Saturday, January 16, 2010

Farewell Gus Dur

Saturday January 16, 2010
Farewell Gus Dur

ON Dec 31, 2009, as we bade farewell to 2009, the news broke of the passing of Adburrahman Wahid, former president of Indonesia, more popularly known as Gus Dur. My wife and I were in Macassar, the capital of Sulawesi and watched the outpouring of affection and respect for the man who succeeded Presidents Habibie and Suharto at the end of the Suharto era.

We cannot understand Asian thinking without appreciating the passing of this Asian giant.

Gus Dur was only President for less than two years from Oct 20, 1999 to July 23, 2001, having been forced to cede powers to his vice-president, Megawati Soekarnoputri.

During this short but critical period when Indonesia was still suffering from the Asian financial crisis, Gus Dur gave Indonesia the political space necessary to consolidate its transition from an authoritarian regime to one of the most vibrant democracies in Asia.

Indonesia must be one of the most difficult countries in the world to govern, with 240 million people, the fourth largest country in the world in terms of population. With 17,000 islands straddling 5,000 km from east to west, the country is also the largest maritime country in the world, because its geographical coverage is one fifth larger than the United States.

Despite having the largest Muslim population in the world, the country is constitutionally secular, because it is also one of the most culturally diverse, having two hundred different spoken dialect and speech groups.

It is perhaps that Indonesia is so culturally and economically diverse that world-class art, design, literature and new thinking is being created. You only have to visit Bali to find artists of every country trying to find their own inspirations from this melting pot of cultures.

From the early ages, the Moluccas, for example, were the battleground for the Spice trade, in which Portuguese, Dutch, English, Arab, Chinese, Indian and local traders were already competing to bring these valuable condiments to the rest of the world. These economic intrusions left their indelible cultural imprints on Indonesian civilisation.

Gus Dur came to political power from a religious background. He was born into a family of impeccable religious credentials in Jombang, East Java. His grandfather founded the Muslim movement Nahdlatul Ulama, the largest religious organisation in Indonesia with 40 million members and his father was the first Indonesian Minister for Religious Affairs after independence.

He started early by being a teacher in a religious school (Madrasah) in his home town. In 1970, he received a scholarship to study at the University of Al-Azhar in Cairo, but never finished there. Instead, he moved to Baghdad University to complete his higher education.

In 1972, he returned to become a teacher at the University Hasyim Asyhari in his home town, as well as being a journalist and writer. From his direct contact with the Muslim community, he immersed himself in the development of the Muslim religious school movement (Pesantren), rising eventually to become a key leader of Nahdlatul Ulama.

In the 1980s, he came into political prominence because he participated actively in formulating the Pancasila philosophical foundation for Indonesia, namely, Belief in the one and only God, just and civilised humanity, the unity of Indonesia, democracy and social justice.

In 1998, even though he suffered a stroke that partially blinded him, he formed part of the reform movement that contested the 1999 presidential elections. He stood against Megawati and won, and then persuaded Megawati to stand as vice-president for the sake of national unity.

Although by his own admission he was not a great administrator, he made several key decisions that held Indonesia together during the tumultuous period after the Suharto regime. Significantly, he opened up the press, removed restrictions on use of the Chinese language and opened the way for reconciliation in the regional tensions with Irian Jaya (now West Papua) and Aceh.

What struck most people who have met Gus Dur was his humanity and open-mindedness to all issues and social problems. He was reputed to have said that he was less disappointed with the loss of his presidency than the loss of his recordings of Beethoven.

Here was a person well read not only in Islam, but also the philosophies of the West and the East and comfortable that no views were pre-eminent, because he was confident in his own faith and culture. In this sense, no Asian, nor indeed anyone, should feel fearful that his or her own beliefs or views will be drowned or tainted by the West or other beliefs. The world has become too big, too complex and too inter-connected for us to have closed minds.

There is, of course, nothing wrong with closing one’s own mind, because that is one’s own prerogative, but one should not endeavour to close other minds.

All leaders will be judged by history, some rightly, some wrongly. But they will be judged not just by what they achieved in their lifetime, but also by being themselves as human beings. The leaders that I have met and impressed me most were those who touched everyone who met them as sincere humanists, who believed passionately what they wanted to do and also recognised their own failings.

Gus Dur was such a leader. He had a great sense of humour, not failing to laugh at his own limitations. How can one not like the man who said, “Suharto was a New Order president, Habibie was In Order and I am No Order.”

·Andrew Sheng is Adjunct Professor at the University of Malaya, Kuala Lumpur and Tsinghua University, Beijing.

No comments:

Post a Comment