chapter  4
15 Pages

The edge of glory: theorising centre–periphery relations in and from Indonesia’s Riau Islands


The Riau Archipelago is a place where people love to talk about centres and peripheries. When I told Pak Iman, a politics lecturer at a local university, that I was writing a paper on the topic, he almost fell off his chair. ‘It’s the most interesting thing you’ve ever worked on!’ he exclaimed, ‘That’s a paper I definitely want to read’. He went on to outline many issues that my paper could potentially address. The new regional autonomy laws had made centre-periphery relations a ‘hot topic’, with intense debate surrounding the administrative ambiguities they had precipitated. Who, for example, had the authority to issue a contract for bauxite mining in the newly created Riau Islands Province (popularly and hereafter known as Kepri): the local district heads, the governor or the central ministries in Jakarta? A local district head had recently redrawn the boundaries of a protected forest to facilitate resource extraction – but was this really within his jurisdiction? These were the kinds of issues, Pak Iman felt, where research was desperately required. Vina, a local historian, was hoping I would write an account grounded in the longue durée. The Riau Islands had, she noted, once been a major centre in and of themselves: in the seventeenth century the island of Bintan had hosted one of the liveliest trading posts in Southeast Asia, while the sultan’s and viceroy’s palaces on Lingga and Bintan had been the epicentres of one of the Malay world’s most important indigenous polities. Yet, after the territory encompassed by this sultanate was bifurcated by the 1824 Treaty of London, the Riau Islands had become a marginal backwater within the Dutch East Indies, their strategic significance rapidly eclipsed by the rise of Singapore. Things had changed further during the twentieth century, as the archipelago witnessed waves of migration from all across Indonesia: its low levels of conflict, numerous job opportunities (in factories, mining and small-scale entrepreneurship), and widespread circulation of strong Singaporean and Malaysian currency all attracting Indonesians in search of a new beginning. Others still hoped to use Kepri as a stepping-stone to migrant work overseas, but ended up getting stuck. As a consequence of these demographic shifts (described in more detail in Long 2013: 30-43), the islands boasted an impressively multicultural population. However, this in itself led many Riau Malays – who conceptualised themselves as the ‘indigenous people’ of the region – to feel they had become peripheral. The 2010

census estimated Malays to make up less than 30 per cent of the province’s population – just 14.4 per cent in the city of Batam (Minnesota Population Center 2011) – and many will not even have been ‘indigenous’ Riau Malays, but migrants from Borneo, Bangka-Belitung or the Sumatran mainland. For Vina, then, the possibilities afforded by regional autonomy – most especially the formation of a new province, created ‘in the name of the Malay people’ – were important precisely because they allowed Kepri and its Malays to be ‘at the centre’ of something once again. This, she thought, would be a good story to tell in my paper. I could even note how a handful of Riau Islanders were going even further and arguing that Kepri should detach from Indonesia altogether, forming a new Republic of Riau, or reconnecting with the Singaporean and/or South Malaysian territories over which it had once presided (see Faucher 2005). If Pak Iman or Vina ever read this chapter, they may be disappointed. The issues they flag are interesting, certainly, but they are stories that have already been told elsewhere.1 More significantly, they are quite problematic stories to reiterate yet again. Vina’s narrative risks overstating the extent to which the history of the Malay world shapes contemporary political imaginations, and thereby silencing the migrant majority whose claims to place are grounded in principles of citizenship, rather than autochthony (Long 2013). Pak Iman’s research agenda reflects genuine problems that are much discussed among Kepri’s educated elite: academics, civil servants, journalists and activists. However, the vast majority of Riau Islanders are far too preoccupied with the mundane business of everyday life to give such matters much thought, and so an investigation into those issues would do little to capture what either decentralisation or the simple fact of living in the Outer Islands means to them. Even when people offer up narratives like Vina’s or Pak Iman’s, these may not be the only (or even the most important) ways in which they think and feel about their position in Indonesia’s geographic margins – they may simply be the most familiar and most readily articulated narratives available. This would not be surprising: both narratives ultimately have their roots in an epistemology of centre-periphery relations that derives from the institutions and knowledge practices of the modern state, and so reflect stories that informants with backgrounds in the civil service or political activism have been trained to know how to tell. Problems arise, however, when a similar bias is replicated within academic approaches to centre-periphery relations – and as this chapter will demonstrate, that very much remains the case. The result is a situation in which Indonesianists are wellpositioned to appreciate the impacts of decentralisation upon statecraft and political movements, but have achieved only a partial grasp of how Indonesia’s recent transformations have affected ‘the construction of marginality’ (see Introduction to this volume) in its broadest sense. I therefore want to use this chapter to expand the conversation, by giving centre-stage to the political imaginations of people who did not often talk about centre-periphery relations but who nevertheless revealed themselves to be profoundly invested in them. These investments came to the fore in intense, affectively charged moments, the study of which reveals that decentralisation can be

as much about the desire for connection as it can be about autonomy; that life in a borderland can engender distinctive responsibilities towards a centre; and that the bodily and psychic legacies of past marginality continue to stand out as problems in the decentralised present. Taken as a whole, the material indicates that we should avoid any hasty conclusions about the ‘effects’ of decentralisation, as if administrative reforms in and of themselves are capable of creating new ‘centreperiphery relations’. My argument instead is that decentralisation has created new conditions of possibility under which Indonesians can attempt to realise the imaginaries of ‘centre-periphery relations’ that are meaningful and desirable to them – and that the affects and ethics that underpin local ideas about how Indonesia’s periphery should relate to its centre should therefore take centrestage in analysis. Although the chapter concentrates exclusively on the Riau Island case, this broader theoretical argument would apply to any of the regions discussed in this volume.