Age, as they say, is just a number. Just look at Daoed Joesoef. The former education minister, who turns 85, is sharper, more articulate and more knowledgeable than most public figures half his age. Daoed made headlines when he turned down the 2010 Achmad Bakrie Award for his lifetime of work. Established in 2003, the awards are presented to “distinguished countrymen and women for their extraordinary achievements in the social sciences and literature.” “I refused it because the hands that offered me the award were muddy,” Daoed said, referring to the Lapindo mudflow disaster in Sidoarjo, East Java, where hectares of land have been inundated with mud, leaving thousands homeless. The mudflow is widely blamed on a 2006 gas-drilling venture by Lapindo Brantas, part of the Bakrie group owned by the family of Golkar Party chairman Aburizal Bakrie. Daoed holds the distinction of being the first Indonesian to graduate with a degree in economics from the Sorbonne University in France. “When I arrived in Sorbonne, I was like a rat that fell in a barn,” he said.
“I refused it because the hands that offered me the award were muddy”
“I could learn so many things, I did not know where to start.” As minister of education and culture from 1978-83 under President Suharto, Daoed was known for two things: his so-called anti-Islam policy — even though he is a devout Muslim — and his decision to ban university students from engaging in political activities while on campus grounds.
He was also known for being bluntly critical of Suharto. In an interview with the Jakarta Globe at his house in Kemang, Daoed discussed his beliefs and hopes for a better political environment.
Why did you turn down the Bakrie award?
I am thankful to the Freedom Institute [the nonprofit think-tank that administers the award] for their recognition, but I can’t accept it. Why? Because my conscience just can’t accept the fact that Bakrie is related to a business that has caused disaster to thousands of people in Sidoarjo, East Java. You can’t ignore your conscience because that is the place where God stays in each of us. Although Ulil [Abshar-Abdallah, head of the Freedom Institute] tried to persuade me by saying “Just turn down the prize money, but please receive the award,” I still couldn’t do it. I respect Ulil, but still couldn’t do it because the award has the name Bakrie on it. In life, it’s normal to sometimes give and take. I know the value of money. When you receive something, your hands are always below the giver, never above. But how would you feel if the hands above you are muddy? So please clean those hands first. Does that make sense? Bakrie should just give the money to the victims of their mud. Some children from Sidoarjo came here when they heard I was getting the award. They told me how their dreams and future were shattered because of the disaster. Many of them can’t continue their studies because of the mud. It’s sad that the government is neglecting all of this.
Do you see leadership missing in the Lapindo case?
I see no leadership from Yudhoyono. When all this took place, Bakrie was his minister, so he could have given him a warning. But he didn’t. That forced us to have dirty thoughts: What is behind all this? Did he owe Bakrie a favor?
You worked with President Suharto. What do you think is the core difference between Suharto and Yudhoyono?
Suharto was more solid. He knew he was the head of state, although he made mistakes. But at least Suharto was a firm leader. Unlike Yudhoyono, Suharto dared to make decisions for us. He knew he was there to decide for us, to govern. We have four more years under Yudhoyono and now one of his party members has asked if he could run for another term.
You sound pessimistic. Why?
Honestly, yes I am. Because I don’t see our leaders [understanding] the concept of governance. The same goes with our politicians. All of them are keen on establishing their own political dynasties. This is not what I and our founding fathers imagined we would become when we gained our independence. This shows that despite our big potential, we are metaphysically small. Why? Because we are led by leaders with tiny souls. That is why our neighbors look down on us. The situation today is our collective mistakes as a nation. It is our own fault to have chosen these kinds of leaders.
How do you see our system of education today?
Our Constitution’s preamble states that our goal for independence is to educate the nation. That is the government’s first obligation, to educate Indonesians. But what do we see today? We see many children committing suicide because they can’t even afford basic education. It is just really disappointing that the government is neglecting education. It shows that our government has no concept of where exactly they are taking us. You don’t build a nation with prayers, you build it with concepts, preferably futuristic ones. It’s annoying to see that instead of making education accessible to all, the government creates castes in education by introducing international-standard schools with expensive fees. I see that as an act of low self-esteem. I thought we fought for independence to eradicate castes. Because of that, our children today can have a good education not because they are smart, but because their parents can afford to pay.
When you were minister, why did you ban university students from getting politically involved on campus?
I wanted to see universities as a place to uphold science, because we are not inventors, only adopters. Students should learn about science properly in their universities. Students should learn politics as a concept so they can become good politicians when they graduate — politicians who have concepts, unlike what we see today. I never opposed the idea of students getting involved in politics as long as they did so outside their campuses. If they want to criticize government policies, they should channel that through their political organizations, such as the Muslim Student Association [HMI]. But of course, students refused this because they have been perceived by society as agents of change.
You were also known as a critical voice in Suharto’s cabinet.
Yes, I was, and that is why he didn’t like me. I told him that some of his policies were wrong and he thought I was trying to tell him what to do. He kept telling me to just take care of education, not other things, but I said no. I told him that indeed, I hold an oar and he was the captain, but if the boat sinks, I sink along with it. I wanted to be a good aide, a reminder, by not just saying things that pleased him like others did. I had a chance to remind him and I did. One of my criticisms was about the policy requiring approval from the Home Affairs Ministry and Religious Affairs Ministry to build churches. Look what is happening now. Why is there no approval needed to build a mosque? It’s not fair.
Why do you think you were labeled as anti-Islam?
It’s because I terminated the [monthlong student] holiday during Ramadan. Hamka [a popular Islamic cleric] and the Indonesian Council of Ulema [MUI] protested against me. I told them, “If you are under Dutch occupation, sure, the Dutch would give you a year’s holiday because that makes you lazy and dumb.” I also told them that other Islamic countries such as Malaysia, Pakistan and other Arab nations didn’t give holidays during the fasting month. I also refused to greet in the Islamic manner when I was a state minister. I didn’t say “assalamualaikum,” because I was not a minister from an Islamic state, although I am a Muslim. If I greet in an Islamic fashion, I automatically eliminate those from other religions who are minorities. We should respect them. I tried to separate religion from the state, that is why I am surprised that the Acehnese have adopted the Shariah bylaw. The state should protect its citizens’ right to worship, but we don’t see that today either. It’s sad to see radical groups say “God is great” while crushing Ahmadiyah’s mosques. It is not for us to judge others’ faiths.
You wrote ‘Emak,’ a memoir about your mother. Tell us why she was special.
Emak was special because although she didn’t get the chance to pursue higher education, she convinced me of the importance of education. She made all school tests fun because whenever I was about to have a test, I could ask for my favorite dishes. I loved those times, it felt like a party to me. I miss it.
How would you like to be remembered?
I would like to be remembered only as a human being, an Indonesian who tried to do something good for the country’s education. That’s all.