Annisa’s research is broadly concerned with youth, new media, and political subjectivity in Southeast Asia. Before moving to Melbourne, she was a Postdoctoral Fellow at the Department of Communications and New Media, National University of Singapore, from 2018 to 2019. She received her Ph.D. from National University of Singapore in 2018. While finishing her doctoral degree, she was also a Visiting Student Researcher at the University of California Berkeley in 2016. She has published her work in Inter-Asia Cultural Studies, New Media & Society, International Communication Gazette, Media and Communication, Asiascape: Digital Asia and Feminist Media Studies. She has also published her writing with South China Morning Post, The Jakarta Post and The Conversation.
DSTV is first and foremost a media company, reporting, broadcasting and transmitting the goings on in Torajan public and ceremonial life. With over 300,000 subscribers on their youtube channel, and a significant viewership across their district. DSTV's videos reach a large number of people and they exist within a large and complex media ecosystem of South Sulawesi and Indonesia.
Our discussion with Annisa was based around the topics of post-colonialism in Indonesia, media literacy and the role Cultural Studies can play in thinking critically about social mores. Her perspective was particularly helpful in helping us contextualise DSTV’s work in the contemporary media landscape in Indonesia and internationally, and getting a broader sense for how younger generations of Indonesians consume and engage with society through media. DSTV exists as a media platform for Torajans, by Torajans, and plays a part in decentralising what can often be a uniform, Java or urban-centric media voice.
There seems to exist a disconnection between urban and rural communities in Indonesia, that arguably reflects a greater trend worldwide. It’s important for us, whilst working with DSTV, as well as working together, to acknowledge the material conditions that we each live, work and create in, and how these conditions might impact how we think, learn and work. This, in turn, has impacted how we regard the DSTV archive, and consider who the original target audience is for these videos.
We would like to extend our gratitude to Annisa for her time and encouragement.
Sam: Part of the idea of this exchange is exploring the differences that we have, our different colonial histories and varying ideas of post-colonialism and decolonisation in both countries. In your experience, having studied and worked in both Indonesia and in Australia, if there were any differences that you could comment on or if you could go into any detail about the history of Indonesian colonialism and decolonisation.
Annisa: It's a very different world with regards to what decolonisation means in Indonesia and in Australia. In a post-colonial nation like Indonesia, decolonisation means a project for Asian nations who are now independent to continue making themselves independent. So independence in thinking, independence in fixing, “fixing” I think is the easiest word to absorb for most people. At the cultural level, we are trying to stop seeing ourselves as inferior in contrast to people from Western societies. That's still pretty much rampant in Indonesia, even amongst the most educated. It's that sense of Western superiority that is still very much significant and present in Indonesia, despite the fact that it's a post-colonial nation, but being a post-colonial nation doesn't mean that Indonesia as a society generally has completely successfully done the work in decolonisation. That's very different, I think, from Australia, where the indigenous communities still have no rights to their own land, still have no right to be alive, really. And I think about this a lot, whenever I do an acknowledgement of country here, because I just wonder what would happen to me had I been a member of an indigenous community here, I wouldn't have the same sort of trajectory or livelihood at all. I might not even be alive had Indonesia not been independent. So, the task of decolonisation is very different and the post-colonial realities are really different. But I think there are similarities to both societies and particularly at a cultural level. It's the fact that Westerners, the Anglo white cultures, are still deemed superior to the indigenous cultures, superior to the more politically critical traditions or cultures of the first people of the land.
Sam: We've been speaking a lot recently with representatives from AMAN. I've been learning a lot about Indonesian conceptions of indigeneity as opposed to Australian conceptions of indigeneity, which for me, growing up in Australia, from the outside, seems like a fairly cut and dry definition: Indigenous Australians are those who were here before European settlement. Whereas in Indonesia it's a much more complex idea. I wondered if that had any impact on the way you conceive of post-colonialism or the political and social paradigms that exist in a post-colonial Indonesia.
Annisa: When we talk about indigeneity in places like Indonesia, as you said, it's very different. And the politics of indigeneity are very different as well. One of the first things we have to remember is the fact that Indonesia exists, the lines drawn in the map of Indonesia are the result of colonialism. I would say they’re arbitrary lines that were made by the colonial powers.
If you look into Pan-Malay traditions and societies, the lines between Singapore, Malaysia, Indonesia, Brunei and the Philippines, they're very arbitrary, they were not really meaningful for many people who actually lived in the area. We share languages, we share cultures, behaviours and values and so on. But that is not to say that there is one sort of stable notion of what it means to be Indonesian. I think what it means to be Indonesian at this point is very different for me in comparison to someone in Toraja.
I was watching the video that you shared with me, about Toraja. Someone like me whose parents are from Java. My mother is from West Java, from Banten. My father, his parents are Bataknese, also from a particular area. Both are from islands who are very dominant in Indonesian national cultures and political ideologies. Sumatra and Java are very big influences in defining what Indonesia means. Historically, it also means that people who look like me and speak languages like I do from Java or from Sumatra are seen as the dominant culture. We are in a lot of ways, colonisers in places like Papua and in many parts of eastern Indonesia. So for me, being indigenous in a post-colonial nation like Indonesia has very different meaning than it does in Australia, partly because it's far more complicated, because we are independent. People are mixing already.
The idea of purity has been long gone. But these lines drawn by the colonial powers are arbitrary to people who are actually indigenous, whose lands are still within the purview of the Adat (traditional connection to land), these ideas are less respected precisely because the meaning of indigeneity, what it is to be indigenous, has been long discarded by many urban Indonesians. The problem is far more complicated, obviously, but also I think it could be quite dangerous because we're a lot of Indonesians like me, we're no longer respecting what it means to be indigenous. We're putting it aside, really. And that has very, very critical and I think violent effects on those who are still living with their Adat.
There is this tendency amongst urban Indonesians to always position the rural and the village, as backwards. That sense of respect is not really there.
Sam: It seems like in many parts of the world, Australia included, and notably America as well, there's a split between urban and rural lifestyles which makes it more and more difficult for people to understand each other's values and lifestyles. Maybe I'm misunderstanding, but from what I gather you're saying, it’s interesting that the idea of indigeneity would come into the equation in this particular dichotomy of lifestyles and in this difficulty of understanding one another.
Annisa: I was trying to focus more on time, because it's impossible for me, at this time as an Indonesian whose country has been independent since the 1940, I have difficulty claiming to be indigenous, and therefore having the right to be free. It’s a very different case than that of the indigenous communities in New Zealand, Australia, Canada or the First Nations in the United states. But that doesn't make it less problematic or less violent, I think.
Sam: When you moved to Australia, did you experience a cultural shock? What were your expectations before you arrived and how have they been met or not?
Annisa: I have spent a lot of my time in Indonesia and Singapore. Contextually, these are places where when I talk about race and ethnicity, it becomes very specific. There, I'm not “Asian”, I'm not Asian at all. In Singapore or Indonesia, you’re identified by the super specific location where you live and where your parents are from. This is always just a basic conversation that we have in Singapore, Malaysia and Indonesia; “my Mum's from... and my Dad’s from... where we've mostly lived...”. But of course, that sort of politics shifted in Singapore as well because of its own interesting racial politics. For Singapore, you're either Chinese, Malay, Indian or others. So that's already problematic. And within that conversation, people get to say, if you're Chinese, what are you, are you Cantonese, Han Chinese and so on. Are you from the mainland, or Taiwanese and so on.
Sam: Are those administrative categories?
Annisa: Yes. In Singapore, I think in Malaysia as well for IDs. So that's sort of the politics of the Singaporean port, Malayan politics. I had to say that I was Malay all the time, even though for Indonesians, well, we're not Malay precisely. In Indonesia it's impossible to define your ethnicity by just saying you're Malay. Because if your parents are from Bali, you're not Malay, you're Balinese and similarly if you’re from Sulawesi etc. So that was one type of politics which I was really uncomfortable with already, to just sort of put myself in that box of being a Malay.
Coming to Australia, I remember my first year here was just being angry because people were labelling me as Asian, which for me is just very, not only reductive, but also problematic, because if it sounds very American. I lived in the States for a year and I didn't like that way of thinking, that you're either “Asian” or white because “Asians” pretty much represent East Asia. That reduces the complexity within East Asia. Here, I feel that the idea that I'm representative of diversity is already very problematic. The fact that people like to put me in that box of Asia and Asians, a box that I'm very uncomfortable with.
This is different from Singapore, where a lot of Indonesians are treated as lower class because a lot of Indonesians go to Singapore as domestic helpers, just like in Hong Kong. Even though there are hundreds of thousands of Indonesians in Singapore, just like in Australia, they are treated as lower-class, second-class citizens, like people who are treated with no respect just because they work as domestic helpers. The difference is that in Australia, I get to be a professional. I didn't have to defend myself because I work in education, I'm highly educated and I have all the privileges that I have. That wasn't the case in Australia. The case is that I'm Asian and that's something that I'm really uncomfortable with.
Sam: And professionally has that had a big impact on your time here?
Annisa: Because I'm located in a programme that's quite critical, my immediate colleagues, people in my programme don't see me for my skin colour, I am treated equally. When you're a minority, you can sense the little things, you can sense when people treat you differently. But I do feel a bit different on a larger level where I often am the reference for diversity stuff that I don't really prefer. I guess I feel like I'm more interesting than just my diversity. I'm far more qualified than just my diversity.
Sam: You teach, study, and think in the field of Cultural Studies. I wondered if there was a difference between how Melbourne University and universities in Indonesia define this field of study, or if there were different problematics or objectives of Cultural Studies?
Annisa: Cultural studies, comparatively to other disciplines, is seen as new. Well, that's not correct, because it's been around since the 1960s, so it’s not really that new. I don’t have problems defining it, probably because I've been in it for quite some time now for about ten years. Interestingly, I think Australian Cultural Studies and the intra-Asian Cultural Studies are very entangled, they communicate with one another quite a lot. The field is really interested in the question of “what is the political concern that you have that is actually happening right now”. So it's a field that doesn't really look for problems just because it's a topic of interest, but because it's actually happening in the places that surround you or in the society you’re in. Cultural Studies addresses these problems, it addresses immediate urgencies based on the social problems or the cultural problems or cultural issues, concerns, etc. I think in Australia and Asia in particular, there are a lot of similarities. This will be a very different conversation, though. If you speak to someone from Europe or England or from the States in particular, the American cultural studies model is quite different.
It's very important for us to centre media literacy and to allow people to have those skills required to be literate, not just to read and write, but to also understand and to judge and evaluate for themselves.
Sam: What can you tell us about Cultural Studies faculties in Indonesia and what they're looking at most pressingly at the moment?
Annisa: So there are a couple of universities in Indonesia, where cultural studies has a prominent part. Universitas Indonesia, Universitas Padjadjaran in West Java and Universitas Gadjah Mada in Central Java. All three have very similar interests in contemporary culture and questions like what does it mean to be a post-colonial subject, a post-colonial society, what could be our reflections on the contemporary cultural concerns and issues that we are dealing with? What type of cultural phenomenon or social phenomenon can we analyse using methods or ways of thinking that are not necessarily constrained to a disciplinary set of boundaries? Cultural Studies scholars are often well known to be very freely taking methods from different already existing disciplines. So all three universities, to my knowledge, have done this very well. They're at the forefront of cultural analysis, I think.
Sam: Are you in touch with those faculties in those universities?
Annisa: Well, not all of them very well, but I know all of them, and I've spoken with all of them. In fact, one of the faculty members in the English department, also in cultural studies, Erica, was also a filmmaker. I know her. She's at Universitas Padjadjaran in and she's interested in doing a PHD here.
Annisa: I was actually wondering about the films that you shared with me, I really liked it. It's so cinematic in the most layperson type of definition, so beautiful.
Sam: What did you get from them? What did you understand from it? Did you have an idea of what a longer version of the film might look like or any criticisms or any ideas?
Annisa: I feel like I have no knowledge about this, you know, and seeing it made me learn a lot about how the knowledge sharing between elders and the children work in this village. It's the type of feeling that I get whenever I see documentaries about villages in Indonesia. It's always very informative, it's always very touching. I can see what is at stake there. But at the same time, I also see myself as very far away from those realities. The audience or these types of films are often people who are not Indonesians. I would want to know what people like you think about this, because it feels very different from my world. It doesn’t feel like Indonesia for me at all, It just feels like a different place altogether that I'm not fully familiar with. I'm happy to learn about that place.
Sam: Do you feel like an Indonesian would make a film about Toraja in a different way? Do you see films about Indonesian villages made by Indonesians very frequently?
Annisa: I see them a lot on TV or in the news. There is this tendency amongst urban Indonesians to always position the rural and the village, as backwards. That sense of respect is not really there. It's one of those neo-imperialist tendencies of urban Indonesians. I can sense a lot of respect in your film. I feel like you're respecting the elders and the family and the community. That's why I said it feels very different for me. It feels very strange not to see this type of culture treated as backwards. And that's refreshing in a lot of ways. [00:39:46] Maybe I can ask Afifah if I am right, that in many TV shows or news in Indonesia where we see villages or when we see films or scenes about Kampung [village] it's always treated as backwards?
Afifah: Yeah, I agree. In our interview with Rukka Sombolinggi, secretary general of AMAN, she mentioned the depiction by the media of indigenous people has helped to portray them as some sort of prehistoric people. But I don't see it as much as in the early 2000s. The people in Toraja that record all their rituals and put them on YouTube, so this is a bright side to that. But they also face mean comments from some people from urban Indonesia, who have opposing beliefs. So much so that DSTV, who published these videos, add a caption saying “we don't support racism, we only support positivity”. It's really nice that they don't think too much about urban Indonesian people's perception of their culture, and they're very supportive of the idea that we want to make films about their culture.
Sam: The people that Afifah is talking about who are making these YouTube videos, they're close collaborators of ours whilst making the film.
Afifah: DSTV, Delta Sangalla TV, they are the local TV stations in that area. You can check their videos on YouTube. So Sam and I are tackling ideas of digitalisation of archiving, as there exists an institution in Alice Springs that preserves Indigenous digital archives. But they don’t have this in Toraja for all the footage that DSTV has collected. All of their archival footage is stored in boxes, it's very prone to damage and things like that.
Annisa: Archiving is a big issue in Indonesia. In general, Indonesia just doesn't take care of their archives, I don't know whether it's the culture. You could say that maybe because Indonesians are too used to oral traditions. But I wouldn't agree with that. I think even though modern archives are made by public publishers that have been operating since the 1960s, all of those archives are not managed well.
I'm now looking through archives about girls and young women in Indonesia. And I’m looking for popular publications, so I'm not even looking for some marginal archives. Those publications are non-existent, even the publishers themselves don’t keep them. Unless these are very, very big publishers like Kompas or Tempo that still exist, that's probably the reason why they keep their archives. Archives for publications like Femina, which was one of the biggest publishers of many many women's magazines since the 1960s are non-existent. I went to the National Archives and the library in Jakarta. It wasn’t taken care of at all, it was a mess, it wasn’t organised. The librarian was coughing, I'm pretty sure she has been inhaling all the dust! That's not the right way to keep any archive.
So I found interesting archives in Berkeley and Cornell but not in Indonesia. And I'm pretty sure that Heggarty said that the National Library of Australia has a couple of reports, some reports from the Indonesian government that they archive well, and that's that. I think that's very sad, realising how data and information and things that matter, even just barely 40, 30 years ago, it's very difficult to trace them.
Sam: Chris, one of our collaborators on this particular project, has started working at CAAMA, the Central Australian Aboriginal Media Association, the oldest and one of the largest indigenous run, indigenous led media organisations in the world. It's an important and historic organisation that's been running for the last 40 years, and they're having trouble archiving their own materials, which is one of the key points of the organisation. Are there any initiatives in Indonesia that you're aware of for digitisation or pushes for stronger archival efforts?
Annisa: Efforts have probably stopped at national levels, I believe. Currently, for popular and existing publications there are only a few. I know of the queer archive. Beau Newham, who’s actually in Melbourne, was the founder of the archive. But I'm not aware of many efforts to digitise and make it accessible to the public or in more popular forms. I hope I'm wrong!
Afifah: I'd like to bring back the topic of the history of colonisation and colonialism in Indonesia, based on this lecture you did in Jakarta where you tackled the topic of digital citizenship. I want to know more about the existence of new media post-colonialism and how that has shaped the society and maybe that can be a segue to talk about post-authoritarianism and post-Suharto regimes. But maybe let's talk more about post-colonialism
Annisa: You were in the audience of my lecture?
Afifah: No, it’s published on YouTube!
The depoliticisation of media was rampant and really violent under the New Order for thirty two years, where publicly accessible media was highly controlled, and there were really limited options for people to actually be able to communicate with each other.
Annisa: One of the most important things that I have to highlight, and this is a tendency in Indonesian society, is that “new media” has always been seen, or is assumed to be, the Internet, the digital forms and its variations. One of the most important things that we have to remember is that every media was always once a form of “new media” at the time. In Indonesia in the early 1900s newspapers and books were new media, and they played a very important role actually in the anti-colonisation efforts. When we think of “new media” in terms of post-colonial Indonesia, I think it's also important to think of the different types of medium that people use to communicate with themselves in different times.
Obviously, in Sukarno's time, the 1940s to 60s, new media forms were largely radio and newspapers. But I think the break and really the depoliticisation of media was rampant and really violent under the New Order for thirty two years, where publicly accessible media was highly controlled, and there were really limited options for people to actually be able to communicate with each other. That was a big issue. At that time, a lot of the argument that was made was that people lost their capacity to communicate or to organise and to mobilise because the media was highly controlled. That’s true for a large part. But the fact is, if we go through the archives, and this is why archives are important, you can see that people who were assumed to be non-political, young people in particular, were really active in trying to innovate in the ways they used media.
So, for instance, Islamic magazines were really big. Zines were really important amongst university students. Internet forums in the 90s were key for activism against the authoritarian government. Then after the authoritarian Suharto government fell down in the early 2000s, there was this mushrooming of media. You saw this uncontrollable desire to just say everything and anything, and you saw porn tabloids everywhere. At the same time, you saw Islamic magazines and new publishers' came up. For places like Indonesia, “new media” is an important term and it's always been there. Within the modern time in Indonesia, or whatever the bureaucrats want to call it, even during colonial times, media is a fundamental part of any type of changes in the societies, even today.
That was largely my argument to stop trying to make “new media” only about digital forms or Internet forms, but really has as a type of thing that's always entangled in our society. And therefore, if you agree with that, that doesn’t allow us to say that we’re “traditional” or “backwards”, because technology has always been a part of Indonesian society and largely any colonial societies.
Afifah: I’m especially interested in what you’re saying about the rise of diverse forms of media in contemporary Indonesia, the emergence of alternative and independent media. I’d like to mention the issues arising from around 2016/2017, many began distrusting mainstream media because of personal beliefs. I read this article in The Conversation by .... after an Islamist rally in 2016, there has been a decline in trust in mainstream media and people are now running to social media. I think, in this day and age we are inclined to cherry pick the media that we consume based on personal beliefs. As a cultural studies scholar and media expert, how do you think people can educate themselves in the consumption of media, both from independent and alternative media, and also from mainstream media, whilst trying to retain an objective perspective?
Annisa: These are very difficult questions you pose! Here's the thing, I don't like this idea of objectivity, because it's been used by many people often with colonial and imperialist interests. To say “what you do is subjective and for your own private interests, but what we do is objective and what we do is for public interest”. So, it's a very dangerous term. It might be good for people in the sciences, but with regards to culture and society, I think it’s very dangerous.
What’s important though, is literacy. Understanding what literacy means allows us to firstly give people the space to make their own choices. People have to have the ability and the capacity to choose between mainstream and alternative media. And secondly the agency people have when they’re allowed literacy. When people are given the capacity to be literate, we're allowing them the capacity to choose and to be the agent of their own positions. They're not told what to do by someone who thinks that they're smarter. They're not serving anyone else's interests but their own.
I really wanted to be very careful, especially in that lecture, I was talking next to a bureaucrat, and I was trying to be sure that I wasn’t saying that I agreed with them; that people should just read Kompas (the main Indonesian) newspaper and that we should just all eradicate alternative forms of media. People want alternative media because no one has been listening to them. No one has been saying what they want to say. If you're from Toraja and you want to hear about your own culture, why would you read Kompas and wait for their once a year coverage of the Toraja. Kompas is often very Jakarta centric, very demeaning and reductive.
It's very important for us to centre media literacy and to allow people to have those skills required to be literate, not just to read and write, but to also understand and to judge and evaluate for themselves. This is what's been missing from the government's effort for education, currently this effort is simply for people to read, which is the minimum, and it doesn't give people a lot of space to think. I am very happy with people's search for alternative media forms, which of course might be dangerous for some. But I'm far more afraid of constant societal demands for peace and order, than societal conflict. Because “peace and order” was the tagline of the authoritarian regime for 32 years when people were murdered to be silenced. A bit of conflict is necessary because people want to be heard and we need to listen to them. Of course I'm not justifying violence, but there are so many things that need to be discussed which aren’t even superficially discussed by the people in power and the bureaucrats. So I think literacy needs to be centered, in short!
Afifah: What about Westernised media, like VICE Indonesia for example. I see a lot of conservatives tend to portray this kind of media as too radical, too westernised. What are your thoughts about that?
Annisa: Who are the conservatives that you're talking about?
Afifah: Mostly people on the Internet, comments on Twitter. I personally know some people who don’t agree with what VICE Indonesia publishes or the conflicts they advertise. What are your thoughts about the emergence of this very Western kind of media?
Annisa: I study, work with and analyse people who are labelled “conservative”, young Muslim women groups in particular. I have a lot of problems and questions when people label groups as “conservative” or “liberals” and so on. First we have to address why this foreign media can enter Indonesia. It’s because the government allows it. Because the government allows them to enter Indonesia, and for the longest time they weren’t able to do so. If the government wasn't allowing it, they wouldn't be able to publish in Indonesia.
People who are “pro-national culture”, “pro-traditional culture” or whatever they assume Indonesians as, are usually people that are pro-government as well. But the fact is that the government allows these foreign media to enter Indonesia, and that's not always a bad thing. I think social media really is a good place for people to voice their concerns. The point I often like to make is if people are concerned enough about social media, then the government should do something about it because people cannot do anything about it without structural change. If the government wants to make its own social media, if it's able to do so, go ahead, but I don't think that's possible at all currently.
You know, foreign intervention is dangerous, but foreign media is not, and I don't think we can put them side to side and say foreign media equals foreign intervention. Sometimes we do need a third party to say that the government sucks or a society is dangerous. What do you think, Afifah?
Afifah: I listened to your podcast the other day where you talked about Muslim women in ... and they are labelled as Muslim activists. This was very interesting to me as I don’t see them as Muslim activists, I see them as influencers. I’ve grown up living in an online environment, and some of your perspectives are really different from what I have known growing up. I see these people as celebrities, as influencers, so the idea that they are actually activists is something that has broadened my horizon. I would really like to learn more about these perspectives. But maybe the topic of Muslim women is a discussion for another day. But let’s talk more about cross-cultural exchange. So coming from generation Z, perhaps I represent the sentiments of generation Z and we live the majority of our lives in online spaces. There's this need to have interaction skills specifically in cross-cultural communications, not only because, of course, there's a need for awareness and understanding and I think these two aspects are important. But these are also societal demands, for example for job prospects after graduating, we feel the need to enter multinational companies etc. As someone who deeply understands digital culture, how or why do you think this sentiment has emerged or did it already exist before social media? Do you think this sentiment only applies to generation Z or millennials, and how does digital globalisation play a part in that sentiment?
Annisa: I think this is a very good question, and I wrote an article about how the contemporary situation pushes people like you and your generation to these dangerous and difficult ways of surviving. I called this the politics of survival, where you have three choices as a young person in Indonesia. One; you fight against the government. What happens then is like what happened to Rafyo and to many others, what happened to the people who supported the Labour march on Saturday, the police captured them. In 2019 and 2020, about five hundred students and young people have gone missing. A couple were found dead. So that's the first option, which demands that you always be on, always be networking, always be active, that you fight the government. Resulting often in imprisonment or death.
The second option is for you to say yes, you play the game, you agree to it, you say, yes, I'll follow what you tell me to do. You tell me to get an education, go to high school, and then go to higher education at university. Universities are expensive, usually a lot of them are for elites. It used to be for the people, but now, it's designed for the rich kids. So, maybe you get to the elite schools, maybe you don't. Maybe, like 80 percent of university students, you go to private universities where you are taught to just simply be another labourer, another worker in a system or in an industry. You go to school, be a good accountant or be a good engineer, go to a company, work till you die. But when a pandemic hits or when a crisis hits, even though you chose the second option, you followed whatever the government has told you to, the government isn't helping you in any way. Any type of facilities, help or support that they give you is a joke. They wouldn’t allow you to survive, you lose everything. So that's the second option, right?
The third option is to be in the middle of it all, you have to juggle and you have to say yes to one thing and say no to the other. But what happens is that you have to settle down at some point, right? Because the government won’t help you with anything. It's tiring and it's like that because for the longest time, Indonesia was obsessed with improvement. Tania Murray Li has written fantastic books about this, if you're interested you can read The Will to Improve. She wrote about how in Indonesia, even in the regions, people are obsessed with improvement. And I think the current Jokowi regime has just made it worse. He treats the people like his workers. We’re not citizens, we're just workers for him. If we don't follow his managerial demands, we lose the game. I think young people today are interacting in such a way that is not sustainable, a lot of you are prone to burnouts and a lot of you are not in fair business. I am sorry and I hope things will get better, but I don't know how to make it better.
Afifah: It's interesting that you mention the government's ambition to always innovate, especially that they rely on us, the youth, and especially now there's this demand from not just from government, but even closer to me, from my parents, from my faculty, that there's this need to attain international acknowledgement as well. To potentially become a lecturer one day, there's a need to get a master’s degree and doctorate and things like that, which I personally aspire to, but some of us don't have the same vision.
Growing up with this stream of information, so much available online, everything has become ever more accessible. In many ways we’re fortunate for that. But just being able to identify culture or understanding cultural boundaries doesn't equal having knowledge or being able to initiate conversations. For me, I feel a need to have on-site experience. Taking part in this exchange programme with Sam and Sipakatuo, I learn more about indigenous culture in Australia and Torajan culture, a culture that is close to me, but I'm not a part of. As someone who doesn't represent either of those cultures, only experiencing them through research, interviews, and articles, I always feel like I'm still seeing everything through a looking glass, if that makes sense. I don't feel like I'm adequately prepared to create a research piece that tackles ideas attached to incredibly deeply rooted cultural histories. This long statement is a segue to my question for you: as an academic and a researcher yourself, and approaching ideas and issues from scientific and sociological angles, what is your take on an effective approach in communicating and understanding other cultures whilst also embracing opportunities that the digital era provides us with?
Annisa: To be honest, I don't think I've ever approached other cultures or maybe I've been ignorant because I just assume all the cultures that I analyse are my culture! But that's a very good question.
Approaching and communicating well about other cultures, first of all, is something that callous Australians say is “political correctness”, which I disagree with. I think it's very important to be respectful, to say that it's not your culture that you have either minimal experience of or that you are perhaps looking at it through a looking glass. I like this statement, because in the story of Alice, going through the Looking Glass was a very life changing experience for her. It's very important to first acknowledge that it's not your culture, that you're not actually within that culture and therefore, you're not experiencing the little things that have created the experience of the people within that culture. But also, the small things that hurt them, small things that they notice because they're embedded within that culture but that you won't notice.
The second thing is that there's that interesting middle ground where people who come from post-colonial societies need to negotiate. This could be a whole different conversation if I were to answer this question. If this question were asked by Sam, I would answer it very differently. But because you're Indonesian and you live in the vicinity of the community that you are studying, you yourself are Indonesian with post-colonial experiences, that makes it very different from someone who's totally from the outside with different types of privileges and, in a lot of ways, symbolic superiority. This is the middle ground that people like you and me must negotiate.
We do have to work on Indonesia. We have to think about Indonesia in ways that are not only about it being “my tradition” or “my culture”, but it's about me taking part in a bigger, more important, more urgent conversation about cultures. It's me theorising and abstracting the cultures that are close to me, and it's me taking part and intervening in conversations that have always privileged people who are white or Anglo. You are doing very important work, and the middle ground you are looking for is a very important contemporary issue. I'm one of the few Indonesians who are Indonesianist, and you might be as well in the future. Indonesianists who are also Indonesian, unfortunately, are still a new thing. Most Indonesianists are not from Indonesia. They're usually American or Australian and not actually part of Indonesian society. I don't think I can answer this question very well, other than the fact that we are still looking for that middle ground to approach and properly communicate studying cultures that are not ours but close to us.
Afifah: The phrase Indonesianist is very new to me and I would love to know more about that. The output for this research is something that I’m thinking about a lot. I'm so afraid to represent marginalised people and their issues and like the need for archives because I have not managed an archive myself and I don't know what is required. Your idea about finding a middle ground is something I'm seeking and trying to identify at the moment.