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Having a say on everything 

Despair needs no tour guide in Indonesia.

Chaotic traffic, trash-clogged drains, poverty, corruption ... if the list had an official STOP sign it would be dug up and sold.

Enough negativity. This review celebrates a positive. Offsetting the moans is freedom to comment, a right that veteran activist Jusuf Wanandi has exercised well during his long adventurous career and now collected in Testimony of Changes. 

Hazards remain, like blasphemy charges ignited by militants, and defamation writs fired by the wealthy to mask their chicanery. Three of the four pillars of democracy – the judiciary, the executive and the law, badly need repair.

However the fourth column – the media – is, in this century, upright by the standards of a region where armies and autocrats crush those venturing alternative ideas.

Singapore’s Straits Times is a most handsome daily, clean and well laid out like the city. It splashes international news with a sprinkling of minor local happenings. Expect nothing critical of the government.

Now consider Wanandi. The only country in the region where this intellectual gadfly is free to let his mind roam publicly, is the one where he was born in 1937, cursed to live in interesting times, blessed to do so with a muscular mind..

The sub-title Consolidating Indonesian Democracy and Forging Regional Cooperation is hardly an invitation for anyone beyond academic historians.

Which is sad because there’s much here to help latecomers understand how the world’s third largest democracy arrived at this position.

Wanandi has an easy style but the freewheeling employed in his autobiography Shades of Grey is largely absent.

Face-to-face he’s a splendid retailer of gossip and a vault of secrets. Some he unlocks. He’s selective, careful, knowing values shift; Policies which once seemed right, like the extrajudicial persecution of real or imagined Communists in 1965 - 66, are now considered criminal.

His ebullience tends to deflect criticism of his more questionable decisions, like support for taking over East Timor.

In print he’s more restrained – though not with former Australian PM John Howard: ‘A gentleman from a small town in 19th century England who was unaware and not interested in
what was happening in East Asia.’ In fact Howard was born (1939) and raised in Sydney. Wanandi later modified his judgment.

His favorite all-bundling term ‘East Asia’ befuddles; Westerners define it as Korea and Japan, with all below as Southeast Asia.

The book is organized in seven sections each holding 15 to 30 op-eds from The Jakarta Post. They’re in chronological sequence, starting in 1984 when this newspaper began, showing it was into serious journalism with concerns about Kampuchea – now Cambodia.

Lots to savor – knowing where we’ve been and what some were thinking can help us see ahead.
But, alas, alack; how to access that vision without an index?

An incomprehensible omission because Testimony of Changes isn’t a set-course dinner but a spread of snacks. How does the author assess former US Presidents Bush and Obama? What are his hopes for ASEAN, which he strongly supports, and VP Jusuf Kalla’s thoughts on democracy?

To find the answers stock-up with limitless patience and bookmarks.

Applauders include former Australian Labor Party Foreign Minister Gareth Evans. He praises Wanandi’s ‘informed, balanced and constructive voice.’

Yes, but; Wanandi is not a colorless bob-each-way observer. The former University of Indonesia law lecturer was a strident right-wing activist during the 1965 coup.

He backed, then abandoned Soekarno, then did the same with his successor. . Wanandi advised Soeharto but fell out when the second president ‘ignored the economy and started to exhibit megalomaniacal tendencies.’ These included censoring the press.

Wanandi’s consistent position has been support for the State ideology Pancasila. He’s had little formal power though much influence, carrying a gold pass into presidential suites and closed-door discussions. Entre came through his anti-Red convictions when these were most in vogue, and his worldwide Catholic contacts.

Though a fourth-generation Sumatran, his Chinese ethnicity has at times been a handicap, his patriotism and motives distrusted by some pribumi (indigenous Indonesians). Conversely membership of a frequently persecuted minority has made him canny and savvy.

Apart from this newspaper his principal pulpit is the Centre for Strategic and International Studies which he set up with help from ethnic Chinese businessmen and his brother Sofjan in 1971.

Labeled in this book as the region’s ‘leading think tank’, it was earlier involved in political lobbying in the US, trying to sell the New Order government’s credentials to skeptical scholars, like the late Benedict Anderson.

Wanandi doesn’t shy from much of his controversial history, so first reading Shades of Grey will help understand where he’s coming from when assessing Testimony of Changes. 

All his writing is informed, seldom bland, occasionally parochial. Who remembers the disputed appointment of a national police chief after President Joko ‘Jokowi’ Widodo’s 2014 election?

Other columns show the author’s prescience. In 1991, when Donald Trump was more concerned with getting out of a financially troubled casino, Wanandi was worrying about the US quitting Asia, leaving a vacuum to be filled by China.

In a piece on Mahathir Mohamad written before the Malaysian leader’s political resurrection, Wanandi comments on autocrats obsessed with ‘very strong views about where the state and society should go ... so obsessed about achieving them, such that they had no scruples about their ways and methods towards the end.’

His book ends with profiles – mostly obituaries - of ‘friends and actors of change.’ Wanandi spent his early years siding with the heavy-hitters, but is now drawn to ‘patriots and peacemakers, humanists and teachers’.

In debates about doers and dreamers, about ends justifying means, moral stands in public affairs get to perform strange acrobatics. Testimony of Changes helps freeze some positions where they can be better understood in the context of times past.

All up, a most useful collecion of a passionate thinker’s opinions, mainly on matters which matter.
Testimony of Changes, by Jusuf Wanandi The Jakarta Post, Jakarta

First published in The Jakarta Post 17 December2018

This post first appeared on INDONESIA NOW With Duncan Graham, please read the originial post: here

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