Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Sutan Sjahrir: Teacher of the nation

Matheos Viktor Messakh , THE JAKARTA POST , JAKARTA | Tue, 03/10/2009 12:09 PM | People

The leaders: Sjahrir (left) is pictured with Sukarno (center) and Mohammad Hatta.

It has been said that if Indonesia had paid greater attention to the wisdom and lessons of its first prime minister, it might have avoided decades of authoritarian rule and human rights abuses.

A closer look at Sutan Sjahrir’s life and thoughts, and at the testimonies of those around him, reveals that Sjahrir was more than the first prime minister of Indonesia — he was a defender of humanity and rationality.

Sjahrir is many things in this nation’s history — a national hero, founder of the Socialist Party of Indonesia, the first prime minister — but perhaps his greatest contribution to the nation lay not in the titles conferred or the positions held, but in his thinking about nationalism and humanism.

Only two months after Indonesia gained independence, Sjahrir felt the importance of emphasizing what freedom meant to the nation, Kamala Chandrakirana, chairwoman of the National Commission

on Violence against Women, said at the commemoration of the 100th anniversary of Sjahrir’s birth on Thursday.

He did this in an article in October 1945 titled Perdjoeangan Kita (Our Struggle).

“Freedom does not only mean that Indonesia has become an independent state, but also is now free from tyranny, hunger and misery,” Kamala said, quoting Sjahrir’s article. “A national revolution is only the result of a democratic revolution, and nationalism should be second to democracy. The State of Indonesia is only a name we give to the essence we intend and aim for.”

Sjahrir’s article, said Kamala, was a response to the public’s desire at that time to take part in the building of the nation — a desire still evident 64 years after Independence.

Now, Kamala said, as the general elections approach, is the appropriate time to reflect on the nation’s “struggle”, as discussed by Sjahrir.

Sjahrir’s notion of struggle is not a narrow and specific construct, but a global and universalone; as he wrote, “only the nationalism carried by justice and humanity can lead us into world history”.

But evidence documented by several human rights bodies has demonstrated that, instead, it was the militaristic and narrow-minded notion of nationalism that Sjahrir so feared that took root in Indonesia for so many years.

Political oppression and political silencing of women during the New Order era and the mass rapes of Chinese women during the May 1998 riots, Kamala said, were evidence that the nation upheld what Sjahrir described as an “attitude of hatred toward alien groups in our population or foreigners and people of foreign descent”.

“Hatred for foreign groups and people,” Sjahrir warned, “is indeed something one finds voiced in every nationalist movement, especially among a movement that intoxicates itself with a passionate hatred … in order to gain power.”

Courtesy of Rushdy HoeseinCourtesy of Rushdy Hoesein

To Sjahrir’s list of “more or less alien groups in our population”, Kamala said we should add Papuans, the Ahmadiyah community and others in the nation whose right to equality has been neglected.

Rocky Gerung of the University of Indonesia also commented on how Sjahrir’s politics were directed more toward greater human freedoms than to mere national freedom.

“The evidence that this nation has never had human freedoms is that people first bring out their primordial identity when dealing with others,” said Gerung.

Sjahrir wrote in “Nationalism and internationalism” in 1953 that nationalism was a source of
new life and strength for less developed peoples. But, he warned,
as soon as a nation achieved freedom, it was confronted with the problem of adapting nationalism to the human needs for peace, progress and prosperity.

“If this fails,” he wrote, “this nationalism will become a negative factor, a factor of conservatism and reaction. Then it will become egocentric and degenerate into intolerance and self-glorification.”

The dangers that accompany the nationalism of a newly independent nation can still be tasted in the air in the current political situation, Gerung said, stating that the deficit in modern Indonesian politics is a deficit of rationality, whose dangers Sjahrir repeatedly noted.

“Democracy should be handled rationally, but we see now that the public is getting more and more irrational. Even a political analyst on the TV screen will say something just plain obvious or something that has already been analyzed by journalists.”

Gerung raised the concern the quality of Indonesia’s current political leaders has strayed from Sjahrir’s ideal of politics as having “complete and tidy ideology and theory”.

“What we have now are people with the tendency to solve problems using articles from sacred books rather than articles from the Constitution,” he said. “We should have political leaders in this country but instead we only have political dealers. Politics is full of advertising.”

As for the current 12,000-odd political candidates, Gerung compares them to the thousands of people seeking a miracle from child “healer” Ponari in Jombang.

“Both are expecting miracles to happen. People with a gamut of health problems are expecting
a miracle from Ponari, and the political candidates are expecting miracles from the next legislative election.”

Political activist Fadjroel Rachman, the editor of Guru Bangsa (Teacher of the Nation), a book dedicated to Sutan Sjahrir, said that if Sukarno were the father of independence and Mohammad Hatta the father of cooperation, then Sutan Sjahrir should be named the father of welfare.

“The program of his Cabinet was the program of a welfare state,” he said “One of his programs was progressive tax, which means that the higher the income, the higher the tax imposed.”

Unfortunately, Rachman said, Sjahrir had no time to implement his programs during his term as he was kept busy defending the nation’s independence and increasing its international legitimacy.

“If he were alive today and still in power, I’m sure he would create programs that directly addressed basic rights, combated poverty and narrowed the social gap — such as free education, providing employment and social security, and free housing and healthcare,” he said. “The money would definitely come from the progressive tax.”

Photo Courtesy of Rushdy Hoesein

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