Departing from Java

Joost Coté

This not insubstantial volume from the energetic Copenhagen based Nordic Institute of Asian Studies adds a further dimension to studies related to Indonesia’s largest ethnic community sitting within the intersecting discourses of global labour mobility, diasporic and migrant studies, and postcolonial studies. It disappoints, however, as it could have done more with the material and the expertise brought together for this workshop-based volume. To put this more positively: there is much more to say about the important subject this volume opens up for inspection.

The nine substantive chapters examine four examples of what might be termed as Javanese diasporic communities, two within the Indonesian archipelago, and two abroad; and five cases of Javanese ‘migrant labour’, two of which that have elsewhere been referred to as examples of ‘cross-border mobility’, and which one contribution refers to as ‘guest labour’. The four diasporic cases represent long historical trajectories which have their origins in colonial labour and welfare policies. Missing here is the prominent case of the ‘Cape Malays’, a majority of whom were originally Javanese slave workers, and any reference to the ‘Malays’ – in fact mainly Javanese – imported as ‘coolie contract labour’ to the British colonies of Australia where they were employed on sugar plantations – until to the surprise and shock of its white settlers, they staged a ‘revolt’ in the mid-1880s – and in the pearling industry on the north coast.

The examples of contemporary Indonesian labour mobility consist of studies of Javanese workers in Malaysia, Hong Kong, Singapore, Taiwan, Saudi Arabia (two), and Dubai. These provide some insight also into ‘windows of opportunity’ that overseas contract labour experience for Javanese women. As well as providing them with an opportunity to make a real contribution to the economic elevation of their families, for those in the Middle East, the possibility exists, in practice limited, of fulfilling the hope of one day undertaking the pilgrimage to Mecca. But as so much of the reporting on contemporary Southeast Asian contract labour mobility has revealed, this is largely a story of hardship and exploitation. This includes sex trafficking which is not specifically addressed here, but which was the subject of a major 2003 Universitas Gadjah Mada study on Indonesian cross-border mobility.

While the book’s focus is on only one category of Javanese society, i.e. labour, and is limited to specific geographically defined sites, one could of course readily suggest other categories of historic and contemporary forms of Javanese mobility within and beyond its borders. The annual hajj comes to mind, as well as ‘academic mobility’, both categories which have long played a significant role in modern Javanese history. Today ‘academic mobility’ funded by the Indonesian government, sees thousands of its emerging intellectual leaders (often accompanied by their families) living abroad for periods as long as, if not longer than, those of Indonesian ‘workers’. Internally, the ‘Javanese bureaucrat’, as well as Javanese military personnel, have been mobilised across the archipelago for more than a century. Internal circular migration between rural and urban Java represents another category of mobility and an existing field of study. But this of course is to suggest another book.

Overwhelmingly, then, this collection focuses on Javanese as ‘workers’ and here, common to both post-colonial ‘transmigratie’ (internal mobility) and international contract labour, is its colonial origins. In this context, it is surprising that the introductory chapter does not make reference to the literature on conditions of Javanese contract labour (and women) on the colonial plantations of north Sumatra (e.g. Ann Laura Stoler Jan Breman). This would have appropriately contextualised the discussion and provided a link to the examples of current contract labour conditions described in this volume.

Also absent here is some discussion of the mechanisms by which both colonial era and contemporary internal and international labour recruitment processes operate. Again, an introduction could have contextualised an analysis of, and parallels between the transmigrasi projects of the New Order Indonesian government and the development objectives of the so-called ‘ethical policy’ of ‘kolonisasie’ (adopted also in relation to Balinese). Here, one might have also expected to see some reference to the broader inter-colonial parallels in mechanisms that enabled the collection, engagement and transportation of Chinese, Indian as well as Indonesian ‘coolie’ labour workers between colonies and the nature of international agreements covering both these historic and contemporary arrangements.

The studies that focus on the Javanese diasporic communities of Lampung, Southeast Sulawesi, Surinam, and New Caledonia offer an introduction to a broader field of study. It is a pity that Peter Meel’s chapter on Surinam is limited to detailing the recent activities and policies of Javanese political parties in relation to Surinam’s independence from the Netherlands. Important as that is, it leaves little room to summarise the extensive work that has been undertaken on the cultural, religious, and linguistic aspects of this diasporic Javanese community that has evolved since 1906. In this regard, Pam Allen’s detailed study of New Caledonian Javanese is a far more rewarding study for the reader coming new to this topic and a comparable account of Surinam’s Javanese community would have been welcome. Amongst the many places in Indonesia where large communities of Javanese have become rooted, Lampung is perhaps the best known and possibly most extensive, and its history is nicely developed in Rebecca Elmhirst’s chapter. Agus Suwignyo and Widaratih Kamiso’s chapter on the Javanese in Southeast Sulawesi is an interesting close-up study of individuals which in many ways can be seen to exemplify the experience of thousands of other Javanese families across Indonesia over the course of the 20th century.

In conclusion then, this is a rather slight contribution to a set of major contemporary global, national and community issues. Its individual chapters provide useful introductions to specific cases and issues but the book as a whole could have been more useful had these chapters been adequately contextualised. Limited as it is to ‘labour’, there is a potential in a collection like this to project (or confirm) the impression of ‘the Javanese’ as a vulnerable, put-upon and agency-less ethnic community, with all the colonial overtones that such an impression carries with it.