Intersections: Gender and Sexuality in Asia and the Pacific
Issue 34, March 2014

Lyn Parker and Pam Nilan

Adolescents in Contemporary Indonesia

New York and Oxon: Routledge
Routledge Contemporary Southeast Asia Series, 2013
ISBN 978-0-415-50855-1 (hbk); 224 pp.

reviewed by Suzanne Naafs

  1. Adolescents in Contemporary Indonesia provides a timely sociological account of the aspirations and social lives of adolescents (remaja) as they navigate the realms of education and future careers, family, religion, sexuality and leisure time. The book explores these topics with reference to the daily lives of urban, middle class teenagers aged sixteen to eighteen years, who are living with their families and are enrolled in upper secondary school. In addition to presenting survey data from nine different regions in the archipelago, spanning West Sumatra, Java, Bali, Lombok, Flores and Sulawesi, the core chapters of the book build on ethnographic fieldwork conducted in Solo (Central Java) and West Sumatra. Moving beyond well-known accounts of spectacular youth subcultures or the street politics of revolutionary male youth (pemuda), the authors explicitly set out to investigate the life worlds of 'ordinary rather than extra-ordinary youth' (p. 11). Whereas previous studies of youth have tended to privilege themes such as 'storm and stress,' autonomy and resistance, Adolescents in Contemporary Indonesia paints a picture of a more mainstream segment of middle-class adolescents who strive to do well at school and become modern and pious members of their families and communities. By offering a window onto this group and their orientations towards conformity and personal development, this book makes a useful contribution to the anthropology and sociology of youth in Indonesia and Southeast Asia more generally.
  2. The book, co-authored by Lyn Parker and Pam Nilan, is divided into nine chapters. Chapters 1 and 2 provide a useful introduction of contemporary theories of youth transitions to adulthood (ch. 1) and of changing definitions of youth in Indonesia (ch. 2). The next two chapters give a general historical overview of the two main field sites where research for this book was conducted, by opening up the worlds of young people in Solo (ch. 3) and West Sumatra (ch. 4). Parker and Nilan situate their account of the everyday lives of adolescents in Solo and West Sumatra at the interface of two contemporary trends in Indonesia. The first trend is an optimistic discourse about a booming domestic economy, exemplified by the expanding middle classes and their orientation towards consumerism. One important feature of this trend is the preoccupation of middle-class families with meeting new standards of education and class mobility, aspirations which are tempered by a difficult labour market for young graduates. The second trend concerns a growing commitment to a more self-consciously Islamic culture, in which middle-class youth are both targets and agents. For the majority of adolescents in this book Islam is a comprehensive way of life, and, as Parker and Nilan point out in chapter 2 'From Pemuda to Remaja,' many teenagers are more preoccupied with collective expectations about religious morality, personal piety and sociability than with political activism. Building on these two trends, the next part of the book investigates three key dimensions of teenagers' lives: school (chapter 5), the moral panics over youth socialising, consumption and sexuality (chapters 6 and 7) and finally, young men and women's aspirations for the future (chapter 8). A central theme running through these chapters is the familiar tension between overlapping and competing social constructions of youth. Young people are simultaneously imagined as the 'hope of the nation' and problematised as volatile, potentially disruptive agents. The main question posed by this study is how young men and women try to reconcile and integrate these seemingly conflicting messages and expectations into their lives.
  3. Chapter 5 on 'The Meaning of Education for Young People' focuses on one such optimistic view towards youth, by describing how government education policies positively value young men and women as future adults and productive citizens. The hidden curriculum in the national education system teaches adolescents to be future-oriented, disciplined and preoccupied with academic rankings and performance (p. 91). Young men and women seem to have absorbed the idea that they are part of the country's human resource base and take for granted that they face competitive markets for education and jobs. Yet importantly, the adolescents in this study emphasise that the significance of education for them goes beyond mere training and preparation for the future. School is also a place for friendships and knowledge; and many adolescents hope that their education will eventually enable them to "give back" to their parents, community and Indonesia as a nation. Nonetheless, strategies to incorporate young people in state agendas for human capital development or guide them towards successful transitions to adulthood are often matched by strategies of containment in the face of 'risky' youth behaviours. Chapters 6 and 7 discuss such adult concerns about risky behaviours by focusing on government, media and teacher discourses with respect to youth socialising, sex and sexuality. As is well known, this moral discourse of protection and surveillance focuses especially on girls, who are warned against the dangers of casual, premarital sex and are constantly reminded to uphold both their own good reputation and that of their families.
  4. Although a nation-wide concern, in West Sumatra this moral discourse is intricately tied up with questions about local culture, ethnic identity and globalisation (ch. 6). This, Parker and Nilan suggest, has created a highly gendered moral panic, resulting in 'a wall of sound, such that alternative discourses are rarely heard' (p. 115). Based on an analysis of school essays, survey responses and interviews, the authors conclude that most secondary school girls in highland West Sumatra faithfully reproduce a conservative discourse about youth socialising and sexuality which is circulated by media, government and religious authorities. At least in theory (and in their school assignments), these young Muslim women agree with the need to denounce premarital sex and to filter out the negative aspects of globalisation. The chapter provides valuable glimpses of girls' excitement upon receiving the first text messages of a potential boyfriend on their mobile phones, as well as girls' anxieties about the potentially disapproving stance taken by peers and parents towards them actually having a boyfriend. Yet overall, there is relatively little information about what high school romances involve in practice and boys' perspectives are noticeably absent from this chapter. Since boys tend to face less parental apprehension with regard to mobility, leisure time and sexuality, analysis of young men's views and experiences may have allowed the authors to point out important limits to the moral panic about youth sexuality. Even more so, this could have extended the analysis of youth sexuality in Indonesia beyond a prevailing theoretical concern with questions of surveillance, sexual propriety and (im)morality; a concern which itself is informed (and limited) by the gendered categories of the moral panic debate.
  5. The chapter on 'Leisure and Socialising: Maintaining the Moral Self in Gendered Leisure' in the city of Solo (ch. 7) continues some of the themes explored in the previous chapter, but adds some important empirical nuances. By restricting themselves to socialising and hanging out during certain times of the day and in appropriate urban spaces (shopping malls, internet cafés), young men and women manage to avoid some of the moral judgements associated with adult concerns about 'free socialising.' Moreover, young people blend a range of Islamic, western and Asian influences in their leisure practices. Interviews with university students, both male and female, reveal how attitudes towards dating and sexuality are not only influenced by regional context, but are also crucially related to the life course. As young men and women approach marriageable age, religious prohibitions and parental attitudes towards dating are likely to shift. As this chapter points out: 'even quite devout young Solonese will pose the question – "how am I ever to meet a pacar (boyfriend or girlfriend) otherwise?"' (p. 115). Questions about marriage and family life also loom large in young men and women's life ideals and aspirations for the future (ch. 8 on 'The Hopes and Dreams of Young People'). The authors conclude that in contrast to youth in western settings, who experience an individualised transition to adulthood based on achieving personal autonomy, family remains of paramount importance to Indonesian youth. Rather than being confused by the different forces and discourses brought to bear upon them, the adolescents in this study aspire to become good Muslims, and hope to combine material success with personal development and religious piety.
  6. Reading the book's conclusion, some readers might question the basis on which the authors label the worldviews of the adolescents described in this book as 'socially conservative' (pp. 165–66). The question of what makes young Indonesians culturally conservative or not depends on the framing and understanding of young people's agency in relation to the new Islamic morality and the ongoing debates about piety, modesty, gender relations, youth socialising and family life. Some studies have emphasised that youthful proponents of more puritan forms of Islam, rather than look back to a conservative past, tend to associate themselves with future-oriented agenda of making Indonesia a more Islamic society through a process of personal development and religious piety.[1] Hence, they might not necessarily think of themselves as 'social conservatives.' Crucially, as Claudia Nef points out, for devout Islamic youth, personal agency 'lies not in freedom to do whatever one wants, but rather in doing what one has learnt to distinguish as right.'[2] Here, I wondered if Parker and Nilan's subject position stems indirectly from the dichotomy of western versus Indonesian youth that permeates the theoretical discussion in the introduction and concluding chapter. Rather than implicitly taking the experiences of western youth as the standard for comparison, the authors could have engaged with the small, but rapidly growing literature on youth in Africa, Asia and other parts of the global South in order to avoid such a dichotomy.
  7. These problems aside, Parker and Nilan present an interesting study based on a broad overview of contemporary trends that are shaping adolescents' lives. The book is written in an accessible style and contains attractive visual illustrations. Adolescents in Contemporary Indonesia points to interesting directions for future research and will appeal to students in Asian studies, anthropology, sociology and cultural studies.


    [1] See, for example, Suzanne Brenner, 'Reconstructing self and society: Javanese Muslim women and "the veil",' American Ethnologist, vol. 23, no. 4 (1996): 673–97; or Nancy Smith-Hefner 'The new Muslim romance: changing patterns of courtship and marriage among Javanese educated youth,' Journal of Southeast Asian Studies, vol. 36, no. 3 (2005): 441–59.

    [2] Claudia Nef, 'Standing up for morals,' Inside Indonesia, vol. 103, (Jan–March 2011), online:, accessed 22 November 2013.


Published with the support of Gender and Cultural Studies, School of Culture, History and Language, College of Asia and the Pacific, The Australian National University.
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Last modified: 25 February 2014 1453