It is circa 1900. A young girl from a simple fishing village has been sold as a ’practice wife’ to the Bendoro, or local lord. When the Bendoro tires of her and expels her from his house, the girl retires from his presence the way peasants are supposed to: backwards, and on her knees.
The scene is from the novel “The Girl from the Coast”, and is based on the life of the grandmother of the Indonesian author, Pramoedya Ananta Toer. The girl suffered because the absolute authority of a petty local ruler and the accompanying indignities were considered normal. And this in a land which, by the standards of the age, was relatively refined. The Bendoro’s rules did not hold in the Netherlands, which ruled the land, but many Europeans would have shared his belief that sharp social stratification was part of the natural order of things. The Victorian author of All Things Bright and Beautiful, the childrens-favourite hymn, expressed the same sentiment a few decades earlier: “The rich man in his castle, the poor man at his gate, God made them, high or lowly, and ordered their estate.”
Times have changed. Pramoedya’s story comes from a vanished world, one in which the privileged elites were considered superior beings to the masses of ’ordinary people’. To the modern reader, the Javanese peasant bride’s humility looks demeaning and disgusting, not pre-ordained. The Bendoro’s worldview has been superseded by that of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which takes it as self-evident that, “all human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights”. And the verse about “the rich man in his castle” is usually excluded from editions of modern hymnals.
Still, elitism is far from dead. Almost everywhere, a handful of people, or families, hold significant influence over politics, economics, and society. The yearning for equality that has brought about so much social and political change has put an end to the sort of bowing and scraping that Pramoedya described, but it has not prevented the rise of new ruling classes – albeit ones defined by class and profession rather than bloodlines.
Indeed, today’s elites are unlikely to have inherited a title such as Bendoro, king or prince. In Indonesia, the royal families have vestigial prestige but little political and economic influence. In their stead, a few current and former military leaders and a small group of business families – the latter almost all of Chinese origin (nine of the 10 richest, according to Forbes) – are in control. The wealth of this ruling caste is enhanced by the sort of state-granted monopolies and tribute payments that were once considered the normal privilege of aristocrats but are now often deemed corrupt.