Colonialism… Wait, don’t close this tab yet, I swear this is going to be interesting. Colonialism can be a funny thing. It was fundamentally racist, economically and politically oppressive, and led to dozens of wars and millions of deaths. On the other hand, it built some infrastructure using what amounted to slave labor and manipulated existing social structures for the benefit of what academics call the ‘metropole’ often to the point of creating conflicts that had never existed (see Hotel Rwanda). So yeah, it was bad.

Not all colonial empires were created equal. While the “sun never set” on the British Empire, other European countries were content on a single territory (e.g. the Belgians in the Congo) or few disparate ones (e.g. the French in parts of Africa and Indochina). The Dutch were a unique case. Ruling over the diverse and expansive Indonesian archipelago for close to 400 years, the Dutchies – as I’ve seen them called in these pages – were kicked out by the Indonesia Revolution, in the late 1940’s.

But despite the 70 years of intervening Indonesian independence and various attempts by the country’s leadership at ‘dewesternization’ (the government called it “nationalization”), there’s still a considerable amount of “Dutchness” across the 17,000 islands that make up Indonesia. Some things are physical, others social or lingual, but the point is 400 years is a long time for two peoples to be connected. This series will explore some of these remnants of Dutch colonialism, how they exist today, and a bit about their history from an objective observer (me, an American) who has lived in both countries. So without further adieu, let’s dive into our first subject: bureaucracy.

Clichés and a great quote about Dutch bureaucracy

Dutch bureaucracy, especially the example of moving to the Netherlands, has been well covered on DutchReview, but to summarize, Dutch bureaucracy centers around the gemeente, or municipal government, and is by all accounts strict, annoyingly and robotically strict. In the long run, this is probably a good characteristic for a bureaucracy to have. Things like filling in copious forms, paying small fees, and bureaucrats that don’t bend the rules frequently combine for effective governance. They can also combine for frustratingly long wait times and failures to provide logical solutions (please ignore the source) to very real problems, which can in turn lead to tragic results. Indeed, it’s the inhumanity of the bureaucratic process – at least the effective ones – that is at the heart of most complaints. A friend of mine who is a writer and activist for asylum seekers described Dutch bureaucracy as “One without a human face.”

Dutch Colonial Frankenstein

As was the case for the English, French, and Belgians, the Dutch brought European civil service to their colonial possession and used it as a tool of economic and socio-political oppression. Throughout the colonial world, including the Dutch East Indies, this was primarily accomplished through the integration of existing socio-political hierarchies into the colonial governance. In the Dutch East Indies, parallel civil services were created with Dutch officials staffing the smaller of the two branches and local aristocrats staffing the (much) larger branch. In the early years of the Indonesia Republic, the (now) Indonesian part of the bureaucracy, staffed by individuals that had been educated in Dutch schools and universities, exploded in size. Using the same lines of patronage as their Dutch predecessors, Presidents Sukarno and Suharto cemented themselves at the pinnacle of civil services that reached into every part of their citizens’ lives.

They (whoever they are) say ‘to err is human,’ and if the Dutch bureaucracy is inhuman, its colonial progeny, the Indonesian civil service, is very much human. Imperfections are rampant in the archipelago’s civil service including minor corruption alongside arcane and byzantine regulations that are inconsistently enforced (inconsistencies that are often caused by that minor corruption). Arguably, this corruption and inconsistently application of regulations and laws has kept Indonesia from fulfilling its huge economic potential. As this year, it ranked 114th in the ‘Ease-of-Doing-Business Rankings’.


The thing is, all these are pretty common critiques of former colonies by western institutions and if Indonesian corruption is traced over the past decade, corruption, or at least the perception of corruption has, according to Transparency International, decreased. Tangibly speaking, fees – normally where that minor corruption is (in-)conveniently added on – are becoming more regularly enforced and the newly elected government has focused, at least rhetorically, on breaking the lines of patronage that harken back to the colonial days. In those ‘Ease-of-Doing-Business Rankings, Indonesia has jumped six places from 2012, when they were 120th.

There are few kind words to be said about any bureaucracy, anywhere in the world (perhaps fewer than colonialism itself). A happy medium somewhere between the facelessness of the stringent Dutch bureaucracy and its ugly post-colonial offspring that is manipulated by those in positions of power is a true rarity. In Indonesia, the colonial roots of the nation’s civil service are clear and remain – seventy years after independence – woven into the fabric of the archipelago’s politics.

This series is published on both The Dutch Review and The Volterra. Watch this space over the coming weeks for subjects even more exciting than bureaucracy. Yes, they do exist. Topics like food and architecture are sure to be covered. If you have spent time in Indonesia and noticed anything peculiarly Dutch, let us know and we’ll write about it!


headshotRowan Kane is the Founding Editor of The Volterra. Follow him on Twitter @rlmkane or email him at rowan@thevolterra.com.

2 thoughts on “Indonesian Bureaucracy: A Colonial Frankenstein

  1. Pingback: The Frying Pan #4: Bureaucracy | Semawang Stories

  2. Pingback: The Frying Pan #4: Bureaucracy | thefryingpanpodcast

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