TIME Magazine Cover Story (23 December 1946)

Ir. Soekarno

What time is it in Indonesia?

Ir. Soekarno on TIME Last week the public clocks which the punctual Dutch had placed along Batavia’s sweltering, mosquito-infested streets did not say; nobody had wound them. Nobody collected electric bills, because the electrical engineers are Dutch and the company accountants Indonesian; they could not decide who should get the receipts. Batavia had two mayors, one Dutch, one Indonesian; two flags, one Queen Wilhelmina’s and one Ir. Soekarno’s; two currencies, neither of which could buy much, and two possible destinies: it might become the chief city of the first great Moslem colony to free itself from European rule, or it might come to symbolize the first wave of Asiatic nationalism to break into chaos.

By last week it was clearly too late in Indonesia for restoration of full Dutch imperial rule, too early for stable native government. Was it too late for cooperation between Dutch and Indonesians in a framework of expanding independence? From Batavia, TIME Correspondent Robert Sherrod cabled a gloomy forecast :

“Throughout most of Asia, the white man is truly hated and the sky is black with chickens coming home to roost—probably blacker in Indonesia than anywhere except Indo-China. The natives’ passions run away with their leaders’ intellects. I am inclined to doubt whether whites and colored will work together in this generation.”

“We Cannot Stop Her.”

In Amsterdam, 9,900 miles away, Dutchmen could not bring themselves to accept so pessimistic a view, which would spell catastrophe for their country. Said Pieter de Jong, a middle-of-the-road Dutch businessman: “We’ve already lost our trade with Germany. If we lose Indonesia too, The Netherlands will become one of the poorest countries on the Continent. If Indonesia really wants complete freedom, we are not going to stop her and we cannot stop her. But we Netherlanders sincerely hope the Indonesians have some common sense left. If we move out, the Indonesians will be a prey to Communism or to ruthless big business.”

Last week at The Hague, Johannes A. Jonkman, Minister of Overseas Territories, struggled with the job of putting Citizen de Jong’s fears into political terms. Jonkman, who lost all his hair in a Jap prison camp in the Indies, worked so hard to draft his speech to The Netherlands States-General that friends feared his health would break down. After he made the speech, interpreting the proposed pact between the Dutch Government and Soekarno’s rebel Indonesian government, Holland’s politicians and people were still as unhappy and undecided about the issue as Pieter de Jong.

The pact recognizes Sumatra, Java and little Madura as the Republic of Indonesia, whose degree of independence will be great, but is deliberately left vague. Borneo and the Great East (see map) will be left under Dutch control. Both the Dutch and the Indonesian nationalists agree to work toward a federation which would bring the whole Netherlands East Indies into a future United States of Indonesia, a sort of Dominion under the Dutch Crown. Further negotiations to clarify the pact are expected. Meanwhile, the Indonesians think that events are moving too slowly toward independence, and the Dutch think they are going too rapidly.

“We Are Losing the War.”

The Dutch are hurt and bewildered at what they consider native ingratitude. For generations the Dutch regarded themselves as the world’s model colonizers. Now their very benefactions are turned against them.

They introduced sanitation and Western medicine, and raised the standard of living. Result: the Javanese population rose from 35,000,000 in 1920 to 42,000,000, became too big for little Holland (9.000,000) to handle.

The Dutch raised the shamefully low literacy rate to a less shameful 10%. Result: educated Indonesians became the worst enemies of the mother country.

The Dutch established some safeguards against big business exploitation of the natives. Result: Indonesian leaders, some of whom are rich, now feel that they can manage their fabulously rich archipelago (37% of the world’s rubber, 3% of its oil, 91% of its quinine), preferably through public ownership of key industries.

The Dutch were reluctant to admit that native unrest has been stirring for years. Some Hollanders were inclined to blame it all on the Japs. Said Pieter Sjoerds Gerbrandy, The Netherlands’ wartime Premier in Exile: “We are in danger of losing the war.” Others blamed it all on a Jap puppet. Said an Amsterdam cigar-store proprietor last week: “This fellow Soekarno is just a crook and a collaborator who is certainly going to turn Communist within the next five years. We have killed our own quisling Mussert in Holland—we ought to shoot Soekarho too.”

Boola, Boola.

As a matter of fact, Soekarno lives in terror of assassination, although the passionate loyalty and vigilance of the men around him would make an attempt difficult. Few men in the postwar world evoke the fanatic devotion of millions as does this 45-year-old child of luck and revolution. He is tall for an Indonesian (5 ft. 8 in.) and, by native standards, superlatively handsome. His Malay is self-consciously choice; in fact, he is so insistent on advancing the native speech that he is called Indonesia’s Webster (meaning Noah, not Daniel). He is quite an orator, too—TIME’S Sherrod cabled the following picture of Soekarno addressing an audience of 5,,000 women:

“Mostly he spoke extemporaneously (65 minutes). Occasionally he slipped on horn-rimmed spectacles, read a note. I have never seen an orator who held an audience in the palm of his hand so easily and confidently. Soekarno would speak slowly, then at machine-gun pace. Some times he shook a finger at the audience, again he stood arms akimbo and bit off his words. The fascinated audience laughed with him, grew serious with him, sympathized with him when he said he had just come from a sickbed and had to wear a light raincoat (which he took off after half an hour).”

Sample of Soekarno’s oratory: “Our ideal is an automobile for everybody. . . .” (At present few cars travel Java’s pot-holed roads.) “I’ve just received a letter from a young girl who wants to be an airplane pilot. . . . That’s right, hitch your aims to the stars. . . . We can laugh, we can eat and some day we can have clothes. . . . But our ideals will not be realized easily. We must struggle for them.”

Wherever he alights on his speaking tour around the country, a long red carpet is rolled out for him. When he finishes, the audience sings the new national anthem Indonesia Raja. The tune is almost a direct steal from Boola, Boola; the refrain starts:
Indonesia tanah airku, tanah tumpah darahku,
Disanalah dku berdiri, mendjaga pandu ibuku.

“Mister Merdeka.”

At the end of each speech he punches out, with clenched fists, three thunderous cheers: “Merdeka [Freedom]! Merdeka! Merdeka!” His followers roar the word, plaster it on billboards, use it as the Nazis used Heil Hitler in telephone greetings. Affectionately, they call their leader “Mister Merdeka.” He could do with a nickname. Soekarno is his first name, and it is almost as common in Java as Hans is in Holland. Indonesians are careless about surnames, and Soekarno lost his somewhere along the rocky way of a life that began humbly in Surabaya. Young Soekarno was one of those bright, indifferent students who frequently turn out to be politicians.

He set out to become an architect. At the Bandung Technical Institute he got a degree in civil engineering, which entitles him to put Ir. in front of his name (Ir. is a contraction of ingenieur, Dutch for engineer). Soekarno’s architectural career was as short as his professional title. He designed a few Chinese homes and was commissioned to do a Moslem mosque (most Java mosques are hideous tin-roofed stucco monstrosities, in contrast to the lovely ruins of the vanquished Hindu temples).

Moonlight & Santayana.

Soekarno gave up architecture. But though politics has been his occupation, he has not lost his interest in art. His Batavia house contains one of the finest collections of Indonesian paintings, especially moonlit mountain and jungle scenes. His favorite artist is the younger Abdullah, who painted a hauntingly lovely portrait of Soekarno’s present wife (he married her because his first wife bore him no children; by the second he has a young son). When Soekarno was paid 800 guilders a month by the Japs, he used to give Artist Abdullah 100.

At an early age he read Shakespeare, Lincoln, Rousseau, John Dewey and Santayana—a mixed bag of Western thought that may have contributed to the confusion and indecisiveness that runs through his political career.

Soekarno, like thousands of other young Indonesian intellectuals, was a wavering moderate in his opposition to Dutch rule. In 1926 the Dutch made a major blunder. In suppressing a Communist uprising, they exiled 4,500 Indonesians, without trial, to New Guinea. Soekarno became an uncompromising (but nonCommunist) nationalist, reached out for power, achieved a considerable following before being exiled to Flores Island in 1934.

He was still on Flores when the Japs attacked the N.E.I. In eight days the Dutch lost Java. Gallant but inept, the Dutch Navy bungled into calamity and the Dutch air force was destroyed. Thereafter, it would have been pointless, militarily, for the Dutch Army to attempt resistance. To the Indonesians, however, the Army was the symbol of Dutch rule. When the Army did not fight and Dutch Governor General A. W. L. Tjarda van Starkenborgh Stachouwer* fled to Australia, the Indonesians lost all respect for the Dutch. Millions of Indonesians swallowed the Jap slogan “Asia for the Asiatics.”

Umbrella & Bicycle.

Soekarno’s career well illustrates how intensely the natives felt about the Dutch. Soekarno rounded up thousands of his countrymen, who later died as Jap slave laborers in Borneo and New Guinea. Half a day after the bomb dropped on Hiroshima, he was still boasting that “thousands of Indonesian youths have entered the ranks of [Japanese] suicide squads.” Yet when the Japanese Army proclaimed the Indonesian Republic (on Aug. 17, 1945, two days after Japan surrendered) and appointed Soekarno President, the Indonesians greeted him with acclaim.

Had the Allies landed immediately, Soekarno’s career would have been cut short. But in the six weeks that elapsed before British troops, under Lieut. General Sir Philip Christison, arrived in Java, Soekarno had a chance to consolidate his “independent” government. Christison gave Soekarno another break by announcing, “I am not going to Java to return the country to the Dutch.” Soekarno used this statement to build up his people’s confidence that they could successfully resist the return of imperial rule. For 14 months the Republican Army fought British and Dutch occupation troops. By the time the British withdrew last month their casualties were 600 killed, 1,320 wounded and 320 missing.

The Indies Dutch, many of them jittery after years in Japanese concentration camps, underestimated the nationalist movement. One Dutch matron summed up their tragically mistaken attitude: “All the natives want from this world is three things: an umbrella, a pair of slippers and a bicycle.” One conspicuous exception to this complacency was Dr. Hubertus van Mook, the urbane, Java-born diplomat, who returned to Java as Acting Governor General convinced that the Dutch had to make major concessions.


Because van Mook at first had refused to treat with collaborators, Soekarno induced a rival native leader, Sjahrir, to become his Prime Minister—a move that turned out to be the smartest Soekarno ever made. Smoother and brighter than Soekarno, and with a clean anti-Japanese record, Sjahrir had everything—except the adulation of the Indonesian masses. Sjahrir quickly adjusted himself to the role of Soekarno’s front man in Batavia, while Soekarno left Batavia for the cool hill city, Jogjakarta, where he could indulge both his love of comfort and his sense of historic irony. Soekarno luxuriated in the terraced, marble-floored mansion that once belonged to the Dutch Resident. Near the mansion are the ruins of Borobudur, the massive Buddhist temple where Java’s kings worshiped eight centuries before the Dutch came to the archipelago.

Sjahrir (whose favorite author is Ernest Hemingway, and who sponsored American dancing parties for Javanese youngsters as a protest against Jap occupation) got along well with Westerners. He played tennis several times a week with British Consul General John MacKereth. When the British troops left last month, Sjahrir delivered a graceful but two-edged valedictory: “You introduced to our country by your personal qualities some attractive traits of Western culture that our people have rarely seen before from the white people they know. I mean your politeness, kindness, dignified self-restraint.” Asked van Mook: “What did you mean by that remark?”

Said Sjahrir: “When your troops leave Indonesia I’ll say things twice as nice about the Dutch.” Meanwhile British diplomacy, first in the person of Sir Archibald Clark Kerr (now Lord Inverchapel), who was succeeded by Lord Killearn, continued its efforts to bring the Dutch and the Indonesians together. Former Dutch Premier Willem Schermerhorn, who had blamed van Mook for dealing with collaborators, came out to Java and soon found himself discussing the situation over Scotch & soda with Soekarno, whose Mohammedanism is not so rigid that he scorns a drink.

The pact now before the Dutch States-General was drafted last month at Linggadjati. There, with Lord Killearn in the chair, Schermerhorn, van Mook and Soekarno (Sjahrir had one of his frequent colds) haggled out an agreement. The issue finally boiled down to a sentence in Article 2 which referred to Indonesia as a “free democratic state.” Soekarno’s Economics Minister, 38-year-old A. K. Gani (who once acted in a Batavian-made movie True Love), objected: “That word ‘free’ is not enough. It should be ‘sovereign.’ ” Van Mook turned to Soekarno: “Will you accept the agreement if it is changed to sovereign?” Almost before he knew it, Soekarno said yes, and the agreement was signed.

Ice in the Jungle.

Today, while the Indies wait upon The Netherlands’ reaction to the pact, a truce—but no peace—prevails in Indonesia. The Indonesian Army, led by hotheaded young General Soedirman, continues to snipe at units of the 92,000 Dutch troops under Lieut. General S. H. Spoor. Actually, in Java the Dutch hold only three small areas: the cities of Surabaya, Semarang and a corridor two to six miles wide connecting and including Batavia and Bandung. Of Java’s 51,000 square miles, the Dutch hold perhaps 380 square miles. In Sumatra the Dutch control three areas (at Palembang, Padang and Medan), less than 76 square miles out of 164,147.

In the interior, life goes on as if the Dutch would never come again. Recently a highly respected Dutch educator, P. J. Koets, shocked Holland with a realistic report of stability and progress in the nationalist area. Wrote Koets: “The picture in general is of a society consolidating itself, and not in the course of dissolution. . . . What struck me was the quiet and peacefulness. The farmer is busy on the farm, the women planting or harvesting, the people gathered at the market place, peddlers with heavy loads along the roads, the dogtrot of the carrier with his load on his back, a merchant on his way to the next village. . . . I had a long talk with a Republican leader whom I’d known in Holland. He used the comparison with water in the course of freezing. Consolidation, he said, is like water that freezes on top; there are large stretches where one can walk over in safety because the ice is thick and strong. There are parts where one can walk, but hear the threatening sound of cracking, and there are sections where only a thin skin of ice is forming, and over the deepest spots there are still open cracks. But the process of freezing continues, consolidation is progressing.”

Can the Indonesians govern themselves? Says Correspondent Sherrod: “They have done surprisingly well, and with some assistance—Dutch or otherwise—I think they can. Van Mook says the Indonesians have matured more in the past five years than in the previous 50.”

Gin on the Terrace.

In Batavia last week some of the old, prewar hallmarks of empire were still present. The tuan besar (Dutch for pukka sahibs) sat in their white linen suits and drank fiery Bols gin on the terrace of the Harmonie Club. Every now & then in the evening their talk was disturbed by a bullet whizzing by from the lines outside the city.

News more disquieting than casual bullets came last week. The Dutch had assumed that their friends, the local sultans of the Great East islands, would not be troubled by rebellion. But now there was insurrection in Celebes, and even reports of trouble in Amboina, where Indonesia’s most loyal native troops are recruited.

Most of the Indies Dutch now realize that the old days will never come again. The Dutch at home are beginning to understand that Ir. Soekarno & Co. are attempting to engineer a complete break, economic as well as political. As a result Holland’s earlier, more tolerant attitude toward Indonesian home rule is stiffening. But at best the Dutch faced a pretty grim prospect. Sardonic Hubertus van Mook put it this way: “There will be shooting for a long time in Indonesia, but we hope to get it on a friendlier basis.”

* After Holland was liberated, Queen Wilhelmina gave Starkenborgh an audience in The Hague. He drove to the palace in his automobile, sent the driver back because he was sure the audience would last several hours; doubtless the Queen would have him to lunch. Much to his surprise the Queen ended the interview in 15 minutes. Starkenborgh went home by trolley.


This entry was posted in History, Indonesia. Bookmark the permalink.
  • Byline

    Michael is a professional leader in the fields of energy investments, complex commercial deals, and sustainability with extensive international experience. His personal interests span from socio-political issues, history, and culture.

  • From the Archives

    A Resilient Indonesia Moves Beyond Suharto

    From one of the most centralized and controlled countries in the region, it has transformed itself into one of the most decentralized, free, open and self-regulating. From a brutal and corrupt regime under the heel of the military, it has become the standard bearer of democracy in Southeast Asia. It stands out for its political liberalism at a time when coups and coup attempts have discredited the region’s two exemplars of democracy, Thailand and the Philippines.