At school in Indonesia, we all learned about Abdul Muis (1886–1959), Indonesia’s first national hero and the author of the very famous novel Salah Asuhan (1928). Although I’ve memorized this many times in order to pass school exams, it was only recently that I realized the relevance of the novel—which talks about mixed cultures and national identity—not only for Indonesia before independence, but in fact, for Indonesia today.
Abdul Muis is known as a journalist, novelist, a nationalist, and advocate for independence.
He was awarded the national hero title after his death by former President Sukarno. Although born in Sungai Puar, West Sumatra, he spent a major part of his adult life in West Java, many years in exile. His father, Datuak Tumangguang Sutan Sulaiman, was the district head of Sungai Puar between 1870s and 1930s. He was known to be very critical of the Dutch government and refused to implement some policies, which resulted in his exile. Like father, like son, as they say.
I have seen pictures of Datuak Tumangguang Sutan Sulaiman’s rumah gadang (traditional long house) in Sungai Puar. It’s also interesting to know that my maternal great grandfather was a Sungai Puar native and is related to Abdul Muis, but we don’t share the same rumah gadang.
Anyway, this is why Abdul Muis is a national hero.
Adul Muis did not complete his university education (Stovia, Jakarta), but his fluency in Dutch made it easy for him to find work, such as being the first Indonesian to work as a clerk (civil servant) for a government department.
Thanks to his good journalistic skills Abdul Muis later worked for a number of newspapers. The first was the Bandung-based newspaper, Bintang Hindia in 1905, which was later banned. Fluency in Dutch got him a job at the Dutch daily newspaper, De Prianger Bode, around 1912. Being a nationalist, he had written articles for the De Express, a Dutch-language daily newspaper, bluntly criticizing Dutch occupation. Tensions with his superiors at De Prianger Bode led him to leave the paper and he became head editor for the first nationalist daily newspaper, Kaum Muda, which promoted anti-colonial views.
Although Abdul Muis was a journalist and writer, he had only written the novel he is best known for during exile in West Java.
Abdul Muis was first of all a political activist. In 1913 he established the Komite Bumi Putra alongside other nationalists who criticized the Dutch government’s policy of collecting tax from the native Indonesians for the celebration of the Dutch people’s independence from France. Abdul Muis and his colleagues were apprehended by Dutch Indies authorities because of this.
Abdul Muis also took part in Sarekat Islam, the first national political party in the Dutch Indies, which promoted Islamic modernism. In 1917 he represented the party in negotiations with the Dutch to obtain direct representation for Indonesia in the Dutch parliamentary system which, however, failed. In 1918 he became a member of the volksraad (the people’s representative body).
Abdul Muis was also a labor and human rights activist. In 1922 Abdul Muis led a worker’s strike in Yogyakarta to demand better conditions for workers and was arrested. In 1923 he led a protest against a land supervision law (landrentestelsel) which was going to be implemented by the Dutch and he lobbied local figures in Padang to object taxes collected by the Dutch government. As a result, Abdul Muis was banned from political activities. In fact, he was banned from leaving West Java for 13 years (1926–1939).
It was during his exile that he used words to compensate for his political restraint and penned the critically acclaimed, Salah Asuhan, published in 1928 and translated as Never the Twain in 2010.
His work opened the door to the modern Indonesian literature era. The novel highlights tensions between Eastern and Western culture and what it meant to efforts in building a national identity for an independent Indonesia. It seems to me that this issue is still relevant for our country even today, although not only in terms of East meets West, but in reference to tensions among local cultures and identities. What do you think?
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