Fighting graft with his pen

Indonesian journalist and activist Goenawan Mohamad's essays reveal insights into a country plagued with corruption



By Goenawan Mohamad, translated by Jennifer Lindsay

Ridge Books/Paperback/376 pages/ $24/NUS Press/ 4/5 stars

Goenawan Mohamad's Faith In Writing: Forty Years Of Essays (above) is a testament to his faith in writing, in his country and in humanity.

What is a man who loves his country to do when his homeland is plagued with corruption and oppression, when it carries the scars of a bloody past, and when - even now - it seems lumbering and adrift?

Goenawan Mohamad - journalist, activist, poet - chose to write. In this hefty book of short essays - laden with both substance and style - he shows that one can love a country even when it lets one down.

He was recently in town for the Singapore Writers Festival, sharing his experiences as a writer in Indonesia and his confidence in how language and freedom of expression can survive censorship.

Though the book is divided into three parts - the first contains his pieces on Indonesia; the next tackles the wider world; and the third deals with religion and spirituality - what is most enduring is his pre-occupation with Indonesia.

He does not gloss over its shortcomings: from the clannish political parties who seem to him to treat democracy as an afterthought in the struggle for power, to the corruption that still dogs the country.

He is after all the founder of Indonesia's Tempo magazine, where most of the essays in this book are taken from, which strove for greater press freedom and to keep then-president Suharto accountable to the public .

The magazine was banned twice - in 1982 and 1995 - for pieces critical of Suharto's party and government.

It moved online in 1995 and made a print comeback in May 1998, after Suharto's fall from power following three decades of presidency.

The book is a globe-trotting experience, taking readers from the holy city of Mecca to bustling New York and drawing on the history and literature of countries from India to Russia.

In an essay titled "Names, or why Juliet was wrong", riffing on Juliet's famous "Romeo, doff thy name!" exhortation in Shakespeare's tragedy, he dwells on the importance of names.

Some Indonesians give up their birth names and give themselves an "adult name" as they strike out on their own.

Sometimes, names are driven by political motives: To "strengthen Indonesian-ness" he notes, the political elite - mostly Javanese - had pushed Indonesians of Chinese descent to change their names so they would no longer seem Chinese.

Some in the Indonesian Communist Party too, he pointed out, took on names that had "lower-class" connotations. Prominent figures such as Njoto and Njono did not use the prefix "Su" before their names, which is commonly associated with the upper class.

This is Goenawan's charm: grounding weighty insights into politics and power by relating them to the mundane and quotidian.

In these short, powerfully composed essays - most are two to three pages long - his voice and force of personality ring through.

Above all, the book is a testament to his faith in writing, in Indonesia and in humanity.

If you like this, read: Indonesia, Etc: Exploring The Improbable Nation by Elizabeth Pisani (W. W. Norton & Company, 2014, $25.95, Books Kinokuniya), on the author's travels around Indonesia to figure out what binds the people of a nation so geographically scattered and ethnically diverse.

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on November 08, 2015, with the headline Fighting graft with his pen. Subscribe