Sun, 06 Feb 2000

Australia honors Commander Taufik Idrus OAM

By Dewi Anggraeni

MELBOURNE (JP): When the late Idrus, Indonesia's well known 'Generation of 1945' writer, accepted an offer from Monash University in Melbourne to help establish its Southeast Asian Department in 1964, he made a major decision. He decided to live and bring up his family in Australia. At that time there were not many Indonesians living in this country. Proud as he was of his wife Ratna and their six children, he could not have known that his youngest child, Taufik, would many years later receive one of the country's highest honors. On Australia Day, Jan. 26, Commander Taufik Idrus, 37, of the Australian Submarine Squadron, was a recipient of an OAM (Medal of the Order of Australia), for his service to the Australian navy.

When asked by The Jakarta Post to describe how he felt, Taufik, now living in Perth, Western Australia, and who prefers to be called by his nickname, Toff, replied, "So many feelings, when you're given such an honor. The first is humility," adding that he was aware that it was not simply a reflection of his own work, but also of the tremendous efforts of a great group of people. "It also symbolizes acceptance. While I could have gone through life just as happy had I not been honored, the OAM is one more piece of that puzzle which has completed my picture of being Australian," said Toff.

Indeed Toff is one of the lucky people who straddle two cultures comfortably. For this he credits his family and the Australian ethos.

Toff is very proud of his family background and his Indonesian cultural heritage. He was raised in a family of high-achievers: all university graduates, with four masters degrees and one PhD. "And it also meant being raised in an ambience of music, literature, academia and an ethos of honest hard work," he said.

He remembers that his father's fundamental teaching to him and the other siblings was the need to do better than just average, and he still clings to it as the basic tenet of his life. Love is central to this also. Toff has fond memories of his younger years in the cradle of his family. There was never a dull moment, with six children: two girls and four boys. "Mum seemed always in the kitchen, either cooking for the tribe, getting ready to cook for the tribe, or cleaning up after us." His mother regularly cooked elaborate Indonesian meals for the family.

Being the youngest in the family -- 13 years the oldest sibling's junior -- somewhat quickened his maturity. It forced him to be imaginative in his early years, since his brothers were too old to share mutual interests with him. And Toff believes, this has been a key ingredient to his success.

It was during his primary school years that Toff gained his nickname.

Being one of the only two Asians in the school -- the other being his sister Lanita -- his predominantly white, Anglo-Saxon friends found "Taufik" a little unusual, and hence difficult to say. They began calling him "Toffee Apple". After a while it was shortened to "Toff", and the name has obviously survived his school years.

"Even today, while my official navy records use my proper name, my name tag and my e-mail address bear my preferred name. It's me, and that's what I'm known as," Toff emphasized.


Toff admits that his ambitions of a military career came very late, in his fourth year at university, where he was studying for a bachelor of engineering. Initially, his interest in the military had not stretched beyond boyhood fascination with toy soldiers. Then he thought of becoming a pilot, an extension of a teenage fascination with aircraft. However during his last year at high school his eyesight deteriorated and he was forced to wear glasses. That was the end of his dream of becoming a pilot.

Between the third and fourth years of university, Toff worked for several months with a mining company in northern West Australia. "From this experience and scanning the vast emptiness of the desert, I realized that there must be more to engineering than spending your youthful professional life on a mining site. Shortly after that, a friend told me about the opportunities in the navy," Toff recalled.

The main impetus in his joining the navy, Toff said, was a philosophical one. "It sounds trite," he warned, "I had realized that all that my family had become, all that we had enjoyed, were the fruits of our hard work. But we had this in Australia, a country that owed us nothing, but had given us so much in opportunity, embraced my family, gave us security and had welcomed us as contributing citizens. So I felt it was time to give something back to this country and to finally stake our claim to call Australia our home."

Then he added, "I guess unless you've been a migrant, this can be a hard concept to understand."


Toff regards the Australian ethos as one of standing on your own merits, irrespective of race, religions or politics. As he puts it, "If you're a good bloke, you're a good bloke! To me that's the enduring aspect of being Australian I love the most. You are accepted for who you are and what you do, not because of your background."

Toff does not deny that a "sort" of discrimination exists in Australia.

"Certainly in the sixties and seventies Asians did tend to stand out among the general population. But I wouldn't call it racial discrimination. I really don't believe that the Australian culture and its people consciously discriminate based on race or religion," he said. In his opinion, the prejudices found in the community were because in the 1970s, and maybe into the 1980s, there was very little exposure to other cultures and Australian cities had yet to become cosmopolitan.

In his personal experience, white Australians may have preconceived ideas about him based on how he looks. But once they have engaged him in conversation -- especially as he has an Australian accent -- he can see the barriers come down and the prejudices dissipate.

The OAM he received has filled his immediate and extended family with pride. His wife Rosemary and their sons Daniel, 6, and Hayden, 3, share the excitement with his mother Ratna, two sisters and three brothers.

"Especially for my mother, I know it's a source of immense pride. Just as she was supportive and proud of me joining the navy, I know she feels a sense of achievement for herself. As for my children, they don't quite understand its significance, but they know it must be something special because Dad's face is in the local papers. They think it's terrific fun."

To Toff himself the greatest buzz was receiving the award on the first Australia Day of the new millennium. And he is certainly grateful to Indonesia for giving him his first cultural cradle, as well as to his family and friends for their support over the years.

If his father were still alive, there is no doubt that he would be overcome with pride.