Dec 07, 2021 Last Updated 12:15 AM, Dec 1, 2021

Fighting words

Jeremy Mulholland

Pramoedya was well, and in high spirits, when I interviewed him at his home on 16 March 2006. Apart from bemoaning his burnt finger (a casualty of his favourite pastime, burning leaves and household rubbish), excessive thirst and frequent visits to the bathroom, he seemed in fine form. It’s hard to believe he had only a few weeks to live.

Our talk ranged over various aspects of Pramoedya’s interpretation and critique of the world around him, especially his views on the Indonesian elites. Throughout the interview, he was quick to deny any ideological allegiances and never explicitly framed his critique in terms of leftwing or Marxist ideology. Just as he had done many times in the past, he used the Javanese concept of priyayi (aristocratism) to interpret and condemn the behaviour of state powerholders. ‘I don’t believe the priyayi exist anymore,’ he said, ‘but as a state of mind, they are certainly still with us. Priyayi is always linked to power.’ For Pramoedya, the world of the priyayi is characterised by autocracy, social hierarchy, inequality, arbitrariness in the exercise of power, exploitation and conspicuous consumption. Pramoedya went on to explain that ‘in priyayi culture, tribute was a reward for services and recognition of the position of the priyayi as powerholders. Tribute was not considered in any way a form of corruption.’ Originally it was limited to a small circle of elites, but since the Japanese Occupation, people came to believe that it was necessary to be close to the centres of power to engage in business activities. This meant that people who had access to power were given privileged opportunities to amass extraordinary wealth. The result was the emergence of elite corruption, which Pramoedya critiqued in his 1954 novel, Korupsi.

In 1960 Pramoedya published his demystification of anti-Chinese stereotypes in the non-fiction history of the ethnic Chinese community in Indonesia, Hoakiau di Indonesia: ‘These military men supported anti-Chinese government regulations; it was obvious they were anti-Chinese. At the time, I was the only one who opposed their views and defended the Chinese.’ As a result, Pramoedya was kidnapped, interrogated, tortured and imprisoned for one long year. For the first two months, the interrogations and torture were carried out by the military lawyer Sudharmono who later became Suharto’s right hand man and, for a time, Vice President of Indonesia. Later, with the backing of the Indonesian Communist Party, Pramoedya enjoyed a brief period where he was relatively unassailable. From his base in Res Publika University, a small leftwing university run by Baperki, an association of pro-Sukarno Chinese Indonesians, he led vigorous attacks on those opposed to Sukarno’s cultural policies. Many at this time believed that these attacks were at least partly motivated by vengefulness.

Corruption and democracy

Returning to the theme of corruption, Pramoedya claimed that ‘Suharto used corruption to bolster his power base’ following his seizure of power in 1966. Unlike the situation in the 1950s, New Order corruption was allowed to reach colossal proportions, and eventually transform into an institutionalised system. Suharto legitimised corruption by seeing it as an inevitable side-effect of the policy of development. For Pramoedya, ‘People saw how Suharto and his family and associates took part in corruption and were not penalised for it, so the lower levels also imitated these norms of behaviour.’ Discussing the period since Suharto stepped down in 1998, Pramoedya thought that significant progress had been made towards democratisation. Yet he believed that democratisation was of limited benefit, as long as badly-behaving members of the ruling elites continued to occupy positions of power. ‘How are we to clean up the KKN (Corruption, Collusion, Nepotism) mess with a dirty broom? Won’t we just make the floor dirtier?’ he quipped. Free elections could actually prevent significant dismantling of the KKN system, because winning an election is such an expensive business. In the context of money politics, newly elected or re-elected political leaders need connections with business leaders for financing election campaigns, patronage distribution and debt repayment.

Pramoedya finished our interview by pondering on the ongoing problem of paternalism. ‘We Indonesians live in a paternalistic society where “father is the boss” (bapakisme). Feudalism is based on paternalism. How can democracy be put into practice in a society that is paternalistic? My hope is that the younger generation will think for themselves, learn from the past and not imitate the wicked ways of the powerful during the New Order period.’ This hope is the challenge that Pramoedya has bequeathed to young Indonesians today.

Jeremy Mulholland ( is writing a PhD on Indonesian elites at the University of Melbourne.

Inside Indonesia 88: Oct-Dec 2006

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