Tuesday, November 27, 2007

Indonesian Freedom Fighters

Nov 20, 2007
Freedom fighters rue a sad new world
By John McBeth, Senior Writer

FIVE years ago, I interviewed four sprightly octogenarians who called themselves the Third Generation. Not quite founding fathers, but prominent figures who had played vital roles in the birth of the Indonesian republic and had remained true to their values.
At a time when Indonesian thinkers were engaged in a great deal of worried introspection in the wake of the 1997-1998 economic meltdown, these four seemed to be some of the few judges genuinely qualified to answer a much-debated question: Where had Indonesia gone wrong?

To a man, they were courteous and engaging - all of them throwbacks to another, much different era free of corruption and self-interest and brimming with dreams for the future of an infant nation:

Mr Soedarpo Sastrosatomo, then 81, began his working life as a diplomat and then went on to found Samudera Lines, Indonesia's largest shipping company, now headquartered in Singapore.

Mr Roeslan Abdulgani, 87 at the time, a former foreign minister under president Sukarno who was still serving as a general adviser to the government.

Mr Julius Tahija, 85 during our meeting, a genuine World War II hero, a minister in the short-lived East Indonesia government and a retired businessman.

Professor Selo Soemardjan, then 87, a trained sociologist who served for 40 years as private secretary to the late Sultan Hamengkubuwono XI of Jogjakarta.
Sadly Mr Sastrosatomo - the one I knew the best - died recently of complications from dengue fever. In the house where thousands of people filed past his shrouded body to pay their respects, we shed silent tears for a fine man who represented all that is good about the Indonesian people - if not all of its leaders.

But his death also allowed me to reflect again on the surprisingly similar verdicts reached by these grand old men in those separate and fascinating interviews, which took me on a journey through modern Indonesian history.

Interestingly, they did not blame the Indonesian dilemma on former president Suharto or on founding president Sukarno. Rather, they traced its roots back to the early days of the republic, to the overbearing influence of Javanese culture - and to collective mistakes ranging from fostering bureaucratic nepotism to breeding a generation of rent-seekers.

Mr Sastrosatomo, a member of the Indonesian team to the United Nations from 1948 to 1950, pointed to how the early government was patterned after the Dutch colonial administration, more than 100 of whose laws still remain in the country's statute books.

'We weren't ready for independence,' he said. 'We didn't have the slightest clue what to do. It was all political, there was never any real talk about what the country would look like as an independent state.'

A lot of the blame fell on the Dutch, who did nothing to prepare the country for independence. 'The Dutch trained good mechanics and technical people, but they never trained managers or leaders - it was a deliberate policy,' Mr Tahija told me.

'No one was ready. We started fighting first and thinking later. The whole thing was 'let's get them out first'...We had never thought as one entity, and that was difficult to overcome.'

Hard of hearing but sharp as a tack, Mr Abdulgani remembered those days well.

'We were a people who wanted to be masters in our own house, not servants as we were before. Frankly, we didn't understand international relations - we knew only the Dutch, the Japanese and the British,' said the old freedom fighter, whose right hand was turned into a claw by machine-gun fire.

'We had heard our older leaders talking about Asia, so our view was we should be on the same level as India and the Philippines. But overall, you had to understand our urge for freedom.'

But once independence was achieved, something seemed to change. Mr Sastrosatomo recalled the high ethics that characterised the 1945-1950 independence struggle against the Dutch as they tried to regain what had slipped from their grasp during Japan's World War II occupation.

'Money,' the one-time diplomat insisted, 'was never stolen.' Then in the early 1950s, the new government began issuing commercial licences to private businessmen - for a price. 'What's happening now,' he sighed deeply, 'is simply an outgrowth of what happened then.'

Interestingly, it is Java and its culture that the four wise men saw as the biggest impediment to Indonesia's stumbling progress towards modern statehood. It is not a new thought, but it has taken on more resonance with memories of military abuses and Jakarta's grudging decision to decentralise.

In those days, vice-president Mohommad Hatta wanted a federation while Mr Sukarno held out for a republic. Mr Tahija, an Ambonese born in Java, thought Mr Hatta was on the right track.

'Today, if you know someone is Javanese,' he said, 'an electric shock goes through you.'

Has it all been that bad? Mr Soemardjan, a small ethnic Javanese with a thatch of white hair, seemed to think so, noting that all Indonesia's presidents have been from Java, with the exception of Sulawesi-born B.J. Habibie.

'Because the president is recognised by the Javanese as a king, he exercises his cultural influence over everyone else,' he said. 'This has created resentment in the process of national development. You have a dichotomy between Javanese and non-Javanese areas which is very strong...They (the provinces) feel colonised by the government of Java.'

Mr Sastrosatomo, an ethnic Javanese born in Sumatra, believed that applying an 'old-fashioned philosophy' to a modern society would not work. In 1952, when he turned his back on diplomacy to become a private businessman, he recalled it was culturally rude to talk about business.

'Even today, in places like Solo (Java's ancient royal capital), traders are not really considered fit for society,' he pointed out. 'But that doesn't mean people are not interested in the money that comes with business.'

In the end, finding a position in the bureaucracy became the way to reap the spoils of business without getting soiled hands. 'If you get a position, you don't have to work,' he complained.

'The roots of the problem lie in the Javanese culture. Once people had a position, they never wanted to give it up.'

Mr Tahija remembered when it was once an honour to be in the civil service. But not long after independence, under pressure from the elite families, nepotism took over and the number of government employees multiplied. Lessons the snappily dressed Mr Tahija had always held dear - don't talk too much, create a reliable follow-up system and practise what you preach - disappeared.

'There has been a serious erosion of values,' he said. 'What is right, what is wrong is all mixed up. It is difficult these days for young people to find a good example, a good role model. There is also huge scepticism about whether Indonesians are able to do business in a straightforward way.'

Mr Soemardjan blamed a lack of communications on the yawning gap between the central government and the outlying islands. 'They think they're the national government,' he scoffed, 'but out there on the islands, they want to know, 'What exactly is the national government?'.

'Politically speaking, you have a Constitution and a president, but that is something only for the big cities. There are more than 500 ethnic groups, each with its own culture, family life, language and belief systems - it's the duty of the central government to keep them together as one nation.'

So what of the future? 'You can't do anything properly unless you have security and a legal system,' said Mr Sastrosatomo, who moved Samudera's headquarters to Singapore to get away from Mr Suharto and his policies.

But still, he never despaired. He went to his grave last month as hopeful as ever for the future of the country he loved.


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