Arisan revisited: Notes on precariousness (2)


As a savings association to base on mutual help principle, the operationalization scope of arisanis limited to small groups in which the members know each other. Researches on arisan confirm the condition that it would not occur in a group where the members are unfamiliar to each other. The meaning of mutual help is restricted and not inclusive. What criteria for someone to be considered and invited as an arisan member? Inclusion and exclusion are two factors to govern the existence of arisan. It points to the limit of the common aspect of a community-based alternative financial group.

According to Erik Bähre, when writing about ROSCA in a South African township, ‘helping each other’, in many contexts, is often not compatible with ‘taking care of oneself’–“ ‘helping each other’ centered on sharing, while ‘taking care of oneself’ valued accumulation.”[11] The politics of everyday life is composed of countless moments where one has to make, again Bähre, “precarious choices” concerning when to help the others and to take care of personal safety. When helping each other and taking care of oneself collides, it results in frictions and episodes of what Bähre coined as “reluctant solidarity”.[12]


Difficult times often come unexpectedly. It causes precarious feeling. Not everyone has an advantage of being in a position where the availability of resources is abundant, or having a wealthy network to hold on. And nothing can be more dreadful than having debt bondage. The fear for debt is strong. Credit and debt have a long history in Southeast Asia. They informed social structures in many levels.[13] It tells about the power of the creditor and the limitation of the debtor. Arisan emerges as a support institution that derives from the familial realm. At once it is a mechanism with the certainty that each person would be able to support his or her own needs.

Arisan is often considered a typical ibu-ibu, or woman’s practice. Plenty of research suggests it is not a gendered practice. To locate arisan in the everyday domain of women provides space to examine the use of arisan and imagination of precariousness within the inter-relational framework of the wife, the husband, and the family. Hanna Papanek and Laurel Schwede read arisan as part of a woman’s strategy to help deal with economic stress of the family. Further, they see it as part of the conscious decision of a woman to actively engage in earning and managing in the family.[14] It signifies a degree of independency. The husband, the children, or other members of the family usually do not put serious attention to arisan. Such attitude stems from a perspective of the practice as woman’s practice. It has made arisan a special locus to lend freedom in managing the fund obtained.

A woman and mother, in Papanek and Schwede’s research, found many reasons to participate in arisan and to think about how to make and save more money for her family. Throughout time women have been affected by different kinds of uncertainty—the inflation of the 1950s and 1960s, the Japanese occupation, the fear of hunger, the fight for independence from the Dutch—experiences, which shaped childhood and disrupted schooling.[15] Each woman might have different reason, which encourage her to join an arisan. My mother always thinks about her desires for having enough money for my sisters’ family and myself. The purpose of the money does not need to be specific. What is important is there is enough money to be used when the needs call. My older sister always thinks about money to fund the education needs of her children.

Keep going

There have been attempts at modifying the structure of arisan. In a recent conversation with a friend, I was told that she participated in anarisan, in which three persons would get the money in one ‘pull’ (narik). It reduces the amount of money received, since the lump sum fund needs to be divided into three. At least, it is certain that fresh cash will be at hand on a scheduled time. There are many factors to ignite precariousness. Hence the feeling seems to be persistent. This is a factor to maintain the relevancy of arisanArisan is a known practice emerged as cultural reference to approach uncertainty. It is an attempt to come to grips with difficult situation. It shows the will to find something to hold on, and to endure.

[11] Bahre, Money and Violence: Financial Self-Help Groups in a South African Township, 90.

[12] Bahre, ibid., 99.

[13] Henley, “Credit and Debt in Indonesian History: Introduction”.

[14] Papanek and Schwede, “Women are Good with Money: Earning and Managing in an Indonesian City”.

[15] Papanek and Schwede, ibid., WS-77.


Bahre, Erik. 2007. Money and Violence: Financial Self-Help Groups in a South African Township. Leiden & Boston: Brill.

Geertz, Clifford. 1962. “The Rotating Credit Association: A Middle Rung in Development.”Economic Development and Cultural Change 10, no.3: 241-263.

Henley, David. 2009. “Credit and Debt in Indonesian History: An Introduction”, in Henley and Boomgaard (eds.), Credit and Debt in Indonesia, 860 – 1930: From Peonage to Pawnshop, From Kongsi to Cooperative, 1-40.

Hope, Kempe Ronald Sr. 1993. “Growth and Impact of the Subterranean Economy in the Third World.” Futures October: 864-876.

Miguel, Edward, Paul Gertler, and David I. Levine. 2006. “Does Industrialization Build or Destroy Social Networks?” Economic Development and Cultural Change 54, no.2: 287-317.

Newberry, Jan. 2007. “Rituals of Rule in the Administered Community: The Javanese Selametan Reconsidered.” Modern Asian Studies 41, no.6: 1295-1329.

Papanek, Hanna., and Laurel Schwede. 1988. “Women are Good with Money: Earning and Managing in an Indonesian City.” Economic and Political Weekly 23, no.44: WS-73-WS-84.

Shanmugam, Bala. 1991. “Socio-Economic Development Through the Informal Credit Market.” Modern Asian Studies 25, no.2: 209-225.

Arisan revisited: Notes on precariousness (1)

Arisan is a popular community-based savings association in Indonesia. Amid various ways of saving and credit facilitated by modern banking platforms, arisan proves to be a sustaining mechanism for accumulating money. What aspects of arisan to help contribute to its sustainability?

Arisan: a transitional economic system

Jan Newberry defines arisan as a monthly credit lottery and describes how it works as follows: “At each meeting, members contribute a fixed amount, and each in turn receives the entire collected amount during the course of the arisan’s run (several weeks, months, or as long as it takes). Although identified here as a credit lottery, the arisan is just as easily described as a savings association.”[1] The members of arisan refer to it as a way of saving—a forced one. There are other definitions, however.

Edward Miguel, Paul Gertler, and David I. Levine discuss arisan as an Indonesian typical self-help group that built on the foundation of social networking, saving mechanism, and loans provision.[2] Kempe Ronald Hope defines it as a group saving association in which temporary loans are possible.[3] Bala Shanmugam refers to it as a rotating credit association.[4] Both Hope and Shanmugam respectively emphasize arisan as part of the subterranean and informal economy. They provide many examples to show the existance of arisan-like mechanisms in different contexts—tontines and Kootu (Malaysia), paluwagan (the Philippines), adashi or cha in Nigeria, ROSCA or rotating saving credit association (South Africa), chita (India), sou-sou (Trinidad and Tobago), tanda (Mexico), and gameya (Egypt).

The emphasis on informality indicates the function of arisan as a transitional economic system. For those who are not familiar with the cold and bureaucratic banking system, the familiarity of arisan is a feature to make it easier to partake in organizing personal finance. Arisan is the intermediary, “the middle rung”, says Geertz, from a traditionalistic agrarian society to a commercialistic one.

More economic

According to Geertz, arisan has become “more and more specifically economic rather than diffusely social institutions.”[5] It has become the norm to be part of two, three, or even more arisan groups. The reason is to be able to save more. On the one hand, it indicates willingness to save. On the other, however, the savings might be distributed for different expenses and needs, and dissolved as soon as they are obtained.

To illustrate this, I use my mother’s story as an example. She is a member of four arisan groups. As much as my mother enjoys going to arisan, there were many occasions where she could not attend due to her work obligations. Despite being busy, she did not want to miss a single arisan meeting, and at once lose the possibility of narik. A common strategy that is applied to deal with this problem is to get a representative whom is tasked with paying the contribution money. A simple solution is to get a wakil, or representative – for example, a daughter or close relative. My mother often asked my older sister to represent her.

The social meaning of arisan, often unsettled by the busy and hectic lives of its members, has the potential to be reproduced and revitalized in some ways. The difficulty in getting a representative is because arisan requires high social skills; a skill not everyone is at ease with. Especially if this includes chit-chat with a group of much older women. The challenge is to convince the prospective representative that going to arisan can be an OK experience too. After regularly being present at my mother’s arisan groups, my sister eventually had the idea of joining the groups herself. Rather than going to arisan as a mere representative, she made the most of it by subscribing to its meaning—a powerful economic institution.

Another aspect to reveal from the fear of losing the opportunity to get the arisan fund is an attempt to learn to commit to the basic principle of the arisan, as Shanmugam writes, “the duty-bound to make regular contributions.”[6] The failure to provide the commitment would result in shame[7] and distrust among the group. Because it suggests the lack of “discipline to set aside money regularly.”[8] This is an aspect, which has brought Geertz to conclude arisan as an “educational mechanism.” The educational value lies in its capacity “to change their whole value framework from one emphasizing particularistic, diffuse, affective, and ascriptive ties between individuals, to one emphasizing—within economic contexts—universalistic, affectively neutral, and achieved ties between them.”[9]

Communal harmony

Kerukunan, communal harmony, manifested in the gathering, has been the key element in the operationalization of arisan (see Geertz).[10] Geertz alludes to the word ‘arisan’ as mutual help. My assumption is that it derives from Javanese, the language spoken by the people in Mojokuto, Geertz’s main research area. But ‘arisan’ sounds like ‘warisan’, an Indonesian word, which literally means an inheritance. It derives from ‘waris’, a Javanese word that is absorbed by Indonesian, which means an inheritor. The collected lump sum of the arisan, succeeded to one member to the other, indeed feels like a collective inheritance.

The gathering aspect aside, based on my childhood memories arisan is an opportunity to share good food and eat together. The host of the arisan meeting always provides special food, the kind of food and drinks that might not be available on a daily basis. Eating together is an added element that makes arisan pleasurable. Going to an arisan is a much-awaited event, because it is like going out to eat, which does not occur often. For the same reason, I liked it when my mother asked me to come to an arisan with her. Though I always ended up doing my own things there—sitting quietly next to my mother, reading.

To organize an arisan is like organizing a feast. It is a time-consuming process, which involves complicated preparation. The whole house has to be clean and tidy (in fact, the host needs to perform well too—wearing a proper outfit is a must). Beautiful plates, bowls, mugs, and jars are curated and displayed out on the table as part of the food display. The guests will praise the delicious food provided. They will extend particular attention to the spatiality of the arisan—the house of the host (the neatness of the living room, what paintings, photos, and other things are displayed on the walls, or the cleanliness of the toilet). The host will go about arisan preparation as best she can in order to avoid being the subject of gossip. Gossip, ngobrol-ngobrol, and other types of casual conversations are essential parts of the meeting. The members express enthusiasm for arisan by coming early (so that there will be ample time for chit-chatting and gossiping).

Arisan is a powerful performative tool. It is an open platform that can be appropriated for showing the current state of possession to others within a familiar environment.

The hosts have to use their personal money to prepare the food. Some feel burdened with this aspect, since it seems contrary to the spirit of arisan as a saving mechanism. While the social aspect of arisan is highly valued, it entails performing a series of careful calculations. It would be careless to spend large parts of the saving just for food. Some arisans ask their members to contribute an extra amount of money to be allocated to create a collective saving pot. The collective saving pot can be used for different purposes—funding for the food preparation included.

For practical and economic reasons, some hosts choose to provide takeaway snacks in boxes instead. It removes the risk of losing the lavish element that is commonly expected from arisan food. Nonetheless it does not seem to reduce the excitement that emerges from getting free food. When I did not join my mother to an arisan, I would wait for her at home in anticipation of receiving a small box of snacks.

[1] Newberry, “Rituals of Rule in the Administered Community: The Javanese Selametan Reconsidered”, 1296-7.

[2] Miguel, Gertler, and Levine, “Does Industrialization Build or Destroy Social Networks?”, 290.

[3] Hope, “Growth and Impact of the Subterranean Economy in the Third World”, 869.

[4] Shanmugam, “Socio-economic Development Through the Informal Credit Market”, 209.

[5] Geertz, “The Rotating Credit Association: A ‘Middle Rung’ in Development”, 246.

[6] Shanmugam, ibid., 219.

[7] Geertz, ibid., 247.

[8] Shanmugam, op.cit.

[9] Geertz, ibid., 260.

[10] Geertz, ibid., 243.


An Unfinished Story of the Source of Good Food

The fridge in my house in Surabaya is always chaotic. It resembles a repository where a jumble of different kinds of food wrapped in plastic and paper are placed without any clear system of categorisation. Vegetables, butter cans, colourful candies usually used to decorate birthday cake, biscuits, sugar, dried fish, peeled onion, powdered spices… All are stacked up just like that, and are definitely not neatly arranged. Unless we open up the food wrappings, it is impossible to know what is inside it. I have the feeling that my mother is the only one knows exactly what are the items that have been loaded into the fridge.

But the whole house itself is always in a mess. For example, there are always things on our couch, so much so that it is difficult to sit down without crushing anything. Various kinds of toys belonged to my nephew and niece are scattered throughout the floors. My oldest sister, together with her husband and their two children, are still staying with my mother. Some parts of the house are covered with dust. One of the reasons it is untidy is that it used to serve as a workspace.

the fridge

In the early 1990s, Mother started a furniture business. She had previously worked as the principal of a primary school in Gresik, a small town not so far from Surabaya, and had just recently retired as a civil servant in 2009. But she was, and still is, not the kind of person who is ever likely to rest her hands; she has been in search of ways of increasing the family income. The nicely polished furniture were sometimes put inside the house alongside our own belongings.

The workers of the furniture business were our relatives from Jombang, East Java – my mother’s hometown. It seemed to me that both Mother and Grandmother had the habit of transforming our house into a shelter for our extended family members. Mother and Grandmother would welcome them to our house, provide them with food, try to find them jobs, or if they were interested, enroll them in a school.

There was also the time when Mother ran a bridal make-up service business. The cupboard that used to contain Javanese bridal dresses is all that remains of it. Now she fills her post-retirement years by focusing on her catering business—something that grew out of her cooking hobby. On the days when she has to finish orders, the kitchen is extended out to other parts of the house and everyone in the house is required to assist her.

One day, I approached her and complained about the disorderliness of the house, the fridge, and the kitchen; about however hard our attempts at re-arranging the furniture, they would soon return to their disorderly state. Each member of the family was absorbed into his or her own life trajectories and had little time to spend keeping the house neat and tidy. She responded, “It is not just our house, but a space to work. So it is alright if our fridge and kitchen are a bit dirty. For me, what is important is the appearance of the food when presented to those who order them”.

Occasions such as these fueled my desire to leave the house and to go to a good university in another city in Java. Somewhere else, I would have my own room as well as the freedom of arranging my things in the way I want. Confronted with an undesirable matter, most people would seek ways of distancing themselves from it, and projecting the hopes onto coveting things possessed by the others. In my case, there is always the fridge I have dreamt about, the kind of room I have always wanted and a house designed in a specific style I have longed for. When I was a kid, I used to bike around a luxurious housing estate named Sinar Galaxy near my house. I would then roam through its streets, pointing my finger at several houses, which matched my dreams. The house with gigantic pillars or the house with a big pool over there.

Reflecting on it now, it was a desire, which was driven by the need to escape from the disorderliness of my house and it served as a base of my personal obsession with orderliness. Furthermore, it provides me with the impetus to develop my own life system.


There was always plenty of food at my childhood home. This is one important thing which makes me feel happy to be home. Indeed, my mother is a great cook, and food made by her hands is always delicious. Once, after being away for several months, I went home and she welcomed me with heaps of smiles and a plate of scrambled eggs and tofu, served with peanut sauce. She proceeded to tell me that she had cooked special fried noodles for me. A big bowl of fried noodles was placed inside a cupboard where she usually used to store her cooking ingredients. Again, the storage was also an untidy one. The plate looked unstable because it sat on a pile of food boxes, or what I thought were food boxes, although I could not really tell what was inside them.

scrambled egg and tofu2

fried noodle

The next morning, Mother took me to Pabean market in the northern part of Surabaya. She always goes to this market if she needs to buy large quantities of ingredients. The market is divided into several lots in which each one is dedicated to sell a specific ingredient. We stepped our feet to a lot selling garlic, onion, and chili. The pungent smell of onions was in the air. Just like any other traditional market, cleanliness was also a matter in question here. Garbage was everywhere. I felt as if my feet were not stepping on a floor but on a thick layer of onion peels instead. While waiting for the customers, the sellers spent their time peeling onions and transformed the entire floor into the giant garbage bin. Casting our eyes on a display table, we found big round baskets containing high piles of peeled onions. They all looked neat. Then we went to the lot that sold dried fish. In each kiosk, I saw plastic bags and rubber bands stuck into small holes in between the pillars of the kiosk. The colourful plastic bags and rubber bands emerged from the holes. Laid on the floor were big round bamboo baskets with piles of various kinds of dried fish. It brought me a sense of pleasantness just by looking at them. They all looked neat.

salted fish in bamboo basket

dried chillies

If the floor of the market and the holes of the pillars were the backstages of the onion and dried fish kiosks, then the fridge and the kitchen were that of my mother’s. However disorderly the state that might occur in the backstage, all must arranged in an orderly way before appearing on stage.

On our way back, Mother was busy comparing the price of food ingredients in Pabean to other markets. She likes to shop at Pabean because she can save some amount of money.

Her thriftiness reflects on her constant refusal to eat outside. Surely she would reject the ‘anti-eating out’ label I have decided to give to her. In reality, however, there were moments where I clearly remember how she fiercely rejected the food cooked by the other food producers from outside. She always held the view that the food at restaurants or warung is overpriced, and the quality of the taste is often poor. I recalled taking my mother and a friend of mine to a restaurant in Jalan Kusumanegara, Yogyakarta, during my undergraduate years. My friend and I ordered two plates of fried rice, which cost us Rp.40,000. Upon knowing the amount of money I had spent on fried rice, my mother frowned. She finally did not want to order any kind of food at all, which in the end also made me depressed too. Until today I still fear for asking her to have a meal outside.

I thought I was embarrassed by her stinginess. In hindsight, it was probably not the embarrassment that I felt but a predicament that arose from a circumstance where Mother rejected the food consumption system I had developed.

Mother always feels that I lavish money too easily on food. “I really do not understand why you have to spend great amount of money on something that would literally turned into shit,” she said. But she does not develop her frugal behaviour further into recycling practices as practiced thoroughly by Grandmother. Grandmother had the ability to transform yesterday’s leftover rice into crackers, broken lamps into hanging plant pots, collecting used plastic bags or paper boxes.

Our family does not have the tradition of eating outside, but has a strong habit of traveling together on weekends. Going to the beach or the zoo used to be our weekly regular activity. We rarely ate in any stall at the beach or the zoo area however. Mother always brought some food for us from home.

As told by my mother, she and my father often had their meals in restaurants. Since giving birth to her children, she started to cook for the family. The habit of eating out then gradually declined. The awareness of strictly controlling the finances of the family has then been manifested in regular cooking activities.

Not only has the family established itself as an institution subsisting the sustenance for all the family members, it has also set the value system about what food to eat and avoid. Mother’s cooking is the benchmark of how the family set their expectations on food. By anchoring her taste buds to her long cooking experience, my mother has based her judgment about any kind of cooking produced by the other food providers. It is the connection to our mother’s cooking which has shaped the expectations and food preferences of this particular family. In my case, the experience of living and working outside the hometown not only paved a way of eating different kinds of food from what we usually have at home, but also to break the family taboo on eating out.