Asia's Middle Child

Consider this: Indonesia has the fourth largest population in the world. It has the largest population of Muslims, the second highest measure of biodiversity after Brazil, a very stable democracy despite its ethnic and geographic diversity and the potential to be a major player on the world stage in coming years. Yet Columbia University offers no courses on Indonesia and only two on all of Southeast Asia. How is it that Indonesia has come to be so ignored within academia that an elite global university wholly fails to represent the nation within its curriculum? The very history classes that should be offered would provide the answer: Indonesia is only twelve years out of an effective dictatorship under President Suharto, and as a fledgling democracy is still mired in political corruption, ethnic violence (there are roughly 300 distinct native ethnicities in Indonesia), and overwhelming poverty. In the late 1990s, Indonesia was a poster child of development, but it was swiftly dealt a sharp blow by the 1997 Asian Financial Crisis. In just one year the nation’s steadily climbing GDP dropped 13.5 percent; the exchange rate for the dollar jumped from 2,600 to 8,000 rupiah, resulting in mass inflation; Suharto was forced to resign after 31 years in power, and Indonesia came alarmingly close to anarchic violence and indefinite instability. From the perspective of the West, Indonesia was not a secure place to do business. It was not politically stable, and it did not provide any significant global trade leverage. Private investors thus had little reason to concern themselves with a nation that was of little financial utility to them.

Indonesia, with a splintering democracy and a dangerously increasing rate of radical Islamic terrorism, was also an undesirable location from a political standpoint. The potential geostrategic benefits of a political partnership with Indonesia were high, but, as when any developed nation attempts to court a developing nation, the United States would be expected to help struggling Indonesia to develop the infrastructure necessary to maintain government control and social well-being. These potential costs were understandably judged as being too high. Indonesia’s future was still too uncertain to make it an attractive partner.

Moreover, Indonesia has not historically had an important relationship with the West in the same way that other Asian nations have, leaving it relatively unstudied and ignored. India, before its economy took off in the early 1990’s, by comparison, was studied with greater interest due to its traditional significance in Western culture and its British colonial background. Like India, Indonesia was poised to make great developmental strides, yet Indonesia had no established place in the realm of Western politics and academia. With little incentive for the region to be studied for the last several decades, interest in Indonesia has fallen by the wayside.

Now, Indonesia’s story is changing. Stabilization of the democratic process, economic development and the decrease in the rates of poverty and terrorism are all being made. Under the popular, recently-reelected President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono and after several years of successful tight fiscal policies, Jakarta finally has the political leadership and resources it needs to update its infrastructure and, hopefully, launch itself into the global economy, bringing back the benefits to the people of Indonesia, who deserve real change after decades of repression and economic suffering.

Indonesia now has the third highest rate of economic growth among G20 countries, only trailing China and India, which are studied extensively at Columbia and across the United States. While it faces many challenges in eliminating corruption and maintaining its great ethnic and religious diversity within the context of peaceful democracy, Indonesia is almost undoubtedly going to play a global role of greater importance. Columbia should get with the times and offer more courses on Indonesia and Southeast Asia, a dynamic part of the world that we can no longer responsibly ignore.