30 Sept 1965

Experts in Exile: How Indonesia Lost an Entire Generation of Intellectuals

Thousands of students, experts, and foreign service officers were cast aside by the New Order regime. Has the country ever recovered?

by Arzia Tivany Wargadiredja
30 September 2017, 11:15am

Indonesian students in Prague, Czech Republic. Photo courtesy of Soegeng Soejono.

Iskandar* wasn't interested in politics. He was living in Sweden in 1963, studying electrical engineering in university on a scholarship awarded by the government of Indonesia's then-President Sukarno. But two years later, everything changed. He started to read stories of a coup attempt at the hands of the Indonesian Communist Party (PKI) in the newspapers. Six generals were killed. Then came the dark years as an estimated half-million Indonesians were killed in a wave of violence targeting anyone suspected of being an leftist.

Suddenly, Iskandar's home was a dangerous place for an intellectual, especially one with ties to Sukarno's regime. Sukarno was tossed from office and placed under house arrest. Members of his administration who refused to denounce him and pledge allegiance to the Suharto's New Order regime were fired. Ambassadors lost their jobs. And the scores of Indonesian students studying abroad, most of them on scholarships secured by the Sukarno administration, were given a choice: condemn Sukarno as a communist or never return home again.

Iskandar made his choice. Suharto ruled Indonesia with an iron fist for 32 years. And that's how long Iskandar stayed away. He left home as a young man, a college student, and returned a middle aged one—a stranger in a country that had just ousted Suharto and toppled his regime amid waves of popular protest and violent riots.

Last Saturday afternoon I arrived at Iskandar's home. He lived in a residential complex outside the capital. The house was painted green, but little else had changed since the last time I was there two years ago. The decoration and furniture looked the same.

Iskandar's face looked the same too. Today he's 77 years old, but he always looks about 15 years younger than that to me. We sat at the opposite ends of a table with some es kelapa muda—a coconut desert—between us.

"I trust you," he said.

I nodded. I had promised to keep his true identity a secret.

"You know how the politics are these days," he explained.

It's been more than a half-century since 1965, but the topic is still pretty controversial in Indonesia—especially around the anniversary of the 30 September coup attempt. A few weeks before we met, an angry mob gathered outside the office of a Jakarta legal aid foundation that was holding a performing arts event to protest the police shutting down a meeting of human rights activists the night before.

The activists had gathered at the office to discuss efforts to address the post-coup killings, but it was deemed an "unlicensed event" by police who were wary of any discussions about 1965. Then the event the following night that was meant to protest the police crackdown ended when a mob gathered outside as rumors spread online that there was a secret PKI meeting taking place inside.

Iskandar's nervousness was justified. He was used to be vilified because of what happened a long time ago. I asked him about his time in university. Why was he willing to live in exile for so long? Why not just denounce Sukarno like the New Order asked and return home?

"We students were sent by Sukarno's government to serve the country, to build Indonesia," he told me. "That was the deal. So why were we asked to condemn him? Where's the logic in it? We're not politicians. We were intellectuals studying abroad. That's why we signed a paper at Perguruan Tinggi Ilmu Pengetahuan (PTIP) before we left, stating we would take no part in politics."

Iskandar told me that he felt safe for about a year. The New Order didn't seem to have much interest in academics and intellectuals studying abroad—at least it didn't for its first year in power. Then, one year later, Iskandar received a letter instructing him to come to the Indonesian embassy in Stockholm and sign a document. He told me that he knew something was wrong the minute he read the letter.

"From what I remember, the letter basically stated that President Sukarno was working together with the PKI and that he had been overthrown," Iskandar told me. "And that the current government had officially named Suharto as the new president. But under that there was this sentence that said I was 'willing to condemn Sukarno's pro-communist administration'."


Iskandar and his friend suggested that last sentence to be omitted since they felt gratitude for Sukarno's administration for sending them abroad. The embassy official refused.

Then, in 1967, Iskandar received a second letter. This one told the 23 year old that he was no longer an Indonesian citizen. The embassy revoked his passport and he was suddenly stateless. It was the last thing Iskandar expected to happen.

"The failure of Indonesia in the 60s was its refusal to bring home all these students who were studying abroad. They were afraid of students whom they considered 'Bung Karno's people,'" Iskandar said, using a popular nickname for Sukarno. "They were afraid intellectuals would just pave the foundation for another government in the style of Bung Karno's."

Iskandar told me that he still has the letter revoking his citizenship somewhere in his house. He was eventually able to return home, but only after Suharto was forced to step down from power. He had left Indonesia to return with knowledge to make it better, but, instead, Iskandar was forced to spend half his life overseas.


Iskandar returned. But countless others didn't. Soegeng Soejono lives more than 10,000 kilometers away in the Czech Republic. Soejono first met Iskandar when they were both students. His voice perked up when I mentioned that I knew him over the phone.

"Please send my regards to him," Soejono said. "He's a good friend of mine."

Soejono's story starts out the same as Iskandar's. He also received a scholarship from Sukarno's government, this one to study education and psychology at Charles University, in Prague, Czech Republic. But their stories start to diverge around 1965. Soejono never received a letter asking him to renounce Sukarno. Instead he was called down to the embassy shortly after the coup attempt and questioned about his political views.

The embassy was trying to weed-out PKI sympathizers and since Soejono was a member of the Indonesian Students Association—which was suspicious of the embassy and its actions during the tumultuous time back home—he found his name on a list.

Soegeng Soejono, left, and his roommate Johny Maskat in Prague the spring of 1964. Photo courtesy Soejono.

Soejono was called into a "screening room" at the embassy and asked what he thought of the New Order. Soejono told me that he wasn't a fan of Suharto's government and he made no efforts to hide his views from the embassy staff. He told them that the New Order wasn't upholding human rights. The staff immediately accused him of being a communist.

"That's a political excuse," Soejono told me over the phone. "The regime had a doctrine: 'anyone defying us is an enemy.' There was no democracy. No arguments. I'm not a communist, but a lot of the people who proclaim themselves as 'anti-communist' don't even know what communism actually is."

But while Iskandar was rendered stateless and banned from returning to Indonesia, Soejono was asked to come back. He quickly realized that his life might be in danger if he returned, so he decided that it was safer to remain abroad. The New Order responded by revoking Soejono's citizenship, leaving him too without a home.

"I'm not a communist, but a lot of the people who proclaim themselves as 'anti-communist' don't even know what communism actually is."—Soegeng Soejono

Eventually Soejono returned to Indonesia as well. In 1998, as protests to oust Suharto were building steam at Central Jakarta's Trisakti University, Soejono was there. He was nearby when Suharto's soldiers opened fire on the protestors. "I was following the reformation," he told me.

Soejono has returned about five or six times since then. But he's also made up his mind: Indonesia is not a place for him. He's spent half his life in the Czech Republic—a country that offered him protection when Indonesia wouldn't.

"I still feel indebted to Indonesia," Soejono said. "The country put me through school, gave me knowledge, life experience, and work experience. I would love to use all of this for the good of the Indonesian people, but I never had a chance to."


Iskandar and Soejono are just two of the so-called "exiles" who suddenly found themselves victims of a hostile country after Sukarno was ousted from power. In his book Knowing Indonesia From Afar: Indonesian Exiles and Australian Academic, David T. Hill wrote that the the New Order's suspicions created an entire generation of exiles—most of them students, ambassadors, and foreign officials who were caught off-guard by the coup.

According to some estimates, there were thousands of Indonesians living abroad who were affected by the culls. In the process the nation lost its intellectual class, an entire group of people who were educated abroad for the sole purpose of returning home and building the country up. Countries today worry about brain drain, that their citizens will head abroad for their educations and then choose to remain in countries where salaries are typically higher and the quality of life is better.

But Sukarno's government made these students sign a kontrak ikatan dinas, a government contract that required them to return once their education was complete. The coup, and Sukarno's ouster, killed the founding father's dream of re-structuring Indonesian society as a true post-colonial nation, explained Baskara Tulis Wardaya, a historian from Sanata Dharma University, in Yogyakarta.

At the time, Sukarno was trying to build a unified nation that broke down some of the ethnic barriers that long held people back. His scholarships were for Indonesians of various classes, ethnicities, religions, and political affiliations. Sukarno's dream, according to Baskara, was to "de-Javanese" Indonesia—effectively reversing centuries of Dutch colonial preference for the island by spreading people, and education, throughout the nation.

Indonesian political exiles in Eastern Europe at a reunion with Susi Pudjiastuti, the Minister of Maritime Affairs and Fisheries.

"It was Sukarno's goal, but it didn't come true because the students never made it back," Baskara told me. "Because of 1965 we still don't have as many experts as we should. And when foreign investment hit Indonesia in 1967 we didn't have the necessary resources to compete with other countries.

"Subsequently, we couldn't cultivate our own natural resources. We're so rich with oil, so how come we never had oil refinery? Maybe because we're lacking the experts to give us advice."

Indonesia today still relies heavily on foreigners to offer guidance and expertise in high-skilled fields like engineering, oil extraction, and resource management. Maybe this wouldn't be true if these students weren't exiled in the 1960s, Baskara told me.

But Suharto's government was too focused on branding all of these academics as leftists—declaring them too dangerous to return. Abdul Wahid, a historian who researches this lost generation, told me that a lot of Sukarno's ideas about building a post-colonial nation got wrapped up in his increasingly leftist views toward the end of his rule.

"At the end of his presidency, Sukarno was leaning left and in many ways it affected the younger generation's views at that time," Wahid told me. "For example, when I was talking to students in Indonesia back then for a research project, they were obsessed with studying in the USSR or in other Eastern Bloc states. They saw that the development was so rapid in the Eastern Bloc."

This embrace of communist countries and leftist ideals left many universities in a precarious situation after the events of 1965. Scholars suspected of harboring pro-PKI views were fired, arrested, or disappeared.

Part of the reason leftist politics had such a hold on Indonesia's academia was the simple fact that all strains of politics were popular on campus at the time. In 1959, there were eight state universities in all of Indonesia. In 1963 that number had grown to 39, but during the same period the number of private universities rapidly swelled as well. By 1965, there were some 335 universities nationwide with a total student body of 278,000 people.

All the country's political parties took notice. Campuses were suddenly the best place to recruit members to join your party. The ranks of political parties grew, and with this new-found political engagement came suspicions from some that all these students were closet PKI supporters.

"These universities were considered vital, since it's where ideologies and influences were spread—that's why the New Order wanted to control the universities," Wahid said. "Back then, the New Order regime cared deeply about education, and they involved a lot of technocrats to make sure that universities wouldn't spread 'dangerous' ideologies."

So what effect does an entire missing generation of highly educated intellectuals have on a young nation like Indonesia? According to Iskandar, it's created a level of brain drain that we're still trying to overcome today.

"We're left behind in terms of technology because Indonesia failed to bring home their experts," he told me. "They're very valuable, and a gain for other countries."

In 2000, the Reformasi government of then-President Abdurrahman Wahid tried to get the exiles to return back home. But after spending decades abroad many of them had built lives of their own. They had families and ties to their new countries. Indonesia, it seemed, was no longer "home."

And because of that, home may never reach the promised heights it once aspire to, explained Baskara. "We are merely a nation of consumers—not producers," he said. "It's apparent in the way we manage our own natural resources."

Fifty years ago, Iskandar received a letter informing him that he was no longer welcome back home. And now Indonesia is still dealing with the consequences of casting men and women like Iskandar to the wind.

* Names have been changed at the request of the sources.