Book Review: Wimar Witoelar's Dangerous Ordinariness

The Jakarta Post
01 August 1999
Book Title: Menuju Partai Orang Biasa (Toward the Ordinary People Party)
Edition: Second, March 1999
Author: Wimar Witoelar
Publisher: PT Gramedia Pustaka Utama
Number of pages: 323
Is Wimar Witoelar a dangerous man?, goes the editorial of Golkar's affiliated tabloid SIAGA whose content is primarily dedicated to spin public opinion toward and make an impression of people's support of Habibie's reelection as the next president. Just like the Indonesian Muslim Intellectual Association (ICMI), this publication is merely another manifestation of the remnants of the New Order's political machine that lacks credibility and balance. (It contained false representation of the current political constellation, such as "Habibie Is One Step Ahead" (in public opinion regarding his reelection compared to other candidates)). The poorly written piece was basically the defeated Golkar's plea for "a pat on the back" accompanied by one or two words of consolation and the wish for "better luck next time", a "common decency" that Wimar Witoelar seemed so "pathetically" reluctant to grant them. The editor was either completely oblivious to Golkar's unpaid debts to the nation, or, more likely, feigned a memory lapse.
Back to the question, the answer is not an easy one. Depending to whom the question is posed, it can vary from a flat "no" to "absolutely". For the ordinary people he thinks he belongs to, what he says is the reflection of their aspirations and unspoken passion. Indeed, he has so far effectively lent them his mouth. To the powerful elite and those with vested interests, he is indeed a dangerous man that can pose a great hindrance to their "hard dying" and machiavellian struggle to stay at or get to the top. To the ordinary people, he is an amicable, down-to-earth, sympathetic, sincere, witty, gentle and egalitarian, if rather portly, talk show host. To the "non-ordinary" people, he commercializes the political crisis, he takes sides, is a partial moderator, a wicked commentator and he talks too much. Especially these days, almost no day passes without seeing his face or name either on TV, newspapers, local and international newsmagazines. He is even a provocateur according to Republika's group's tabloid ADIL, which happens to be closely related to ICMI, in its recent edition that plastered his round face on the cover and dedicated a special eight page spread on the analyses of his strategy.
He has been "terrorized" quite a lot recently. He believes ordinary people usually don't use those kind of means to achieve their ends, only "non-ordinary" or perhaps "extraordinary" people do that sort of thing. His appearance as moderator of "Detak-Detik Pemilu", a talk show intended to provide political education and erudition about the recent election, has been criticized as being too partial to the winning Indonesian Democratic Party of Struggle (PDIP) and Megawati. And his defense is he only does it because he takes side with ordinary people who have paved the road to PDIP's victory. He personally thinks Amien Rais's National Mandate Party is the best party.
In his book "Menuju Partai Orang Biasa" (Toward the Ordinary People Party) that compiles his monthly contribution to Kompas's satirical column, "Asal-Usul", he defines an ordinary person as "a person who has no vested interest. An "ordinary person" wants to live peacefully and carry out his/her tasks well. He/she wants to be rich but doesn't have a will for corruption….. An "ordinary person" actually wants to do his/her job well, but he/she is also not a hero(ine) who would sacrifice his/her family's interest for an unclear end." ("Listening to "Ordinary People"", page 26)
In his foreword, he reveals another way of seeing "ordinary people", namely "those whose innocence are not obscured with interest attributes." Ordinary people are neither experts or apathetic, neither pure idealists nor total pragmatists. Neither pandito (revered men) nor bandito (bandits). He coined the buzzword "bandito" in response to one of Javanese terms that Soeharto was well known as very fond of quoting, the one which became very famous in the connection with his lip service offer of resignation: lengser keprabon mandeg pandito (resigning from the throne and becoming a revered retiree).
Throughout the book which is illustrated with caricatures featuring him and supplemented with public figure's comments, the term is repeatedly used and defined in a different way to denotes how wide-reaching the category that embodies ordinary people, the country's silent majority. He used ordinary peoples' names as the titles of his writings such as "Her Name Is Tri" and "Ibu Wawah" and from there flows metaphors written in simple, familiar, unpretentious and "ordinary" words that evoke people's true selves, the true identity beneath the frills and pretences of everyday life that everyone is basically an ordinary person. Only some refuse to be ordinary people.
Being ordinary does not mean a diminished ability to threaten power holders' sense of security. His two writings, "The Sinking of the Titanic" and "Together With Pak Harto We Shall Find A New President" were rejected and, upon Kompas's advice, replaced by "Stealing Clarity Out Of Murkiness" and "Die Hard 2".
In the banned "Titanic" he wrote, "Titanic, the all time's largest passenger ship, sailed in 1914. Declared as unsinkable, the ship hit an iceberg, leaked and allowed water in, yet people were still at ease. The ship was beginning to sink, the riches were still putting on their make ups, taking care of money and diamonds. Eventually, the big tragedy: total sink…. How could TITANIC have sunk? We used to discuss Professor Robert Allinson's finding, a disaster specialist, here that the cause of disaster was the failure of ethics. Deserting ethics in banking results in liquidation. Letting power without dialogue brings calamity. Parakitri said, history repeats itself. To the very powerful power holder, the main enemy is overconfidence. That happened in the story of Titanic, in King Louis XVI's, in Shah Reza Pahlevi's. All are having a party on top of people's misery, because people's hardship don't produce a sound to those who are used to occupying luxurious office buildings of Jamsostek Tower's standard." (Page 268)
On the genesis of the second piece, he wrote "I was lying down in front of the TV one night in October 97. Out of the blue Pak Harto offered to resign in the nationally broadcast Golkar's anniversary: "If the people really don't want me anymore, I will resign - lengser keprabon (dethrone) etc, etc." Instead of being duly responded, there was a flood of comments that lauded Pak Harto's big heartedness. Harmoko straight away conducted an instant survey and declared that all Indonesian people were behind Pak Harto. It occurred to me, it was like being offered a salted egg by the passenger sitting next to you in a train. Normally, it should be refused, but this time why not take it politely? So the writing was born, full of nonsensical courteousness. Unfortunately, Kompas perhaps felt that such innocence or humor didn't have a place in the time's psychology of fear." (Page 261)
That what Wimar Witoelar is like. He is sharp yet sweet. He criticizes unforgivingly but still sounds mellow to the ears. Before Soeharto's downfall, he astutely wrapped his criticism in subtle sarcasm and humor. This is one example: "In the newspaper people often refer to Pak Harto as a wise man, but in monetary matters, newspapers reported as follows: "President Soeharto considers that the weakening of Rupiah against US$ is hard to understand." This means even though Pak Harto is already the most knowledgeable man, there are things he still doesn't comprehend." ("Is It Wrong To Be A Fool?", Page 167). With his covert mockery, though not always that impalpable, he could almost all the time escape from Soeharto's "watch dogs'" fierce fangs. Perhaps they were not that bright after all. During the post-May's riots, his talk shows and columns provided soothing comfort to the persecuted ethnic minority such as the one titled "Ibu Wawah".
His penchant for humor does not prevent him from being poetic, somber and melancholic. Take his writing "Tragedy": "We would usually try to laugh. There used to always be an amusing point of view to ease the burden, to communicate a difficult message, but especially to steal clarity. But currently the ability to laugh is out of stock. Standing in the morning after Trisakti incident, in the place where several students were shot, the feeling was sad and lonely. Children of teenage, in the dawn of their prime time, their lives were taken away from them by hinter shots. Why? They were in campus, were not rioting, they were even running for shelter….. It felt so lonely that morning in Trisakti, prior to people's storm that swept Jakarta. It seemed that there were no friends, even though millions of people were mourning over the departure of our reform heroes. Empty for thinking about the six young people who are now alone. Empty for remembering tens others whose status up till now haven't been identified. This death was because of state affairs, and usually our friends in national tragedy were the armed forces (ABRI), government and the leaders. How is ABRI today? Who are our friends in the government today? Figures who initially shone, lost their self-identity as soon as they stepped in the government. Our leaders, for the time being, are only ourselves." (Page 197, 198)
Being so unpretentious and ordinary, he has come a long way to become an extraordinary "ordinary person". Only ordinary people will understand and justify his "partiality" toward a party he perhaps didn't even vote for because ordinary people don't have self-interest for Megawati to become president. Only ordinary people can sit in front of the TV or read his columns and chuckle at his sarcastic, smart comments on "cute" Habibie. On the other hand, only "non-ordinary" or perhaps "extraordinary" people will waste eight pages badmouthing such a kind, portly man-next-door. And indeed, only "non-ordinary" people would ever contemplate how dangerous this comfortingly vivacious father of two with the afro hairstyle can be. Fortunately for them, the Ordinary People Party didn't contest in the past election and would only remain in his playful words.
The book is titillating -the caricatures are amusing-and it will be hard for ordinary, decent people to disagree, whether smiling or laughing out loud, with what Wimar Witoelar has to say.
Rahayu Ratnaningsih
This is the longer version of the published article.

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