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Articles Blog

Surabaya, Indonesia

Karyn Planett

East To Java 

Java. So, so far from the familiarity of home. So mysterious. So exotic, like something out of a 1940s black and white film where the handsome leading man with a penciled mustache singlehandedly fends off an attack by the rampaging hordes of deranged machete-wielding islanders while the pale, frail damsel is distressed. 

Meanwhile, back to reality, we learn about the true history of Surabaya beginning with the real hordes not those from a Hollywood backlot. They came. And, for centuries, the island of Java was always approached from west to east by every significant migration. Java is, therefore, the most populated as well as one of the biggest of the 17,000 or so islands that make up Indonesia. Surabaya, where you visit next, is its capital. 

Java Man

In 1892, a Darwinist by the name of Eugene Dubois discovered teeth and bone fragments on Java that the scientific community eventually accepted as the “missing link” between apes and humans. Named homo erectus by the learned, he became more popularly known as “Java Man”. This fellow, although gender was never determined, was the first migrant of a species that probably originated in Africa and slogged all the way to Java via a land bridge some 1.7 million years ago. You, good friend, arrive on a luxury ship. Anyway, his skullcap indicated a brain of 900cc—approximately two-thirds the size of modern man’s and probably one-tenth the size of Stephen Hawking’s. 


The next significant migration came with Arab traders starting in the 8th century. It was the arrival of one of the world’s great religions and today Indonesia is the largest Muslim country on earth. Over 85% of the population is Muslim represented by two main groups. Modernist Muslims adhere to the orthodox faith while supporting contemporary advances and education. Traditionalist Muslims more often follow local religious leaders. 

But Indonesia is not an Islamic state. It’s a democracy, and has been in one form or another since independence following World War II. On a visit to Indonesia in 2009, US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said, “If you want to know if Islam, democracy, modernity, and women’s rights can coexist, go to Indonesia”. 


While Europeans are often cited as “discoverers” of the rest of the known world, they were clearly not first to be drawn to Indonesia. True, the Portuguese arrived in the early 1500s but failed to establish a defensible presence and were displaced by the Dutch later in that century. The Dutch East India Company—one of the first international corporations—established bases in the “Spice Islands” and eventually monopolized the spice trade with Europe. The company operated as a de facto government, and was given license to build forts, raise armies, and make treaties. 

The Dutch East India Company existed until the early 1800s when Napoleon and then the British claimed temporary dominion, but Dutch control of Indonesia lasted until the Japanese wrested the islands away in World War II. 


As World War II drew to a close and the Japanese were vanquished, the victorious British attempted to return Indonesia to Dutch control. But long years of fighting the Japanese had created a nationalistic culture and a desire for independence among the Indonesian people. Former resistance fighters formed a revolutionary group known as Republicans that successfully rallied popular support for the independence movement.

In November 1945, a decisive battle took place. Known as the “Battle of Surabaya”, it galvanized international support for the rebels and led eventually to convincing both the British and the Dutch to support Indonesia’s claim for independence. The Dutch formally transferred sovereignty in 1949 and a parliamentary democracy was established led by President Sukarno, a Surabaya native and former Japanese sympathizer. He was not an auspicious choice. 


Despite Sukarno’s focus on “affairs” of state (women), presidential “audiences” (parties), and political maneuvering, Indonesia prospered and made significant social gains. Sukarno was hailed as the “Great Leader of the Revolution” and, Castro-like, enjoyed the unbridled support of his people. But by 1956, he was finding true democracy too time consuming to deal with so he dissolved parliament and declared “Guided Democracy” to be the new political structure. It was, however, essentially a dictatorship. 

In 1965, a coup attempt led by a group of military conspirators calling themselves the “September 30th Movement” was forcefully put down by the loyal Jakarta garrison under the command of General Suharto. This all provided the background for the film A Year Of Living Dangerously. The result was a purge of the military, a slaughter of the communist leadership, and the ascendancy of Suharto who eventually succeeded Sukarno then reinstalled the country’s parliamentary system of government. 


For its central role in the independence movement, Surabaya is known as “the city of heroes”. For its role as the commercial hub of Indonesia, it’s an international city lying on the major east-west shipping route between Asia and Europe. For its incredible array of shopping malls, it’s known as the city where Indonesia shops. But perhaps most importantly to its citizens and its visitors, it’s the current titleholder of something called the Adipura Kencana Award. 

At the millennium, Surabaya was a dry, dirty city. Then, in 2005, Tri Rismaharini became head of the Cleaning and Park Layout Commission. Prior to that she’d been known only to her family and a few friends. She served until 2008 at which time she took over the Surabaya City Planning Commission. In 2010, “Risma” became Surabaya’s first female mayor and she’s transformed this city into a greenbelt of parks and playgrounds for the populace. 

This, by the way, is exactly why Surabaya is now known as “the Singapore of Indonesia”.