Examining International and Indonesian Responses to H5N1 Influenza – Cindy Lin

Examining International and Indonesian Responses to H5N1 Influenza

Cindy Lin


In this paper, I will discuss two protracted responses towards the H5N1 influenza outbreak in Indonesia – the Participatory Disease Surveillance and Response (PDSR) designed and imple- mented from 2005 to 2010 and the aftermath of Indonesia’s refusal to share viral samples with WHO from 2007 to 2011. From Indonesian governmental and international responses, I attempt to demonstrate how discussions on biosecurity, risk control and development differ and in turn, emphasize how borders of modern-state Indonesia were shaped differently by these two events. This article addresses the less conspicuous relationships between biological materials and sovereignty in Indonesia and how these associations are operationalised and instrumentalised by different levels of governance. In the first case study, we will observe how PDSR serves as form of surveillance to monitor and regulate backyard poultry farmers on how to be clean, healthy and non-contagious, implying that the modern citizen is an individual capable of self-managing his or her own health. In the second case study, we will examine how and why the Indonesian government suspended sample sharing with World Health Organization (WHO). This refusal to share and cooperate with international developmental agencies was later, perceived as a threat to global health security.

I argue that while interventionist international responses to contain influenza projected poverty unto marginal villagers largely unattended by the central government, the government’s refusal to share viral samples reemphasizes nation-state sovereignty and highlights the disparities between Global North and South. The H5N1 pandemic which was increasingly viewed in terms of secu- rity led to differing receptions from both Indonesia and the international sphere. One protracted event highlighted the implications of threatened sovereignty and the other refuted its permea- bility to reassert Indonesia as a country capable of consenting to participation in global health surveillance and security.

Background Information

The country’s first confirmed human case is a 38 year‐old government auditor living in a Jakarta suburb on July 2005 [1]. By mid-2005, the virus had reached 31 out of 33 provinces [2]. Econom- ic losses surmounted to over $500 million with more than “2.5 million workers in the poultry industry affected” by August 2005 [3]. Indonesia suffered the highest number of human H5N1 cases and deaths in the world. Indonesians’ huge reliance on poultry also indicated large changes in consumption and daily living with the extensive surveillance, checks and controls conducted by contracted trained teams of vets who trawled neighbourhoods practising backyard poultry farming.

The H5N1 influenza pandemic received unprecedented international mobilization and fund rais- ing among the wealthier nations in the global North, especially the USA. In just four months

from “President Bush’s speech to the UN on 14 September 2005 to the close of the Beijing confer- ence on 18 January 2006” [4], over 100 countries were engaged, a new UN office was established, and US$1.8 billion was raised [5]. At the same time, in 2007, the Indonesian government pulled out of the Global Influenza Surveillance Network (GISN) and justified its action by emphasizing on the origins of the H5N1 (avian influenza) virus and thus, Indonesia’s inherent entitlement to determine the usage and spread of these viral samples. Indonesian state authorities’ proclamation of sovereignty over biological materials drew negative critiques from the international communi- ty as a lack of international cooperation in assuring global health security.

Biosecurity and Sovereignty

To understand biosecurity, I will employ the definition adopted by Aihwa Ong. She defines biosecurity as an “emerging set of thinking and practices through which the state protects and leverages bioresources by placing constraints on the free market forces.” [6] Biosecurity engages “new practices and knowledge formations” designed to understand and manage both “disease and security” in innovative ways [7]. Biosecurity is also a response to challenges within weak- ened public health systems, the “return of the microbe” in the form of new frightening diseases like SARS and West Nile virus and the ongoing battle against the AIDS epidemic [8]. Biosecuri- ty also extends to political events such as the post-September 11 World Trade Center bombing where biological threats in the form of posted letters contained deadly anthrax bacteria [9]. There emerges, in these aforementioned events, a sense of being threatened, endangered and in dire times, requiring of preventive interventions [10]. Where the dangerous non-human is concerned, it is also depicted as protectable, manageable and controllable. Along the same vein, intervention measures employed to control the spread of H5N1 influenza in Indonesia allow me to analyse how national sovereignty, biosecurity and science interact.

To think about the H5N1 influenza in the global scale does not eliminate the possibilities to talk about nationalism. It is precisely how the epidemic was framed as a “global” threat to biosecurity that I will be able to explicate how the self-acknowledged responsibility espoused by particular groups of people such as intergovernmental and international aid agencies to prepare and elim- inate the epidemic contest certain nation-state boundaries. Furthermore, the fear of “bioinsecu- rity” allows wealthier nations to construct risk around Southeast Asia biosphere so that unsafe bodies can be kept within dangerous borders [11]. These international interventions did not enhance Indonesia’s sovereignty and at times, threatened to disrupt these boundaries by eclipsing what was more important to Indonesia. In Celia Lowe’s words, it might appear to be “an attempt to protect the security of the United States by intervening ‘there’ before the problem came ‘here’— in other words it seemed not unlike the global war on terror.” [12].

Case Study 1: PDSR Biosecurity and Developmental Ideologies

International Development Agencies and Poverty Lens

The Indonesian government was in a difficult position to negotiate with the well-funded and specialized international developmental agencies who designed responses that projected notions of poverty to Indonesia’s rural villages. Since early 2006, FAO’s main activity in Indonesia was the revised Participatory Disease Surveillance (PDS) programme – the Participatory Disease Surveil- lance and Response (PDSR) programme. This programme recommended a “community-based response” to prevent disease spread through the collaboration of Indonesians to provide infor- mation on the location, date and time of outbreaks [13]. However, FAO review of PDSR detected that there was no interrelationship between “reported human case rate” and quantity of backyard family poultry [14]. Moreover, the association between poverty and being “risky” was largely propagated by USAID’s large monetary and logistical investments in PDSR responses to cast poverty and thus, uncivil living as integral to poorer households [15]. In other words, USAID, a pro-poor development agency, was less concerned about funding relevant interventions than to give out funds to targeted populations who exemplified as ideal receivers of the agency’s mission. The developmental ideology only exists insofar as rural backyard poultry became emblems of both risk and uncivility. The huge amount of funding enjoyed by the Indonesian government also meant that other factors which could have caused the spread of avian influenza were not consid- ered. The funding incentivises the Indonesian government for not playing a significant role in the investigation of other viral spread causal factors.

The perception that the government was largely inefficient and unresponsive to global health security was aggravated by how international responses wanted biological hazards to be only con- fined within Indonesia. Indonesia was surveyed by the global health community and was forced, implicitly, to conform to regulations which may not be relevant to Indonesians’ ways of managing crisis. Komnas FBPI [16] funded by the Indonesian government, USAID, UNICEF, CIDA [17], JICA [18] and the World Bank developed Indonesia’s “National Strategic Plan for Avian Influen- za Control and Pandemic Preparedness,” as a response to the international mandate that every country has “a preparedness plan.” [19]. To conform to Global North’s standard for risk manage- ment, Indonesia’s borders were penetrated and predefined by how safe Indonesia was to countries outside of its borders. Even though Indonesian residents living in rural areas refused vaccination despite their prior observations on patterns of infection, their intentions were ignored by In- donesian authorities and international specialists in PDSR survey teams [20]. The PDSR team whose methodology sought to source for “community-based” knowledge in preventing pandemic spread refused to acknowledge the community’s request [21]. It was clear that the developmental ideology persist in Indonesia’s lack of participation in the PDSR programme, further reaffirming international agencies’ poverty lens in controlling and monitoring the epidemic. Indonesia’s bor- ders were permeable to the extensive inputs of international agencies who wanted Indonesia to be biosecure for the sake of wealthier nations’ economies and populations.

“Ibukota” and Modernity

However, this projection of poverty unto rural villages was not exclusive in how the Global North saw the South. The Indonesian government’s focus on capital cities’ development perpetuated
the imagined village as underdeveloped, unhygienic and thus, unmodern. I argue that the design of both the Indonesian state and international responses towards alleviating the ramifications of influenza spread prove erroneous insofar as the Indonesian government maintained the ideology of developmental nationalism only within certain privileged districts in Indonesia.

The ambitions to clean up Jakarta stemmed from the “centralising and self‐serving pembanguan development ideology of the Suharto era”. Developmental nationalism was manifest when both Suharto and Sutiyoso, then Jakarta governor’s (1997 – 2007) ideologies on development focused on the “visible order” of the capital, Ibukota (Mother city) [22]. Prioritizing the trimness of ibu- kota over enacting prevention measures outside of the city [23], developmental nationalism in ibukota was materialized in the form of policies. Both Suharto, the 2nd president of Indone- sia (1967 – 1998) and Sutiyoso sanctioned two decrees to instruct the illegality of unregistered domestic birds and inspections for monitoring the presence of uncertified animals [24]. If found to be infected with the H5N1 virus, these infected birds will be culled and owners will be com- pensated with Rp12,500 per bird [25]. Such policies exemplified the misplaced concerns of Indonesian authorities who were interested in the public image of Indonesia and how it reflected on them. Not only had international developmental agencies sought to permeate and redefine dangerous borders, the Indonesian government had reinforced these borders by propagating developmental ideologies in the making of ibukota.

Case Study 2: Viral Sample Sharing

Threatened Global Health Security

In the second case study, the Indonesian government tacitly exemplified the disparity in acces- sibility to healthcare between Global North and Global South by choosing to protect viral sam- ples for vaccine making within Indonesia’s boundaries. It became salient that the interests of the developing and the developed nations do not always meet, particularly with regard to the issue of viral sample sharing for pre-pandemic vaccines.

Indonesia’s sovereignty was threatened when the World Health Organization (WHO) shared
viral samples from the H5N1 outbreak with an affiliated pharmaceutical company without the knowledge of Indonesian authorities. Viral strains were used to make patented vaccines and sold to Indonesians at unaffordable prices. Patents stifled the sharing of virus samples necessary for Indonesia’s development of their own vaccines and did little to reduce Indonesia’s high rate of H5N1 outbreaks. In response, Indonesia state agencies depicted unconsented viral sample shar- ing as a form of biopiracy [26], violating countries’ sovereign control of their biological resources. The Indonesian authorities stopped viral sample sharing with WHO and proposed for sharing to only resume if a revised Material Transfer Agreement is signed among other proposed reforms [27]. Indonesia’s move was perceived as a threat to global health security by other parties involved in this protracted event. This was exemplified in how developed countries framed the issue of health as of particular concern to global ties and security [28].


Sovereignty is conceived differently in this case study when Indonesian authorities reconfigured the status quo between Global South and Global North through resisting biological and in turn, economic and political power over developing countries. When claiming the WHO’s under- handed ways of obtaining samples as “biopiracy”, Indonesian government’s antagonism towards sharing viral samples was not simply to intimidate the West. It was an unwitting act of resisting power in its very terms by implicitly highlighting how Indonesian borders are constantly pene- trated by international interventions in their mission to stop Influenza spread beyond Indonesia’s “risky” borders. Coupled with international developmental agencies’ immense pressure on trying to obtain effective results in controlling influenza and protecting their borders, I argue that Siti Fadilah Supari, then Indonesian Minister of Health (2004 – 2009) exemplified a figure of Indone- sia’s resistance to ineffective foreign-funded aid.

Nationalistic rhetoric was embedded in Supari’s response towards non-consensual viral sample sharing. She created a new doctrine, which she named as “viral sovereignty” [29]. Viral sov- ereignty, from the health ministry’s perspective, proposes that viruses are a nation’s biological inheritance dependent on their place of origins – nations have exclusive rights to viruses [30]. By employing the concept of sovereignty to prescribe Indonesia’s borders and their rights to bio- logical property, this particular living unit had a sole proprietor – Indonesia. Supari also did not accept WHO’s first concessions – laboratory improvements and free vaccines – in February 2007 and chose to fight for a revised WHO research system and greater accessibility to production of vaccines in Indonesia and other developing countries [31]. Such reforms ensure that the health- care disparity between Global North and Global South can be better mediated. These reforms also reassert how the borders of Indonesia became increasingly distinct and recognizable to other international and Global North powers.


In this paper, I discuss how nation-state borders and sovereignty were emphasized differently in two case studies; both cases concerned the H5N1 outbreak in Indonesia from 2005. In the first case study, we saw how the PDSR programme initiated by FAO and largely encouraged by USAID embroiled poverty in the everyday living of Indonesia’s “rural villagers”. These preventive inter- ventions served the purpose of the Global North in assuring that H5N1 influenza stayed within Indonesia’s dangerous and permeable borders. However, this was not unaccompanied by the Indonesian government’s way of marginalizing non-capital cities and rural areas. In other words, the Global North was not entirely accountable for the pro-poor developmental ideologies which circulated Indonesia during the H5N1 outbreak. Developmental nationalism was opposed in the next case study when viral sample sharing between Indonesia and WHO was halted to decrease the chances of more unaffordable patented vaccines being produced and sold to Indonesians. This fear translated into an emphasis on Indonesia’s sovereignty where it was previously threatened. Supari’s viral sovereignty reaffirmed borders differently from how it was being shaped in the first case study – her borders were firm and sincere to Indonesia and developing countries’ concerns. What is most striking in the study of these two protracted responses is how borders became more influential in times of crisis and how they were differently employed to reinforce or dismantle particular disparities between the North and South. Science and technology elucidates the mak- ing of the nation and nation-state and reemphasizes less prominent ways of understanding the construction of risk, security and development in the Global South.

Cindy Lin is a researcher dedicated to the study of shared technological and scientific spaces, vernacular technologies and intergenerational knowledge exchanges in the Global South. Her previous ethnographic work involved extensive fieldwork on the politics of DIY maker and hacker culture in Indonesia and the flows of scientific and technological information across nation-state boundaries. She will be a PhD Student at the School of Information, University of Michigan, Ann Arbor this Fall 2015.

Works Cited

Forster, William Paul. Risk, modernity and the H5N1 virus in action in Indonesia: A multi‐sited study of the threats of avian and human pandemic influenza. Institute of Development Studies. University of Sussex. January 2012

Forster Paul et Charnoz Olivier, Producing knowledge in times of health crises: Insights from the international response to avian influenza in Indonesia. Revue d’anthropologie des connaissances, 2013/1 Vol. 7, n° 1, p. w-az.

Lowe, Celia. VIRAL CLOUDS: Becoming H5N1 in Indonesia. Cultural Anthropology, Vol. 25, Issue 4, pp. 625–649.

Lowe, Celia. Preparing Indonesia: H5N1 Influenza through the Lens of Global Health. Indonesia. No. 90, Trans-Regional Indonesia over One Thousand Years (October 2010): 147-170

Normile, Dennis. Indonesia Taps Village Wisdom to Fight Bird Flu. Science, New Series, Vol. 315, No. 5808 (Jan. 5, 2007): 30-33.

Ong, Aihwa. Introduction. Asian Biotech: Ethics and Communities of Fate. Duke University Press Durham and London (2010): 1-51.

Smallman, Shawn. Biopiracy and vaccines: Indonesia and the World Health Organization’s new Pandemic Influenza Plan. PhD, International Studies. Portland State University. 2012. 21- 36.


  1. Celia Lowe, VIRAL CLOUDS: Becoming H5N1 in Indonesia, Cultural Anthropology, Vol. 25, Issue 4, 627.
  2. Forster Paul et Charnoz Olivier, Producing knowledge in times of health crises: Insights from the international response to avian influenza in Indonesia. Revue d’anthropologie des connaissances, 2013/1 Vol. 7, n° 1, p. y.
  3. Priosoeryanto et al., 2005: 146 cited in Forster. “knowledge”, z.
  4. The short span of time required for a significant number of wealthier Global North countries clamouring to raise funds and awareness on the H5N1 virus and containing the risk of outbreak outside Indonesia is remarkable.
  5. William Paul Forster, Risk, modernity and the H5N1 virus in action in Indonesia: A multi‐sited study of the threats of avian and human pandemic influenza, Institute of Development Studies. University of Sussex. January 2012, 61.
  6. Aihwa Ong, Introduction. Asian Biotech: Ethics and Communities of Fate, Duke University Press Durham and London (2010): 40.
  7. Celia Lowe, Preparing Indonesia: H5N1 Influenza through the Lens of Global Health, Indonesia, No. 90, Trans-Regional Indonesia over One Thousand Years (October 2010): 152.
  8. Ibid.
  9. Ibid.
  10. Ibid.
  11. Aihwa Ong, Introduction. Asian Biotech: Ethics and Communities of Fate, Duke University Press Durham and London (2010): 26.
  12. Lowe,“clouds”. 629.
  13. Mariner and Roeder, 2003 cited in Forster, “knowledge”, ad.
  14. Forster. “risk”. 22.
  15. Ibid., 17.
  16. National Committee for AI Control and Pandemic Influenza Preparedness
  17. Canadian International Development Agency
  18. Japan International Cooperation Agency
  19. Lowe. “preparing”. 153.
  20. Dennis Normile, Indonesia Taps Village Wisdom to Fight Bird Flu. Science, New Series, Vol. 315, No. 5808 (Jan. 5, 2007): 32.
  21. IIbid.
  22. Forster. “risk”, 125-126.
  23. Ibid.
  24. Ibid., 130.
  25. Ibid.
  26. Shawn Smallman, Biopiracy and vaccines: Indonesia and the World Health Organization’s new Pandemic Influenza Plan. PhD, International Studies. Portland State University. 2012. 20.
  27. Smallman, 23.
  28. Stefan Elbe 2010 cited in Smallman, 26.
  29. Ibid.,25
  30. Ibid.
  31. Khor 2007 cited in Ibid., 26 & 31.


Sino-Reverie in Laos – Huiying Ng

Sino-Reverie in Laos: Chasing the Chinese Dream of Modernity

Huiying Ng

Walking through the different highland villages in Laos and Thailand, one might be lured into imagining that those in Laos are still ‘traditional’, whereas those in Thailand have become ‘mod- ern’. Yet the surface superficialities that give rise to this impression belie deeper resemblances between the two villages.

Ban Nam O, Nam Eng, Phoulan and Nong Kham are neighbouring Khmu villages situated within Luang Namtha province in Laos. Pigs and chickens run freely–on the dirt floors beneath wood- and-bamboo houses, and along the AH3 highway that winds, ribbon-like, up to China. For the villagers here, this highway seems to be their sole point of contact with modernity. Something quite different meets the eye in Thailand’s Hui Yuak village, home to a Hmong community in

Nan province. Here, the village spreads out around a steep, paved road, about which proprietary fences loom to demarcate public land from private. One holds almost no signs of modernity and development; in the other, symbols of modern living mingle with faded reminders of a more traditional past.

Yet, villagers in Laos are increasingly building cement houses, pursuing land contracts and selling produce at the market in Luang Nam Tha, the capital town of Luang Namtha province in north- ern Laos. These pursuits come despite considerable hardship and are variously motivated. Asked why she had a cement house built despite the financial and practical costs of caring for three grandchildren, a Khmu woman remarked, “I built it because it is beautiful.” The village headman, or naiban, of Nam Eng, Thongkham, said he hoped for villagers to build more cement houses as they were more “durable” and had “greater privacy”. These examples represent a growing desire for modernity and development amongst the Khmu in Laos, which they access partly through imitating the commodity culture manifesting itself just across the border in China.

In her study of the rubber industry developing along the China-Laos border, Diana (2007) calls this desire for modernity the “sino-reverie”, a desire supported by wealth from burgeoning latex prices and “embodied in house renovations, motorbikes and other commodity goods” (1). She argues that the “reflexive recognition” of their own disadvantaged condition and their simultane- ous struggle to escape from poverty reflect both the “desire to be (modern)” (Oakes, 1998: 7, cited in Diana, 2007, my emphasis), and at this very same instant, the state of “being ‘modern’” (17, my emphasis). It is in the act of striving for modernity that constitutes the modern subject, rather than the product of that quest. To Diana, the Khmu’s ways of dreaming, and their invention of “alternative opportunities to adjust to the abrupt changes occurring in their lives”, thus define them as modern subjects (17).

Such an understanding is uncommon amongst environmental and social critiques of this rub- ber-induced modernity [1]. Diana suggests that these critics “underestimate the desire of the farmers to become modern (and) precludes them from the possibility to emancipate themselves in the ineluctable process of change.” (18) In other words, the desire to become modern is a gen- erative, motivating force arising in autonomous agents. It should not be confused or misread as state-directed interventions of enforced modernity.

This polarity between enforcing change and supporting the individual desire for change is a daily source of tension in the developmental field. I contend, however, that Diana overlooks an alter- native role of the state: its responsibility to care for subjects even as they pursue, as autonomous agents, their own route to modernity. By looking at the government, market and land factors underlying the agricultural practices of the Khmu and Hmong, I present an alternative view to Diana’s argument, while showing that observable differences in the Khmu and Hmong villages aside, these villages are entwined in the same developmental narrative.

Land Use in the Highlands

Although situated within the same area of the highlands, the land use patterns of the Khmu and Hmong differ greatly under the governance of local policy. Lao governmental policy allows much greater freedom for Khmu to continue slash-and-burn activities in the highlands, despite official policy to stop them. Across the border, in Thailand, this policy was and is strictly enforced by the Royal Forest Department (RFD; Kaosa-ard & Rutherford, 2002). The different levels of enforce- ment reveal different political aims of banning slash-and-burn; in Laos, it is used as a means of claiming more land as national resource for economic use; in Thailand, where highland swidden- ing was forbidden on the grounds [2] that swiddening is destructive to the forest ecosystem, it is driven by environmental policy.

However, land use in Laos will soon change. By 2015, the government wants swidden cultivation on the highlands to cease, to be replaced by cash cropping instead. The Khmu are aware of this and are already adopting new practices that align with this policy. These practices—that mostly take the guise of investment in rubber either through contracts with rubber companies or indi- vidual investment—are supported and encouraged by the government.

Rubber Fever in Laos

Villagers in the Luang Namtha region in Laos are aware of contracts made between Chinese rubber companies and villagers to have rubber grown on their fields. These companies work by first approaching the Ministry of Agriculture and the Ministry of Forestry and Natural Resources, before being directed by the ministries to suitable villages. In a village meeting, the headman then announces the proposed project to his village, with company representatives on hand to provide information and share the benefits and techniques of rubber cultivation. Through this process, rubber takes on “ethically correct and institutionalized qualities” (Diana, 2007)—it becomes institutionalized as a good, lucrative and legal crop. Indeed, one interviewee at Nam O village said, “The government says to plant something that can be sold on the highlands, because if you don’t earn enough income in the next 10 years you risk becoming a poor group and might need to (travel out) to do wage labour instead.”

Chinese companies are becoming so bold and expansive in their reach and labour needs that
a proliferation of new rubber contracts are being drawn up along the Chinese-Laos highway.
In Luang Namtha, for example, one Chinese company has recently set up a rubber-processing factory and is investing in land in Nam O, Nam Eng and Nong Kham. It is also starting to em- ploy labourers from the Khmu villages for both its farms and factories [3]. Similarly, an interview with two women, Sens Tom and Light, 21 and 50 years old respectively, revealed that “Chinese companies” that plant rubber trees will begin hiring labour on the factories this year. This is all unofficial—with land contracts between the rubber companies and villagers still unformalised, the company has already contacted villages through the village headman, to confirm the names of participating households.

The future seems bright for Luang Namtha and its surrounding area. The one Chinese rubber company in Nam O, Nam Eng and Nom Kham has seemingly laid roots—in some cases, liter- ally—and captured land in as many of the villages lining the AH3 highway as possible. That the Khmu are seen, by employers and by themselves, to be “cheap, hardworking and very diligent, no drinking and messing around, (and who) work on Sundays” even if it exceeds their legal maxi- mum working hours, suggests that the Khmu are well on their way to being established as a high- ly desirable labour force for low-skilled, menial labour, and for the farmland they have no formal ownership over [4]. This has implications for the type of jobs increasingly available to Khmu in the region, as more companies flock to the area in search of “good labourers”.

The Good Labourer: An Emerging Discourse of Economic Development

The push towards economic development is having its effects on villages all along the road.
Most individuals accept the change, although degrees of acceptance vary. Khmu are increasingly taking on ideas about what a good labourer should do to gain economic wealth. Some speak of the change with a tone of resignation, while others are more positive about it. Keo Chan [5], for example, says enthusiastically of development and rubber: “The province wants people to stop farming rice in the highlands by 2015 … to change to corn and rubber instead, and people don’t mind, they’re happy to grow rubber.” Asked why people cannot slash and burn anymore, he re- sponded, “The government wants people to get rid of poverty and have a better quality of life.” In other words, as good labourers, villagers have the responsibility to lift themselves out of poverty by turning to cash crops. Thongkham [6], on the other hand, sees integration into the economy less as a duty and more as the sole way to overcome poverty, health problems and limitations of land, saying, “Life is harder now because it’s all about money – now, we need money to access all the goods available – medicines, hospital bills, school and other expenses, whereas we only needed the forest to survive in the past”. Yet, he goes on to say, “we cannot rely on nature any- more, in the next few years the government will stop people from accessing natural resources.” Thongkham’s nostalgia and accompanying recognition of the present’s constraints point to the networks he is embedded within, and which motivate individual action: while economic develop- ment is increasingly internalized by villagers—gladly or reluctantly—as a matter-of-course, it is, in part at least, underpinned by government policy.

Conversely, this linear discourse of economic development is supported by an emerging semi- otic vocabulary, shared by officials and villagers alike, which shuns the antithetical image of the good labourer—the “bad labourer”, who is represented as lazy and undeserving of social sup- port. Asked about people who sell their land and consequently cannot rear livestock, Yin Pan, an official working at the Ministry of Agriculture, said, “It’s their problem, they don’t receive any help”. This view jars sharply with the usual motivations villagers have for selling off land, such as a need for quick cash to assist with a death or illness in the family [7]. Similarly, Keo Chan attributed individuals’ decisions to sell off land to their being “too lazy to work”. Perhaps most crucially, this good-bad distinction is also applied to individuals’ public self-narratives. Although the practice of intensive year-round agriculture necessitates increased usage of chemical fertil- izers, consequent soil erosion and declining soil fertility, and thus greater future financial need, an interviewee in Phoulan described Chinese companies’ use of this practice on contracted land as “hardworking”. In contrast, his decision not to do the same because he had no need for it was described as “lazy ”.

However, pockets of resistance to this discourse exist still amongst villagers. Sens Tom and Light, for example, do not want to sell land to rubber companies because “we don’t have much land and (this way) whatever benefit we earn is our own, will not be shared with others”—this despite the fact that “a lot of villagers sell land to Chinese companies because they can earn a lot of money”. While there is no obligation for them to cooperate with the Chinese company, their resistance speaks on two levels: 1) a recognition of the self as an autonomous economic agent, 2) an indif- ference to monetary pursuit, despite the benefits others accord it.

This mode of thinking offers an important balance to the discourse generated in part by govern- ment policy and by economic actors. First, it suggests that a single-minded pursuit of economic development may not necessarily be ideal. Sens Tom and Light’s ambivalence toward rubber [8] exemplifies both a nuanced acceptance of the unbudging reality of the market economy—a mar- ket economy that needs to be adapted to, and integrated into—as well as more traditional subsis- tence perspectives of necessity. Their perspective is particularly important in finding a balance between the drive for greater wealth and a sustainable trajectory of growth. Second, the pursuit of economic development without an accompanying change in social support systems would fur- ther marginalize already vulnerable people. The desire for economic development, at the expense of either of these points, would come at future social, environmental and economic costs. In the next section, we will examine a similar situation in Hui Yuak village in Northern Thailand, which faces the same quandary Luang Namtha is currently facing.

Chemical Fever in Nan

The drive for wealth and cash cropping in Laos is reminiscent of that of Hmong villagers in
Hui Yuak village in Nan province, Thailand, where rapid capitalist expansion occurred without adequate safeguards for sustainable development. While the Thai government is now attempting to rein in the unsustainable use of chemicals, it is failing due to a combination of misrepresenta- tion of the cause of chemical use, as well as ineffective policy implementation. While people are willing to protect the fertility of their lands, their knowledge about sustainability has caved to the pressure from two game-changing factors: growing market competition in light of government efforts to promote a quick transition to cash crops, and increasing land scarcity.

Chemicals, yes, but not from a lack of concern

Official rhetoric at the level of ministries continues to hold that minorities are a destructive force to Thailand’s natural resources. In the view of the director of the Social Development Unit in Nan province, whose highlands are home to a Hmong community, the top three priorities that need to be addressed in the region are 1) forest clearing for swidden agriculture, 2) drug problems, 3) the use of chemical fertilisers and pesticides.

These priorities shape an image of the Hmong as the sole stakeholders in the picture, when the situation is more complex. While interviewees say they would like to find an alternative to chem- ical fertilisers and pesticides in order to reduce the damage to their soil fertility, as well as save
on the cost of external inputs, they have no solution to their problem. Prasert, a 30-year-old corn and rice farmer, has been attending sessions on making organic fertilizer and is interested in find- ing alternatives to chemical fertilisers for his commercial corn production, but currently has no solutions for it [9]. To probe this issue further, we need a fuller history of the current situation.

History of usage of chemicals

The intensive use of chemicals started about 4-5 years ago, and may be traced to three main rea- sons: first, insufficient land; second, inter- and intra-village competition; third, governmental de- crees that enforced no-burning zones. Prasert began using fertilizers four to five years ago, when the six to seven plots of land the family managed was split between his siblings and him. Left with three plots of land for his nuclear family, the traditional practice of rotating plots to regen- erate soil fertility was no longer possible. He thus turned to chemical fertilizers, which are easily available at wholesalers at Nan and through middlemen in the village, as a substitute for rotation- al swiddening. “Corn fever” was at a high at that time; a point corroborated by another villager, who had started growing corn for commercial purposes and with the intensive aid of chemicals. Villagers’ decisions to switch to corn production were driven by two existing governmental policies, which were key in promoting the widespread adoption of corn farming in the region: a microfinancing scheme during Thaksin Shinawatra’s time as Prime Minister of Thailand, which allowed members to borrow funds for any investments and which resulted in people “growing more things”, and a minimum price guarantee for corn during Abhisit Vejjajiva’s rule from 2008 to 2011, which fixed the price for corn at 7 baht a kilogram. It may be that a combination of gov- ernment-generated competition, the cessation of rotation due to decreased land availability per household, the easy availability of chemical input and information on the use of chemicals [10] led to the increased use of chemicals amongst villagers in Hui Yuak.

Factors maintaining continual chemical use

Although schemes are in place in address the problem of chemical use [11], villagers currently have no real incentive to use organic fertilisers that take time to produce, cannot be bought from shops, and which require a degree of prior knowledge to be effectively produced and used. More pertinently, the use of chemicals on cash crops is subject to perceptions of market competition: chemicals are not used just because they villagers do not only use chemicals because they aid faster and better growth of cash crops, but also simply because everyone is using it. This social comparison cannot be underestimated: while villagers cite technical reasons such as the increas- ing population and land scarcity—which reduces the number of rotations, and thus fertility of their swidden plots—as reasons for chemical use, land-rich families owning ten plots of land, too, use chemical fertilizers. Even now, no government policy governs the use of chemicals on farm- lands in Hui Yuak. Chemical use has evolved in a vacuum of adequate information and appropri- ate safeguards to ensure a more sustainable use of chemical input.

Developmental trajectories in Laos and Thailand

Despite obvious differences, the strategies of negotiation with state politics and a changing eco- nomic landscape of the Hmong and the Khmu might meet at certain “contact zones” (Pratt 1992; Clifford 1997, cited in Jonsson, 2010: 208) that allow them to be compared with each other. I suggest three that justify further analysis. First, both groups are currently in the process of being integrated into the state economy—the Thai Ministry of Labour and Social Welfare is in charge of dealing with the highland minorities in order to focus on them as a disadvantaged group (Bua- daeng, 2006) and the Laos government is officially encouraging rubber planting, “in agreement with the Chinese provincial and local administrations of Yunnan, planning the development of the crop on a large scale.” (Diana, 2007: 1) Second, just as chemical fertilizers became readily available to minorities during the corn fever, the Chinese companies possess the means to dis- tribute chemical fertilisers to contract farmers, already doing so with other cash crops such as watermelons. The logic of rubber contracts also incentivises landholders to maintain maximum soil fertility, and thus maximal latex production during the tapping years. While interviewees now are not using chemical fertilizers on their rubber plantations, decreasing soil fertility and increasing competition to produce higher quality and quantity of latex may quite easily push vil- lagers towards using chemicals. Third, the same drive for wealth, and thus the same response to market competition, characterizes the Khmu, with their rubber contracts, and the Hmong, with their commercial corn production.

The environmental and social repercussions of this phenomenon are immense. The Khmu are driven by a discourse of economic development that is not tempered with more cautious concepts of sustainability. As entire communities begin to contract land to rubber companies, in return
for wages working on their own land, changes in agricultural practices in one area would inspire a widespread adoption across the region—as we have already seen in this preliminary analysis of ethnographic material. In the case of chemical input, this would entail a greater financial strain on household expenditure, not least because the rubber contracts do not specify that rubber com- panies have to assist farmers with the costs of external input. Furthermore, there are few social support mechanisms to assist people with financial difficulties. Where attention is paid to them, the discursive imagery that is used bears negative connotations of the bad laborer who deserves no help as a result of his or her “laziness”.

This suggests that the future economic reality that Khmu farmers will face is a highly uncompro- mising one allowing for few mistakes and fewer chances. In fact, this is worsened by the greater reliance that Khmu have on intra-village information flows [12], in contrast to the Hmong’s extensive family networks outside the village that offer alternative sources of information with which to compare information from the headman or middlemen.


I have tried to show how the sino-reverie, which begins in the economic centres of Shanghai, Guang Zhou and Kunming—China’s expanding cities—is spreading beyond the borders of China and into once-remote villages in Southeast Asia. This spread occurs on a variety of scales that are geographic, transnational and semiotic. The highland villager’s sino-reverie resembles the Amer- ican dream of prosperity and the Protestant ethic of hard work in more ways than one, though it begins in, and is refracted back towards, a new and emerging geographic destination: China.

In borrowing Gaonkar’s (2001) contrast of the “way through which farmers ‘make’ themselves modern subjects” and the way they are “made” modern by “the State’s standardizing forces” (Diana, 2007: 16), Diana sees the desire to become modern as a positive force, originating as it does from the subjects of modernisation themselves. Farmers who make themselves modern are autonomous agents with the power to “confront and negotiate … socio-economic changes” (16). However, her argument too easily frees the state of its duty, as a provider and guarantor, to its subjects, and underestimates the discursive influence of state policy over its subjects. Although the ‘good Khmu labourers’ are “making themselves modern” in their pursuit of modernity, this discourse of modernity and development is created by the inter-locking narratives that the Khmu perceive around them: in state policies, contract and job opportunities with “Chinese companies”, and the increasing pursuit of commodity culture in the lifestyles of villagers. More problematical-

ly, this discourse builds a vision of development that is both exclusive and exclusionary. It cre- ates an antithesis of that which is not trying to “make itself modern”, either through laziness,
poor economic decision-making skills, alternative discourses or plain bad luck, all of which are embodied in the image of the “bad labourer”. By alienating the discourse of sustainability from that of economic progress, and typecasting marginalised individuals as bearers of irredeemable qualities, the developmental rhetoric of Laos and Thailand—whether taken up by individuals themselves or not—naturalises an all-consuming drive for expansion while creating a vulnerabili- ty invisible to the subjects pursuing modernity for—so they think—themselves.

Huiying Ng graduated from the NUS Department of Psychology with a minor in English Literature. She became fascinated with ethnographic research through her time at the University Scholars Programme; once down that rabbit hole, it was hard to stop. Her interest in urban alienation, spaces of psychological well-being and the role of social collectives in prefiguring the future led to her thesis on a mixed methods study of cancer caregivers. She is currently working in several capacities in research, and in community-based programme development and evaluation. In her spare time, she co-runs Foodscape Collective, a project focusing on urban agriculture and food, and The Photo Thing, a participatory photography project.


  1. Critics have cited the destructive impacts of rubber on watersheds and soil erosion, as well as in the way it strips farmers of the “capacity… to manage ecologically diverse landscapes and to participate in market networks” (Xu, Ma, Tashi, Fu, Lu, and Melick 2005:13, cited in Diana, 2005).
  2. “The notion of removing forest-dwellers who carry out ‘shifting cultivation’ from forest areas was condoned by international organizations such as the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) in the 50s, long before commercial logging became a problem connected with serious deforestation, and had a strong influence on Thai conservationist thinking.” (Boys, 2007)
  3. The headman at Nam Eng stated that Chinese factories that approach him to broadcast messages to the people in his village tend to look for labour for both their farms and factories, in planting rice, corn and rubber.
  4. This then allows individuals and companies to rent the land for commercial purposes.
  5. Keo Chan once sat on the village welfare committee (naihom).
  6. Tom Kam: the current naiban of Nam Eng
  7. While a community fund exists for villagers who are in financial need, an interviewee who had engaged in a rubber contract with an buyer from Luang Namtha said he had not wanted to use money from the fund as it offers loans with interest, and would thus be a source of greater financial burden in future.
  8. Sens Tom has worked as waged labour on Chinese watermelon farms, and is not averse to working in Chinese factories.
  9. He has tried using strong smelling leaves to make organic pesticides for the vegetables that he grows on his land, and intends to continue doing so. However, he has not done this for commercial corn production, which currently requires increasingly expensive chemical input. Due partly to the cost and to the environmental impact on the land, he thinks that he should find alternative ways to maintain plant yields. However, he also mentions that it is not easy for people to grow crops in a big farm without using chemical pesticides and fertilizers, which is one reason why he does not grow organic produce despite its higher sale prices.
  10. Most information on chemicals tends to come from either middlemen who sell the fertilisers and pesticides to villagers or from relatives in other villages. As Trebuil (1995: 78) says, “‘Advice’ to farmers is monopolized by myriad technical salesmen who travel through the countryside with their samples and supply networks of Sino-Thai village middlemen, who themselves often fill the multiple roles of technical, commercial, financial, administrative and social supervisors of agricultural production.” Within Hui Yuak village, there are several middlemen who acted as channels between the market and the village, buying harvested corn and selling fertilisers to villagers. It is possible that these middlemen also provide advice on chemical usage to villagers. Interviewees also mentioned that they learnt techniques of chemical use from relatives living elsewhere.
  11. These projects, both under the patronage of the Royal Family as well as by the government, range from demonstrations of organic fertilizer production to introducing new methods of upland rice production.
  12. Most of the Khmu interviewees received their information about rubber contracts and labour opportunities from the village naiban, while Hmong invariably spoke of hearing about corn or chemical use from their relatives “living outside the village”.

Reflections on Latihan – Thow Xin Wei

Reflections on latihan: one Javanese approach to learning Gamelan

Thow Xin Wei

Because gamelan is a performing art, one often thinks in terms of where and when it’s performed, but I’ve always been more interested in the way it is rehearsed. Perhaps this is because of my own real appreciation of gamelan began when I was invited to my first rehearsal—or latihan—with NUS’s Singa Nglaras Javanese Gamelan ensemble: I must’ve heard the music once or twice before I actually tried playing it but it hadn’t really more of an impression than just a vague memory of seemingly interminable tinkling percussion. And when I tried listening to recordings in those early days, I just wound up being rather confused: apart from the female vocalist, everything else seemed indistinct and complicated. So it was really through latihan that I began enjoying gamelan music.

IMAG0189 - Oom Tommy
The Singa Nglaras Gamelan from NUS

When I recall those first few latihan today, I can still remember how impressed I was that every- thing held together without any apparent conductor, speeding up and slowing down casually and effortlessly, each part independent yet somehow in harmony, like a group of friends going out on a stroll. And the atmosphere was different in intensity from my secondary school and junior college choirs: it was relaxed and amiable, yet remaining dedicated and—somehow—productive.

To this day, I find it a little difficult to explain a latihan to non-gamelan friends. We usually say “rehearsal”, but then people often assume there’s an upcoming show, which might not always
be the case. “Practice” or “Training” captures the sense of open-ended improvement, but sound rather serious for what goes on—there a fair bit of chatting, and quite a lot of snacks. One friend of mine says we’re “jamming”, which captures the informality of the occasion, but—and I’m nit- picking, I know—that sounds like we’re improvising which isn’t exactly it. The best analogy I can think of is a bunch of friends who get together to play soccer on weekends and who might occasionally train up for a friendly competition – it’s nice to win and they hope to improve, but mostly they just want to play.

In 2011, I travelled to Surakarta to study gamelan for a year [1]. This city, commonly called Solo, remains one of the Meccas for gamelan musicians. It is also famous for being the sister city of Yo- gyakarta just a couple of hours by road to the west. Both cities contain palaces which, divested of military strength during Dutch colonialism, expressed their rivalry in the cultural arena, resulting in distinctive styles in their traditions of batik painting, gamelan music, dance and theatre, and Wayang Kulit (shadow puppetry). Each city also contains institutes and high schools offering qualifications in traditional arts; they are further nourished by neighboring regions such as Klat- en and Wonogiri with many musician and Dhalang (shadow puppeteer) families.

Despite being less of a tourist destination than Yogyakarta, Solo still exerts its own considerable charm on the foreigners who come to it: during my stay I met people from all over the world who had stayed for years—sometimes decades—and others who returned as often as they could. Many of us were associated with the traditional arts in some way: besides those on the Darmasiswa pro- gramme there were also those who came at their own expense. Some were conducting ethnomu- sicological fieldwork, and many were professors, but at times the academia felt almost peripheral, as if just an excuse to come back and learn, play together, and drink tea.

P1030276+so+serious - Oom Tommy

Under the scholarship I was officially studying at the Institut Seni Indonesia (Surakarta), but a lot of my learning came from the latihan I attended while in Solo. There would usually be one pro- fessional or senior musician leading the group, and the participants were often a mix of experi- enced musicians and casual players. Some groups were fairly serious gatherings that played long, classical repertoire, while in some others the musicians would finish off the session with more upbeat langgam or Sragenan. The repertoire could be planned (especially if there was a show or broadcast coming up), or spontaneously chosen by the players (necessitating thick books of notation for the novice musician like myself who hadn’t memorized everything popular). Some- times the latihan felt more like an excuse for the neighbourhood to get together, while in others one could sense a stronger note of ambition. Some were easily accessible, while others you’d only go to if somebody invited you, or better yet, you knew the musician in charge. One of the more interesting groups started off as a club for employees at a train station: consequently the gamelan was in a room within the station’s garage and you climbed over an antique locomotive to get to it. And my favourite latihan played twice a week in an annexe of the Mangkunegaran palace, notable for having both musicians and dancers practicing together, and also for attracting a large number of young Solonese.

Despite their variety in skill, participants, repertoire, location and motivation, there are a few similarities in the way latihan are conducted. They tended to be regular, each one happening once (sometimes twice) a week, regardless of whether there was any event upcoming – and many of the foreign gamelan enthusiasts would order their schedules around them. Another similar- ity was the general etiquette of choosing your instrument. Newer members will generally place themselves (or be placed) at the balungan instruments whose parts are straightforward: one plays exactly what is notated, and has other musicians playing in unison as a reference. It’s perfectly acceptable to get lost on one of these instruments and copy the person next to you as long as nec- essary. A student learning the more technically demanding instruments might be allowed to play along on them if a better musician isn’t available, and people will usually reserve comment about the result. Still, it’s not good form to head straight for it even if nobody is there: one has to wait to be invited. This is true even if one can play the instrument – professional musicians at an unfa- miliar latihan will tend to sit at the side until invited into a particular spot. Inexperienced players normally avoid the gongs which mark key points in the music, because mistakes there are fatally jarring to experienced musicians—this was something I learned firsthand. And although it’s easy to make a sound from them, it’s often hard to get that sound exactly right in terms of quality and timing.

Another tendency in latihan is how pieces will often be “played through” without stopping, with learners making use of the inherently cyclical nature of the music to help work through tricky bits as they recur. Occasionally this gets carried to an extreme – at one particular latihan there were often moments where two or three musicians would soldier on while everyone else looked lost and embarrassed. But generally if the music does happen to break down, there’d be some tea and discussion before trying again [2]. Most groups had at least some opportunity to perform: either for weddings, or at one of the routine events that provided a platform for such groups to play for an audience. Such events usually fell on specific days in the 35 day Javanese Month, and would sometimes, intriguingly, be termed as a “shift in rehearsal venue” (pindah latihan).

A rehearsal in Indonesia organised by Pak Pardi (in white, on Rebab)
A rehearsal in Indonesia organised by Pak Pardi (in white, on Rebab)

Although less structured than the lessons at the conservatory, and less instructive on technique than private lessons, latihan expose one to a wider range of music and musicians. And while the learning process is slower, I think the long term benefits are greater: one can start to play the music from intuition and familiarity, learn to hear how the parts and musicians relate to each other, and develop the ability to musically “joke”—much like speaking the language you’ve learnt in a class with locals. And as a further benefit, one becomes not just better at playing but also better at listening: as I’ve learned to play more instruments with other people I start to hear them more distinctly in recordings, discovering where the melodies converge and diverge, and finding delight at those little moments and idiosyncrasies that make what seems to be a very formulaic and structured music bukan matematika, in the words of one of my teachers.

Coming back to Singapore, the latihan are probably the part I missed most: despite spending an extended period in Indonesia, I rarely left Solo because I often settled so nicely into the routine. Over here numerous differences prevent a “latihan culture” from developing: the first of course is the relative difficulty of accessing a gamelan set in Singapore. These tend to be owned by educa- tional institutions since each set costs between SGD30,000–50,000 to commission and ship, and then needed to be housed, maintained and periodically tuned by an expert from Java. Such a sub- stantial investment means that sets may not be easily accessible to people outside the institution that houses them, limiting the venues and opportunities for a casual group to organize rehearsals. Furthermore, with all the money and effort spent there is then the pressure for the institution to justify their investment, necessitating performances, workshops and other events. All of these mean that rehearsals may need to be more focused and less relaxed, potentially straining the social interaction.

Another problem is the lack of experienced musicians: while Singapore does have a fair number of gamelan musicians who’ve played for a long time, differences in schedules mean that a latihan may not have enough confident players to keep the music going in moments of uncertainty. Thus, there is likely to be more explicit teaching and instruction, making it less informal. Additionally, there may not be enough musicians to consistently fill all the various positions in an ensemble, making it difficult for newer musicians to experience the totality of a piece as much as is ideal; they have lesser people to follow if they’re lost, and less guidance to the rasa, or “feeling” of the music. As a result, the latihan can be both more challenging and less rewarding than it could be.

Yet another factor is the expectations that come from learning other types of music: some may feel frustrated at the seeming lack of focus and instruction, or may insist on playing instruments that they aren’t ready for. This can, in some cases, disrupt the changes in tempo that signal transitions to different sections, causing the music to fall apart. And finally, the expectations of audi- ences here has a part in it as well – a group that is under pressure to perform frequently for the public is less likely to choose pieces spontaneously, nor rehearse the longer and more subtle pieces considered less accessible, especially for an audience in a primary or secondary school.

Despite these challenges, I still think it’s worth cultivating a space for latihan as we try to do at NUS. For one, it’s a way to build the bonds between musicians that is essential for a music that necessitates sensitivity and cooperation between players. Secondly, our experiences with different cultures in Singapore often takes place in short bursts, most commonly during a performance or a workshop. Regular latihan allows a deeper, longer engagement with not just the final presenta- tion, but also the process of crafting it. And in the end, latihan is simply a great way for people to enjoy making beautiful music together – surely, there is always more space for that! Hopefully, as more people become exposed to gamelan through the increasing number of performances, workshops, and opportunities at schools, more will be encouraged to come to latihan, and unfold the music for themselves.

Xin Wei graduated from NUS in 2009 with a Bachelor of Arts in Literature. He began playing gamelan with the NUS Singa Nglaras Gamelan Ensemble in 2007, and today assists Dr. Jan Mrazek of the NUS Department of South East Asian Studies in managing the ensemble.


  1. This was done under the auspices of Indonesia’s Darmasiswa scholarships, offered to non‐Indonesians interested in any aspect of Indonesian language and culture (check it out: http://darmasiswa.kemdikbud.go.id/darmasiswa/)

Articulations of Southeast Asian Art – Liani Manta-Khaira

Articulations of Southeast Asian Art: Reflections on Visits to SAM, ACM and Bugis Street

by Liani Manta-Khaira

It is hard not to marvel at the majestic displays of archaeological objects at the Asian Civilisations Museum (ACM). Many of these objects appear as complex but spiritually-charged items that must have held many layers of meanings in the past. To understand these displays, it felt almost imperative to read the descriptions that would inform us of the kinds of cultural traditions and beliefs that surround the striking artifacts. One is impressed by the amount of research done on the objects through these captions and panels of descriptions. For instance, in the exhibition, “Devotion & Desire: Cross-Cultural Art in Asia, New Acquisitions”, we learn from captions and guided tours about cross-cultural contacts in Asia and comprehend such movements through the Sinic-influenced dragon designs that encircle one “’Alam” (early 18th century), a processional standard of the Safavid dynasty. It was easier to make sense of the displays and to locate the context the objects through such explanatory notes. One is then guided to ponder on the themes underlined in the exhibitions in more depth.

As I paced through the subsequent halls however, I began to feel disconcerted. Perhaps there were simply too many displays to look at. Every time I decided to leave, I would stumble into yet another hall, describing more cultural transformations, narrating the story of another region of Asia that was necessary to explore and implore over. Yet it was also the immense amount of facts at each exhibition that seemed to demand attention and time, both of which were fast dissipating on my end. The captions suddenly became distracting, almost intrusive to my thoughts, as I became confused. Should I study the displays first, then read the captions, or vice versa? Should I simply glance through the captions, or the object, as I seek to maximise my short time left at the museum, in gaining more information or insights into the past?

This experience made me think of the ways captions in museums have the potential to inform and guide, but also to interrupt one’s explorations of art, or the displayed items in  museums. In both my visits to the ACM and Singapore Arts Museum (SAM), captions follow each art piece. Each object is to be labelled, dated, and explained. It informs and contextualises the pieces for the viewer. In the ACM, Jakkal Siributr’s tiered Buddha-piece, “Shroud” (2011), is accompanied by a panel that asks, “Are stupas really what they seem to be, or what people believe them to be? The fragility of materials and of belief is also suggested by the thin threads that support the Buddhas”. The multiple Buddhas arranged in a stupa-like design can suddenly be more than just visual imageries, and one begins to linger a little longer on the object to make sense of such ideas of form, art and symbols.

With captions, the pieces on display becomes meaningful, or is easier to be interpreted. In some ways, it made me recall a reading from class of Martin Heidegger’s “The Origin of the Work of Art” (1950) as he describes the thingly aspect of an object. “Once perceived by the senses, [it] is assigned a feature” (26). In similar ways, once the object is labelled, framed and explained, it is assigned to a particular interpretation and a feature not visible before. With the captions, a narrative force develops and transmits from the captions to the art, and then to the observer. The observer is then, upon reading the captions, urged to revisit the visual aspects of the particular piece. A dialogical journey thus occurs between the artwork, text and observer.

Captions, guided tours and pamphlets aids in the educational function of museums. However, it also frames the interpretation of the artwork, its history, and culture in a particular way. It changes our approaches to the displays through the titles, information, and questions it poses. In the ACM, the captions contained more historical details to provide context to the objects, such as the dates and functions of the objects. With artworks at the SAM, the descriptions contained information about the artist and the outline of his/her purposes behind the piece. Often, the texts ended in questions that urged the viewer to deconstruct ideas and terms related to art.

In the Singapore Arts Museum (SAM), the exhibition, “Not Against Interpretation: Untitled”, sought to reduce this almost-imposing narrative nature of captions by displaying the objects without titles. Yet, while it aims to do away with such labels to promote individual interpretation, it still placed tags with the artists’ background and influences right next to the piece. Some of the artworks also contained descriptive titles in parentheses, such as “Untitled (Chair)” by Ahmad Abu Bakar (1992). Additionally, activity sheets were provided to guide viewers to “understand the different characteristics of these artworks”. The set of questions posed in their activity sheet moulds a particular way of approaching and seeing art. For instance, it asks visitors what their interpretation of the art is, and what titles would be appropriate based on these interpretations. We were then given empty papers to write these titles to be stuck on the wall next to the pieces.

Some of the pieces reminded me of an image or memory, and I found myself conjuring titles for them in my head. They were certainly different from the titles given by other visitors, and it made me conscious of my role as the observer and active recipient of art. With other artworks, however, I could not place them anywhere and felt that some pieces speak for themselves – even without necessarily holding any meaning for me. It made me wonder if I was looking at these pieces wrongly – perhaps not “nuanced” enough – or if art was something to be titled, interpreted and always be made sense of. Should art itself be represented by titles, values and explanations? One cannot help but reflect if art is then to be broken down, or be based on the “what” and “why” questions. Do we always need to ‘make sense’ of everything – art or not? Can we – and don’t we sometimes – let objects or beings ‘be’ as they are, and still allow it to offer us a different way of thinking, living and doing?

Museums thus can be disruptive by implying that it is necessary to know the objects comprehensively in order to understand the past or present – be it from the interpretation of others or one’s own. It has a way of placing the objects in a particular timeframe, place or idea. This does not mean that one should overlook the functions of museums as an educational medium for communicating knowledge about the past and across cultures, or as an avenue to view works from various parts of the world. The museum provides a language for us to understand about these different worlds that may otherwise not be accessed as outsiders to these cultures.

Perhaps one should instead be aware of the ways museums have attempted to reach these goals. In classes, we have discussed the importance of contextualising art in response to a long history of decontextualisation in colonial Southeast Asia. The museum visits gave me insight into how contextualisation can and has been done in museums. The labels and interactive forms of display are meant to contextualise the works by providing information in various forms. Yet, the ways these multimedia and description have been used together appear to focus on aspects that removes these works from how it was first understood in the culture it came from, or to reinforce assumptions and ways of conceiving Southeast Asian art.

In the highest floor of the ACM performance gallery, a set of gamelan music instruments are arranged, and a wide screen behind the ensemble shows a recording of a dance performance that focusses specifically on the dancer. One sees a faint connection between the musical instruments and the dance being screened because of such different focus, but also due to the stark contrast between the visual movements on the screen and the emptiness and dullness of the physically-present musical instruments. It occurred to me that this was the case with the other objects in the museum where the actual objects were merely displayed, but the movement, auditory and visuals in videos would contain stories about it.

In the case of the gamelan/dance exhibition, the “performance” was not brought to life as it was missing several elements, one being the human interaction with the instruments and events. Visitors are not allowed to touch or experience sitting next to the instruments, nor are there anyone involved in these artforms there to guide. This made me question the purpose of placing the musical instruments there as opposed to merely displaying a photo of it, if it were only allowed to be seen but not played or felt. Who plays them then, and will they ever get played, or be forever museum-ised? And is art meant to be a final product, or a process, as with music performances? The very fact that these museums direct their spotlights at the art exhibited while dimming the rest of the room is telling of the importance placed on the object than the observer or environment.

Although the gamelan set is positioned at the center of the gallery, the background music in the hall was not gamelan, but classical Thai piphet music. This was confusing and appeared to highlight the misinformation or the indecision of the curator to meld all the Southeast Asian artforms into one small hall. On the right side of the center “stage”, visitors could watch an informational video that acted as supplementary aid to the exhibitions. The videos however, were focussed only on different mask-making traditions in Southeast Asian performing arts, and was limited to simply stating the tools required to make a mask (such as wood and knife) and steps to making it. Just as the Balinese mask-maker mentioned the ideas behind masks, and making it unique to each dancer, the video cuts off to another segment of the mask-making process. One gets a very restricted idea of masks in Southeast Asian performances as props to dances, rather than the relevance it may actually have to the culture before, during, and after it is made. Such examples thus calls attention to the need to rethink how we contextualise art rather than only seeing what is contextualised.

Thus, it appeared fitting to visit Bugis street after the museums. Here, one sees art outside frames, without explanatory captions or hints to constantly look out for meanings. One cannot help but be enamoured by the lavish designs of the batik cloths sold at several shops along the architecturally-rich areas of Bugis street. In some ways, moving out of the museum helps to contextualise the art and its purpose in a community. By selling batik, the shops contextualise batik as a Southeast Art that is to be felt and worn as it often is in many communities in the region and beyond. Some of these shops have used batik as materials for fashionable dresses and flair skirts, while others are sold as it was – cloths for sarong wraparounds. Art is now not just about seeing or evaluating – it can be felt, kept, and used.

However, it also poses the danger of completely removing and disregarding the historical and cultural significances of these objects. It restricts the batik to an item that is to be bought and one that is judged for the attractive designs than what meanings it has. The commodification of art has such an effect by placing these objects at a market where it is promoted for its aestheticism and value. Purchasing it at a price places a value onto the art, and owning it changes the experience of art. The stories behind the textiles can thus be lost. The advantage of having no captions can precisely be the problem for consumers when there is no researched information into these art on what it represents, its history and links to colonialism, and what the processes of these productions entail.

Different experiences of art can be reflected in the kinds of location, motivations and the roles the observer plays in his/her encounters with art. Visiting these museums and streets made me conscious of how I have and can receive and think about art and the ways in which art can always be viewed differently when approached with such different aims.  As I constantly return to the kinds of “art” that surround me – whether playing the gamelan or visiting the museum, I realise the dynamism at play in viewing, feeling and responding to the art in Southeast Asia.

Liani MK graduated from a double majors in Southeast Asian Studies and History. Of Dayak and Punjabi heritage, she has always been curious about issues of identity, indigeneity and language. Liani has worked as a translator and editor, and is currently a writer based in Kuala Lumpur. She enjoys Javanese gamelan, jewellery-making, illustration and capoeira, an Afro-Brazilian martial arts.

Teen Age Riot – Raka Ibrahim

Teen Age Riot: The Story of Poster Cafe and Jakarta’s Underground Scene

Raka Ibrahim

The Satria Mandala Museum is a monument to decadent glory. Located in Gatot Subroto, Jakarta, it’s home to an extensive documentation of Indonesia’s military history. But, nestled in a deserted corner of the complex is a building abandoned for nearly a decade. Little can one tell, that this hollow piece of architechture once housed the legendary Poster Cafe.

It was the early 90’s, and Indonesia was under the New Order’s rule. Despite the censorships and human rights abuse, an underground music scene flourished. During the late 80’s, bands such as Roxx and Rotor camped around venues like Pid’s Pub in Pondok Indah, playing trash metal-inspired sounds to young, niche audiences [1].

“Before Poster, the scene was more ‘underground’,” observed Eka Annash, now singer of acclaimed garage-rock band The Brandals. “Mustang Radio was one of the few media that gave any exposure. They had a show, Rock and Rhytm, held regularly in Granada [2]. That was in 1991.” A band, Antiseptic, were invited to play there. In contrast with the dominant metal sound, Antiseptic played punk songs inspired by Misfits and Dead Kennedys. The small, fanatic band of punkers in the audience launched into a full-blown riot [3].

They were part of a bigger wave. Bands such as The Stupid, Idiots, and Pestolaer have emerged, playing rowdy, chaotic punk to increasingly large audiences, most of them barely in their 20’s. Venues such as Voila Discotic and Manari Open Air [4] became a hub for alternative music communities. One of the most prominent being Young Offender (YO), the first punk community in Jakarta, formed in 1992 by Ondy Rusdy and Ade “Taba” Yusuf.

One of the main way these communities expanded was through “bahasa kaos”, whereby one would wear the shirt or accessory of a band, adopt it as one’s identity, and use it to seek and identify others with similar physical expressions.

As absurd as this sounds in a modern context, the obscurity and dearth of information on alternative subcultures at the time made this approach viable. Record shops like Duta Suara in Sabang began selling albums and magazines featuring alternative artists, exposing youths to subcultures such as grunge, industrial, Britpop, and punk. Scenesters used the Blok M Plaza area, among others, to trade cassettes and organize events [5]. Some members of YO, including Ondy Rusdy, Evi Punk Tat, and Udet, had direct contact with punkers abroad. Ondy was exposed to punk during family visits to Boston. Evi briefly lived in Germany. Udet, considered one of Indonesia’s original punks, studied in New York and immersed himself in the scene [6]. When these lucky few returned home, they spread the word relentlessly.

Yet venues were scarce. After Voila and Manari closed, punk regained its footing in Hotspot Cafe. After over a year, in late 1993 or early 1994 [7] a concert held there ended in a fight with local thugs. The fallout ended punk’s sojourn with Hotspot. Manari, though, had been reopened and was renamed Poster Cafe. “Business was bad, so they invited young bands to play.” Ondy said. With a capacity of 2,000 people and a simple, rectangular layout, it was ideal for concerts. YO began organizing shows there regularly, gaining a cult following.

Conflicting accounts remained over this period. While Ondy insisted that through 1993-1996, Poster was used regularly for concerts, research by academic Fathun Karib stated that during 1994, there was a lack of punk concerts in Jakarta until 1995, when a major concert was held in Bulungan. What is known, though, is that YO underwent significant changes. Submission, Ondy’s band, started playing industrial music by Ministry. Arguably the most influential transformation was Pestolaer’s. Once one of Jakarta’s most notorious punks, they reinvented themselves as Britpop/Madchester heroes influenced by The Stone Roses.

YO, however, was weakened by drugs and internal conflicts. In 1996, they organized their final concert in Poster Cafe. Ondy was already in Australia, studying fine arts. Taba stayed behind. His newfound sound started inspiring new bands playing music reminiscent of their Britpop heroes. “Punk was already strong,” opined Taba, Pestolaer’s singer. “So, I wanted to try something new.” Theirs was the beginning of a new and glorious wave.

The 29th of September 1996 marked a new era. A two-weekly show, Underground Sessions, re-announced Poster Cafe’s presence in the local scene [8]. Though the roots were laid down by punk, bands from various genres popped up. Rumahsakit, Parklife, Room V, Chapter 69, Wondergel, and Stepforward became regulars in the scene, among many others, with genres ranging from Hardcore, Madchester, Britpop, Industrial, and more.

Interestingly, these bands extensively covered songs from their idols. “There was no alternative entertainment.” said Edo Wallad, then of the band Brown Sugar. “You hear the same music everywhere. Poster was a spot that specializes in ‘different’ music. We can’t see The Stone Roses live, so we’ll just copy them! Some bands grew out of this thinking, and that’s what set them apart.” Bands such as Naif, Pestolaer, Rumahsakit, and Waiting Room were a few of the regulars that eventually released albums containing original songs.

Though Naif went mainstream, major success eluded most bands. “You won’t make it if you don’t accept the label’s meddling.” Taba said. “Most of us won’t have that.” The occasional mention in magazines and having their albums sold in shops were enough. “We didn’t want to be mainstream. We’re underground.” Said Harlan Boer, then of the band Room V. For most audiences, the Poster Cafe generation remained a niche curiosity.

Poster Cafe made more of a mark in the alternative music scene. “Our scene was sporadic, but everybody met at Poster Cafe. It was a melting pot.” Harlan said. “The shows were mostly on weekends and started on afternoons, so high school kids could come, too.” Eka, then of the band Waiting Room, concurred. “That’s what we were looking for. A place where we could communicate and appreciate each other.”

1999 brought their demise. On the 10th of March, the punk show Subnormal Revolution ended in a riot, as concert-goers clashed with residents [9]. As the riot drew to a close, so did Poster Cafe. It had been coming – a mixture of financial difficulties, the disbanding of seminal bands, and its reputation as a hotbed for drug abuse already had them clinging to existence. “They bought drinks outside and come in for free.” Edo lamented. “In the end, the scenesters killed the scene.”

Poster Cafe never lived to see the 21st century, but its impact is still keenly felt. “There had never been a venue of that size where various communities and genres could meet.” Harlan said. “Look at the bands these days. The music, the attitude.” Observed Ondy. “Our generation started that.” Later, scenesters shaped by the mutual experience of Poster Cafe merged with even more communities in spots such as BB’s Bar and Parc, paving the way for influential indie bands Seringai, The Upstairs, The Brandals, C’mon Lennon, and more [10].

Now the building itself lay dormant. According to workers, after Poster closed, a billiard club took over until it, too, went broke. Since then, the site remained empty as museum directors refused to rent the space. A visit there reveals a spot now reclaimed by nature, exuding the unmistakable smell of mold and decay.

The Satria Mandala Museum continues to pull in visitors. But one wonders, how many of them ever stopped, noticed this abandoned building, and realized its history?

Most, we observed, never even gave it a passing glance.

Raka Ibrahim is a writer based in Jakarta, Indonesia. His reviews and essays has been published by several independent arts and music publications such as Gigsplay, Jakartabeat, Jurnallica, and Indoprogress. In 2014, he was selected as a participant in the Young Art Critic’s Workshop held by ruangrupa and the Jakarta Arts Council. He currently writes for the Indonesian Arts Coalition (KSI), RutgersWPF, and at the Jakarta-based youth organization Pamflet. 

In 2013, he co-founded Disorder Zine, an independent music and culture webzine. The Jakarta-based zine has been working on Kemerdekaan Bawah Tanah, a three-part in-depth feature series on the history of Jakarta’s independent music scene, focusing on three small yet highly influential music venues. The first part of this series, Poster Cafe dan Revolusi Tersembunyi, was published in 2014.

Visit them at http://wearedisorder.net/


  1. Wendi Putranto, “Histori Rock Bawah Tanah di Indonesia”, bonus article for MTV Trax Indonesia Magazine, August 2004
  2. Graha Purna Yudha. Now Plaza Semanggi, Jakarta
  3. Fathun Karib, “Kesadaran Kolektif dan Identitas Komunitas Jakarta”, Sociology undergraduate thesis, Faculty of Social Sciences and Politics, University of Indonesia, 2007
  4. A precursor to Poster Cafe, located next door to Poster.
  5. Wendi
  6. Interview with Ondy Rusdy, 21st January 2014
  7. A lack of proper documentation and an indefinite timeframe is an unfortunate, yet prevalent characteristic of this period.
  8. Fathun
  9. Wendi
  10. Interview with Harlan Boer, 22nd August 2013


  • Eka Annash 12th September 2013
  • Fathun Karib 30th September 2013
  • Ondy Rusdy 19th November 2013, 21st Januari 2014
  • Ade “Taba” Yusuf 22nd September 2013
  • Edo Wallad 20th September 2013
  • Harlan Boer 22nd August 2013