PROFILES OF COURAGE - ST Asians of the Year

When disaster strikes, Indonesia turns to one man

When Mount Agung erupted and brought Bali to a standstill, Dr Sutopo Purwo Nugroho was hooked up to an IV line, breathing through one lung and issuing press releases to journalists. While fighting his own battle with cancer, the spokesman for Indonesia's national disaster management agency continues to calm the nation through wildfires, landslides, floods and earthquakes. In daring missions, Indian Navy Commander Vijay Varma and Navy Captain P. Rajkumar rescued a woman in labour, a paraplegic in a wheelchair and 138 others during Kerala's worst floods in a century. Our bureaus profile these men who were among the First Responders collectively named last week as The Straits Times' Asians of the Year.

Indonesia's disaster agency spokesman Sutopo Purwo Nugroho updating the media in Jakarta on Oct 2 on the earthquake and tsunami that had hit Central Sulawesi in September.
Indonesia's disaster agency spokesman Sutopo Purwo Nugroho updating the media in Jakarta on Oct 2 on the earthquake and tsunami that had hit Central Sulawesi in September.PHOTO: AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

He has addressed an anxious nation from home, at malls while out with his family and, once, in the middle of a cemetery.

When a natural disaster strikes, Indonesia turns to one man: Dr Sutopo Purwo Nugroho, the spokesman for the national disaster management agency (BNPB).

He is never off duty - not in a sprawling archipelago hit by more than 2,000 disasters a year.

"When Mount Agung erupted in November 2017, I was at a cemetery waiting for a friend's body. So I looked for a shady tree and worked on a press release, which I sent to thousands of journalists," recounted Dr Sutopo, BNPB's head of data, information and public relations.

"Those from TV wanted an interview, so they came down to do that. It was all graves in the background."

Dr Sutopo is one of four courageous men and two disaster relief organisations, collectively labelled The First Responders, who have been named The Straits Times Asians of the Year.

The other winners are the late Mr Ng Kok Choong, the Singaporean paraglider who was acclaimed for his rescue work in the aftermath of an earthquake in Central Sulawesi; Indian Navy helicopter pilots P. Rajkumar and Vijay Varma, whose death-defying rescue flights saved many lives during the floods in Kerala, India, as well as Singapore's Mercy Relief and the Jakarta-based Asean Coordinating Centre for Humanitarian Assistance on Disaster Management (AHA Centre).

  • Saving lives in a catastrophe

  • The First Responders named in The Straits Times' Asians of the Year award also included:


    The Singaporean para-glider helped save lives when the Central Sulawesi earthquake and tsunami struck in September.

    While most of the foreigners in Palu for a paragliding event fled, Mr Ng, 53, a former commando, sat for hours in the dark and risked his life to help a woman trapped in the rubble.

    Sadly, less than a month after escaping death in Palu, Mr Ng was killed in a paragliding accident in India.


    The 15-year-old Singapore non-governmental organisation has responded to more than 71 humanitarian tragedies and natural disasters, with more than $34.3 million in relief provided across 25 countries.

    It has shepherded more than 50 initiatives for sustainable development and touched more than two million lives.

    It also works on longer-term projects in areas such as water and sanitation, shelter, sustainable livelihoods, healthcare and education.


    Established in November 2011 by Asean nations, it led the region's response to various disasters this year, especially in the Philippines, Laos and Indonesia.

    To deliver aid speedily, the Jakarta-based centre works with national disaster agencies of the various Asean countries and partners international, private-sector and civil society groups, such as the Red Cross and Red Crescent and the United Nations.

    It also has a stockpile of relief items and continues to build capacity so that an Asean Emergency Response and Assessment Team can be deployed at short notice in affected areas.

The winners were announced at The Straits Times Global Outlook Forum last Wednesday.

In an Instagram post last Thursday, Dr Sutopo said that he dedicated the award to all leaders and staff at the agency who have worked hard and passionately to tackle disasters. He added that he served only as a messenger to the media and the public.

"Hopefully, this award can also inspire the wider public. Working hard, wholeheartedly and tirelessly with integrity till the end is a spirit that must be upheld," he wrote. "Do anything diligently and never give up."

These days, 49-year-old Dr Sutopo finds himself, more often than not, answering the call of duty from his hospital bed, typing out press releases on his phone and fielding interviews in his ward.

Dr Sutopo is dying. He was diagnosed with Stage 4B lung cancer in January.

It has spread to the bones in his back, leaving him hunched and aching. He has lost 21kg since the start of the year, and his lungs are clogged with fluid.

But there was not much time for rest for Dr Sutopo this year as the country endured a string of disasters - wildfires, landslides, floods, volcanic eruptions, a series of earthquakes that rocked Lombok and Bali in July and August which was soon followed by the double whammy of a quake and tsunami in Central Sulawesi in September that left thousands dead.

When Mount Agung on Bali rumbled to life once more, belching plumes of volcanic ash, Dr Sutopo was breathing through one lung.

"Every day, they were sucking blood out of my lungs. But, I still had to work. I still worked, even while lying down, my hand hooked up to an IV," said Dr Sutopo, who goes for chemotherapy every three weeks, and radiation treatment almost every day.

"Sometimes when I'm holding press conferences, my legs are shaking, I'm struggling through pain. But I still continue.

"When a disaster happens, if I just stay quiet, I feel the extraordinary pain of the cancer. But if I'm busy with work - typing releases, answering questions from the media - sometimes I forget I'm sick. I just enjoy it."

Dr Sutopo, in his eight years as the voice of BNPB, has endeared himself to the media and the public with his easy accessibility, and the speed and clarity of his explanations in times of disaster.

"The speed with which we put out an official statement will show that the nation is there to handle the situation, so people will feel safe," he told The Straits Times in his BNPB office, which is adorned with accolades and gifts from fans, including trophies and caricatures.

With hoaxes on the rise, timely official announcements have also become more important than ever.

"Whenever there's a disaster, hoaxes always appear, causing confusion," said Dr Sutopo. "We must quickly and continuously put out facts so that the false, misleading information is immediately countered."

He has relied on social media, maintaining WhatsApp groups to feed a constant stream of updates to more than 3,000 journalists, including videos from the field and his own analyses, and is active on Instagram and Twitter as well.

"The principle is not to be too stingy when it comes to data... I'm always hitting the media and the community with data and information," said Dr Sutopo.

An alumnus of Gadjah Mada University in Yogyakarta and the Bogor Agriculture Institute, and whose father was a school teacher, Dr Sutopo once dreamed of being a teacher himself. He has now made education a key part of his work at BNPB.

Besides putting out more than 500 press releases a year, he has also published about 15 books on disasters, written more than 100 articles for international and national journals, and sets aside some time for lessons at the Indonesia Defence University, where he teaches disaster risk management, among other things.


He has also given countless talks at schools around Indonesia, drawing crowds and laughter by weaving quizzes about the Marvel superheroes, Avengers, with lessons on disaster response. He has also started a radio play Asmara Di Tengah Bencana (Romance In The Midst of Disaster), and, despite initial opposition from his staff, converted offices in BNPB into a mini museum dedicated to natural disasters and rescue efforts.

"If we work with passion, with heart, there will certainly be results. But if we only treat work like a routine, an everyday task, we will have nothing to show for it.

Time is running out for Dr Sutopo. Doctors say he has, at most, three years to live.

But for as long as he still can, when disaster strikes, he will be there.

"We don't know how long we'll live," he said. "But during our lives, we should do good, and be useful to others."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on December 03, 2018, with the headline 'When disaster strikes, Indonesia turns to one man'. Print Edition | Subscribe