Sutan Sjahrir

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Sutan Sjahrir. (Photo: RINGTIMEBANYUWANGI)

Young Prime Minister with big ideas

IO – Last Friday, March 5, is the birthday of Sutan Sjahrir, Indonesia’s first prime minister. Born in the city of Padang Panjang, West Sumatra in 1909, Sjahrir was one of the founding fathers of the Republic of Indonesia. In fact, he played an important role, becoming the first Prime Minister of this country, at the age of only 36 years. to feel the injustice ladled out to the workers. His experience working as well as his activities in trade unions made Sjahrir’s thinking increasingly focused on democratic socialist ideas that promoted equality and justice.

At that time, the movement for Indonesian independence had also been started by Indonesian students in the Netherlands senior to Sjahrir, by establishing the Indonesian Association in Rotterdam with its chairman Mohammad Hatta.

Sjahrir was born in a Minangkabau family. His father, Mohamad Rasad Gelar Maharajo Sutan, was a prosecutor, and his mother was Puti Siti Rabiah. The Sjahrir family is indeed a highly-educated one. His eldest half-sister, Siti Rohana, – known as Kartini Minangkabau – was an advocate for women’s education and a journalist for the first feminist newspaper in Sumatra.

Hatta heard of Sjahrir’s intelligence and called him to help the Indonesian Association. From that time the Hatta-Sjahrir duo began to debate ideas. Unfortunately, due to internal conflicts in the association, Hatta and Sjahrir had to leave the PI. Most of the association members struggled for a movement toward the direction of communist ideology, while Sjahrir and Hatta were more in agreement with socialist and nationalist ideas.

As the son of an official, Sjahrir could receive a quality education, by attending schools in Medan and Bandung. In Medan he completed ELS education (elementary school level) and MULO (junior high school level), then continuing onward to AMS (senior high school) in Bandung.

In his memoirs their Dutch associate Sol Tas recalls: “He was not intimidated for one minute by official or quasi-official declarations, by communiques or other formulae, not afraid for one second of the maneuvers directed against him, and still less concerned for his reputation. That mixture of self-confidence and realism, that courage based on the absence of any ambition or vanity, marked the man.”

Sjahrir was known to be smart. He became the star of the class. From the time he was a teenager, he has been fond of reading philosophy books and was active in various activities, from theater, playing the violin and joining a football club in Bandung.

In fact, at the age of 18 he founded a school for the people, named Tjahja Volksuniversiteit or University of the People of Light. This folk school offers underprivileged children in Bandung an education for free.

In his homeland, after the arrest of Soekarno in 1929 by de Graeff, the independence movement that had been driven by the PNI was getting smaller. Moreover, the PNI fraction that formed a new party called Partindo tended to collaborate with the Dutch East Indies government. When the Indonesian independence movement was almost completely extinguished, Hatta and Sjahrir immediately formed a newspaper called Daulat Ra’jat to continue to voice rebellion in the Dutch East Indies, to fuel a spirit of rebellion.

Not only that, little Sjahrir also created a political discussion club for youth in Bandung, called Patriae Scientiaeque. His activities at the discussion club led to a predestined relationship with another activist figure from the neighboring debate club (Algemenee Studie Club), which was led by a student from Bandung Technische Hogeschool (ITB) named Koesno, alias Ir. Sukarno.

Apart from actively writing in newspapers, Hatta and Sjahrir, who were annoyed with the field movement, finally decided to reform PNI-Baru in 1931. In contrast to the PNI-Lama, which was formed by Sukarno through mass mobilization, PNI-Baru was more of a cadre, which prioritized gradual education for its members to become activists of the Indonesian independence struggle movement.

When Sukarno, at that time 27 years of age, founded the Indonesian National Party (PNI) in 1927, he asked Sjahrir to take care of the PNI youth organization which was originally called Jong Indonesien, then changed its name to Pemuda Indonesia.

Sjahrir exploited this belief with big and historic ideas, together with Jong Indonesien in 1928, by creating the Second Indonesian Youth Congress which produced a new spirit of struggle, the Youth Pledge, 28 October 1928.

In 1931, Sjahrir decided to temporarily leave his studies and return to Jakarta to engage directly in the Indonesian independence movement with national figures and activists. Meanwhile, Hatta was still in the Netherlands because he wanted to complete his doctoral degree, which was only a short while away.

Graduated from high school, Sjahrir was sent to study in the Netherlands. Shortly after his departure, the Governor General of the Dutch East Indies, Andries Cornelis Dirk de Graeff arrested PNI leaders, including Sukarno.

Sjahrir wanted to recruit young people to participate in the national movement towards Indonesian independence. The regeneration of young people was getting more intense when Sjahrir was asked to become chairman of the new PNI at the 1932 PNI-Baru Yogyakarta congress.

Initially he studied at the University of Amsterdam. Sjahrir actively participated in the activities of a study club called the Sociaal Democratische Studenten Club. The study club that Sjahrir joined was formed by the Dutch Socialist Democratic Party (Sociaal Demokratische Arbeiderspartij – SDAP).

The ideas that inspired Sjahrir in educating young people were rooted in concepts that promoted social welfare, equality, and economic independence. This event is considered quite unique in history, when usually the idea of socialism was instilled in the proletariat and the workers. In the land of the Indies, this idea was even promoted by scholars and the upper middle class. As a result, this movement is running so much smarter and more measured and not easily swayed by propaganda issues. This made the Netherlands even less effective in countering the activities of the Sjahrir movement and friends.

This is where Sjahrir for the first time deeply dissected world-class political ideas that were raging at that time, such as the thoughts of Friedrich Engels, Otto Bauer, Karl Marx, Rosa Luxemburg, and other world-class philosophers. Sjahrir’s thoughts, insights and ideas became increasingly open.

As detailed in Zenius and Wikipedia, due to family financial problems, Sjahrir was forced to move and live at the house of the SDAP club chairman and his best friend, Salomon Tas. He also transferred to Leiden University and began studying independently, while working for a transportation company. His first experience working enabled Sjahrir

In 1933 Hatta returned to the country. The arrival of Hatta was welcomed by activists as well as forcing Sjahrir to hand over the leadership of the PNI-Baru to his senior.

Meanwhile, Sukarno, who had been released from Sukamiskin prison, also continued to struggle through another “vehicle”, namely Partindo. At that time, Sukarno and Partindo, which focused on mass-building, quantitatively claimed to have more than 20,000 followers, while PNI-Baru, which focused on regeneration and educated members, only had 1,000.

Overwhelmed by the Indonesian youth movement, Governor General Cornelis de Joung, who replaced de Graeff, arrested the movement’s leading figures. Sukarno was exiled to Ende Flores. In 1934, Hatta and Sjahrir were arrested. Hatta was held at the Glodok Prison and Sjahrir in Cipinang Prison. In December 1934 Sjahrir, Hatta, and many other activists such as Tjipto Mangunkusumo, Iwa Kusumasumantri and friends were exiled to Boven Digoel in remote areas of New Guinea Island.

January 2, 1936: Sjahrir and friends were moved to Banda Neira Maluku. In Banda Neira, the extroverted and passionate Sjahrir channeled his energies into playing with children and teaching local residents. He was so close to the children in the area, three of whom he adopted.

Sjahrir, Hatta waited 5 years for release for in Banda Neira, until the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor (December 1941), the Pacific Islands, and Malaya. In this area of expansion, Ambon Island was also under siege by the Japanese. Fortunately it was not too late, the Indies government decided to move Sjahrir and other prisoners to Java Island until the Japanese finally controlled the archipelago, and released all Dutch East Indies political prisoners.

During the Japanese occupation of Indonesia he was very low-profile, apparently sick with tuberculosis, while he was actually one of the few independence leaders who was involved in the resistance movement against the Japanese occupation. Sukarno, Hatta and Sjahrir had in fact agreed that Sjahrir would go underground to organize revolutionary resistance while the other 2 would continue their collaboration with the Japanese occupier.

Following the atomic bombs dropped over Hiroshima & Nagasaki (7 & 9 August 1945), Sjahrir’s analysis, already months old, of Japan’s crushing defeat has become increasingly likely. He continued to urge Sukarno & Hatta to continue to declare the proclamation, but “later” the answer continued, until the day Sukarno promised to finally arrive (August 15, 1945) that was the actual planned date for the proclamation. But because the security conditions were not very conducive, considering that Japan had only surrendered to the Allies just one day earlier, Sukarno again postponed independence. On the other hand, Sjahrir, who had mobilized thousands of people from all corners of Java to come to Jakarta, was again annoyed with Sukarno.

The young followers of Sjahrir were irritated by this cancellation, and urged Sjahrir to immediately declare independence! Despite his annoyance with Sukarno, Sjahrir refused to declare independence, because according to him Sukarno was still the worthiest person to do so, mainly because of his vast base of supporters and exorbitant charisma. Sjahrir remained patient, so as not to cause divisions among the movement.

At the height of chaos and violence, during the early Bersiap period of the Indonesian revolution, Sjahrir published an epoch-making pamphlet named ‘Our Struggle’. Originally published in Dutch as ‘Indonesische Overpeinzingen’ (‘Indonesian Musings’), it was soon thereafter translated into the Indonesian language as ‘Perdjoeangan Kita’ in 1945, and was then translated into the English language by Charles Wolf Jr. and named ‘Out of Exile’ published by John Day, New York, 1949. The English version contains a considerable amount of additional text.

Due to his non-collaborative stance during the Japanese occupation, he was one of the few Republican leaders acceptable to the Dutch government during the early independence negotiations. In 1946 Sjahrir played a crucial role in negotiating the Linggardjati Agreement. Because his thoughts were ahead of his time he was often misunderstood and started to acquire internal political adversaries.

Although Sjahrir was one of the most significant Indonesian politicians of his time, he did not engage in politics through a sense of vocation nor out of self-interest, but rather through a sense of duty to his country and compatriots and commitment to his democratic ideals. Described as an omnivorous intellectual Sjahrir had education at the heart of his passion. When he was appointed Prime Minister in 1945, he was the youngest prime minister in the world, being only 36 years of age.

Sjahrir founded the Indonesian Socialist Party (PSI) in 1948 to politically oppose the Indonesian Communist Party (PKI). Sutan’s socialist party ultimately failed to win support and was actually banned in 1960. Already in the mid-1930s Sjahrir warned of the tendency of socialists to be dragged into the notions of the extreme political left. Sjahrir described his fear of the trend of socialists to adopt ideas of communist absolutism as follows: “Those socialist activists, with all good intentions, suddenly and without a warning become ‘absolute’ thinkers, ‘absolutely’ discarding freedom, ‘absolutely’ spitting on humanity and the rights of the individual.[…]They envision the terminus of human development as one huge military complex of extreme order and discipline

Although small, his party was very influential in the early post-independence years, because of the expertise and high education levels of its leaders. But the party performed poorly in the 1955 elections, partly due to the fact that the grassroots constituency at the time was unable to fully understand the concepts of social democracy Sjahrir was trying to convey. It was banned by President Soekarno in August 1960 for allegedly supporting the rebellion in Sumatra and for his opposition to the President’s policies.

In 1962 Sjahrir was jailed on alleged conspiracy charges, for which he was never put on trial. Instead of fighting back and creating more conflicts, he chose to step back from politics and accept the consequences. During his imprisonment he suffered from high blood pressure and in 1965 had a stroke, losing his speech. He was sent to Zürich, Switzerland for treatment and died there, in exile, in 1966.

Although a revolutionary opponent of Dutch colonialism, his intellectual prowess was recognized by his adversaries, and he remained highly respected in the Netherlands. After his death in 1966, former Dutch Prime-Minister Professor Schermerhorn commemorated Sjahrir in a public broadcast on national radio, calling him a “noble political warrior” with “high ideals” and expressing the hope that he will be recognized as such by future generations in Indonesia.

In 2009 Indonesian Foreign Minister Hassan Wirajuda said: “He was a thinker, a founding father, a humanistic leader and a statesman. He should be a model for the young generation of Indonesians. His thoughts, his ideas and his spirit are still relevant today, as we face global challenges in democracy and the economy.” (rp)