Remembering Sutan Sjahrir
Abiography by veteran journalist Rosihan Anwar was released earlier this month to commemorate the 101st anniversary of the birth of Sutan Sjahrir, Indonesia’s first prime minister and a beloved national hero.
“Sutan Sjahrir: Demokrat Sejati, Pejuang Kemanusiaan” (“Sutan Sjahrir: True Democrat, Fighter for Humanity”) recounts Sjahrir’s story in the form of a play.
The biography’s original storytelling and presentation — thoughtfully presented in both Indonesian and English — helps it to stand out from other books written on and about this often misunderstood statesman.
Rosihan’s new look at Sjahrir pays specific attention to his ideals, political career and diplomatic role in negotiations with the Dutch during Indonesia’s fight for independence. The book is accompanied by 100 photos of Sjahrir that were collected over two years by Kompas, which also published the biography.
The launch of Rosihan’s biography coincided with the reissue of “Mengenang Sjahrir” (“Remembering Sjahrir”), a 500-page account of Sjahrir’s time as a political exile in Zurich until his death on April 9, 1966.
During his formative years, Sjahrir, like most Indonesian students at that time, was drawn to the writings of noted leftists like Karl Marx and Frederick Engels. The student leaders of Sjahrir’s day and age were not attracted to capitalism and Sjahrir himself did not venture from the ideology accepted by his peers.
But the future prime minister read extensively, and his literary palate was not satisfied with leftist tenets alone. Some of his favorite authors outside the realm of politics and ideology included German poets like Friedrich Schiller.
The biography, which pays ample attention to Sjahrir’s involvement in the struggle for freedom and independence, is full of interesting stories that show just how important his all-encompassing role was in the early years of nation.
In one detailed excerpt, readers learn that during the Japanese occupation of World War II, authorities promised Sukarno and Hatta, the country’s future founding president and vice president, independence for the country.
While the motive behind the Japanese granting Indonesia independence is not clear, it’s revealed that Sjahrir, who had been tuning into radio broadcasts from abroad, knew beforehand that Japan had lost the war. But the table-turning news, which he relayed to Sukarno and Hatta, fell on deaf ears.
The book also gives detailed accounts of the meetings prior to the Dutch handover and conferences that led to the Linggarjati agreement, and depicts Sjahrir’s role in the negotiations as instrumental.
Fluent in several languages, the meetings with Dutch representatives posed no problem for him.
But his ability to get along with his Dutch counterparts was misinterpreted by Sjahrir’s opponents, who soon formed the opinion that he was giving too many concessions to the Dutch. It is believed that adversaries felt that his way of thinking was too westernized and leftist. For the average Indonesian political mind in those days, Sjahrir’s thoughts were way ahead of their time and therefore often misunderstood.
Although Sjahrir was not attracted to Lenin’s form of socialism, he did believe in equality.
Some analysts also believed that his overall view was too idealistic to be successfully implemented. Grassroots constituents hardly understood the ideas he was trying to convey. Centuries of colonialism, yoked by a traditional feudal system, made it hard for people to grasp what social democracy was about. It was not surprising, therefore, that the Indonesian Socialist Party (PSI), which Sjahrir established in 1948, was not immediately accepted by the people of Indonesia.
It soon came to light that members of the PSI were part of the middle and upper classes, which did not bode well against other, more popular parties like Nahdlatul Ulama or Masyumi.
Worse still, differences within the party itself led to a number of members defecting and later joining Amir Sjarifudin, who had split from the PSI to form the ultraleftist Socialist Party, which later dissolved into the Indonesian Communist Party.
After 1948, as Sjahrir’s role began to dwindle, he was appointed presidential special adviser, which was regarded as a step back from the political scene. During that time he traveled extensively, sometimes staying out of the country for months at a time.
Late that year, in an effort to restore colonialism, the Dutch launched an offensive in Yogyakarta. Sukarno, Hatta, Sjahrir and others at the helm of the young republic were exiled to Bangka by the Dutch, who had not expected the level of support the young state had received from member nations of the UN. Thanks to efforts of the Indonesian ambassadors in the world organization, countries like Australia, the United States and India backed the aspirations of the young republic. The Dutch military was forced to leave Yogyakarta and were told to enter into negotiations with Indonesia once more.
By the end of 1949, when independence finally came to Indonesia, Sjahrir no longer held a state position. His early struggles and hard-fought efforts appeared to have been in vain.
The realization that it would be impossible to impart the ideas of the PSI to the masses and the fact that he was pushed out of the political picture must have haunted such an idealistic leader.
From 1949 onward, Sjahrir lived the life of an ordinary citizen. During the nation’s first democratic elections, in 1955, the PSI secured just five seats in the House of Representatives. The PSI was reduced to a minor party. All efforts to re-establish the PSI’s early reputation failed, and the party was hampered by rumors and exaggerated stories from opponents. The era of the 1950s was a period of chaos and confusion as dissatisfaction rose on nearly all fronts. Sukarno increasingly acted in a high-handed manner on his own, and little remained of the once-powerful Sukarno-Hatta-Sjahrir triumvirate.
In the end, most people regarded Sjahrir as a failure. But bigger disasters were on their way as Sukarno planned to disband Masyumi and PSI. The plan was closely followed by a report from Subandrio, who was the chief of intelligence at the time, that a plot to undermine the government had been building in Bali. The name of the PSI became once more compromised. Suspicion fell on the party of Sjahrir, who was imprisoned by Sukarno on Jan. 15, 1962, for three months in Jakarta before later being transferred to a prison in Madiun, East Java.
Sjahrir’s life slowly spiraled downward. Sometime in 1962 it was discovered that he was suffering from high blood-pressure and was in need of immediate treatment. After a long recovery he returned to jail in February 1965 and was placed in a small room at the Military House of Detention on Jalan Budi Utomo in Central Jakarta. Not long afterward he suffered a stroke and was left unable to speak. The government agreed to allow him to travel to any country other than the Netherlands for treatment. The decision was made to move to Switzerland. He died of a brain hemorrhage on April 9, 1966. He was 57.
‘Sutan Sjahrir: True Democrat, Fighter for Humanity’
By Rosihan Anwar
Penerbit Buku Kompas