Merdeka: Why a Centralized Democracy was a Revolutionary Indonesian Idea in 1945

Gerry van Klinken

Honorary Professor, University of Queensland and University of Amsterdam; Honorary Fellow, KITLV

Oppression in Indonesia is intimate. In an overwhelmingly informal economy, poor clients are dependent on patrons they know. Other papers in this panel may touch on this too. Late colonial indirect rule, based on “ethnic” rajas, reinforced the oppression. Emancipatory movements challenged the intimate despotism of decentralized rule. They were “anti-feudal”, non-ethnic, and cosmopolitan, as other papers in this panel demonstrate. The 1945 Revolution appealed to a vision of the future in which impersonal rules protected everyone equally. Only a democracy with centralized authority could break clientelist bonds. The independent Republic of Indonesia moved some way towards that vision in the early years. But it subsequently abandoned both dimensions. First, the New Order dismantled democracy, while retaining centralized authority. Next, Reformasi dismantled the centralized state, while only partly restoring democracy. Many postcolonial countries have made the same move, in order to weaken citizen demands on central authorities. Today’s decentralized Indonesia in some ways resembles the indirectly ruled colonial Indies. Poor governance and heightened ethnic clientelism mark them both. A democratic and centralized republic is once more a Vision of the Future.


Gerry van Klinken’s Indonesian research interests have been on the history of local politics, of the middle classes, and of citizenship. His latest monograph is Postcolonial citizenship in provincial Indonesia (Palgrave Pivot, 2019). He has also worked on digital humanities, and is now turning to the history of climate-related disasters in Asia.


The Asian Studies Association of Australia (ASAA) is the peak body of university experts and educators on Asia in Australia. Established in 1976, we promote and support the study of Asia in Australian universities and knowledge of Asia among the broader community. Our membership is drawn mainly from academics and students, but also includes industry and government Asia experts. We take a strong interest in promoting knowledge about Asia in schools and in contributing to state and Commonwealth government policies related to Asia. We provide informed comment on Asia to a broad public through our bulletin, Asian Currents, and specialist research articles in our journal, Asian Studies Review. Four book series published under our auspices cover Southeast Asia, South Asia, East Asia and Women in Asia.

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