaps, it cannot be considered ‘forgetfulness’ at all. Maybe they viewed the experience differently than the vocal elites or intellectuals whose experience of, say, Martial Law or Orde Baru was decidedly painful. And since this voluble group has access to mass communication, both printed and non-printed, their otherwise minority view easily overwhelms the silence of the rest and thus reap the fruits of skewed representation.  If asked, for instance, not a few Filipinos would create a rather rosy picture of the Martial Law years for all the programs—irrigation, land reform (albeit limited), green revolution, short-term loans, etc—initiated  by Marcos. This is certainly in stark contrast to the violent, dim, ghastly portrait  depicted by the vocal scholars, press people and activists who were the targets of Marcos machinery of terror. In other words, there must be more compelling reasons for the supposed ‘incapability to remember’ or ‘short memory’ of Indonesians (or Filipinos) other than the structure of the ‘Malay’ language.