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Sidelines - Goenawan Mohamad

Goenawan Mohamad is an Indonesian poet and writer. He is one of the founders of Tempo Magazine, the Indonesian version of Time Magazine. President Suharto, the former Indonesian dictator, shut down Tempo Magazine twice after they published articles that openly criticised the authoritarian regime.

This book is a collection of Goenawan Mohamad’s thought pieces that were published in Tempo Magazine. They were taken from his weekly column named “Catatan Pinggir” or “Sidelines”. In this book they are subdivided into several categories: identity and change, democracy and freedom, beliefs, history and its meaning and international.

These writings are intentionally ambivalent. He gives several viewpoints but he doesn’t back a single one. They’re basically food for thought and pieces to contemplate on. From the book’s introduction:

He is committed to developing intellectual debate in Indonesia, to broadening the capability of the Indonesian language to handle such debate, to developing Indonesians’ awareness of their history and to fostering better-informed critical interpretation of current events.

Of course, the specifics about broadening the capability of the Indonesian language get lost in this English translation.

Sidelines - Goenawan MohamadThis book gives an interesting insight into Indonesian culture and Indonesian thinking. Many pieces contain references to the Mahabharata, excerpts from Chairil Anwar’s poems, quotes from Sukarno and references to important events in Indonesian’s history.

One interesting article is called “Aku”. “Aku” is an alternative word for the commonly used “saya”, which means “I”. “Aku” has a connotation of arrogance and egocentrism. Chairil Anwar used “aku” as a title of one of his poems that rebels against the fact that Malays always seem to put themselves in a vertical relationship. Individualism is taboo and group thinking is the norm.

Some pieces deal with human rights. He challenges the Western definition of these. Also the fact that Sukarno drew up the constitution with the sovereignty of the people in mind and not the individual is brought up.  In fact, he criticises the first president of Indonesia in several writings which I found very interesting to read.

There are a lot of thought provoking writings in this book that really make you think. Many things can be learned from the references to Indonesian culture, history and language.  It is not bound to Indonesian references exclusively though. The writer is obviously very knowledgeable about democracy, communism, poetry and literature and uses a wide range of sources to enrich his writings.

Definitely recommended but not as a casual read. I really had to take my time to contemplate on some of the writings.  I had to read some of them twice because of all the chatter in the London underground 😉

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