In Other Words

Jakarta’s Moral Majority

What happens to a society's literary culture when its politics turn conservative? Indonesian writer, filmmaker, and founder of the Khatulistiwa Literary Award Richard Oh explains.

Foreign Policy: How would you describe the reading habits of Indonesians?

Richard Oh: There is a generalization that people here don’t like to read or only like lighter fare. I find these notions not only inaccurate but condescending.

Indonesians do like to read, and it is not limited to urban or educated people. Many writers come from rural areas. The problem is that there is just no incentive [to buy] books. When one book costs around $5 — while millions of Indonesians still earn $3 a day — you have to have priorities. English books are even more expensive. There are not enough libraries, either. So, it is not about poor reading habits, but economics.

FP: If purchasing power is an issue, how do you explain the aggressive expansion of several bookstore chains in Jakarta?

RO: Those stores are owned by giant businesses and foreign publishers that have huge capital. And even they do not have a wide range of books. Middle- to upper-class Indonesians prefer to buy books abroad or through the Internet.

If you are just a local businessman with a passion for books and want to provide more English books in Indonesia, you will find it very difficult to make a profit. I opened a bookstore myself and had to close my business.

FP: What are they reading in Indonesia?

RO: After the Suharto regime stepped down in 1998, there was a rise of women writers who were considered very daring due to the sexually explicit content in their books. Their works received a warm welcome from readers here.

In the past couple of years, however, there has been a shift in taste following the rising Islamization of the country. There are groups of readers who suddenly embraced things that are politically correct.

Bestselling books here include Khadijah: The True Love Story of Muhammad, by Abdul Mun’im Muhammad, or novels like Ayat-ayat Cinta (Verses of Love) by Habiburrahman El Shirazy, which touches upon aspects of Islam and is set in Cairo and Indonesia. The novel was made into a movie and is one of the biggest box-office hits to date.

FP: Indonesian filmmakers still suffer from censorship. Are authors facing the same obstacles?

RO: The government no longer censors every book like it used to. But writers are facing increasing challenges from conservative groups, [even those that] are not necessarily hard-line Muslim. Senior writers and academics are criticizing younger writers for not upholding morality in their works. [They act] as though the contemporary literary scene merely focuses on romance and eroticism.

On one hand, writers are asked to make a breakthrough in their work. But on the other hand, there are also [social] boundaries coming from a so-called public consensus. The society is moving backward with this whole morality issue. I find it very hypocritical. It feels like Europe in the 16th century all over again.

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