TV Star Needles Suharto, But Never Gets Too Pointed

Asian Wall Street Journal
12 May 1998


JAKARTA, Indonesia -- In parts of Indonesia where tigers still stalk human prey by night, superstitious villagers never call the revered cat by name. Tigers are simply known as "grandpa."

And so it is that every Monday, Wimar Witoelar hosts the hottest political talk show on Indonesian television without ever uttering the word "Suharto" on TV. In recent months, as political chaos has threatened to engulf Indonesia, several outspoken foes of President Suharto's 32-year-old regime have been mysteriously snatched from the streets, interrogated and tortured.

Yet week after week, Mr. Wimar -- 52-year-old avatar of this country's emboldened radical chic -- needles the president from deep within the establishment itself: on national TV, in the press, at university speeches and as a paid speaker at corporate and civic events.

Wimar WitoelarHow a political dissident has managed to become a well-paid media star amid Indonesia's worst political and economic crisis in 30 years says as much about this nation's quirky authoritarian rule as it does about Mr. Wimar's own considerable wits. Man and system seem made for each other. Mr. Suharto's self-styled "Indonesian democracy" brooks no organized dissent, yet it leaves surprisingly wide scope for criticizing the government -- so long as the barbs aren't directed at the president.

Thus Mr. Wimar, master of metaphor, shadowboxes. His victories are small, but in a country where deference to power has made sycophancy a national vice, political satire and plain sass are cultural milestones, Indonesians say.

"Wimar is remarkably freewheeling -- and gets away with it because the audience and advertisers love him," says political scientist Dewi Fortuna Anwar. "I'm surprised the government hasn't been more careful."

Taboos are falling, nearly as fast as inflation here is rising. A few years ago, the Indonesian media would seldom report on Mr. Suharto's six children and their burgeoning corporate empires. Today, the press covers the first family's perks and business follies in depth, fueling the daily charges of "nepotism" and "corruption" made by antigovernment protesters. Even the president, whose downfall some political activists are openly demanding for the first time in decades, has shed some of his untouchability.

"We draw the line at personal attacks," says Emil Salim, a former Suharto minister and now one of his chief critics. "There's a Javanese phrase, 'Victory without defeat; war without army.' You get things done without hurting people."

Standing in the Way?

Call it the politics of pretense; no one practices it better than Mr. Wimar. Last fall, just months before Mr. Suharto was elected to his seventh term in office, the president publicly offered to resign, lest he "be accused of hampering regeneration," as the 76-year-old leader put it. It was an offer no proper Indonesian could accept -- "like the guy who offers you his lunch on a train," Mr. Wimar says. Predictably, in the following days, a chorus of prominent people loudly begged the "Father of Development" to stay in office.

Not Mr. Wimar, who studied electrical engineering and business administration at George Washington University in Washington, D.C., in the early 1970s. In response to the Suharto resignation offer, he devoted his regular column in Kompas, Indonesia's largest newspaper, to a piece deriding "selfish" Indonesians for refusing to let their aging leader retire.

"Isn't he entitled to spend his twilight years relaxing with his grandkids?" Mr. Wimar asked.

The paper's editors, worried the authorities would recognize the satire for what it was, killed the column. But the article was a big hit as a leaflet and on the Internet. Returning to the topic a few weeks later as a paid speaker at an Indonesian Post Office event, Mr. Wimar coined a phrase that has become a watchword for Suharto critics.

"Better to be a pandito," an elder wise man, "than a bandito," he said, nudging Mr. Suharto to take the high road to retirement.

Getting Personal

The anti-Suharto invective has gotten a lot nastier than that in recent weeks, as price riots and campus protests have spread. Student radicals have hanged Mr. Suharto in effigy.

Yet Mr. Wimar's voice continues to stand out not for its tone but its reach: a large, receptive audience of middle-class Indonesians. He has made ridicule of the president seem smart, safe, even cool.

"I try to be as funny as I can because I figure it looks too ridiculous to arrest a comedian," says Mr. Wimar, who, as a political activist in 1978, spent three months in prison. "Actually, what I do is probably more damaging than calling people names."

It certainly attracts a more influential audience. A business guru as well as a political pundit, Mr. Wimar has had a busy schedule in the current crisis. Besides his weekly TV talk show, set in a Western-style cafe, he has been paid to speak to insurance executives, society women, securities dealers, university students, professors and employees of Lippo Group, the bank linked to allegedly improper contributions to the Democrats in the last U.S. presidential election. Mr. Wimar recently emceed a big telecommunications conference, and he does consulting work for Jakarta's city government and Indonesia's Ministry of Mines and Energy.

No Avoiding Politics

Though he tailors his speeches to the audience, politics has become unavoidable, Mr. Wimar says. Speaking to a government-linked group of Jakarta property developers last week about the economic crisis, he closed the talk with trademark ambiguity.

"I'm sure there are many things we have to do besides replacing President Suharto," he said, yielding the podium to the next speaker.

The audience gasped, then laughed.

"I know these people," says Mr. Wimar, whose brother was a leader of Mr. Suharto's political ruling party, Golkar, before becoming ambassador to Russia. "At this point, protecting their vested interests is all they care about. I don't talk about power struggles in the army or how they're carving up every piece of the pie for themselves. That stuff's much more dangerous than complaining about democracy."

Mr. Wimar's critics say he pulls punches and is riding the political wave for personal gain. The fact that he has parlayed his chiding of Mr. Suharto into a thriving business, accessorized with T-shirts, tote bags, caps and books emblazoned with his bushy-haired image, reinforces the charge by detractors that he is capitalizing on national crisis.

Mr. Wimar, for his part, admits he's no "crusader" and says he has no interest in going back to prison. "The toilets stink," he says. As for commercializing democracy, he says, "It's better than commercializing tyranny."


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