Sutan Sjahrir did not fail; instead Indonesia failed him
Endy M. Bayuni, The Jakarta Post, Jakarta
Among the founding fathers of this republic, none have been as harshly and unjustly treated as Sutan Sjahrir, typically acknowledged in history books as nothing more than Indonesia's first prime minister.
Sjahrir died a tragic death in 1966, as a political prisoner incarcerated by the nation that he, in no small measure, helped to liberate over two decades earlier. He made great personal sacrifices for the country he loved, including being sent into internal exile for eight years by the Dutch colonial government in the 1930s, and again for five years until his death, by President Sukarno.
Recent seminars held to mark the 100th anniversary of his birth - he was born March 5, 1909 - have revived public interests in one of the most controversial and grossly underestimated public figures of modern Indonesia.
A greater understanding of his contribution to Indonesia's independence struggle between 1930s and 1950s will hopefully lead to a long overdue revision of his proper place in the nation's history.
A closer look at his life and his writings revealed that more than being the first prime minister of Indonesia, Sjahrir was the architect of Indonesian independence.
He may have founded the Socialist Party of Indonesia (PSI) in 1948, but his main concern as a politician and a thinker was not so much in pushing for his brand of socialism as it was to fight to prevent feudalistic Indonesia from veering into fascism and militarism.
The fact that a newly independent Indonesia did eventually fall to the dictatorship of Sukarno between 1959 and 1966, only to be followed by more than three decades of military rule under Gen. Soeharto shows the wisdom and foresight of Sjahrir's thinking.
Rather than the failure some historians condemned him to be, it was the nation that failed Sjahrir by not heeding his early warnings, only to end up with leaders that later turned out to be anything but democratic.
Sjahrir was almost completely alone among independence fighters when he went underground during World War II to continue the struggle. Most others collaborated with the military rulers between 1942 and 1945 during the Japanese occupation of what was then the Dutch East Indies.
He rejected Japan's fascism while his compatriots, including Sukarno and Hatta, comfortably embraced and combined it with their nationalistic ideals.
He foresaw the potential danger of the combination of nationalism and fascism and this became the driving force behind much of his political activism and thoughts after Indonesia gained independence.
As soon as Japan was defeated, bringing World War II to an end, Sjahrir pushed for a declaration of independence ahead of the September deadline that the Japanese military rulers had promised. It was his supporters who kidnapped Sukarno and Hatta and forced the two announce the Proclamation of Independence on the morning Aug. 17, 1945, a daring move that changed the course of Indonesia's history.
Sjahrir spoke forcefully against the eruption of vengeful attacks by armed Indonesian militias against the Chinese, Manadonese, Ambonese and Eurasians in the early days of the nation's independence; most others ignored or even condoned the behavior.
When he was appointed prime minister by President Sukarno in 1945, Sjahrir wasted no time changing the new government from one in which the president held most constitutional powers to a parliamentary system in which power was defused among political parties.
He believed that the nation's collective political elite was best positioned to organize the government and the people of the nascent republic.
He lost the premiership in 1947 because of maneuvers made by the radical left, but he continued to represent Indonesia in the search for international recognition abroad.
Sjahrir was not a socialist in the way many understand the concept today. Just about every Indonesian thinker and politician of his day would have been a socialist by today's standards, given the fact that capital was almost entirely in the hands of the Dutch colonialists, save for a handful of Chinese traders.
Perjuangan Kita (Our Struggle), a political manifesto he published in 1947 while he was still prime minister, gives the clearest vision of the kind of Indonesia he wanted to build and it was nothing like the socialist system that was then emerging in Eastern Europe or in communist China.
He postulated that the national revolution for independence should have been followed by a social revolution to free Indonesians from the shackles of ignorance and poverty. He did not propose another physical revolution, but instead saw liberation evolving from the education of the masses.
He was clearly on the opposite side of Sukarno when he wrote, "the kind of nationalism that Sukarno was building upon the hierarchical solidarity and feudalism is really fascism, the biggest enemy to progress for the world and our people."
Sjahrir understood well the emerging international order post World War II, recognizing the rise of the United States as the new superpower. In defiance of the radical left in his own socialist camp, he accepted capitalism as a given.
Socialism to Sjahrir was more an analytical tool used to understand the nature of society. He understood Indonesia to be indeed still largely ruled along feudalistic lines. This was what he sought to change.
Not only did Sjahrir have a vision, he had a road map for building a democratic and enlightened Indonesia.
Sjahrir was not a failure. A thorough reading of Perjuangan Kita tells us that he was simply ahead of his time - way ahead. He had foresight that most of his contemporary thinkers lacked and his vision of a democratic and non-militaristic Indonesia is as relevant today as it was when he wrote it.
He was let down by his allies in the independence movement, including Sukarno, and eventually by the nation at large, who not only ignored him but also failed to acknowledge his deserving place in history. The nation overlooked the historic opportunities presented by Sjahrir.
One of the most popular questions being asked at seminars marking the centenary of his birth is, "what would Sjahrir do if he was still alive today?"
A more valid question to ask is, "where would Indonesia be today if the nation had heeded his warning about the impending rise of fascism and militarism and embraced his ideas as outlined in his Perjuangan Kita?"
Interesting article about a person not too many younger people seem to know about (Om K's musings)