One Hundred Years Mochtar Lubis. Part I: Mochtar Lubis and Sutan Sjahrir

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One Hundred Years Mochtar Lubis. Part I: Mochtar Lubis and Sutan Sjahrir
Mochtar Lubis in 1979. Photo credit: Rob Bogaerts / Anefo, CC0, via Wikimedia Commons

IO – Mochtar Lubis would have been 100 years old on Monday, the 7th of March 2022. He was a good friend and colleague of my father, Sutan Takdir Alisjahbana. Mochtar had a house on Jalan Bonang near the Proclamation monument in Menteng and another house in the mountains, near our house there. I remember him as a tall man with a very boyish, good looking face that was to keep its boyish looks right till the end of his life. He was one of those people of whom Aristides Katoppo, another great Indonesian journalist and friend of Mochtar’s would say, “The child spirit in him is strong.”

An intelligent, generous, kind-hearted and courageous man, the Jakarta Post described him once as ‘the irrepressible Mochtar Lubis’ – and indeed he was. Despite seven prison sentences and the closing down of his newspaper, he never lost his deep-rooted, almost reverent belief in democracy and freedom of speech. As the title of one of his books put it: Mochtar Lubis Bicara Lurus or ‘Mochtar Lubis Talks Straight’. Nor could any of these things dampen his enormous curiosity not only about politics and people but a myriad of diverse subjects ranging from art and sculpture, orchids and gardening to philosophy, culture, economics, literature and so much else. Like Takdir and Aristides, he was the quintessential Renaissance man.

More than 30 years ago I held an interview with Mochtar Lubis that I recorded on tape and which I never used. For 30 years, I never even listened to it again. Perhaps now, at the centenary of his birth the time has finally come to hear that boyish, optimistic voice again. So, for the first time I had my old cassette player repaired and listened to the tape. The sound of Mochtar’s enthusiastic, happy voice with his buoyant laughter which continued to ring out right through the tape – brought back a rush of old memories. Memories of my father and mother, of exile abroad and fear of the Communists, of Mochtar Lubis’ joie de vivre, of the mountains and the flowers, of the PSI and the many intellectual discussions and debates that I listened to throughout my childhood and youth.

One Hundred Years Mochtar Lubis. Part I: Mochtar Lubis and Sutan Sjahrir
Photograph of Mandailing men and children in 1910 Photo credit: Tropenmuseum, part of the National Museum of World Cultures, CC BY-SA 3.0 (https://creativecommons .org/licenses/by-sa/3.0), via Wikimedia Commons

Mochtar Lubis was born in Padang, West Sumatra on the 7th of March 1922 but he was in fact a Mandailing Batak. In the past there was only one Batak tribe but later Minangkabaus from West Sumatra moved to North Sumatera in the area around what is now Natal and Padang Lawas. They mixed with the local Bataks and from them the Mandailing Bataks originated. My father also came from this area. He was born in Natal and Sutan Sjahrir’s grandmother who was the sister of my father’s grandmother, also came from Natal. Nevertheless, my father’s family followed the Minangkabau tradition and did not consider themselves Bataks, but rather Minangkabaus. This may be why Mochtar was close to both Sjahrir and my father. They all originated from a similar area and had a similar cultural heritage.

Mochtar Lubis had a very special relationship to Sutan Sjahrir, Indonesia’s first prime minister and leader of the Partai Sosialis Indonesia or PSI. They were kindred spirits, sharing the same values, outlook, ideals and courage. They both had an enormous belief in democracy and made great personal sacrifices for it. They also shared an optimism, a friendliness towards the world around them and a similar sense of humour. To understand Mochtar Lubis it is important to understand that friendship.

One Hundred Years Mochtar Lubis. Part I: Mochtar Lubis and Sutan Sjahrir
Sutan Sjahrir. Photo credit: Unknown, possibly Indonesian government employees, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Mochtar was a great admirer of Sutan Sjahrir and in the tape he recalls his first meeting with Sjahrir. After the Proclamation of Independence in 1945 at the age of 23, Mochtar became a journalist for the news agency Antara. The Dutch led by Van Mook had begun negotiations with the Indonesian nationalists and after the first meeting ended, Mochtar followed Sjahrir who was prime minister at the time, to his house and asked to speak to him. “I told Bung Sjahrir that I was a journalist with Antara and asked him about the meeting which he explained to me in great detail. At the end of his explanations, Sjahrir suddenly leaned back and asked me, ‘So, how long have you been a journalist, Mochtar?’ I answered, ‘A month,’ and he laughed and said, ‘Just a month? And you have the courage to ask the Prime Minister of Indonesia for an interview?’ I considered for a moment as to how I should respond to his teasing and then I replied, ‘Well how long have you been Prime Minister, Bung?’ At which Sjahrir burst out in laughter and continued laughing for several minutes finally, saying to me, ‘I like your answer! That’s a very good answer!’ And I joined in and we laughed uproariously together.  After that, I was always welcome at his office and if he happened to be eating pecel (a type of salad) or anything else, Sjahrir would always ask for another package of pecel for me and we would sit and talk. He was like that to many people: open, warm and approachable – not just to me.”

It strikes me that laughter was a very important element in their relationship. The whole tape was continuously interspersed with Mochtar’s boisterous, almost joyous laughter. From conversations with other people, I imagine Sjahrir’s laughter would have been similar and I could imagine their joint mirth ringing through the room whenever they were together. On the tape, Mochtar’s laughter became especially strong at various punch lines but also at times at the parts where he faced difficulties. He laughed on the tape as though the event were taking place exactly then, all over again. Listening to him laugh, I suspect that for Mochtar and probably also Sjahrir, laughter was not just an expression of humour but also at times a way for dealing with and perhaps even hiding sadness, disappointment and also pain.

One Hundred Years Mochtar Lubis. Part I: Mochtar Lubis and Sutan Sjahrir
Mochtar Lubis in the mid-1950s. Photo credit: Deppen, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

He told me that Sjahrir was a very warm person filled with humour who was very democratic in his actions towards those around him, and extremely open. He liked young people very much and always told Mochtar that if he was to be a journalist then he had to be a good journalist. “I admired most his intelligence and intellectual abilities,” recalled Mochtar. “Sjahrir looked at things from all angles and I learnt a lot from him. His weakness was that once he liked someone he trusted them too much and would not listen to anything bad about them. Another weakness was that he could at times be too intellectual. He did not like campaigning and during elections when all the other party leaders were out talking to the people he would not go out into the provinces to campaign, leaving that to other members of the party like Prof Sumitro Djojohadikusumo or Soebadio Sastrosatomo, for example. I would say to him, ‘Why aren’t you campaigning like everyone else, Bung? All the other political leaders are out on the road campaigning. Why aren’t you? The people want to hear you and what you are going to do with the PSI.’

Sjahrir however, had a deep aversion to Sukarno’s way of making speeches. The flowery bombast of Sukarno’s rhetoric repulsed him. Sukarno was so good at making speeches but afterwards one was left wondering, ‘What did he really say?’ Sukarno could make very good speeches about nothing.”

One Hundred Years Mochtar Lubis. Part I: Mochtar Lubis and Sutan Sjahrir
Sutan Takdir Alisjahbana in 1955. Photo credit: Sjamsuddin, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

When PSI lost the elections Sjahrir was quite unperturbed. Sutan Takdir Alisjahbana said that Sjahrir’s weakness as a leader was that he did not really care about power. Mochtar agreed, “Yes, Sjahrir did not care whether he had power or was within the circle of power or outside of it. Power was just not the central purpose of his life. After the PSI lost the elections I was quite naughty and I teased him, ‘See Bung! I told you, you would lose. You refused to campaign!’ but he just laughed. He was not in the least disquieted. So, I told him, ‘You could still retain power by having a military coup.’

Sjahrir responded, ‘What on earth makes you talk like that?’

I told him, ‘There are many officers of the armed forces who have large numbers of soldiers under them who very much support the ideals of the PSI and would back such a coup,’ and I cited their names. Sjahrir responded, ‘You can’t be serious, Mochtar!’ When he thought I was serious, Sjahrir stopped laughing and answered, ‘No. Mochtar. If you want to build a democracy you need to do so using democratic means. Not through a coup. Now put that in your head and don’t forget it! Democracy through democratic means!’ He was very serious about that.”

Mochtar said that for an Indonesian to be a successful leader in Indonesia he needs not just to be intellectually capable but also possess charisma, be prepared to at times compromise his intellectuality in order to be able to make speeches using all the cultural symbols dear to the hearts of the common people as Sukarno was able to. Sukarno was a big success. Mochtar added that it was not arrogance on Sjahrir’s part. After all he was quite willing to talk to the young people around him but he had a dislike of having to deceive people. He detested having to make campaign promises that he knew he would not be able to carry out.”

One Hundred Years Mochtar Lubis. Part I: Mochtar Lubis and Sutan Sjahrir
Mochtar Lubis with Iskander Alisjahbana at Sutan Takdir Alisjahbana’s birthday celebrations. Photo credit: Tamalia Alisjahbana private collection

In the tape Mochtar discusses some of his problems with Sukarno. When Sukarno was arranging for his second marriage with Hartini, Indonesia Raya was criticizing him nearly every day. Like most PSI members Mochtar Lubis was a strong proponent of women’s rights and was against Sukarno taking another wife. On the tape he reminisced, “It was then that I received a phone call from Bung Sjahrir asking me to come to his house. He told me that he had a message for me from Sukarno. I came and he told me to sit and said, ‘I just met Sukarno who said to me that he knew you often come to my house and he asked me to pass a message on to you. He said, ‘What does Mochtar Lubis really want from me? I do not need him to support me in his newspaper but would he not be prepared to cease his constant criticism of me? What would he like from me?’ Sjahrir told me that he would pass my response on to Sukarno. I thought for a while and then said, ‘I don’t really want anything from Sukarno.  The only I would ask of him is that he rule Indonesia well. Only that.”

“Really? You do not want anything else? Perhaps, to be made ambassador somewhere?” Sjahrir teased.

Mochtar, “No Bung, nothing else.”

So, Sjahrir passed on the message and two weeks later called Mochtar and said, “I have Sukarno’s response to your message, for you.”

Mochtar, “And, Bung?”

Sjahrir, “He was furious with you and said. ‘Who does Mochtar Lubis think he is? That young whippersnapper not yet out of his political diapers thinks he can teach me?’ So, are you happy with that response?”

Mochtar just laughed, “Well what can I do? I don’t want anything from him.”

Years later, when Mochtar was imprisoned in Madiun, Mr Parwoto from Masjumi told him, “You made a big mistake. You did not understand Javanese culture. By saying that, you insulted a king. In the Javanese culture if a king offers his people a boon, they must ask for something because the king has already opened his heart to them. If the people do not accept the king’s offer they are insulting him. That is very bad behavior.”

Mochtar, “So, what should I have asked for? I could not possibly have asked for money. I could not possibly accept that from him.”

Parwoto responded, “You should have just asked for a single white handkerchief from him. That alone would have already pleased him. Here the king offered you a boon and you just openly refused to accept anything. Of course, the king would have been furious with you!”

Mochtar then told me on the tape, “Well it shows how the Javanese culture is still rooted in and plays a role in power in Indonesia.”

I asked him, “And Sjahrir did he not understand that?”

Mochtar respinded, “Oh, he understood it very well but he just laughed. Sukarno’s response amused him no end. We both laughed about it.” And Mochtar Lubis’ laughter rang out in the tape.  

Their laughter was to cost them both dearly. Sukarno eventually had them both imprisoned and Sjahrir died a prisoner of Indonesia. Mochtar Lubis explained, “Sukarno deliberately used those aspects of Javanese culture to further his political power. But if we truly wish to be a democracy we have to have the courage to leave such feudal behavior behind. Sjahrir always believed that.”

One Hundred Years Mochtar Lubis. Part I: Mochtar Lubis and Sutan Sjahrir
Sutan Sjahrir’s coffin in Amsterdam on its way to Jakarta for a state funeral. Photo credit: Jack de Nijs / Anefo, CC0, via Wikimedia Commons

Later he spoke of the last time he saw Bung Sjahrir. They were both prisoners at the time and he said “I was still a prisoner at the time when Bung Sjahrir had his stroke and was flown to Switzerland where he died. His body was brought back to Indonesia and it was on display for people to pay their last respects. I was allowed out of prison briefly to go there. It was the last time I saw him. In his coffin. I cried when I saw him that last time…I lost not just a leader but also a teacher, a friend, and an older brother whom I loved very much…” (Tamalia Alisjahbana)