JULY 3, 2000 VOL. 155 NO. 26
National Awakening Party head Abdurrahman Wahid, centre, at a gathering
in Jakarta last July. He became the country's fourth president in
Indonesia urgently needs a strong hand and new ideas. It's not getting
either from the whimsical President Abdurrahman Wahid
By TERRY MCCARTHY Jakarta
When President Abdurrahman Wahid moved into the presidential palace last
October, his spirits and those of the country were riding high. After
32 years of Suharto's dictatorship and 18 months of interim rule by Suharto's
former deputy B.J. Habibie, Indonesia was finally getting a reformist
President who preached tolerance and openness and promised to let democracy
flourish. There was hope that two years of economic crisis and political
chaos were over, and that Indonesia was finally on track to move ahead.
But as the Wahid clan mounted the steps of the Istana Merdeka, a dukun--Javanese
soothsayer--close to the family called the party to halt, warning that
the spirit of "the big man" was standing in the doorway. The dukun insisted
on carrying out a prayer ritual before the First Family could enter the
Dur, as the President is known to his 200 million fellow citizens, waited
for the soothsayer to finish before crossing the threshold. "It was the
black power of Suharto," says the President's daughter Yenny, who witnessed
the event. "He is trying to hurt us. We have white power--we just defend,
we won't hurt anyone."
Thus began the bizarre reign of Indonesia's fourth President, a man so
contradictory that even his closest aides say they cannot understand him
half the time. With one foot in the traditional world of Javanese mysticism
and the other in the modern era of globalization, Wahid's internal compass
spins wildly in all directions. A Muslim cleric from a distinguished family
line, he trades dirty jokes with his friends and barbed compliments with
his enemies. He says he will fire military chief Wiranto, relents, and
then fires him for real, all in the space of 24 hours. He praises America's
support for his democratic reforms, but then pays court to Fidel Castro,
Muammar Gaddafi and other leaders of the unfree world. He tells his economic
advisers he wants capital controls on the rupiah, then changes his mind
later that day. An incessant traveler, voracious reader (until his eyesight
failed following a stroke two years ago) and obsessive gossip, Wahid relishes
controversy, fears nobody and has a joke for every occasion.
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he took office, Wahid's unpredictability was interpreted as an asset,
enabling him to keep foes off balance as he began his mission to cleanse
Indonesia of the legacies of Suharto and his military-backed rule. But
eight months on, even his supporters are starting to worry that Wahid's
increasingly erratic behavior is a liability, particularly in the economic
sphere where the country desperately needs to restore stability and a
sense of confidence among domestic and foreign investors. In April Wahid
fired two key economic ministers, and last week the governor of the central
bank was arrested on suspicion of corruption, pushing the rupiah to one
of its lowest levels against the dollar since the President took over.
"It is becoming an issue, at least among his economic team, whether Wahid
is an asset or not," says Sri Mulyani Indrawati, Secretary of Wahid's
National Economic Council. "We are concerned about what's best for the
country--but we need a more predictable decision-making process."
edition's table of contents
Indonesia is in a precarious state. The economy is barely holding together,
and mounting ethnic and religious strife makes many Indonesians fear that
the country could disintegrate. Last week alone more than 150 Christians
and Muslims were killed in the Maluku islands, and separatist tensions
are again boiling up in Papua and Aceh. "Gus Dur is saying, 'Let [the
provinces] voice their aspirations,' but he is not giving them any outlet,"
says Endy Bayuni, editor of the Jakarta Post. The pressure for change
in relations between Jakarta and the provinces is mounting, Bayuni says.
Things "could turn violent--in which case Indonesia could just break up."
Much now depends on the enigmatic character of Wahid. Few would dispute
that he is genuinely committed to confronting the "black force" of Suharto's
poisoned legacy and improving Indonesians' lives. But conviction may not
be enough. Says Muhaimin Iskandar, parliamentary head of Wahid's National
Awakening Party: "From the beginning, management has been his problem."
The heat is turning up under Wahid and his capricious management style.
Returning last Wednesday from another extended trip abroad (Wahid has
visited 34 countries since October; his critics cite this as proof that
he is not devoting enough time to domestic problems), the President faced
renewed calls from student activists to bring Suharto to trial for corruption.
Protesters are outraged at revelations of the government's secret talks
with the Suharto family, at Wahid's behest, apparently aimed at pardoning
the 79-year-old former dictator if he returns some money to the state.
At the same time, accusations of corruption are creeping nearer to the
President's closest advisers. His personal masseur allegedly embezzled
$4.7 million from the national rice distribution agency Bulog. The intervention
of a friend of Wahid's reportedly led to the revoking of a $100 million
power-transmission-line contract that had been put to tender under the
previous government. Some parliamentarians are even threatening to start
impeachment proceedings against the President, perhaps when he makes a
scheduled "accountability speech" in August. "His inner circle poses the
greatest threat," says Zastrouw Ngatawi, a former assistant to Gus Dur
and author of a book about him. "People are using his name, and this will
distract from the ideas he is trying to put into practice."
Certainly, there's little to fault in Wahid's ideas. On a recent trip
to Lombok, a tourist island whose hotels emptied after an outbreak of
Christian-Muslim violence in January, Wahid preaches a gentle message
of tolerance to both sides of the community. He does not give speeches
in public, but chatters on in a bantering tone interspersed with frequent
jokes, as if he were talking to a neighbor across the garden fence. Sitting
in an armchair in front of a crowd at the Asaluddin pesantren (traditional
Muslim school), Wahid slips into a monologue. "Christians have their day
of rest on Sunday, but for Muslims it is Friday, and that is all right,
everyone is different. Children throw pillows at each other, but when
you grow up and get married you throw plates, and it is natural to have
emotions--just like the troubles that broke out here in January. It is
not religion that needs to be improved, but the teaching of it that matters.
What is important is clean government, the rule of law and open minds
of the people, so we can all be brothers."
Later, he attends Friday prayers at a mosque and, as is his custom, engages
in a question-and-answer session with the men present. One man angrily
asks why Wahid and the Nahdlatul Ulama (NU), the 30-million member Muslim
organization he once led, have not done more to base the new government
on Islamic principles. Other worshipers indicate support for the questioner,
but Wahid calmly tells them that he is not going to make Indonesia an
Islamic country. There are other religions that need to be respected,
he says, and the NU never intended to push for an Islamic state. By the
way, he continues, the NU was founded by 6,000 wise Muslim clerics, and
did the questioner want to criticize all 6,000 of them? The crowd dissolves
into laughter, and the questioner is speechless. Wahid's wit has again
rescued him from a tricky situation.
On the plane from Lombok to Solo in central Java, where he is to address
a meeting of mystics, Wahid laughs about the incident. "That man likes
to think of himself as a defender of Islam," he says. "But there is no
point in defending Islam in an uncompromising way, forcing confrontation
with Christians. I have to do away with that. These people want to enforce
their own identity, but I say we must talk about it."
And talk he does, untiringly. The next day he has breakfast in the palace
with former general Edi Sudrajat to discuss the problems of nationalism
and the military. Later, he calls Australian Prime Minister John Howard
in connection with a state visit to clear the bad blood over East Timor,
he debriefs Minister of Foreign Affairs Alwi Shihab who has just returned
from the U.S., he talks with the central bank about the rate of the rupiah
and then explains on TV his controversial proposal to lift the ban on
communism, imposed after the bloody 1965 coup that brought Suharto to
power. "We have left that decision too long," he says after the show is
over. "How can you ban a teaching? That would be against the freedom of
It is late afternoon, and Wahid is in a jokey mood. After talking about
Suharto's current state of affairs--"He is disappointed and angry, because
he thinks nobody understands him"--Wahid recalls the last joke he told
the former dictator. "I visited him shortly after he stepped down, in
the economic crisis. He asked me to stay the night, but I said I had another
appointment. I said I could leave him with a kyai (Muslim cleric) who
was with me, to say evening prayers. Suharto said, 'O.K., that is what
I want.' So I asked him if he wanted the old way or the new way? Suharto
was puzzled. I said the old way is when they say 23 prayers, but the new
way, with the economy the way it is, you get a 60% discount."
He segues into a joke about Lee Kuan Yew's barber, then tells the story
of how he made the Saudi King laugh on television with a whispered vulgar
joke, marking the first time the Saudi people ever saw their King's teeth.
Before the laughter subsides, he begins explaining why Indonesia should
open relations with Israel--taboo up to now among the country's majority
Muslim population--and then talks about a book he plans to write on modernizing
Islamic philosophy. He is upbeat: tonight he is going to a wayang performance
of shadow puppets, and it has been arranged that the puppeteer will engage
Wahid in a humorous debate.
The hall is full when the President arrives--he is led to a chair in the
first row and starts munching on the sweets and fruits laid out in front
of him. The performance starts with the distinctive music of gamelan,
metal xylophones, and the puppetmaster comes onstage and begins manipulating
the puppets in front of a white screen. Halfway through the story of the
knight Arjuna trying to cut the hair of the court jester Semar, thus depriving
him of his power, the puppeteer turns to the audience and starts throwing
questions at Wahid and two prominent guests sitting with him. They trade
jibes about various politicians, keeping the audience laughing until the
puppeteer asks Wahid whether he has changed since he became President.
"I am afraid I am also a player in a larger story that I don't control,"
replies Wahid, suddenly serious. "I am a puppet that will be put back
in the box when I am no longer needed."
Wahid's self-effacing manner is as effective as his wit in keeping his
opponents guessing. Both traits have their roots in his family origins:
Wahid's father and grandfather were highly respected Muslim scholar-teachers.
The journey into the complexity of Gus Dur ends where it all started,
in the town of Jombang in East Java, where Abdurrahman Wahid was born
in 1940. His grandfather Hasyim Asy'ari founded the NU, and his father
Wahid Hasyim became Indonesia's first Minister of Religion under the Sukarno
regime in the 1940s. As the first son in such an illustrious Muslim family,
the young Wahid acquired the honorific "Gus," a title given only to high-level
kyai. (Dur is a contraction of his given name, Abdurrahman.) From an early
age he was treated with deference by older Muslim scholars, and he grew
up with a sense of entitlement that never left him.
It was in the traditional pesantren in Jombang that Wahid learned the
Koran, and also the habits of the kyai, the clerics who tend to sit around
joking and debating late into the night, scoring points off one another.
With the intimacy of boarding schools and the regimen of monasteries,
the pesantren produce sharpened wits and grand ideas far removed from
the everyday world outside the compound walls. "What amazed me most about
Gus Dur as a student was the number of books in his room," says Sholeh
Abdul Hamid, a cousin of Wahid's who headed the Tambakberas pesantren
when the future President studied there as a teenager. "And his jokes...
He was always like that--that's the way kyai communicate, to diminish
their own self-importance."
Despite stints studying in Cairo and Baghdad--mostly spent reading Western
literature and watching movies--Wahid has never really left the world
of the Javanese pesantren. It centers him. He relies on the NU organization
for his political support and still meets regularly with a wide network
of kyai friends. Hamid, for instance, visited just last month: "He told
me his cabinet is full of thieves. He hasn't changed at all since becoming
Which gets to the heart of Wahid's predicament. He has brought the habits
of the pesantren into the presidential palace. The mystic's tendency to
laugh in the face of human vanity, the high-brow idealism with little
practical experience of implementation, the autocratic manner of the senior
kyai--these traits bewilder many of the people who work with him. "Gus
Dur is committed to democracy in principle," says Nurcholish Madjid, professor
of Islamic studies at Paramadina Mulya University and one of Indonesia's
most prominent intellectuals. "But he is not a democrat himself. He is
a 'Gus,' a highly honorific title that implies a kind of immunity."
Wahid's immunity, however, may be wearing thin in the rough and tumble
of Jakarta politics. As corruption scandals involving people around him
come to light, the President's judgment is being called into question.
Some critics say he is deliberately putting members of NU into powerful
positions ahead of more-qualified candidates for petty political reasons.
"All the pathologies of the past regime remain in the system," says Laksamana
Sukardi, the former minister in charge of state-owned enterprises, whom
Wahid fired in April, replacing him with Rozy Munir, a prominent NU leader.
Amien Rais, a rival to Wahid who serves as Speaker of the People's Consultative
Assembly and leader of the more dogmatic Muslim organization Muhammadiyah,
has launched a campaign to have the President's health examined by independent
doctors. The intention is to embarrass Wahid by suggesting that his erratic
decisions are evidence of mental instability. Wahid has had two strokes,
the second in January 1998, and he suffers from diabetes. The two conditions
have left him blind, although he still keeps to an incredibly busy schedule.
Desperate to regain some vision, he has made several visits to eye specialists
in the U.S., but so far they have made little progress in restoring his
As the criticism mounts, Wahid seems undaunted, at least in public. "Let
them say what they want about me," he says. "I don't care." But in private
he rails against his enemies, many of whom he calls dishonest in their
attacks on him. "Their way is to make me emotional, and they think I will
have another stroke." His supporters fear that Wahid's blindness and sense
of being threatened have made him withdraw even more into a private space
where he will listen only to a small group of trusted family members and
advisers, whose counsel is totally unaccountable and potentially motivated
by self interest. Otherwise, his safest refuge is humor. It comes easily
to him--almost as a default mode--and it drives others mad. "We will all
become hostages to his craziness," says former minister Laksamana.
And yet, despite the mounting attacks on Wahid, there are few viable alternatives
to his leadership for the time being. "How can we expect him to fix 32
years of corrupt behavior in just six months?" asks Jajang C. Noer, an
Indonesian actress. "This country has been so devastated by mismanagement
that I cannot imagine who would be a better alternative." Wahid has positioned
himself as a benign ayatollah, aiming to lead Indonesia away from the
forces of darkness that still emanate from Suharto and his poisonous legacy.
But as Wahid told the Solo puppeteer, he is now a player in a larger story
that he doesn't control. The danger is that his "white power" will not
be strong enough to pull the country along with him, and that he and his
retinue will get sucked backward into the dark old ways of corruption
and nepotism that have become so deeply entrenched in Indonesia. If that
happens, not even the strongest dukun will be able to protect him.
With reporting by Zamira Loebis/Jombang and Jason Tedjasukmana/Jakarta
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