Friday, April 9, 2021

Indonesia’s first prime minister

‘However little the common people understand, feel the need for democratic rights and for representative government, there is a potential in this kind of humanism, to make education of the people, and material and spiritual happiness of the people, into the principles and aims of such a government.’ This is from the prison diary of Sutan Sjahrir, the first prime minister of Indonesia, who died 55 years ago today. He was an idealistic intellectual who put his country’s interests before his own. Though he fell out of favour under the Sukarno regime, and ended his life in exile, there has recently been more interest in his life and legacy. 

Sjahrir was born in 1909 in Padangpandjang, Sumatra, Dutch East Indies (now Indonesia]. His father was the chief public prosecutor in Medan and advisor to the Sultan of Deli. Sjahrir received a Dutch education in Sumatra and Java and attended the Law Faculty at the University of Leiden. While in the Netherlands, he was a member of a socialist student group and, briefly, secretary of the student group Perhimpoenan Indonesia (Indonesian Association). Before finishing his degree, he returned, in 1931, to the Dutch East Indies where he helped set up the Indonesian National Party (PNI), and also became involved in its newspaper, Daulat Rajat. Both he and his activist friend Mohammad Hatta were imprisoned in the Cipinang Penitentiary Institution by the Dutch in 1934 for nationalist activities, and exiled to Boven Digul region, then to the Banda islands.

During the Japanese occupation of Indonesia, Sjahrir chose to withdraw from public life but became involved with the resistance movement. At the height of the chaos and violence during the so-called Bersiap period of the Indonesian revolution just after the war ended, Sjahrir published an epoch-making pamphlet - Our Struggle. This was well received by militant nationalists, and led to President Sukarno appointing him prime minister in late 1945. Sjahrir negotiated the Linggadjati Agreement, under which the Dutch acknowledged Indonesia’s authority in Java and Sumatra; but his conciliatory policies fell out of favour, and in 1947 he was forced out of office. 

Subsequently, Sjahrir became a member of the Indonesian delegation to the United Nations. In 1948, he formed a Socialist party, Partai Sosialis Indonesia (PSI), which opposed the Communist Party, but it failed to win popular support and was banned by Sukarno in 1960 because of its support for a rebellion in Sumatra and its opposition to the president’s policies. In 1962, Sjahrir was arrested on charges of conspiracy. He was held without trial until 1965, when he was allowed to travel to Switzerland for medical treatment following a stroke. However, he died on 9 April 1966 while still in Switzerland. 

According to Wikipedia, in 2009, the Indonesian Foreign Minister Hassan Wirajuda commended Sjahrir’s legacy: ‘He was a thinker, a founding father, a humanistic leader and a statesman. He should be a model for the young generation of Indonesians. His thoughts, his ideas and his spirit are still relevant today as we face global challenges in democracy and the economy.’ Further information is also available at Encyclopaedia Britannica and Sol Tas’s Souvenirs of Sjahrir.

In his final years, Sjahrir kept a diary - a prison diary. A few extracts in English can be found in Sjahrir: Politics and Exile in Indonesia by Rudolf Mrázek (Cornell University Southeast Asia Program, 1994), available to preview at Googlebooks or Amazon. The publisher says this work is ‘both a study of an individual and the social conditions that shaped him.’ Mrázek comments briefly on the diary: ‘There was a certain youthfulness about what Sjahrir wrote during his last years - something like a fresh beginning about his texts from prisons and the hospital after 1962, and before he was paralyzed. Sjahrir seemed, also, more than during the 1950s, to take pleasure in reading. He opened his books with eagerness: “I do not know yet what is in this book,” he noted more than once in the prison diary he kept.’

Here are several extracts from Sjahrir’s diary as quoted by Mrázek

6 May 1962 [Madiun prison]
‘Together with this notebook, which I shall use for recording my days, they sent me from the outside two volumes of collected works by Marx and Engels, as 1I had requested; also a book by Ralph Linton on anthropology and a book by Karl Wittfogel on Oriental Despotism.

First, I look at the writing of Marx and Engels. Clearly, the articles in those two volumes are written by a pen which twenty or thirty years ago powerfully influenced my thinking, my feeling, my views and, because of that, the direction my life has taken. It is as if I am meeting again with very dear friends from the past [sahabat-sahabat karib lama], but being aware, at the same time, that the world had changed and my views, too. I know that reading these texts again will cause a great reckoning with an old love [tjinta lama], a new reckoning with the influences in my life which belong to the past, but maybe, also to this very moment. I am sure that much good awaits me as I am about to encounter this again. I have postponed this reading in order to postpone the reckoning, because I felt sure that this would become a very personal [persoonlijk] matter to me.’

September 1962
‘To my wife and equally to myself, it is, indeed, amazing that the State could behave to me in the way I am now experiencing. I never have, and I never will expect recognition, and, least of all honors, from my nation and people. . . But I have also never dreamed that the State, the nation and the people might suspect me of being unfaithful or not faithful enough [tidak atau kurang setia] to my State, nation and people. This is the same, as my wife says, as suspecting me of being unfaithful or not faithful enough to myself, unfaithful or not faithful enough, through my life, to my aspirations and to my consciousness; as if I abandoned the view of life, which I held for the past fifty years, as if, at present, as I am coming closer to my grave, I had no view of life at all.’

October 1962
‘The character of this book is very different from that of Ogburn. Weber is a kind of scholar of the 19th century, a universal man of letters [pudjangga universil] like Goethe, Nietzsche, or others, who lived only to read and write down their extraordinary explanations of the world, that is, men who possessed an unusual capacity to learn and to remember from the time when they were children. In the 20th century one perhaps would not meet men like that, because the specialization in scholarship has advanced so much that it is impossible to follow all the directions. What is impressive is that much of what Max Weber wrote is still true for today, and that it is, thus, the essential and fundamental [pokok dan dasar] truth.

I am very much attracted to this writing. As if it had been written for the time we are now living in, although it was written around 1920. The style is truly appealing, in spite of the fact that it is a translation. I decided to read all the writing by Max Weber in the original. In spite of the fact that the style of his writing is that of classical German, [growing out of] Latin or Greek, with very long sentences, I find it even more interesting than, for instance, the writing of Marx, even more spirited, even more lively.’

26 March 1963
‘I myself learned many big lessons from the general elections, so that later . . . I agreed that we should move back to the Constitution of 1945, in which certainly the position of the Executive is pushed forward and takes on a quality of leadership that rather surpasses that of the day-to-day powers of Parliament, [but] which also gives the Executive enough space and time to work. As is the case with the US Constitution, the [Indonesian] Constitution of 1945 is succinct enough to be perfected later in accordance with further experiences. . . It appears that Feith did not think about this, as his book bears a title “The Decline of Constitutional Democracy in Indonesia.” ’

3 June 1963
‘My memories and my thoughts turn and fly home, to my children, whom I wish to be more happy in a future, and better than me. I hope they will grow into edel human beings, which means honest, straight, lovingly disposed to all other human beings, and not proud of rank or distinctions. Certainly I hope that their brains will also be sharp, sharper and better trained than mine, but what I have said above can be best summarized with this most important word edel.’

June 1963
‘If I were to write about this period, the frame would be different, and also the events and the ideas, which I would emphasize, would very much differ from what is emphasized in this book. . . For the time being, in fact, “democracy” for us can not mean a technique of governing, and a citizenlike way of life, but mainly the guarantee against tyranny and despotism. . . This [democracy], actually, can be achieved through enlightened [verlicht] humanistic despotism or humanistic dictatorship. However little the common people understand, feel the need for democratic rights and for representative government, there is a potential in this kind of humanism, to make education of the people, and material and spiritual happiness of the people, into the principles and aims of such a government. So far as such a government truly behaves like a father of the people, like the people’s own flesh and own blood, also the preparedness of the people to exercise its sovereignty [kedaulatan], and to have a government based on democratic techniques, may grow.’

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