WHO IS THIS OLD TIMER? mr PRAMOEDYA ANANTA TOER he said suharto gone but “The problem is that the political elite still remains in place. I would like to see those poeple die or gone.that will be brand new day for Indonesia.

He is Indonesia’s grand old man of letters, but former political detainee
Pramoedya Ananta Toer’s works are still banned in his homeland


PRAMOEDYA ANANTA TOER seems to be a lightning rod for police attention. The
last time he visited Singapore, he said, was in 1956 and he got arrested.

But he was quick to clarify: “It was all a misunderstanding.”

He was near the port looking for an address when he wandered into a
restricted area. So the military police picked him up and escorted him back
to his hotel.

“I was staying at the Raffles Hotel,” he remembered.

Indonesia’s most famous political dissident and writer was in town over the
weekend to help launch Mark Hanusz’s Kretek: The Culture And Heritage Of
Indonesia’s Clove Cigarettes.

He took time out to chat with Life! last Friday afternoon, with the help of
John McGlynn, the translator for the English edition of his book, The Mute’s

The soft-spoken 75-year-old has been back in the limelight following the fall
of former Indonesian President Suharto.

Pram, as he is affectionately known, was finally released from house arrest
last year, after 20 years of confinement. Before that, he had spent 14 years
on the remote Buru Island, a penal colony where political prisoners were
beaten, tortured and starved.

But with a change of guard in Indonesia’s top politicos, Pram has become
Indonesia’s grand old man of letters. President Abdurrahman Wahid has been
quoted as calling him a “friend” and “adviser”, and visited the author at his
home last Wednesday.

Clad in a simple batik shirt and dark trousers, Pram is a slight figure, lean
and weathered from his years of physical hardship.

He is also almost completely deaf. When he was arrested in Indonesia in 1965,
a soldier clubbed him with the butt of his gun. As a result, he is deaf in
his right ear and very hard of hearing in his left. But his eyes are bright
with an impish glint, his speech lucid and his handshake firm and strong.

Despite ailing health — he was undergoing tests at hospitals here — he has
not given up chainsmoking his beloved kretek (clove cigarette), which filled
the hotel room at the Marriott with its distinctive fragrance.

He confessed that he has not been working on anything new because of his poor
health — “even correspondence, I find it a chore”.

He used to exercise regularly and work on his clipping files at his home in a
suburb in Jakarta. In fact, he is still working intermittently on his mammoth
encyclopaedia, The Social History Of Indonesia, the notes to which now
measure 4-m long.

His longtime editor and publisher Joesoef Isak, who was also in town,
commented jokingly: “I asked him 20 years ago, when will you finish your
encyclopaedia and he said 10 years. You ask him now and he will say 10

Pram added: “The other day when the president came to my house, he asked
permission to copy all my files. I said yes, of course. But it was only after
he left I began to think about issues on copyright.”

He added wistfully: “I am so forgetful of late. I am getting too old, I never
thought this would ever happen to me.”

He brushed off the solemn statement quickly with soft chuckles. Indeed, his
wry sense of humour surfaced easily during the 45-minute chat which wandered
from Indonesian politics to the Nobel Prize for Literature, of which he has
been in the running for several years.

As to be expected from an ex-political detainee, he has firm views on
political issues.

“The biggest change in Indonesia has been seen at the student level where
they finally got the courage to resist Suharto’s doctrine and go out on the
streets and work with the people and to get them to rise up against Suharto’s
regime,” he said.

“The problem is that the political elite still remains in place. I would like
to see that change.”

He thinks that positive change is possible: “I see this rising up among the
lowest level as the actual first start of social change, that’s when true
revolution will come.”

But there is more to be done: “It’s sadly ironic that such a wealthy nation
is now a poverty-stricken country. Indonesia, for 300 years or more, was
formed by that political elite who were completely lacking in any kind of
moral character.”

Thus, he sees the role of a writer as gatekeeper of the nation’s conscience.

“In Indonesia, the role of a writer is very different from what it might be
in the West. Writers have a mission — in that sense, writing is political —
we have a mission to change the structure of society.”

He holds writers up to high standards. As he put it: “Any of the stories he
or she tells, the storyteller must be responsible for what happens after

Although he is no longer a prisoner, Pram’s books, which have been translated
into more than three dozen languages, are still technically banned under
Indonesian law.

But he is obviously not losing any sleep over this, for he declared proudly:
“For me, every ban is a medal of honour.”

But he added: “For true democracy to work, you have to lift the ban on
reading material.”

Although one might think that his negative experiences would leave him
disillusioned, there is much in him that is still idealistic.

“Indonesian citizenship to me is a much more valuable thing than it might be
for people of other countries. We got our citizenship not because we were
born with it but because we fought for it,” he said.

“The important thing for a good citizen is to continue in his struggle
against the negative elements of one’s country. That’s why I keep going. In
that sense, I feel I have gained victory in my struggle.”

The final feather in his victory cap would be, of course, the Nobel Prize for
Literature. He has been nominated for it several times and there is a
distinct possibility that he might win it this year.

But he dismissed this laughingly with smoky waves of his kretek and emphatic
shaking of his head.

“I don’t even think about that. I have always taught my own children to never
expect anything outside of what they themselves can do. I don’t expect to
receive anything from others.”

Besides, he has made peace with his life: “I’m old. There’s nothing I really
need or want anymore.”


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