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Muslim, Democrat, Indonesian President
Asialink Public Lecture and Book Launch
MELBOURNE - 11 April 2002
This is an edited transcript.
Vice-President (International), University of Melbourne
Ladies and gentlemen, my name is Roger Peacock. I'm the Vice-President, International, University of Melbourne. It gives me great pleasure and great honour to welcome you all here tonight, but particularly great pleasure and great honour to welcome His Excellency Abdurrahman Wahid, the former President of the Republic of Indonesia. Also, the Consul-General of the Republic of Indonesia, other distinguished guests and ladies and gentlemen.
Wahid, it's perhaps the first time that we've been able to fill a lecture theatre so quickly and so fully and I think it speaks volumes for the popularity you have here in Australia.
I'm particularly proud to welcome you here because one of my responsibilities with the University of Melbourne is for Asialink. The Asialink series of lectures has grown, we think, to become one of the countries most respected platforms for both Australian and visiting regional government and community leaders to present their perspectives on the challenges that face our region. It is therefore my particular privilege to welcome you here on behalf of the University of Melbourne, on behalf of ABC Radio Australia and Deakin University's Centre for Citizenship and Human Rights and to welcome you to this Asialink Public Lecture. I would now like to welcome Mr Peter Mares from ABC Radio Australia to provide a fuller and more expert introduction to our guest speaker.
Presenter, 'Asia Pacific', Radio Australia
Thank you very much Roger.
Distinguished guests, ladies and gentlemen, it is a great pleasure and indeed a great honour on behalf of Radio Australia, the international broadcasting arm of the ABC, Asialink, and the Institute of Asian Languages and Studies at Melbourne University, to introduce our three speakers tonight. His Excellency the former President of the Republic of Indonesia, Abdurrahman Wahid or "Gus Dur" as he's universally and affectionately known in his homeland is joined on stage by his daughter and personal assistant Yenny. Also speaking to us tonight, Indonesian broadcaster, commentator and inveterate joker, Wimar Witoelar who served for ten months as Gus Dur's official spokesman, an experience he's documented in his book "No Regrets", which is to be officially launched tonight. Wimar is now in Australia for two months as a visiting Professor of Journalism at Deakin University. Our third speaker is Dr Greg Barton, Indonesian scholar from Deakin University. A close friend of Abdurrahman Wahid and his family and the author of his authorized biography called "Abdurrahman Wahid: Muslim, Democrat, Indonesian President - A View from the Inside", published by University of New South Wales Press and also launched here tonight.
About ten days ago, over lunch, Greg and Wimar asked me if I'd help to launch their two books here in Melbourne. I said "sure", imagining a small event of thirty or forty people with some nibbles and drinks. Then they said, "oh, and by the way, Gus Dur might be coming", and I thought, "hang on a minute we'd better think a bit bigger". So I tried to book the Iwaki Auditorium at the ABC's Southbank Centre, which seats about 250 people. Luckily, it wasn't available. Asialink then suggested its 500 seat theatre just up the road here, but within days of us announcing this event - which was done by email only initially- it was booked out. And so we moved camp once again and decided to hold the event here in Wilson Hall.
The fact that so many of you have come here tonight tells us a couple of important things: firstly it shows the depth of people to people contacts that exist between Australia and Indonesia, whatever the surface tensions and the official bilateral relationship. Secondly, it reveals that there is a deep interest in Indonesia in the Australian community and I think a deep sense of goodwill towards Indonesia - a desire to see the Republic prosper in the post-Suharto era as an open, democratic and peaceful society.
No one better embodies these ideals of a better future than His Excellency Abdurrahman Wahid. As an Islamic scholar and a former leader of Indonesia's largest Muslim organization, Nahdlatul Ulama, he has devoted his life to promoting religious understanding and ethnic tolerance in Indonesia and around the world. He's been a tireless defender of minority rights and a champion of media freedom and democratic reform. With his broad world view and eclectic passions - which include football, film and European classical music - Gus Dur is the leading representative of a liberal, tolerant and inclusive Islam in Indonesia and it is my great honour to invite him to speak to you tonight.
HE Abdurrahman Wahid:
Former President, Republic of Indonesia
Ladies and gentlemen.
Every time I'm asked to speak it is always on my behalf. This is the hardest thing to do because you can speak on so many things but when you talk about yourself there is a moral responsibility as well as other things. But now, the duties are a bit lighter: to speak about two books by friends, close friends. One book, by Greg Barton, was a biography written by somebody who began the thing before I was President, when he wrote his dissertation. Another one is by Wimar Witoelar about his view on ten months of spokesmanship. It was lucky he worked with me together to identify democracy in Indonesia. If he worked with the current government the title of the book would be changed, not "No Regrets" like now but "Regrets Only".
The merit of the authorized biography is to know that it has been carefully thought about, not too light and able to show how I've done my best to spread what's said in the book, that is democracy and tolerant Islam. I think Greg has been able to point this out in the book. But more than that: he unified the many facets of my life - for too long - since my childhood until I became President. Only a scholar like him can do that faithfully but still defend his own interpretation of what I do, which is not always right but it is true. But I think history will judge that.
Also history will judge whether my Presidency was seen as the beginning of the democratization of Indonesia. Now people begin to ask questions in Indonesia, because the current government in some ways follows the policy of Mr Suharto of the past - maybe more so. But I have no right to talk at length about it, except that the book is a good beginning for people who like to know in detail about the beginning of democratization in Indonesia. Then the reader will be left with his own judgement whether this thing will continue or just stop.
The last thing I learned is that our Consul General in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, Abdul Wahid, was fired without any due process of law as a state employee and a Consul General, just according to the perception that he is contradicting Megawati Sukarnoputri's husband, Taufik Kiemas, in policy regarding companies that deal with the woman workers of Indonesia in Saudi Arabia. If that's true, then we have to cry because that means a return to the dark ages of Suharto's time. This means also that what we did in the past is more or less being violated by people close to the current government.
Another thing that's important for me to come to Australia is that Australia has been close to my heart since I came here about more than ten years ago. Australians are open in mind and like to be happy in heart without so many troubles in life. But anyway, they believe in the thing that's called Australia which is really important. Although maybe the language is a little bit strange for my ear. I like Australia because of those things. Because they know how to be serious in work, honest in life and more importantly, to be tolerant to other views. Humanity is here to stay. But this to be taken in a light way, because in a serious way we sermonize, not enjoying life. I learn from Australia how to do that. Because of this then I like to come here often - more than ten times I come here - but Australia is so big a country that I haven't yet visited many places, like Brisbane and so forth. I have come only in the West to Perth, then here in Melbourne, then Adelaide and Canberra and Sydney. But I know about Kings Cross. More important than that I visited a chapel, the chapel for all religions there. I witnessed Australia at work because people at that time, a Hindu couple held a marriage ceremony there and I, as a Muslim, was among the audience. I wrote an article on this chapel and I hope that one day it will be translated into English so that Australians can know they have a good mind there. A chapel like this shows the many things that can be learnt from Australia.
I don't want to be long, but I will say that these two books have done justice to my existence, not the reverse. People will understand my life and what I work for in my life without reading them both. This is for me the litmus test for any kind of book, because you know a work about a man's life is the most important thing to do for a writer. But he has done so in order to point out the important things to be remembered about a man's life, to do so in a way that satisfies the reader, which is difficult to say and difficult to act.
Anyway, I don't want to look like I'm advertising the books, so because of this I will stop. Wimar Witoelar is here and he hates so much advertisement and I feel as a scholar that he has done his best to present my life as it is in the book. I'm glad that Islam will benefit from it, because he points out clearly the type of Islam that I call the culture of Islam instead of the ideology of Islam, which in the informal way result in terrorism that we abhor and we condemn. So I think this important thing should not be left out of our lives: the necessity for us to improve the understanding of other things in life so that life itself will give us the broadness necessary for us to interrelate, be tolerable to others and tolerate the others. I think Greg Barton has done justice in this sense, while Wimar Witoelar in his own light way, bantering always, joking and so forth, keeps the serious things between the light sentences so don't be misled by his statements. He works seriously but in a light way, which is I think an approach to be respected in life. Sometimes we have to understand that life itself, with so much great things to do, depends on small things - on how we tolerate, respect and love the others, which is important for all of us.
Well, I cannot continue because if I continue I think I'll drone on and on. Like I said to Fidel Castro in Havana back in the year 2000: "Indonesia so far at that time had had four Presidents: one was crazy about ladies; the second, crazy about fortune; the third, totally crazy; the fourth, myself, was making other people crazy". And he said that maybe he will be in the third or fourth category. I was very surprised and said "why?" "Because I give seven hour speeches, so that means I'm either crazy or making other people crazy." You can see a different interpretation of craziness.
Anyway, I travel so much abroad that they say Indonesia has four Presidents. The first one was a statesman, the second one was a man of fortune, the third man was a scientist and the fourth President was a tourist. That's how people look at my presidency. I hope that by being a tourist I can restore democracy in my country. Anyway, thanks to Greg and Wimar for presenting us with books that will help me understand more about my life.
Thank you very much.
Presenter, 'Asia Pacific', Radio Australia
In a moment there will be an opportunity for you in the audience to ask some questions. But before we move to that stage, I'd like to invite our other two guests to respond to Gus Dur's speech. First of all, Wimar Witoelar.
Author: "No Regrets"
Visiting Professor, Deakin University
Broadcaster and former spokesperson, President of Republic of Indonesia
I guess now you can see why the ten months I worked in the job were the happiest of my life, personally speaking that is; of course it was tragic for the nation.
I have been living here in Australia now for 24 days. I am counting them because they are very, very happy. I am now a resident of Geelong. I have appeared in the Geelong Advertiser with a nice photo; they called me a colourful character. I guess it's because I drive around so much without direction, but I only do that in the literal sense in a car and not when I'm working with presidents. When I was working with President Wahid, a lot of people accused him of muddling through. I said: "That's fine. Muddling through means you are trying to get from here to there but cannot find you way." Now we are just muddling, which is no direction at all. There is always something worse than your fate; everything is relative.
I said I've been here for 24 days in Australia, carrying proudly the title of Visiting Professor at Deakin University. Thank you Michael Meehan, thank you Joan Beaumont, and thank you that you gave me the title Professor because I know that's just because you like me. People compare it to gentlemen in Indonesia who carry the title of Doctor, and for that you have to pass an exam - unless you have two thousand five hundred US dollars. I do not have two thousand five hundred US dollars. I did have three thousand Australian dollars but that's gone when I bought the used Volvo. So my next book is going to be "Me and My Volvo".
I'm just very proud, not just happy but very proud to be in Australia with Gus Dur. Somehow it all boils down to one notion and one term: civil society, which being a non-academic, I could not fully define. But I really feel it in the lives in Geelong, in Melbourne, with Gus Dur and here. A society which is kind and gentle based on understanding, plurality, everybody minding their own business but also minding everyone's business. A civil society is really what we were trying to do - we meaning Gus Dur, this size, and me, a speck of dust.
Still, it's like Greg's book and mine, you know. People like my book and they say it reads better, but I like Greg's book because it has substance and mine does not. If you talk about food - and that's always my favorite metaphor - if you talk Indonesian food in which I'm expert, Greg's is the nasi and all the condiments and mine is just the sauce. You cannot eat the sauce alone, but it's useful. You can grow by eating good food but still you need the sauce. Anyway, I tried to be serious.
I started to talk about civil societies that I have visited and lived in several countries. There are many democratic countries, many countries based on the rule of law, certainly many countries based on economic productivity, but I think a civil society is something else again. It is a society in which we are friendly, we are laid back when we have to be, we work hard when we have to be. For me, this is Australia. For me also that was the Indonesia in Gus Dur's vision.
I never pretended to have to be serious around Gus Dur, because he understood that I was at least sometimes serious. In quality, we were delivering what we could, but in quantity of course we needed the help of everybody. In my book, people justifiably criticise that I only tell the good things about Gus Dur, unlike Greg's book which also I think volunteers some valid criticism. I don't tell the bad parts at all because I figure the bad parts have been told by many, many other books, newspapers, radio broadcasts and television broadcasts for more than two years when I was in office. So my book is just the supplement to these commentaries on Gus Dur.
When people talk about the government which did not function, I said, "I accept that because the government is not just about a single person but about the support of the whole infrastructure; not just the laws and the mechanisms and institutions but also the human infrastructure and the civil society." When Gus Dur was President, he stepped forward but not many people came up to help. Now these people have come out and shown their appreciation, not just here but also in Indonesia. Some say it's too late: "Why didn't you come up when President Gus Dur needed support?" But I say it is not too late, because it's not about the Gus Dur presidency, it's about the ideals, the visions and the values that Gus Dur stands for, and they are here, they are alive. He in a sense is a modified martyr: not so dramatic as standing before a firing squad, but somebody who gave up certain things, which are unimportant to him, but are important to others, like position etcetera. In that process he brought forth the very ideals which could not possibly be expressed in a brief tenure of two years or three years as President. In the two to three years as President we came to understand what plurality is about - it's about Chinese new year being celebrated; what human rights is about - it's about some generals attempting to be brought to court; you know what decency is about - it's about honesty in government. So Gus Dur tried to give examples - succeeded in giving examples. But they're like case studies in college: when you try them out in real life and they don't really turn out that way because the students of democracy in Indonesia were not experienced. But now they are: they can look back on the 'new order'; they can experience 'new order part two'; they can draw on the experiences of this President and see what we have done what we have forsaken. I think the Gus Dur Presidency is the beginning of something.
I mentioned the word "Prague Spring" in the book, although I hope like Czechoslovakia's Dubcek we don't have to wait decades for the true democracy to come back. Because, unlike Dubcek, Gus Dur didn't go out under the roll of tanks - some tanks just happened to have their canons aimed at the palace. But no tanks rolled through Jakarta. No violence happened. And that is a tribute to all sides, most of all to Gus Dur's supporters who refrained from emotions, understanding that the lifecycle of a nation doesn't stop with a presidency. That's why since the beginning I have no regrets serving this great man. If we can be together like we are now with countries of a civil society then you must understand in some measure what Gus Dur tried to do, what we tried to do. For the first time in my life I was not ashamed to be an Indonesian when Gus Dur and Megawati assumed the Presidency, because at least people could see that we were trying. That we were not successful, that is a different matter.
It was fun in the Gus Dur race. There was a lot of humour. In fact my book comes with a guarantee that if you don't laugh at least once you get your money back. [LAUGHTER] Since you all laughed, you don't get your money back. And there are so many stories where that came from.
I was sitting out there and calculating that for every book that gets sold I must be getting two Australian dollars. If that's the case then I'll write another book and another book and another book, but life doesn't turn out that way. There's a lot of humour in Gus Dur's presidency. There are of course messages that we bring out, but I hope that these two books will open a dialogue. Selling books is very rewarding because you realize that you are communicating, and we are communicating the beginning of democracy.
If Gus Dur's favourite symphony is the 9th Symphony by Beethoven, maybe we should also add the unfinished symphony of Schubert to his repertoire.
Thank you very much.
Presenter, 'Asia Pacific', Radio Australia
Thanks Wimar. I'd like now to invite Dr Greg Barton, the author of the biography of Abdurrahman Wahid, to say a few words.
Dr Greg Barton:
Author: "Abdurrahman Wahid: Muslim, Democrat, Indonesian President"
Senior Lecturer, Religious Studies, Deakin University
Thank you Peter.
I feel immensely privileged, and, I also feel a little disadvantaged: it's not really fair to go third on the podium behind the first democratically elected President of the world's third largest democracy and one of the world's most influential leaders, and a famous and entertaining writer of a saucy book. I haven't even got a saucy book; I've just got one of those dry, wholesome things. Well I hope not. I think if you read Wimar's book, as I'm sure everybody will - quite a lot of two dollar coins - you'll find that what appears on the face of it to be a funny book, has a lot of serious substance. I hope when you read my book you'll find that what appears to be a serious book I hope is a good read, because there are important things to think about. I know you are not going to think about them unless you are encouraged to read all the way through, so I've tried to make it interesting. You can tell me whether it's worked or not.
I don't want to speak too long, because I think we've got a chance now for questions.
By the way, I remember watching Gus Dur announce his first cabinet. Obviously he was not going to read from a list of names, so he said: "I'll ask Mega to read the names". He then said: "Actually, I suppose as President I shouldn't be saying Mega, but, well, that's who she is. That's the way things have been. And I'm going to say Gus Dur, that's who I am. No point standing on formality or protocol." So I should be saying President and Your Excellency and that's all quite appropriate, but for me the most natural thing to say is Gus Dur. I guess it's a part of my response to the very straightforward person that he is.
The fact that there are so many people here tonight encourages me that I can't have been completely silly in choosing the subject of my biography. I know that I'm not but it's gratifying to see that in Australia there is such an interest. We had a launch in Jakarta the other month: we had fifteen hundred people which sort of made sense. The former President spoke. That was wonderful. But to see a crowd like this is really encouraging. I interpret it as a renewed interest not just in Indonesia and not just in its first democratically elected President but also in his world and the things he was working for, striving for. I'd like to think that many of you are here because you are interested in Islam and you are trying to understand it from a different point. I know a lot of students coming up to me after September 11th have been saying: "I feel I should know more about religion and about Islam, because I'm struggling to try and make sense of things, and I know there is more to the story than I am getting in the media." That's to say, the trashy media, not the quality media - present company accepted. I hope that as you read this biography it will not just be an interesting guide to a very interesting life, but I also hope it will introduce you to something of his world, of his nation but also of his community, of his faith, and, as he's put it, this approach to cultural Islam which is much more widespread and much more influential and much more important than we understand.
I think we are at a juncture in history where people like Gus Dur play an extremely critical role. It's important we pay attention to what they are doing because they have the ability to turn the tide one way or the other. I believe and am persuaded absolutely by friends like Gus Dur that the message of Islam is a message of peace, but it's all too easy in a difficult world where people are searching for simple answers to complex problems for any religion, including the religion of 1.2 billion people who are mostly poor and impoverished, and have experienced great injustice, to search for simple answers.
One of the reasons I've enjoyed working with Gus Dur in this biography and prior to the biography is that I've never grown bored with the subject. The answers that are provided are sophisticated and challenging and strike me as profoundly genuine. Back in 1987 I was offered a scholarship to do a PhD and I thought I'd better choose a topic that will hold my interest. Otherwise it'd be pretty dire some years down the track to be struggling with something that's bone dry and has bored me witless. I chose the topic of liberal Islam in Indonesia, looking at Abdurrahman Wahid and El-Affendi and the emergence of their new approach to Islamic thought in the 1970s because I knew it would hold my interest. I thought it was a pretty dumb career move - not a good vocational choice because I didn't see that there would be much broader community interest in it.
I've been quite fortunate in the fact that public interest has grown, for reasons that are both good and tragic. Over the last dozen or so years we have been forced to think much more about Islam. I've certainly never grown bored by this topic. I went straight from doing the doctorate to looking at civil society and politics of Islam and Gus Dur was right in the middle of it. It led naturally to the biography. I didn't expect to be writing the biography of a President, but to be fair to him, he didn't expect to be President either. I've struggled with it. I've tried to present an honest understanding as I see it: of who he is, his world, his successes, his failures, his struggles, his challenges. And I've tried to place this in a broader context. I'll leave you to be the judge. I say I'll leave you to be the judge because I'm looking forward to you all buying copies.
Before I leave this podium so you do in fact have time for questions, I've got to say a few words of thanks. I'm not going to bore you with endless detailed words of thanks - not just because I'm being considerate to you as an audience but because I know that if I attempt to name people one by one I'll miss people out and I'll regret it for years to come. I already regret missing people out of the acknowledgements, so I know what it's like. But I should thank many friends here and in Indonesia, many colleagues at Deakin and elsewhere who have encouraged and helped over the years and made it possible to write this book. I should thank one family in particular, I have to mention a few families, but I really have to acknowledge my thanks to Abdurrahman Wahid and his family; to his wife Nuriyah, to Alisa, to Yenny, to Anita and Ina, because they let me into his life. It might seem a strange thing for me to make this statement, but believe me, it's true: despite the fact this is an authorized biography no one had told me what to say, no one's vetted it, no one's said "well look, I think you've gone a bit heavy on this bit". That shows to me either a fantastic trust or very poor judgement. I'm not sure which but I take it as trust and I appreciate their generosity - I've been an annoyance to them for many years. Along with one or two other friends, I made their life a little more amusing, perhaps a little more complex hanging round the palace. I appreciate the fact that as Gus Dur promised, nothing changed when he became President. I had wonderful access and I hope I've done some justice with that.
I'd like to thank my parents. I know, like I said, I wouldn't go into details, but I do want to acknowledge them for their encouragement and help. I'd like to thank my wife, Siew-Mee and my daughter Hannah, because it is literally true that if they hadn't persevered with me persevering this wouldn't have been finished. There are many others I'd like to thank, from my publishers and people who helped in giving feedback and copy editing, but I won't go into details. I'd like to close by thanking Peter and Kate and John and Mark and others who have made this night possible.
And thank you for coming here: it's very encouraging. I hope it means as I said that you are really keen to find out more not just about Gus Dur but about his world, his faith, his community.
Presenter, 'Asia Pacific', Radio Australia
Thank you Greg.
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