Tag Archives: Democracy

Short Story: Letter For Wai Tsz

Letter For Wai Tsz

By Leila L. Chudori

The weather in Jakarta seems to be reflecting the state of the nation, hot and sticky, not a tree anywhere to shade under. As for myself, I don’t know why I suddenly thought of writing you a letter. I know all too well that in our graduate newsletter Keep In Touch they’re always mentioning that you’re one of the graduates who hasn’t been seen since Tiananmen. But I live in hope because I will always believe that God will stretch out his hand and protect you. Your last letter, the one smelling of rotten vegetables and dried fish, the one you seemed to have sent from somewhere in the outskirts of Beijing, just before your escape – so heroic, so inspiring – more and more makes me feel so small, so insignificant.

Dear Wai Tsz,

It’s been exactly fourteen years since the four of us were gazing up at the stars, since you, Finn, Maria, and I made that promise. We promised that we would not get married until we had reached those stars.

Our roommate Finn, with her long Snow White blonde hair and blue eyes, told us that her life’s mission was located in the constellation of Andromeda.

“What I want is for men and women to have the same rights. And I think that’s an ideal we all share,” she said in her romantic way.

Our Danish roommate’s idealism was really extremely annoying, and because of that I couldn’t be bothered talking about the problem of the completely rampant poverty and corruption in my own country. It would have been very hard to make her understand. Could you just see it, with her own country so rich and peaceful, how could she have begun to imagine?

Then I remember that Maria from the Philippines said with her firm, self-confident voice, “I long for change in my country, and I hope that I can be a part of that change.” And straight away you and I yelled out trying to be first, “I wanted to say that too!”

“Come on! How could Indonesia have any problems? Your economy is wonderful compared to ours,” Maria replied. “And you, Wai Tsz, China is a sleeping giant that’s just beginning to wake up. When she’s standing up on her own feet, Western countries will be lapped up in one gulp. The Philippines is the only one with such an uncertain future under a president like Marcos…”

But as it transpired the first country to see the smoldering embers of democracy burst into flame was her own country, the Philippines. And just as she had wanted, Maria was a part of the process of bringing democracy to her country. I remember when she sent a newspaper clipping showing her and a group of friends from the University of the Philippines in the middle of that historic demonstration in Edsa Road. It was like a movie. I imagined our roommate, Maria, the one who couldn’t even get up in the morning, now part of such momentous change in her country. Image. She became part of the Philippines’ peaceful revolution in February 1986 when Marcos was finally forced to flee to Hawaii, and a widow finally moved into the presidential office. As all this was going on, for me her neighbor, nothing had changed. I was working for the largest news magazine in my country naively thinking that here everything was nice and peaceful and prosperous. I thought, well, at least it wasn’t as bad as some of the countries that some of our campus friends had come from where there were several coups every year.

Wai Tsz, after we graduated, I came home again to breathe our pollution-filled air and I became a journalist. You went home to breathe your own pollution-filled air in Beijing and you transformed into a human rights activist.

The interesting thing about your country was that as soon as your country opened up and allowed in a handful of American companies, everyone began to say that this was Deng’s great breakthrough. When Chinese students were allowed to read translations of Milan Kundera and watch James Bond movies, it was as if democracy had started to arrive in China. One of your spirited letters related how interesting Fang Lizhi’s lectures were, how he had no hesitation at all using words like “democracy” and “freedom”. But it was only after Tiananmen happened that we realized that the so-called breakthrough talked about by Western experts was just an immensely simplified view of the problem.

Meanwhile, Wai Tsz, in my own country, new economic policies were being implemented which produced hundreds of new banks, new buildings, new companies, new television stations, new rich people, new cars, still more new policies, even more new buildings, more highways, ever more even richer people, and other, oh, absolutely astonishing, truly astounding…

All of this, Wai Tsz, in fact turned us into journalists. Supposedly professional, agile, flexible, competitive, head in the clouds. It made us forget a lot about humanity. For example, yeah, for example, in planning meetings to talk about a war in some country somewhere, we would sit around like a bunch of know-all football commentators abusing one of the “stupid” players as we ate fried chicken and laughed. And, really what we were talking about was the fate of thousands of women and children being slaughtered in the country. This profession made me, just as Professor Humphrey had predicted – he didn’t agree with my choice of becoming a journalist – turned us into “know-alls who don’t know much about anything”.

Professor Humphrey wasn’t completely right, but I have to agree that in a couple of cases he wasn’t too far wrong either. This profession set me up in an ivory tower, made me look at the people as a news item, part of a “deadline”, a conversation on a mobile phone, as no more than a series of meaningless statistics. Tiananmen, an event that was so important for you, was a moral movement. But for us, it was nothing more than a bit of excitement, a fresh infusion of adrenaline, a new pump keeping our journalistic blood circulating. I almost forgot that for years I had a roommate who was probably still on the run, still hiding in garbage bins on the edge of the city. Wai Tsz, where are you?

In your last letter, after the events of June 1989, that smelly smudged letter, I read your handwriting through the ink which had run, “Nadira, help us through your writing.”

Oh, Wai Tsz, I am so ashamed. For sure we wrote about, we covered, we photographed the events in your country proudly. But I am not convinced that the hundreds of journalists who swarmed to cover those events were moved by concern. Maybe there were some who were, but the others were driven by competition, the desire to get an exclusive, and maybe even out of a desire to win the coveted Pulitzer Prize.

Then, this year arrived, 1997, and suddenly I received a shock…

Only now in the midst of so many corporate collapses, bankruptcies, millions of people losing their jobs, bank liquidations, hoarding of food that sends prices soaring, newspaper companies complaining about never-ending increases in the price of paper, student demonstrations, mothers protesting the increases in the price of milk, only now have I again become “human”. Only now have I thought of you. Only now have I thought about our walks along the banks of the Otonabee River, recalled our arguments about equality and about the differences between the East and the West, and, oh, how I remember the Galaxy Theory you explained to me that time you tried to cheer me up after you found me crying. You made me lie down on the grass and look up at the stars.

“At times of sadness and pain, Nadira, fly up to one of those galaxies and leave the Earth. Then from way up there, look back and the Earth will seem so small that you will wonder what on earth you are crying about. After that, fly back to Earth, take a deep breath and the problem will be solved.”

Wai Tsz, your Galaxy Theory was so simple, and so good for so many reasons. But it won’t be any use for the problems of my country, or for the problems of your country. I have never before been as hopeless as I am now. I have never felt as powerless as I do now. Every day I open the window and I hear the complaints of ordinary mothers about the rising price of food, of people who have just lost their jobs, hear news about the speculators dancing for joy with every fall in the value of the currency. Hundreds and hundreds of people have suddenly become actors, smiling sweetly in front of the television cameras saying how much they love the nation.

William Shakespeare was truly a genius when he wrote: All the world’s a stage, And all the men and women merely players, They have their exits and their entrances, And one man in his time plays many parts.

Do you remember when Professor Johnson read this verse from As You Like It? Am I becoming a useless melancholic character like Jacques?

I can see Shakespeare doubled up in stitches laughing because the world, the stage for this drama, is full of nothing but a rabble of idiots. According to me the stage for this drama is full of people whose acting skills are terrifyingly good. Every morning the papers are full of stories about our economic problems but even the people complaining are still running around scratching for rupiah to exchange for foreign currency, still feeding on the corpse of other people’s suffering.

Wai Tsz, why was I born in a community which created such a meaningful word for community duty as our own word gotong royong but which is in reality just a collection of completely selfish individuals? My heart is broken. If I had been as selfish maybe I would already have flown off to join our friends chasing ever higher qualifications in the United States. But when all’s said and done, my heart is here, Wai Tsz, planted firmly here, rooted firmly in this soil. No matter how strong, there isn’t a crowbar or a hoe that could dislodge my heart from this land.

For months, Wai Tsz, I have been afflicted by horrible nightmares, more like Salvador Dali visions than dreams. One night I dreamed I had fallen from a skyscraper and even though all my limbs came off, I was still alive. Another night I dreamed my hands were chained together and the ends of my legs were being eaten by a pack of black dogs. And another night I was suddenly transported to an empty field where hundreds of crows were attempting to suck my baby from my stomach. To try to stop these dreams I bought a pile of comics. I thought it would make me laugh. In fact, all that happened was I laughed so hard I cried.

Wai Tsz, I remember the time you said, “Something started with a good intention and a good conscience is always harder to believe in than something started with a bad intention.”

Maybe that is the reason people find it hard to believe that a protest movement could be driven by conscience. Maybe the word conscience is not used very much these days, or maybe it’s time to archive it forever in some dusty old museum.

Wai Tsz, where are you? Pretending to be a shop assistant? Or teaching in a tiny primary school in some far away village? Or maybe you’re actually still hiding somewhere in Beijing? I have no idea whether you will ever read this letter. I will send it to your old address in Beijing. Wai Tsz, wherever you are, if you do not get to read this letter, I am sure you have read what is in my heart.

Your friend, Nadira. (Jakarta, November 1997)

 


The short story “Letter for Wai Tsz” (Surat Untuk Wai Tsz) was published in the Jakarta daily newspaper Kompas in March 1999. The story was written about six months prior to, and published some ten months after, the resignation of President Suharto in May 1998. For background on Tiananmen Square see the Washington Post’s 2019 commemorative anniversary piece A massacre, erased. For background on the controversy surrounding the use of the term “people power” in Indonesia after the April 2019 elections see People power is dead, long live people power.

The Indonesian Student Pledge

The Indonesian Student Pledge: “Motion of No Confidence” By WatchDoc Films

“Motion of No Confidence” (Mosi Tidak Percaya) is a short documentary film from WatchDoc Films about events around Indonesia throughout the week of 24 September 2019, and especially in the streets outside Indonesia’s House of Representatives. The film opens with students marching as they recite the Indonesian Student Pledge, first used during the 1998 demonstrations that led to the resignation of the late President Soeharto.

Sumpah Mahasiswa Indonesia

Kami Mahasiswa Indonesia Bersumpah
Bertanah Air Satu
Tanah Air Tanpa Penindasan

Kami Mahasiswa Indonesia Bersumpah
Berbangsa Satu
Bangsa yang Gandrung akan Keadilan

Kami Mahasiswa Indonesia Bersumpah
Berbahasa Satu
Bahasa Tanpa Kebohongan

The Indonesian Student Pledge

We the students of Indonesia pledge
To have one homeland
A homeland without oppression

We the students of Indonesia pledge
To have one nation
A nation that blazes with justice

We the students of Indonesia pledge
To have one language
A language without lies

Sumpah Mahasiswa Indonesia Kompas Daily, 28 October 2016

Wikipedia on the 1928 Youth Pledge and on Sumpah Pemuda.

Some writing by Muhammad Yamin. On the ninetieth anniversary of the second Youth Congress in 2018, take a look at Sejarah Sumpah Pemuda, Tekad Anak Bangsa Bersatu demi Kemerdekaan (source of the featured image) and Peringatan 90 Tahun Sumpah Pemuda.

Other background that may of interest includes: Abdullah, Taufik. and Cornell University. Modern Indonesia Project.  Schools and politics : the Kaum Muda movement in West Sumatra (1927-1933) / Taufik Abdullah  Cornell Modern Indonesia Project, Cornell University Ithaca, N.Y  1971  https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/7822864-schools-and-politics; Yamin, Muhammad. Tan Malacca, Bapak Republik Indonesia: Riwajat-politik Seorang Pengandjoer Revolusionér Jang Berfikir, Berdjoeang Dan Menderita Membentoek Negara Republik Indonesia. Djakarta: Berita Indonesia, 1946. Print.


Featured image credit: Sejarah Sumpah Pemuda, Tekad Anak Bangsa Bersatu demi Kemerdekaan, 28 October 1928 in the grounds of the Indonesische Clubgebouw, Jl. Kramat 106, Jakarta. Visible seated from left to right among others are (Prof.) Mr. Sunario, (Dr.) Sumarsono, (Dr.) Sapuan Saatrosatomo, (Dr.) Zakar, Antapermana, (Prof. Drs.) Moh. Sigit, (Dr.) Muljotarun, Mardani, Suprodjo, (Dr.) Siwy, (Dr.) Sudjito, (Dr.) Maluhollo. Standing from left to right among others are (Prof. Mr.) Muh. Yamin, (Dr.) Suwondo (Tasikmalaya), (Prof. Dr.) Abu Hanafiah, Amilius, (Dr.) Mursito, (Mr.) Tamzil, (Dr.) Suparto, (Dr.) Malzar, (Dr.) M. Agus, (Mr.) Zainal Abidin, Sugito, (Dr.) H. Moh. Mahjudin, (Dr.) Santoso, Adang Kadarusman, (Dr.) Sulaiman, Siregar, (Prof. Dr.) Sudiono Pusponegoro, (Dr.) Suhardi Hardjolukito, (Dr.) Pangaribuan Siregar and others.(Dok. Kompas)

Poem for Mother

By W.S. Rendra

To recall mother
Is to recall dessert,
Wife is the sustaining main
Girlfriend the side dishes,
And mother
The perfect final,
In the great communal feast of life.

Her countenance is the sky at sunset:
The grandeur of the day that has completed its work.
Her voice the echo
Of the whisper of my conscience.

Remembering mother
I look on the promise of the best in life.
Hearing her voice,
I believe in the good in the human heart.
Looking at mother’s photograph,
I inherit the essence of the creation of the world.

Talking with you, my brothers and sisters,
I remember that you too have mothers.
I shake your hands,
I embrace you in fraternity.
We don’t wish to offend each other,
So we do not insult each other’s mother,
Who always, like the earth, water and sky,
Defends us without affectation.

Thieves have mothers. Murderers have mothers.
Just as corruptors, tyrants, fascists, journalists on the take and members of parliament for sale,
They too also have mothers.

What sort of mothers are their mothers?
Aren’t their mothers the dove soaring in the sky of the soul?
Aren’t their mothers the gateway to the universe?

Would a child say to his mother:
“Mother, I’ve become the lap dog of foreign capital,
Who makes goods which don’t do anything to reduce the people’s poverty,
Then I bought a government mountain real cheap,
While the number of landless villagers goes through the roof.
Now I’m rich.
And then, mother, I also bought you a mountain too,
To be your resting place one day.”

No. This is not something a child would say to his mother.
But how then will a child explain to his mother his position as tyrant, corruptor, forest scourge and mouse plague overrunning rice fields?
Will the tyrant declare himself leader of the revolution?
Will the corruptor and lap dog of foreign capital announce that he’s the hero of development?
And will the forest scourge and rice field mouse plague label himself the ideal farmer?

But, then, what of the beaming gaze of his mother?
Is it possible for a mother to say:
“Child, don’t forget to take your jacket.
Remember to wrap up against the night air.
A journalist needs to stay healthy.
Oh, yeah, and if any fat envelops come your way,
Just pick me up some fried prawns.”

Mother, now I really understand your value.
You are the statue of my life,
Not a fake statue or a white elephant like Monas and Mini Indonesia Park.
You are the anthem Great Indonesia.
You are the rain I watched in the village.
You are the forest encircling the lake.
You are the lotus flower of meditation’s peace.
You are the song of the simple people.
You are the arrow of my conscience in all I do.

Pejambon, Jakarta
23 October, 1977


Poem for Mother (Sajak Ibunda) was published in State of Emergency, W.S. Rendra, Wild & Woolley, Glebe, 1978, p. 52.

WS Rendra
WS Rendra (Source: https://twitter.com/Odish2007/status/961824179128381440)

UoM Podcast: Media and Elections

The latest from the UoM’s “Talking Indonesia” podcast.

The Indonesian media is heavily politicised. Many TV stations are owned by political power brokers or party leaders. During elections, these ownership structures place significant restrictions on the independence of journalists and media freedom more broadly. But how exactly do media bosses interfere in the daily lives of Indonesian journalists? What forms of intimidation do journalists face? And what are the implications of Jokowi’s victory for the Indonesian media?

Listen here Talking Indonesia: the media and elections.

Poem on Hands

Poem on Hands

By W.S. Rendra

These are the hands of a student,
Undergraduate level.
My hands. Oh my God.

My hand reaches out,
And what I grab is a beautiful hostess’s petticoat.
What an idiot. My hand goes limp.

My hand knocks on the door,
But no one answers.
I kick the door,
And the door swings open.
Behind the door there’s another door.
And always:
There’s a sign with the opening hours,
Which are short.

I shove my hands in my trouser pockets,
And I go out and sojourn.
I’m swallowed by Great Indonesia.

Dozens of hands used in life
Suddenly appear in front of me.
I hold out my hands too.
But they look out of place among the thousands of hands.
I’m worried about my future.

Farmers’ hands are covered in mud,
Fishermen’s hands are covered in salt,
I pull back my hands.
Their hands are full of struggle.
Hands that are productive.
My hands are anxious,
They don’t solve any problems.

But the hands of businessmen,
The hands of bureaucrats,
Are calculating, nibble, and very strong.
My anxious hands are suspected,
Brushed aside.

My hands close into a fist.
And when they open again are transformed into claws.
I reach out in all directions.
At every desk in every office
Sits a soldier or an old person.
In the villages
Farmers are just laborers for landowners.
On the beaches
Fishermen do not own any of the boats.
Trade goes on without supermarkets.
Politics only serves the weather…
My hands close into a fist.
But there’s a brick wall in front of me.
My life has no future.

For now I have my hands in my pockets.
I journey from place to place.
I scrawl obscenities
On the chancellor’s desk.

Jakarta Arts Center
23 June 1977


Poem on Hands (Sajak Tangan), State of Emergency, W.S. Rendra, Wild & Woolley, Glebe, 1978, p. 34.

Featured image credit https://www.instagram.com/p/BZYRUiSBrrtd13aM9EKfg8l9E5nrXfm3pJFNys0

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