Jul 22, 2024 Last Updated 5:22 AM, Jul 16, 2024

Surviving the kleptocrazies

Published: Jul 26, 2007

Reflections from former Foreign Affairs Minister and Deputy Prime Minister, Dr Roeslan Abdulgani

Duncan Graham

‘Supersemar does exist. I have seen it. It is still in the hands of Harto. [Suharto, Indonesia’s second president.] But it was misinterpreted by him to remove Sukarno’.

Supersemar (Surat Perintah Sebelas Maret, or Letter of 11 March) was a letter allegedly written by Sukarno requesting that Suharto impose order following the 1965 coup. It was used as the legal authority transferring power to Suharto — but a copy has never surfaced.

There are probably as many anecdotes about the mysterious document and the events surrounding it as there are Indonesians. Very few who were close to the action are still alive and remember with clarity their experiences first hand.

The anecdote quoted above is by former Foreign Affairs Minister and Deputy Prime Minister Dr Roeslan Abdulgani, whose revolutionary and founding father credentials are stainless. They include a badly damaged right hand, the result of being strafed in 1948 by a Dutch plane. At the time he was riding a bike through Yogyakarta trying to save the young republic’s critical documents. He was treated by a Dutch doctor, and then imprisoned in hospital.

Now almost 90 and frail, he still has a sharp mind (‘age is opportunity’), a powerful command of English, and some certainties not eroded by time. These include his belief that the American Central Intelligence Agency was also involved in the 1965 coup in which six Indonesian generals were killed, precipitating the fall of Sukarno. According to official Indonesian history, the killings were the result of a communist putsch.

Dr Roeslan claimed Sukarno had no foreknowledge of the coup. ‘He was very naive though not with women. He was a politician, not a military man. He thought he could make communism in Indonesia nationalistic and this infuriated Russia and China’.

Although 14 years younger, Dr Roeslan was closely aligned with Sukarno personally and politically, calling him ‘Indonesia’s George Washington’. Despite this, Dr Roeslan survived the change of government and was sent to New York by Suharto’s New Order government to negotiate Indonesia’s re-entry into the United Nations.

He also grew to admire Suharto’s early reforms, but despised the later excesses of the president’s family and friends: ‘He [Suharto] said there could be no prosperity without security and stability — and in this he was right’. Through his daughter’s biography Dr Roeslan is quoted as describing Suharto as ‘a responsive and decent human being when free of family greed’.

The kleptocrazies

Dr Roeslan retains an intellect nimble enough to dance around awkward questions. So when asked about the qualities of current president Megawati, daughter of his former colleague, he replied: ‘What is good, what is bad?’ Later his criticisms were hard but circumspect, preferring the general to the specific.

‘This present generation does not know what we fought for, and that is the tragedy. There is so much waste. We are rich, but so many people have been stealing from the nation — it is a sickness, like kleptomania. We have become klepto-crazies. There are two and a half million super-rich in Indonesia. They go to Singapore for their health and shopping, not to their own country’.

Like most former politicians who have struggled with nation building, he despises the indulgences of modern bureaucrats and their reluctance to forego the plunder of power for the sake of the nation. He is also miffed that his good relations with President Megawati have not led to her following his advice on communicating more and spending less.

And for those less interested in moralising, Dr Roeslan has enough personal anecdotes of the founding president to entertain kampung (village) gossips for a decade:

‘He used to like to say there were two Sukarnos, but in reality there were three. And I told him so. The first was the ideologist. He knew the strength and weakness of the colonialists and our strengths and weaknesses. That was good. The second was the politician, forming and using power, sometimes cooperating with the Japanese or the Islamists or the Nationalists. Then he would hit them. That was dangerous.

‘The third was Sukarno as an individual. That was not so dangerous. He used to say: ‘I can hate, I can love, I can be soft, I can be strong’. But you are making a mistake if you think his love was erotic. His love was for beauty, in women, in the beach, in mountains and trees, in the colours of the waves, the beauty of nature. He saw God in the smile of a young girl, and in the suffering of people’.

Apart from his status as a revolutionary hero who also survived a 1956 coup attempt, Dr Roeslan is a historian. His books include Seratus Hari di Surabaya (One Hundred Days in Surabaya) a history of the 1945 battle in the East Java capital in which he played a major role negotiating with the invaders. The bloody clash was between nationalists and British troops trying to liberate Allied prisoners of the Japanese and help reinstall Dutch rule. The Bandung Connection is an account of the 1955 Asia Africa Conference where 24 so-called non-aligned nations came together in a bid to counter Western power.

A collection of Dr Roeslan’s essays was published in 1994 to commemorate his 80th birthday, and in 2003, his daughter Retnowati Abdulgani-Knapp published A Fading Dream, a biography of her father.

Dr Roeslan was born in a Surabayan kampung on 24 November 1914, the son of a wealthy shopkeeper. Academically bright and an avid reader, Roeslan married up into a priyayi (upper-class Javanese) family. He was expelled from a teachers’ training college for political activities, studied law, became an active nationalist and a skilled administrator.

Phar Lap’s heart

An infrequent visitor to Australia, he retains good impressions, though corroded by recent events. Highlights include sitting alongside cab drivers (‘I was flabbergasted!’), calling people by their forenames, preserving the heart of a racehorse — these and other small incidents are revived with glee. But not enough to mask his disquiet about Australia’s perceived political shift in international alliances.

‘I used to have great admiration for Australia because you are already competing with Leiden (in Holland) in Indonesian studies’, he said.

‘But this talk of pre-emptive strikes [against terrorists] is nonsense. The lesson for Australia is not to look back to Europe and the United States. Australia should not be a part of Europe — you should be part of Southeast Asia.

‘I should keep my mouth shut, but I tell you the most dangerous man is a Javanese who is silent. So here’s one last message for Australia: Keep preserving Phar Lap’s heart. I like that’.

Duncan Graham (wordstars@hotmail.com) is a Perth journalist living in Surabaya. His book on Indonesia, The People Next Door, will be published by UWA Press.

Inside Indonesia 77: Jan - Mar 2004

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