Fri, 25 Apr 2003

Grabbed at the creation - my years at the 'Post'

Sabam Siagian, Director, PT Bina Media Tenggara, Jakarta

It must have been either in late 1982 or early 1983 that Jusuf Wanandi, one of the founders of the Centre for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), started talking about the need to publish an English-language newspaper in Indonesia.

I was used to Jusuf's exuberance in venting his bubbling ideas that could range from the Middle East situation, disarmament issues, regional issues of Southeast Asia to problems of Indonesia's economic development.

As he raised the idea of a new English-language newspaper and started explaining why Indonesia needed such a quality publication in order to inform about the dynamics of its domestic situation to neighboring countries where English was predominant, he threw some inquisitive glances in my direction.

I had the uneasy feeling that he wanted me to get involved in what I then considered to be a dubious experiment. There were already two English-language newspapers --the Indonesia Times and the Indonesian Observer-- and obviously the market was limited.

However, Jusuf explained to me that a number of already established media publishing firms would take part. These were Kompas/Gramedia, Tempo newsweekly/PT Graffiti Pers and PT Nawala Nusantara Bangun, which at that time was related to the Suara Karya newspaper.

He also informed me that the government, through information minister Ali Moertopo, who was closely connected to CSIS, had already given its approval. Apparently it was also the government's opinion that Indonesia needed a quality media outlet in the English language as a vehicle of information for the neighboring countries that at one time were either part of the British Commonwealth or previously administered by the United States.

Indonesia, on the other hand, which was formerly the Netherlands East Indies, was a colony of the Kingdom of the Netherlands, and the Dutch language used to be the official medium of communication. Until the late 1950s there were still schools using Dutch in the major cities of Indonesia. I attended a Dutch senior high school in Jakarta, so I learned English from Dutch teachers.

Finally, one day Jusuf Wanandi asked me directly if I would accept the post of chief editor of the English-language newspaper that was to be published. I gave an evasive answer and asked for time to consider his proposal. My position at that time with the afternoon newspaper Sinar Harapan, which in 1961 was published by PT Sinar Kasih, was rather peculiar, to say the least.

When I returned from a stay of more than 10 years in the United States in 1973, Sinar Harapan was going through a reorganization process. The newspaper had been banned at the end of 1972 for publishing the draft state budget, which was supposed to be embargoed. I still have a copy of that particular edition of Sinar Harapan with the draft budget printed in toto on the front page.

Most probably, more seasoned editors would have handled the story differently, such as by quoting "informed sources" and changing some figures here and there. Given the limited leeway that was at that time open to the press, that is what I had done from time to time when I got hold of some original government documents.

The government agreed in early 1973 to lift the publishing ban on the condition that the newspaper carry out a reorganization since it was prone to violating the government's rules. That was actually the reason Sinar Harapan acquired the reputation of a daring newspaper, while other newspapers were considered more timid in their reporting.

It was in the middle of that process of reorganizing that I was asked to be the newspaper's deputy chief editor. My late father, who was a shareholder in the company and realized that it was important that Sinar Harapan continue to be published given its distinct background --strongly imbued with the social consciousness of the Christian Protestant community in Indonesia -- persuaded me to work there, even if only for a few years.

He knew that I had other plans, but as I was to find out, being involved in the newspaper business is like sipping quality wine: You never know when to stop. My father reminded me that since my student days at the University of Indonesia in the 1950s I was already involved in the student press.

So, Sinar Harapan appeared again, with a new editorial team, and was searching for a new format. The new newspaper survived the tumultuous political events of January 1974, when a number of more established newspapers were closed down, and gradually found its format.

On the one hand there was the realistic awareness within the editorial team that president Soeharto's government had by then acquired a high level of confidence. The 1972 general election yielded a landslide victory for the ruling party, Golkar. The government successfully weathered the political crisis of January 1974, which in essence was a muted power struggle between competing generals in his entourage.

And there was the dramatic rise world in oil prices, which provided the New Order with a comfortable financial cushion, although Indonesia was only a modest net oil exporter. On the other hand, there were indications of social dissatisfaction that needed to be aired, albeit cautiously.

Within these parameters, Sinar Kasih daily gradually moved forward to become one of the country's more popular afternoon newspapers. I soon found out, however, that sometimes relative success can cause new internal problems in the newspaper business.

At the suggestion of the late Soedjatmoko, I accepted a Niemann Foundation fellowship for media journalists at Harvard University in Cambridge, Massachusetts, for the academic year 1978-1979. I indulged myself in the intellectual richness of Harvard and managed to sit in at a graduate seminar on political developments in non-Western countries, chaired by Prof. Samuel Huntington.

For whatever misunderstandings that took place during my absence while I was enjoying the stimulating environment of Harvard, on my return home I found that the publisher, H.D. Rorimpandey, had decided to relieve me of my position as deputy chief editor.

I was given the lofty title of senior editorial writer and could cover major international events while producing a few editorials a week. I also had more time to take part in seminars organized by CSIS and covered OPEC meetings with Fikri Jufri of Tempo newsweekly, in Vienna, Geneva and Caracas.

It was amid this situation that I was offered the job of chief editor of an English-language newspaper that was yet to be published. As I was agonizing between plunging myself into a new adventure and remaining in an undefined situation, I read in the Straits Times of Singapore that a new English-language newspaper was soon to be published in Jakarta, with the "temperamental" Sabam Siagian as chief editor, Amir Daud, who at one time worked at Pedoman newspaper in Jakarta as managing editor, and Moh.Chudori, of Antara news agency, as general manager.

The news item also indicated that the new publication was a cooperative effort among three major media publishing enterprises. It was clearly a case of forcing my hand to take a decision, but I did not react.

Fikri was then apparently assigned to get a clear answer from me. He told me I was leading too easy a life, writing a few editorials a week while listening to Beethoven symphonies and ordering flowers whenever the flower vendor happened to pass by.

Since the pressure became too serious, I finally said that I was not soliciting a job, although my situation was not that ideal. However, if my services were wanted due to whatever professional reputation I had, then my condition would be that PT Sinar Kasih, the publishing company of Sinar Harapan, should be involved as a partner in the new enterprise. My consideration was that it would strengthen my position because my status in the company would then be more than that of an ordinary employee.

It seemed, however, that the condition that I was setting was causing a problem. Some of the partners did not want to see their shares reduced in order to pave the way for PT Sinar Kasih to join. When finally 10 percent of shares could be allocated to PT Sinar Kasih, primarily due to the intervention of Eric Samola of PT Graffiti/Tempo, who was also the publisher of PT Bina Media Tenggara, the publishing company that would publish The Jakarta Post, a new problem arose.

I vividly remember a meeting in late March 1983 at the CSIS building on Jl.Tanah Abang III-27, in which H.G. Rorimpandey was among those present. Pak Rorim, who during the revolution in the late 1940s served as a young officer in the Siliwangi Division in West Java, was a man of considerable self-esteem. He told the meeting that whenever he took part in a new venture, it was usually as a prominent partner, and a figure of 10 percent was too small for him.

I derived some pleasure from sensing the tension in the meeting room. The original group of partners, however, saw the need to have me as chief editor and tried to comply with Pak's wishes. On the other hand, I sensed that Pak Rorim, while remaining steadfast in his position did not push strongly his demand of a greater percentage shares for PT Sinar Kasih. After all, releasing me from Sinar Harapan daily to become the Chief Editor of The Jakarta Post was a graceful solution.

Finally, a compromise was made. A few percentages were added to the total share of PT Sinar Kasih. At last, a new publishing company, PT Bina Media Tenggara, a joint venture of 4 partners with different background and corporate cultures, was officially established. And a new English newspaper in Indonesia was about to be born.

In the early morning of April 25, 1983, when I saw the first copies of The Jakarta Post rolling off the presses at PT Gramedia's printing plant, I suddenly remembered the title of a book written by the venerable U.S. Secretary of State, Dean Acheson. The work, Present at the Creation - My Years at the State Department (1969, W.W. Norton and Company), described his experiences during the years immediately after the end of World War II in 1945, when he and a number of colleagues discussed, formulated and designed the architecture of U.S. global policy in facing the Soviet Union as an emerging adversary.

In my case, however, I felt during those early morning hours that I had been practically grabbed into the efforts to create a newspaper whose profile was not clear and whose acceptance by the community was not at all certain. What was clear was that this new involvement would change the routine of my life.