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Essay: Unraveling 'teka-teki' In Sukarno's Indonesia

Frank Palmos
Frank Palmos

The Jakarta Post

Jakarta | Mon, September 11, 2017 | 09:38 am
Essay: Unraveling 'teka-teki' In Sukarno's Indonesia

One precious vinyl features then president Sukarno’s speech on Indonesia’s declaration of independence on Aug. 17, 1945. (JP/Ganug Nugroho Adi)

In 1961, one of my favorite expressions was teka-teki, meaning a puzzle, the perfect description of my first impressions in this wonderful country.

I first heard the expression from a young Bank Negara clerk at Kemayoran Airport in Jakarta at midnight, when my Qantas flight arrived.

Nurwenda, the sole clerk on duty, said it was a puzzle that education ministry officials had agreed to meet the flight, saying it was the wet season, and “government officials do not like getting their heads wet.”

So, I should go home with him as his guest to Kampung Bali, by becak (pedicab), the driver pulled a plastic cover over us and he started the hour-long slow ride through the dark night, in heavy rain. Each time I looked back at him pedaling hard, he broke into a broad grin.

What sort of country was this that a man my father’s age smiles as the rain pours over him, pushing two healthy young men and a suitcase for 6 kilometers, and promising to return next morning? Where would he sleep (curled up in his becak)? Why was he always happy and why was he so proud of his president and his country, when life was obviously a series of hardships? This was a real teka-teki for a new arrival from Australia where hardships were rare.

My two years (1959-1960) as foundation student in JAC Mackie’s Indonesian Studies in Melbourne, while also working full time as a journalist, had given me a basis in Indonesian.

Read also: Jakarta 1965 and the foreign correspondent

After just six weeks living in Kampung Bali, then in a Kebayoran asrama with students my own age, attending the Tanah Abang Mosque, riding public transportation, eating satay nightly at Jl. Blora, I spoke enough Indonesian to travel independently, and certainly more than any foreign diplomat in Jakarta at that time.

I was fortunate to be awarded a Yayasan Siswa Fellowship, funded by the UN and the local lottery, overseen by Molly Bondan, an Australian-born translator married to a senior civil servant, Alex Alatas from the Foreign Ministry and Anwar Cokroaminoto, the son of president Sukarno’s first tutor.

The fellowship gave me a room in an asrama, and an allowance, which halved in value each month because of inflation, so that by August, it was worth US$1 a month in rupiah.

I shared the asrama with Murat, who had been one of Tito’s partisans in the Second World War. We got along well, but he had difficulty learning Indonesian, so I bought an elementary school reader for six-year-olds, Mari Membaca (Let’s read), which he put to strange use. Yugoslavia was in favor at the time, so Murat was not required to pass the language exam and he traded on this special status, which gave him misplaced confidence in his Indonesian skills.

From Mari Membaca he memorized phrases like “Mother chased the mouse from the kitchen,” and “Grandmother uses a broom” and “Ducks say ‘bebek-bebek’” and these phrases found their jumbled way into his daily speech.

He also thought karena (because) was a greeting so he would shout to our neighbors every morning, “karena! karena!” then tell them his mother chased a mouse from the kitchen, and that ducks said bebek-bebek. They politely agreed that ducks did indeed say that but were unsure why Murat was telling them about brooms and mice. However, they called in our maid Siti and gave her rat poison, much to her confusion.

At the Foreign Ministry, where I had to report, a young Alex Alatas was assigned my first tutor and he became a stern older brother to me, whereas Ruslan Abdulgani, a minister in most Sukarno Cabinets, was more of a father figure, inviting me to all his Indoktrinasi speeches.

Outside government circles, the famous journalist Rosihan Anwar, then under house arrest in his pavilion in Teuku Umar, gave me sage insider advice and we continued a professional friendship that lasted 50 years until his death in 2013.

Sukarno had confiscated his Pedoman newspaper for its unremitting exposure of government corruption and nepotism, but he continued to write, and his Little Histories written while under detention, are today among the finest books documenting the Republic’s history.

But it was Sukarno, whose speeches mesmerized me, who had the most powerful influence on my Indonesian. He was magical. I copied his style and speech rhythms, a skill that perhaps saved my life four years later when confronted by armed soldiers in Teuku Umar on the morning of Sept. 30, 1965. Sukarno was regionally famous when I arrived in 1961, and world famous by 1964, when I was given short spells as his honorary simultaneous interpreter to the diplomatic and foreign press corps.

These four key figures had varied but deep influences upon me that lasted decades. In later years when Alex became renowned as foreign minister, I asked him why he had changed his name to Ali. Alex was from Alexander, which was translated in Arabic and Malay to Iskandar, not Ali.

“Ali’s a lot simpler” he replied. Another teka-teki.


Frank Palmos was 21 years old when he began his foreign-correspondent career in the relatively new Republic of Indonesia in March 1961. To reach the skill and experience levels needed to succeed in his plan to open the first foreign newspaper bureau in Jakarta, Frank immersed himself in Indonesian society for two years, at universities, towns and villages, and accepting assignments as a translator.