The Humorist in the Istana Negara

Veteran Australian observer of Indonesian affairs Graeme Dobell remembers Gus Dur both as a larrikin and as a powerful marker in national and international politics Indonesia can direct Australia’s regional dreams or dominate its nightmares. The death of Abdurrahman Wahid is a reminder of how old nightmares have faded as Indonesia has transformed itself in a decade.

Wahid’s short presidency was part of an extraordinary period when the region saw that a democratic Indonesia could hold together and even succeed.

Gus Dur’s humour and humanity stood in contrast to almost every personality trait that marked Suharto’s leadership. Wahid delighted in telling the popular joke about how all of Indonesia’s presidents were mad. Sukarno was mad about sex. Suharto was mad about money. Habibie was mad about technology. “But me,” he’d laugh, “I’m just mad!” When Megawati used her numbers in parliament to seize the presidency from Wahid, he added a new punch-line. “Now we have Mega – and she is mad about shopping.”

Wahid made many visits to Australia before he became president. Bruce Grant offers a vivid description of Wahid’s ability to enjoy the Land of Oz:

He liked to ride on Melbourne’s trams. He described the excitement of being among ordinary Australians, watching them get on and off, what they were wearing, how they related to each other while strap-hanging. It is easy to imagine him sitting in a crowded tram, taking it all in, beaming amiably at everyone. He was almost blind (I never knew the exact degree), but his sense of occasion was tangible. He was the first of Indonesia’s presidents to confront the Australian public on its own terms — open, democratic, humanist, humorous.

One of Wahid’s gifts to Australia was to bury the dreadful fact that no Indonesian president set foot in Australia for the quarter century after Suharto’s fleeting visit in early 1975. In almost his last overseas trip before being tossed out of office by the Indonesian parliament, Gus Dur came to Australia in June 2001.

Wahid reversed the national stereotypes when he dealt with John Howard. Gus Dur was the knockabout larrikin; Howard had all the mannered stiffness of a high-born Javanese. My enduring memory of Wahid will be the jest he used at a meeting with Prime Minister John Howard. It was the best fast ball I ever saw bowled during the grip-and-grin that all leaders have to stage for the cameras.

As Wahid reached to shake Howard’s hand he announced: “I always worry about being killed when I visit Australia.”

The smile on the face of the prime minister froze just shy of a horrified rictus. You could see the shiver race instantly through Howard’s political antenna: What was this Indonesian maverick saying? There’d been nothing in the briefings about threats to Gus Dur’s life in Australia.

The two leaders clasped hands and Wahid delivered the punch-line in a passable version of an Australian accent: “It’s a lovely day to-die. How are you to-die?” Howard managed a relived “Ho, Ho.”

Wahid’s short presidency is too quickly dismissed as a failure. After the long repressions of the Suharto decades, who could tell what demons might have been unleashed in Indonesia? (That was the nightmare side of Australia’s eternal Indonesia fixation.) Then along came Gus Dur, who laughed at the demons. As Greg Barton argues, Habibie and Wahid should be judged as transitional presidents who played a vital role in shifting Indonesia into the political light:

The great strengths of both Habibie and Wahid as accidental presidents were precisely that they were not bound by conventional rational calculations about the limits of their scarce political capital. Had they behaved as professional politicians, they would have done much less and likely survived much longer, but it’s also very likely that Indonesia’s transition to democracy would not have succeeded as it has today.

Wahid may not have been a great president, but he was a wonderful Indonesian. Gus Dur’s personality and the breadth of his religious views were a magnificent gift to his country. His presidency, in all its chaotic glory, was a major step on a rapid journey of Indonesian rediscovery.

Graeme Dobell writes the Canberra column for The Interpreter, the blog of the Lowy Institute, a leading Australian think-tank, where this article was originally published.

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