Indonesian history from the vantage point of its eccentric intellectual

“To Remain Myself: The History of Onghokham” by David Reeve

Onghokham is arguably one of the most important Indonesian intellectuals that I have come across, but most likely the most unknown today. I first stumbled upon him when someone very smart gave me his 2003 book The Thugs, The Curtain Thief, and the Sugar Lord, a book about what’s life really like in Java during the Dutch occupation, which shattered my new-order indoctrinated perceptions on Indonesian history and an eye opener towards the complicated truth.

But apart from his excellent writing, I did not know much about the author. And as it turns out his life’s story is even more interesting than his work.

Onghokham (or Ong) was born in 1933 in Surabaya, he grew up in the Dutch occupation era, experienced the brutal Japanese regime, the turbulent decades of Indonesian independence, was closely involved with the disruptions period of liberal democracy in the 1950s as a student in Universitas Indonesia, got caught up in the post-1965-coup era, and became part of the intellectual scene of the country in the Suharto era, especially after coming back from finishing his PhD in history from Yale University in 1975.

Furthermore, he lived to see the eventual fall of Suharto’s New Order regime that he never liked, the brutal riot of 1998, another chaotic times in the reformation era, and wrote about them all alongside several books on history, before a stroke in 2001 left him in a wheelchair until his death in 2007.

Ong speaks fluent Indonesian, Dutch, English, French, German, and Javanese. He is well read, and greatly influenced by the many social justice movements in the US in the late 1960s and early 1970s during when he was at Yale. Ong became prominent in the 1970s and 1980s, even earned a celebrity status for his capacity as a historian (perhaps the best that Indonesia ever had) with his writing in the likes of Star Weekly, Tempo, Prisma, Kompas, the Jakarta Post, as well as through other numerous articles and books where in total he managed to produce 300 writings in the span of 50 years of career.

But apart from his intellectual evolution, what makes this book so interesting is how his life is never shy from controversies. He is a multi-minority member of society, being a mixed Indonesian-Chinese blood (peranakan), Dutch-educated, gay, hedonist, atheist, and alcoholic, in a much conservative Indonesia back then. His intellectual integrity also means he honors truth above anything else, which drags him into trouble several times.

For example, as the New Order regime of Suharto tried to hide the truth about the PKI massacre in the aftermath of 1965 coup, Ong suddenly found himself becomes the enemy of the state by trying to reveal the truth from his capacity as an investigator of PKI archives, and ended up jailed by being framed as a PKI supporter, an event which caused him to have a nervous breakdown.

Another example is his involvement in the terrible feuds between Indonesian historians in the attempt to establish a historical standard for the country, where the author David Reeve commented “[t]here was something of a division amongst those who thought about Indonesian history. One side thought that historians should start at the bottom, doing their own basic research, and build upwards towards a theory or a philosophy of history. The other side had the opposite view, that the philosophy of Indonesian history should be finalised first, and then developed downwards into the research.”

Indeed, the book is first and foremost a testament of Ong’s brilliance as an intellectual, and his influence in academia. It also analyses his writing style, the unique methodology for his research, how chaotic his notes are, how disorganized his thoughts are, but despite all of that messiness, when that spark of genius comes out it is world class. The book even presents some of the sentences from Ong’s selected works to illustrate this point.

But the charm of the book is the way it portrays the human side of Ong, how he is a good cook and a witty, mischievous, man famous for throwing legendary house parties. He is also known for being friends with artists and celebrities, frequently appearing in embassy dinners, while still going everywhere by public transportation. Moreover, the book tells the many travels he’s had and the friends he’s met along the way, from the US, to the Netherlands, England, Thailand, India, Japan, Singapore, China, and many more including the many places within Indonesia. It also shows the other side of his personality as a legendary “killer” professor at Universitas Indonesia, an eccentric one at that where he embodied the stereotype of a scruffy professor with short fuse.

Perhaps more humanising than the rest is the way this book shows Ong’s struggles and adventures in sex and relationships, where Reeve commented “[i]f the inner life is largely missing in Indonesian biography, sexuality is even more so. Ong’s struggle with his homosexuality during the 1940s to the 1970s adds a missing dimension to that sporadic history in Indonesia. His mature acceptance of his sexuality, and his creation of an original and idiosyncratic lifestyle, is a story itself.”

Moreover, the book also has an interesting angle for historical occurrences, from the vantage points of the ordinary citizens. Such as how people reacted when learning that the Japanese was defeated, how the declaration of independence 17 August 1945 was not heard in Surabaya until few days later, and even then the people didn’t believe it at first and it did not make any difference in the daily lives, or what did Ong do during the night of the slaughter of the generals on 30 October 1965. Indeed, the book can get very impressively detailed with information that are not really related with Ong’s story, but that’s part of the appeal as we get to “taste” the many different contextual environments from Indonesia’s past.

In fact, through this book we can witness the development of Indonesia from the ground up, where we can see, for example, how the Dutch colonial legacy is still very much present in Indonesian society today (both in the law and the structure of society), or how the political climate in Indonesia was initially shaped by the game played by parties that are no longer exist today.

But perhaps the most intriguing historical angle for me is how the book shows the rare glimpse of what’s life like as a Chinese peranakan during the many decades of Indonesian transitions: How Chinese Indonesians’ role in the country’s history is almost completely erased, the dilemma of citizenship for the Chinese after independence (to choose between Indonesian, Dutch, or Chinese citizenship), or the pain of always become a second class citizens, the stigma against the Chinese, the feuds they have with pure Chinese immigrant blood, against other ethnics such as Arabs or the locals, and what’s it like being Chinese during the dark days of the 1998 riot.

As Reeve remarks, “[h]is life story also adds another dimension to the many biographies of Indonesian Chinese and their successes and failures in finding a place in the modern nation-state, often a long and painful road, sometimes ending in departure overseas. Ong was a leading public figure in debates over the better path to participation into the modern state at the end of the 1950s, and he continued to write on the theme for another 40 years.”

All in all, Onghokham is a very mesmerizing character, a combination of intellect and extravagance, a true encyclopedia of Indonesian history, society and culture. He is an idealist caught in the wave of constant changes of a country, which makes the title of the book, I suspect, fittingly reflects this struggle. And David Reeve makes such a good job stitching them all together in one narrative, through gathering plenty of Ong’s previously scattered or inaccessible writings – as well as many hours of interviews with his surrounding and with Ong himself – into one book. It is an important piece of puzzle to understand more about Indonesia, from the vantage point of one of its enigmatic intellectuals. cannot recommend it more.