Is “bule” a racist word?

This was supposed to be a box text for a book I’m currently working on, but I got a little carried away. I’ll be needing to cut it back by about nine-tenths, but before I do I thought I’d share it here, as it’s always an interesting topic…

Is the Indonesian term “bule” racist?


Bareng sama bule…

If you’re a Caucasian foreigner and you spend any time in Indonesia away from the beaten tourist track and the expat bubble, you’ll hear it: bule. It might be an excited whisper between friends as you pass in the street – “Hey, look! A bule!” Or it might come with a grin and a wave – “Hello bule!” It’s just two simple syllables (the pronunciation is “boo-lay”), but it’s a word powerfully primed for controversy.

Let’s start with the logical semantics: bule originally meant “albino”, but in its modern colloquial sense it’s generally used as a term for Caucasian foreigners. Very occasionally it might be used for a non-white Westerner, but only when their status as a Westerner trumps their skin colour – when they become, in short, an “honorary white guy” (those determined to muddy the waters of the debate always also manage to find an instance of “bule” being used to describe a tourist from Japan or Korea, but I’m inclined to dismiss those instances out of hand as atypical irrelevances – because I can. Ya-boo bule!). I’ve seen some people try to translate it as “honky”, or even as the Hawaiian word haole. But those are unequivocally hostile terms, which bule simply isn’t. As far as I’m concerned the most accurate translation is nothing more than “whitey”.

So bule is unquestionably a racial designation, but is it actually racist? This is a question that has been stirring up endlessly furious debate on internet forums and in expat bars for years – debate which, incidentally, leaves 99 percent of Indonesians utterly baffled; as far as they’re concerned it’s just a word for a white guy or gal.

Some grumpy expats – and boy, can some expats be grumpy! – like to insist emphatically that if it’s a racial designation, then it must be racist. (These grumpy expats are generally the same ones who like to claim that “Indonesia is the most racist country in the world”, and who, as they warm to their topic, frequently back it up with all sorts of vicious slurs on the intellectual and moral qualities of the entire Indonesian nation. Grumpy expats don’t have a great sense of irony, it seems.) However, as those with a little more self-awareness like to point out, for most Caucasian Westerners, living in Indonesia will simply give them their first unnerving experience of being routinely identified, and indeed overtly addressed, in terms of their own skin colour – something which is, of course, a far less novel experience for Black Americans or British Asians. It doesn’t necessarily imply racism in the word bule, and it certainly doesn’t imply that Indonesia is “the most racist country in the world”.

Very few Indonesians are even aware of the idea that the word bule might be contentious – it’s used in newspapers and on TV after all. And if they do happen upon the expat debates they are usually bemused and defensive: “But it can’t be a racist word! We don’t use it as an insult,” they protest; “we love bules! It’s just a word for white people!” The response to this from those determined to be offended is that in 1900s Mississippi, in its average daily usage the “N-word” wasn’t consciously used as an insult either; it was just “a word for black people”. They have a point, of course, but my personal riposte to this is always that any white expat in 21st-century Indonesia who tries to equate his experiences with those of Black Americans in the Deep South a century ago probably needs to check his sense of perspective…

For all those who get offended, there are plenty of other foreigners who are quite happy to use the word bule themselves. I’m one of them. I like the word. It makes me laugh. And it makes Indonesians laugh when I use it. “I’ve reclaimed it!” I once glibly proclaimed to a work colleague. He was a cleverer man than I, and he eyed me sternly, then pointed out that the very fact that a white man from a former colonial power could so easily come trotting into a postcolonial Asian nation and start casually self-designating with a racial – and possibly racist – term with laughing ironic intent said something about balances of power in identity that ought to give any self-proclaimed liberal pause for thought. In any case, it was certainly a million miles removed from the idea of some Black Americans feeling empowered to “reclaim” the “N-word” out of a centuries-long heritage of oppression and exploitation.

Ah, bule – it’s a word to make your head spin…

For what it’s worth, my personal take is this: Indonesia is not “the most racist country in the world”, and bule is not, of itself, a racist word. It’s almost never used with insulting intent – and even on the very, very rare occasions when it is, it’s in the intent, not the word, that the insult lies. Indonesia is, though, a country singularly lacking in the concept of “political correctness”. If it wasn’t, then bule certainly would be an unacceptable term, and if things one day head that way, then it will be perfectly reasonable for Caucasian foreigners to complain when they hear the word (and what’s the betting that at that point the same grumpy expats will be bemoaning the fact that in Indonesia too, we’re now blighted by “political correctness gone mad”?).

For the moment, however, being called bule doesn’t bother me one bit; and I’ll keep using the word myself. It all comes down to the fact that to be happy as a foreigner living or travelling in Indonesia, to not exist in a permanent state of frustration and rage, you need to remember that you are a foreigner, that you do look different (and that, like it or not, even if you’re on a EFL teacher’s salary, you’re also almost certainly much richer than the vast majority of the people around you). You will also inevitably often be assessed and addressed on first sight according to your skin colour – and maybe it’s actually healthy for white Westerners to experience that once in a while.

Keeping this all in perspective can be hard if you spend your time entirely in tourist or expat hotspots. But I know that when I’m riding my motorbike through some small town in the hinterlands of Java and I spot another incongruous foreigner on the street, strangely dressed and twice the size of everyone else, even I find myself staring. In fact, I sometimes have to fight the urge to shout out as I pass – “Hello mister! Hello bule!”

© Tim Hannigan 2015

A Brief History of Indonesia Media Coverage

coverMy new book, A Brief History of Indonesia: Sultans, Spices, and Tsunamis: The Incredible Story of Southeast Asia’s Largest Nation, was published this summer, launching first in Southeast Asia in July, then in August in the US, and finally in the UK in September. It’s available from all the usual places, though of course, you really should try to buy it from a bricks-and-mortar bookshop if you can…

I had a grand old time launching the book in Indonesia in July and August, starting with some fun events in Bali. First up was a talk, accompanied by the fabled high tea, at the glorious Biku Restaurant in Seminyak, followed by a lively evening session at Casa Luna in Ubud. Other events in Bali, Yogyakarta, and Jakarta followed, all organised by the lovely folks from the Periplus bookshop chain. Last up – literally on the way to the airport – came a final talk at Komunitas Salihara, hosted by the formidable Ayu Utami, who I was very excited to meet (she’s a proper Indonesian literary superstar, and very cool with it).

It’s been really exciting to see how much attention the book has been getting from Indonesian readers and Indonesian media. As an English-language book it was obviously written with non-Indonesians in mind first and foremost, but it’s been very gratifying to get such warm responses from the people whose country it’s actually about.

12039228_10153197818427984_3651873102638603337_nI got featured in the Indonesian-language version of National Geographic – which not only called it “a book which is light to read”, but also delighted me by calling me by my favoured Javanese form of address, “Mas Tim”!

I had a lovely – and very detailed – profile in Harian Nasional by Devy Lubis, and there was more coverage in Bisnis Indonesia, Waktoe, Intisari, Tribun Yogya, Bali Pos and Kedaulatan Rakyat in Yogyakarta which made much of my notion that Indonesians really should stop saying “it would be better to have been colonised by the British, not the Dutch…”

My favourite Indonesian coverage, however, was a fulsome review in Media Indonesia (one of my favourite Indonesian papers) by Hera Khaerani, with the delightful pull-out quote:

What is unique about each of Hannigan’s books is his way of interpreting historical facts and presenting them in a cinematographic way, despite being armed only with the written word. He is able to create a theater in the heads of his readers… (Keunikan setiap novel Hannigan ada pada caranya menginterpretasi fakta sejarah dan menyajikannya secara sinematografis meski hanya berbekal kata-kata yang tertulis. Dia mampu memainkan teater dalam kepala pembaca…)

Tempo Magazine kicked off the English-language coverage with a fine review from Bill Dalton, doyen of Indonesia travel writing, calling the book “a highly readable, informative, solid and irreverent introduction to this sprawling island nation.”  The same review was later reprinted in The Bali Advertiser.11889692_10153511643579303_6494228137556188346_n

Writing in The Jakarta Post, Hans David Tampubolon said that the book “manages to capture this heavy and rich history in a very easy to understand and entertaining narrative”. There was more Jakarta Post coverage in an interview about my favourite books. Meanwhile, Bali & Beyond magazine kindly called it “definitely a must-read” and said that it was “almost as if you are reading a story book rather than complicated research by a historian.” I’m not a historian, as it happens; I’m a history writer, which isn’t quite the same thing, but I won’t quibble with a positive review!

There was also a very detailed review in the Asian Review of Books, also published in the Jakarta Globe, in which Stephen Joyce wrote:

A Brief History of Indonesia is an intelligent and lucidly-written piece of work that has more than enough content and drama to attract the general Asian history reader; and is the perfect companion for travellers and tourists who wish to delve deeper than their travel guide’s history section and get closer to the beating heart of this troubled yet remarkable nation.

In Indonesia Expat veteran Jakarta-based writer Terry Collins reviewed the book, suggesting that it “be translated into Indonesian as an all-purpose supplement to the shallow versions of national history ‘approved’ by successive governments”!

Foreword Reviews gave the book five stars, and said that it “presents Indonesia as a place of high drama”, and Lonely Planet made it one of their top books to “read before you go”, and called it “a highly readable and entertaining narrative that highlights the many personalities who have shaped the nation – and our perception of it…”

And there has eve11050220_501342990028717_5866183669623329163_nn been some coverage on home ground! My own local newspaper, The Cornishman, ran a nice piece, very excited that a “local author” had scored a “bestseller”, even if it was on the other side of the world! And Lucy Munday wrote a feature which ran in The Western Morning News.

And now, it’s time to get on with the next book…

Lebanon 2005: Revolution Day

Here is the final of the three old pieces, written about a journey in the Middle East a decade ago, that I recently discovered, stashed away in the dusty recesses of my files. After some time in Syria I crossed the border into Lebanon. The former Lebanese prime minister Rafik Hariri had been assassinated two weeks earlier – by Syrian security forces, the gossip insisted. At the time there was a heavy Syrian military presence in Lebanon. Many Lebanese felt that their country was, militarily at least, a client state of their bigger neighbour, and now, they had had enough. The “Cedar Revolution”, now largely forgotten, was “Arab Spring Mk.1”, but worlds away from the more recent catastrophes in the region.

damascus3 (2)Revolution Day
Beirut, 28 February 2005

They had been coming into town since first light, down the highway that curved along the coast from the direction of Byblos and Tripoli. Lying in bed in the little guesthouse, up the flight of narrow stairs above bolted-down shop-fronts still marked with old bullet holes, I could hear the sounding of car horns, and the low, liquid sound of determination moving through a crowd.

By mid-morning the army had closed the road to the north, but people had left their vehicles on the verges beside the Mediterranean and continued into the city on foot. I watched them from the balcony: a thickening flow moving determinedly towards Martyrs’ Square. The previous days had been lit by soft spring sunlight, but today a blank white sheet had run in across the sky and everything was very, very still. Except for the protesters.

Most of them carried Lebanese flags and waved them as they walked. Leaning out, I could see the long, snaking line moving down the coast, all red and white.

It was late February. A day earlier old men who read the French newspapers had been sunbathing on the smooth rocks beneath the Corniche; tomorrow young women with expensive sunglasses would go skiing on the last of the shrinking snows up on Mount Lebanon. But not today.

I stood for a long time on the balcony watching the moving crowd thickening and thickening, and hearing the roars moving back and forth from the direction of the square. The pastel-coloured tower blocks on the rising ground behind the road were smudged in the soft grey light, and right in front of the balcony, on a billboard looking down over the road, was a huge poster of the man whose portrait was plastered to walls and windows and old bullet-scarred doors all over the city: Rafik Hariri.

In the poster he was wearing a fine suit – the suit of a prosperous man – and standing with his hands in his pockets glancing upwards and smiling. He had kind eyes and wavy iron-grey hair and a thick moustache. There was a black band across the left-hand corner of the poster.


A fortnight earlier I had been in Amman. It was cold; there had been thick, wet sleet in Petra two days before. Amman was a strange white city, like grimy snow settled over warty hills. There were flocks of pigeons in the yellow sky. I stayed in a guesthouse with dirty corridors, and the streets were crowded with lost Iraqis and Palestinians.

I read about it in The Jordan Times, sitting at a tiny metal table on a narrow, sloping alleyway just off Sha’ban Street, eating hummus and good bread, and drinking thick, grainy coffee that tasted of cardamom. It was on the front page. Rafik Hariri, the former prime minister of Lebanon – the anti-Syrian former prime minister of Lebanon – had died in a huge car bomb blast near the seafront in Beirut. The students from the Lebanese universities blamed Syria. They were already demonstrating.


I saw a small girl give a flower to a soldier.

They had been ordered to keep the crowds out of the square, and the people coming down the road from the north – and me, strolling among them from the guesthouse – swung left at the bundled rolls of barbed wire. We could see the red-and-white hordes on the other side: people who had come in by other roads, and the students who had camped on the sloping grass by the Martyrs’ Monument for days. Sometimes a gang of youths would kicked the wire aside where it lay loose against a wall, and a great surge of people would dash forward with a cheer to join the protest. The soldiers smirked as they pushed the wire back into place, and when the little girl reached up, holding the flower, the man with the gun grinned broadly and you knew that no one would be shot today.

By lunchtime they had disobeyed heir orders and taken the wire away and the road was open. The Lebanese soldiers hated the fact that there were Syrian check-posts, and Syrian intelligence officers in their country as much as anyone.


The “Cedar Revolution” in Lebanon was a little piece of history that could have been made for inquisitive tourists. It all seemed to happen in the course of one day; the result seemed clear – and good; and no one ran for cover under bullets or fell coughing to their knees in tear gas clouds.


damascus 4I wandered back and forth all day. The square was full. There were students clinging to the top of the statue, waving their red, white and green flags. There were banners and posters in Arabic and English and French, telling the Syrians to go home. There were girls in headscarves and girls in tight sleeveless tops with their pierced belly-buttons showing. And there were old women and men in suits. And one man with curly grey hair, holding his little daughter by the hand, and with a flag over his shoulder called out to me: “Allez, monsieur! Come and protest with us, protest with Lebanese!”

There were great walls of white wood close to the memorial, and they were scrawled with messages in three languages, messages of commemoration for Hariri, the Martyr, and messages of condemnation for Syria – go home!

Above it all the great hulk of the old Holiday Inn loomed with its hollow windows, and the acne scars of a million bullets from the old war. Not far away there was a barrier across the road, and black scorch marks on the pavement, and rows of cars with shattered windows and smoke-black buildings. Hariri died there. No one was guarding the scene; no one had cleared it up, after two weeks; and no one had properly investigated it.


In the little shop, just off the square with its high walls lined with jars, I had to queue for a sandwich. I had eaten there the night before when it was quiet, and drunken bottles of Amstel beer. There were no other customers then, but today the heavyset man behind the counter shook his head breathlessly.
“I am so busy today,” he said, “It is the manifestation – revolution makes them hungry.”
They didn’t call it a “demo”, or a “protest”; they used the French word – “manifestation”. I liked that.


In the afternoon I walked away from the square. The streets around the university were empty, and a soft sunlight had cut through the clouds. I bought an ice cream and walked along the Corniche. It was very still, and I could hear the roars from the square, and when I got back it was almost dark, and they had lit little fires near the statue, and there was a big television screen near the old opera house, and in the Lebanese parliament they were debating a motion of no confidence in the government of Omar Karami, and there were still students clinging to the top of the statue, waving their flags.

The crowd was mixed, but it was mostly young, and by evening when the sightseers had taken the children home to bed it was clear that this was a very middle class movement – and in Lebanon the middle class is disproportionately Maronite Christian. I never quite got over the deft, chic confidence of these trilingual young Lebanese, thoroughly Mediterranean in their look and their outlook. You couldn’t help but feel a little shabby and provincial around them. But they were furiously positive too. Things would change, they said; they were sure. Maybe not today, or tomorrow, but things would change.

They liked Walid Jumblatt, the canny Druze politician.

“He’s mad,” said a very beautiful girl with a nose piercing and braided hair. “I mean really mad, chemically mad, like us.”
Her boyfriend had marijuana-stained eyes and he wore the hood of his sweatshirt pulled up. He laughed when she said this. “He is! She’s right.”

I asked when they thought Karami’s government would fall. Not today, they said; maybe next week. They were going skiing tomorrow – did I want to come?


The crowd was going nowhere, but it was getting late, and I began to wonder how the day could end. It was still cold at night, and I envisaged the kind of hung-over, grey-sky weariness of mornings at music festivals in the coming dawn. Perhaps they wouldn’t chant as hard the next day.

I had wandered away from the square again when the cheer went up. It was a huge roar and a boy with a red neckerchief went dashing past me shouting, and car horns started sounding all the way up the road along the coast, and I turned back quickly towards the square and someone told me the government, the pro-Syrian government, had resigned in the face of the protests.

I had nothing invested in what was happening, and I knew only what any diligently interested tourist ought to know about the politics and history of the country, but I understood well enough that this was what the crowd wanted, and I was absurdly happy for them.

They were dancing on the street outside the guesthouse all night, and the car horns were sounding all night, and in the morning it was very cold, and very grey and my visa was about to run out.


There was no traffic, and no one walking on the streets. It was very, very still and silent. There were no buses running from the terminal, but I found a nervous Syrian taxi driver who wanted to get out of Lebanon, and he crowded me and a handful of other Syrians into his car, and filled it with boxes of soap and biscuits and drove over the mountains to Damascus.

Syria seemed shabby and subdued in a way it hadn’t done a week earlier. The woman behind the counter in the guesthouse in Souq Sarouja shook her head as I filled in the register.

“They are crazy, the Lebanese,” she said. “We have always known that they are crazy; they are always doing things like that.”

© Tim Hannigan 2015

Syria 2005: Grief

In 2005, ten years ago, I spent several months in the Middle East. I recently came across some pieces I wrote about that journey, buried in my digital bottom drawer. Reading them I was struck by the awful fact that things have gotten not better, but much, much worse.

Syria 1 (2)Grief
Damascus, 19 February 2005

The sky was heavy and yellow over Damascus on the Tenth of Muharram, and I took a taxi to the tomb of the Prophet’s granddaughter. We passed through busy streets in the poorer quarters on the southern edge of the city. There was bad building work and loose wire, and I saw the head and neck of a slaughtered camel hanging outside a butcher’s stall, fleshy lips pointing at the pavement. It still had its woolly winter coat.

The mausoleum of Sayidda Zeinab was in a grubby Shia suburb of dust and yellowing concrete. The streets were already crowded and the great golden swelling of the dome rose above the compound walls against the heavy sky. All along the pavements there were stalls, full of prayer beads and skullcaps and books of prayer and theology with embossed covers. And there were posters of the Shia Imams, together like a multiplicity of stern Jesuses with the blinding white blank of the Hidden Imam at the centre, or as individuals: Ali and Hussein, green-turbaned and black-bearded and fiery-eyed.

Lean youths in jeans and black tee shirts, and women in black head-scarves and little children in their best clothes, and shabby men in old jackets, and here and there a tall figure in robes and turban: they surged along the grubby street and around the corner and into the gate of the compound, past the soldiers who searched bags and pockets as best they could. I went with them, though the gateway, and inside.

The tomb, under its great dome, lay ahead, people clamouring up the steps, tripping over discarded shoes. It was flanked with arches of blue-green tilework and a band of golden calligraphy framed the roofline: “Peace upon Zeinab the Great”, it said. The courtyard was full of people and there was a smell of sweat and hot breath, like at protest marches and outdoor concerts. From the space behind the tomb I could hear the rising pulse of voices and a hollow marching sound: thump, thump, thump.

A dozen young men, dressed in black, strips of green cloth tied tight around their brows, formed a ragged band: mourners, like everyone here, for the Imam Hussein, killed at Kerbala – with his baby son in his arms, they say.

They were led by a man with curly brown hair, rising in knots above his headband. His face was blotched red with furious grief and his eyes brimmed with tears. His voice cracked as he chanted – “Oh Martyr! Oh Hussein!” – and with each chant he brought his bolted fist high up above his head and swung it down with mighty force onto his own chest. The others matched the beats, fists pounding in time against breasts. Thwump! Oh Martyr! Thwump! Oh Hussein! They swung their bodies together in time so that it was like a dance. Their eyes were red and their brows gleamed with sweat.

A small boy stood in the crowd nearby. He was wearing a tatty woollen jumper and up above his head he held a crudely painted placard, marked with two words in white on black and splattered red: Martyr; Hussein. He stood on tiptoes, straining to hold the sign as high as he could. His mouth was tight with determination.

Thwump, thwump, twhump!

There was a roar from the courtyard gate and a new mob of young flagellants came surging through under waving green banners. They swept past the gate of the tomb in a seething knot beating out a mighty rhythm on their own flesh.

I stepped back a little, out of the way, onto the raised platform at the edge of the compound. A girl with pale brown eyes in a black headscarf smiled at me. I nodded back, a little startled.
“Where are you from?” she asked – and I was still more startled by her accent.
“From England,” I said, “like you…”
She smiled again; she was very beautiful. She was born in Iraq but she had been brought up in London. She was training to be a doctor. “Where exactly are you from?” she asked.
“From Cornwall.”
“You don’t have a Cornish accent,” she said.
“You don’t have a London accent,” I said. Hers was crystal clear but without any superior sharpness.
“I went to a good school,” she said; “I suppose you did too.”

The mourning youths surged past us on another circuit of the courtyard, fists pounding into flesh. Some of them were sobbing as they chanted.

“I must say,” she said, “I’m surprised to see a… a…”
“Tourist?” I suggested.
“Yes! I’m surprised to see a tourist here.”
“But you’re from England too.”
“But I’m a… I’m a… this is my culture,” she struggled, but smiled at the absurdity. “Actually this is the first time I’ve been to Ashura celebrations in a Muslim country. Of course, I would like to have been in Iraq, in my homeland…” she trailed off.

I told her I had wanted to see the Ashura parades in Pakistan, but that it was too dangerous there where the commemoration of ancient bloodshed all too often gave way to new sectarian atrocities. She said that was sad. She was very beautiful.


They kept coming, all day, flowing into the confines of the tomb. I peered over shoulders and piled shoes and saw the gold and silver and the mosaics of the inner chamber, and the dozens of hands reaching out to touch the metalwork around the grave.

Outside the tomb courtyard there were rags and scraps of paper and plastic and spilt food underfoot, and the sky hung heavier above crooked television aerials and jagged rooflines. Taxis and minibuses and donkey carts were howling over cracked tarmac and there was an edge of frenzy on the air.

I met an acquaintance out on the street, a Swiss-German who had studied Arabic in Damascus and was serving an internship at the Swiss embassy. The courtyard was more crowded now and we were jostled through the gateway again, past the struggling soldiers.

There would be no sunset over the Lebanon Ranges tonight, but the light was fading, thickening to a murky grey. There were many Iranians in the tomb complex now, and I remembered a little Persian – What is your name? Where are you from? America? No, not America.

When the light was all gone there were lamps around the courtyard and it shone back off the dome of the tomb, and in the corner, close to the gateway I saw men in pale shalwar kamises. They were chanting, but not like the youths of earlier: it was singing really, to the glorious heart-beat rhythms of Qawwali. Their faces shone in the lamplight, and they only slapped at their chests with loose palms. I went across quickly, unable to resist, and yes, they were from Pakistan, of course, and very quickly they were all around me smiling, and they pressed a chocolate bar and a carton a fruit juice on me and there was a tiny woman, all in black except her face, and she spoke immaculate English, and in a matter of minutes I had an address scribbled down and a very genuine offer of a place to stay in Karachi next time I came to Pakistan.
“But…” I began, and she smiled tenderly.
“Of course, I know you would not normally be coming to Karachi; it is a dangerous place. But you will be safe if you stay with us…”

I left them and picked through the seething crowds. The Swiss-German was speaking Arabic with a group of angry men. His face was lined and serious, and he was touching his mouth uncertainly with the ends of his fingers. The men had tense faces and furious eyes.
He glanced at me as I came up. “Ah…”
The foremost of the angry-eyed men looked at me and asked something. I knew enough to understand the question: “England,” I said.
His eyes flared and he tilted his head back and said, defiantly, “Iraq!”
He was broad-shouldered and he wore a black jacket that made him look broader still. He spoke with angry passion, and raised his finger as he did so.
The Swiss-German made conciliatory noises.
“What are you talking about?” I asked.
He glanced at me. “They are talking about politics. Actually, I am not really comfortable with this conversation…”
There were cracks of grief and anger in the voice of the speaking man, and the others clustered behind him, nodding furiously as he spoke.
He said something, then said it again, half-shouting, beating at his own chest. I didn’t need a translation: “I am a Shia!” he was saying; “I am a Shia and even I am saying this!”

The Swiss-German mumbled and touched his mouth. “He is saying that with Saddam gone Iraq is destroyed; he is saying that even though he hated Saddam, everyone knows that only Saddam could keep Iraq peaceful. He says Iraq needs a strong hand and the Americans are like children; he is saying ‘what have they done, what have they done?’ He is very angry. Actually this is not really a political idea that I subscribe too. I think we should go.” He started to move away.

I lingered for a moment.
“Peace upon you,” I said, and held out my hand.
The man stared at me for the briefest of moments, then shook it firmly and warmly, his eyes blazing. “Thank you!” he said, in English; “Thank you!”

© Tim Hannigan 2015

Book review: Liem Sioe Liong’s Salim Group

A fascinating recent addition to the literature on New Order-era Indonesia is Liem Sioe Liong’s Salim Group: The Business Pillar of Suharto’s Indonesia, which I recently reviewed for the Asian Review of Books. The full review follows below.


Liem Sioe Liong’s Salim Group: The Business Pillar of Suharto’s Indonesia
Richard Borsuk and Nancy Chng
Institute of Southeast Asian Studies, 2014

The cukong is a potent and often troubling figure in the recent history of Indonesia. Based on the Hokkien word for “boss”, the term refers to a businessman, of Chinese origin and astronomical wealth, who enjoys a symbiotic relationship with some powerful military or government personage. The one provides the finances to fund official projects, to bail out crumbling state enterprises, or simply in the form of lavish “gifts”; the other provides patronage and protection.

Cukongs were particularly associated with the cronyism of Suharto’s New Order regime, which ruled Indonesia until the 1990s, and Suharto’s personal “cukong extraordinaire” was Liem Sioe Liong, head of the vast Salim Group, one of Southeast Asia’s biggest conglomerates.

Liem’s rise and not-quite-fall, and the convoluted history of his business empire and its role in New Order Indonesia, has now been thoroughly explored by Richard Borsuk and Nancy Chng in Liem Sioe Liong’s Salim Group: The Business Pillar of Suharto’s Indonesia.


Born in an impoverished village in Fujiang, China, in 1917, Liem’s story is the classic tale of the Chinese emigrant made good. At the age of 21, he sailed for Java in what was then the Dutch East Indies. After starting out selling clothes from the back of a bicycle, he moved into coffee production and dabbled in various other trades. But it was the rise of Suharto in the late 1960s that provided untold opportunities for Liem. The two men became firm friends with very obvious benefits. As the authors report one of his cukong compatriots saying, “up until when Suharto came to power, Liem was nobody—he was small fry.”

The book charts, in quite staggering detail, Liem’s journey from small fry to big fish over the course of Suharto’s three-decade rule. Beginning in the late 1960s, his Salim Group swiftly expanded until its vast portfolio included everything from pig farms to hotels—though its essential pillars were banking, construction materials, and food.

After sketching the story of Liem’s early years, the book examines each of the Salim Group’s main facets in turn—a chapter on banking, a chapter on its hugely successful Indofood arm, and so on. With a group so large and so diverse—the authors point out that not even Liem himself ever really knew how many individual businesses he owned—this is the only feasible approach. But it does sometimes leave the chronology a little blurred in the midriff of the book. For a casual reader, however, it is worth sticking it out, for in Chapter 15 a genuinely gripping narrative emerges as the 1990s get underway and the fatal cracks begin to show in the New Order.


Liem Sioe Liong’s Salim Group is essentially a scholarly book, and as a resource on both the economic history of the New Order in general, and the story of the Salim Group in particular it is of enormous value. The authors have pulled together a vast amount of contextual information, and then threaded through it the product of detailed personal interviews with Liem himself—carried out before his death at the age of 95 in 2012—and with his son and current Salim Group helmsman Anthony Salim.

But Borsuk and Chng are both sometime journalists as well as scholars, and they bring a marked journalistic sharpness of prose to the dense economic history. In this Liem Sioe Liong’s Salim Group sits comfortably alongside other big, scholarly, but thoroughly accessible books on New Order Indonesia, in particular Adam Schwarz’s A Nation in Waiting. At times in the story there are flashes of Tom Wolfe’s epic novels of American capitalism, and it’s perhaps no coincidence that the authors cite an analogy from Wolfe’s The Bonfire of the Vanities at one point.

Of course, in a Wolfe novel, Liem’s rise would be followed by some sort of humbling fall, but that’s not quite what happened here. When the Indonesian economy collapsed in 1997/1998 and Suharto was finally pushed from power, the extent of the Salim Group’s links with the regime—through partnerships with Suharto’s children, through bailouts that at different times flowed in different directions, from the state to Salim businesses and from Salim’s BCA bank to struggling government projects—came into critical focus, as did some significant breaches of banking regulations.

But while the banking arm and several other Salim businesses were eventually wrested from their control, under the canny command of Anthony Salim the group held on to its food production sector (their Indomie noodles are now found everywhere from Nigeria to Syria), and proceeded to expand into other international markets.


It is in the story of the Salim Group’s survival that a slightly uncomfortable element of the book becomes evident. In the preface the authors are at pains to explain that their work was neither authorized nor financed by the group or the family.

It is obvious, however, that it could never have been written without the cooperation of Liem and Anthony Salim, and it is perhaps the debt of gratitude that leads to an occasional lack of criticism where criticism is due. Rumours of Liem’s shadier dealings are sometimes mentioned in passing without investigation, and a sterner take on BCA Bank’s excesses in the 1990s might have been warranted. The portrayal of “Ferrari-engined executive” Anthony Salim, meanwhile, is very warm indeed, and the final chapter on Liem himself reads like a eulogy.

None of this in any way diminishes the enormous value of the book, but it might raise the occasional eyebrow, given that these are men still regarded by some Indonesians as the worst sort of New Order crony.


As well as being a book about Liem Sioe Long, this is also in some ways about the story of Indonesia’s Chinese community.

Indonesia has been home to Chinese settlers for many centuries, and their position has often been a tenuous one. Perceived as disproportionately wealthy, they have been subject to discrimination and sporadic mob violence at least since colonial times.

In the postcolonial era, their loyalty to the new nation was sometimes called into question, even as the Indonesian authorities made it difficult for ethnic Chinese residents to obtain Indonesian citizenship. Indeed, it was the tenuous position of the wealthy Chinese that made them so attractive as collaborators to Suharto. Borsuk and Chng write:

Suharto skilfully used Chinese businessmen like Liem as he did not trust their pribumi [indigenous Indonesian] counterparts, who might use accumulated wealth to build a political base. Liem posed zero political threat as the Chinese were excluded from politics in the New Order.

The stereotypical view of Indonesian Chinese—that they are all rich, clannish, and with more affection for their ancestral homeland than for the country in which they live—is grossly unfair, ignoring the quiet majority whose ancestors may have been in Southeast Asia for centuries and whose own circumstances are decidedly modest. But it is a view that has at times been given credence by the prominence of cukongs, and this is an element of Liem Sioe Liong’s story that Borsuk and Chng perhaps should have given more attention (though they do report Anthony Salim’s claim that his father secretly interceded with Suharto on behalf of thousands of stateless Chinese Indonesians).

After 1998, Liem Sioe Liong never lived in Indonesia, spending his final years in neighbouring Singapore. The authors assert on several occasions that he always thought of Indonesia as home. But they also note that, starting in the 1980s, Liem and fellow cukong Djuhar Sutanto lavished vast donations on his home Chinese province of Fujian, funding reservoirs and irrigation projects, and laying paved roads to his ancestral village. When he visited he was hailed a hero, with flag-waving school children greeting his arrival. Unsurprisingly, the authors note, this was “a taboo subject back in Jakarta”:

[T]he philanthropists preferred not to reveal the extent of their money pumped into China, but reports estimate the amount to be well over RMB400 million.

In their meetings with Liem in old age, the authors report that he did talk fondly of Indonesia,

as it had offered great business opportunities. For making money, he commented, Indonesia was ‘Number 1’.


Cukongs like Liem Sioe Liong were essential to bolster Suharto’s three-decade rule in Indonesia. Without their economic wherewithal, the New Order would probably not have managed the real developmental progress it achieved for ordinary Indonesians in the 1970s and 1980s.

But they were also an intrinsic part of the cronyism that eventually brought down the regime. And the popular perception of the billionaire cukong still plays into old prejudices and hatreds.

The lot of ordinary Chinese Indonesians has improved in recent years, but they are still all too often objects of jealousy and suspicion. During the unrest of 1998 Chinese properties and Chinese people suffered much violence (part of Liem’s own Jakarta home was destroyed by a mob, though he was in California at the time), and should troubled times come again there is every chance that the mobs will turn once more against those local Chinese who have no friends in high places, no private jet waiting to whisk them to safety in Singapore, and whose own business empires stretch no further than a single shop-house.

© Tim Hannigan 2015

Plus ça change, Indonesia-style

Jokowi won through in the end in the Indonesian presidential election earlier this year, and he’s now the country’s seventh president. But just how much difference would it really have made if it had been the other guy, Prabowo, who won?

In the run up to the election I was asked to write an article exploring the historical contexts for Asia House. Here’s the start of the piece; you can follow the link at the bottom to read the rest on the Asia House website:

On 19 May 2014 a political event took place in Rumah Polonia, a stately, colonial-style villa on Jalan Cipinang Cempedak in Jakarta.

Amongst the many people present were two particularly notable figures – Prabowo Subianto and Amien Rais. The first man was there to make a formal declaration of his candidacy for the post of Indonesian president along with his running mate, Hatta Rajasa. Amien Rais, meanwhile, was there to lend the would-be premier his enthusiastic support. When it came time to give his speech, Rais invoked no less that Indonesia’s first president, Sukarno – one of whose several wives had once occupied Rumah Polonia.

“I’m not an expert at reading people’s faces,” Rais said, “but from the side Pak Prabowo looks like Bung Karno [the way Indonesians often refer to Sukarno]…”

For anyone who remembered events in the same city exactly 16 years earlier, this was a peculiar moment. Look at the newsreel footage from May 1998 covering the protests, riots, and high political drama that finally brought to an end the 32-year authoritarian rule of Indonesia’s second president, Suharto, and you’ll spot the familiar faces of Prabowo and Amien Rais.

There is Rais – looking little different, still impish and softly spoken, in the thick of the demonstrating students, the foremost political figure in the burgeoning protest movement that was demanding that Suharto’s aged New Order regime be swept away in the name of democratic reform.

And there’s Prabowo – much more boyish that the solid, jowly figure of today, in uniform, at that time head of the Army Strategic Reserve Command (Kostrad) and son-in-law of the embattled dictator, already rumoured to have been involved in the military’s most brutal attempts to stamp out the reform movement…

Read the full article here.

© Tim Hannigan 2014