Lost in mall: An ethnography of middle-class Jakarta in the 1990s

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In the 1980s, sensational stories about an ’emerging new middle class’ popped up simultaneously in the streets of Jakarta and at conferences of hopeful Indonesia watchers. Businesspeople and professionals had profited from President Suharto’s rapid economic success, and were allegedly eager to not only to show off their new wealth, but to boost democratization processes as well. They and their families were the vanguard of a category of Jakartans who regarded themselves boldly as the ‘normal, modern, educated middle class’ of Indonesia – against the background of a profound and state-induced depoliticization. Apart from fostering a new consumer culture, the new middle class was at the root of the expansion of the conurbation Jabotabek, housing hundreds of thousands of newly arrived middle-class members. Meanwhile, a new and huge gap between rich and poor became conspicuously visible in Jakarta. During the 1990s, the increasing political instability of the New Order government and the Asian monetary crisis led to the dramatic resignation of President Suharto in May 1998. In this study, based on extensive anthropological fieldwork throughout the 1990s, this new middle class is examined as a socio-cultural phenomenon. Despite a global orientation and a taste for democracy, its members seemed to have internalized the New Order along with some lingering late-colonial notions as their guidelines for life. How ‘new’ was the new middle class anyway? Lifestyle and material culture practices in the suburb of Bintaro Raya – in public space as well as in the intimacy of living rooms – illustrate the everyday ambiguity of people who appear to be trapped in their imagined middle-classness: they were ‘lost in mall’. “This book is one of the two or three best and most innovative books about Indonesia that I have read in the past 15 years. A searing close-up study of the political, moral and aesthetic vacuity of upper-middle-class Jakarta society, it is nonetheless written with much human warmth, laughter, and delicate melancholy. Lost in mall is both merciless and tender.” — Benedict Anderson, Emeritus Professor of International Studies and Director of the Modern Indonesia Project at Cornell University. Dr. Lizzy van Leeuwen is a cultural anthropologist and lawyer. She performed fieldwork among the financial elite and the middle classes in Jakarta between 1993 and 2000. During her research, she was affiliated with the Amsterdam School for Social science Research (ASSR).

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