Sutan Sjahrir (5 March 1909 – 9 April 1966), an avant garde and idealistic Indonesian intellectual,[1] was a revolutionary independence leader. He became the first prime minister of Indonesia in 1945, after a career as a key Indonesian nationalist organizer in the 1930s and 1940s.

Although Sjahrir was one of the most significant Indonesian politicians of his time, he did not engage in politics through a sense of vocation nor out of interest, but rather through a sense of duty to his country and compatriates and commitment to his democratic ideals. Described as an omnivorous intellectual Sjahrir had education at the heart of his passion.[2]

"I really find teaching the greatest work there is, for helping young people to shape themselves is one of the noblest tasks of society." Sutan Sjahrir.[3]

Sjahrir was a close associate of the older statesman Mohammad Hatta, a key leader of the Indonesian revolution and leader of the Indonesian underground resistance during the Japanese occupation. When in his fifties his relationship with Soekarno deteriorated Sjahrir was gaoled. He died in exile, his name discredited and erased from Indonesian textbooks by the New Order.Template:Citation needed

Early lifeEdit

Sjahrir was born in 1909 in Padang Panjang, West Sumatra. His father was the chief public prosecutor in Medan and advisor to the Sultan of Deli. His eldest half-sister Siti Rohana (nicknamed the Minangkabau Kartini) was an advocate for women's education and a journalist with the first feminist newspaper of Sumatra. He studied (ELS and MULO) in Medan and in 1926 (AMS) in Bandung. In Bandung he became co-founder of the 'People's University', battling illiteracy and raising funds for the performance of patriotic plays in the Priangan countryside.[4]

Nationalist Student activist in the NetherlandsEdit

In 1929 he studied law at Amsterdam University and Leiden University in the Netherlands and gained an appreciation for socialist principles. Sjahrir was a part of several labor unions as he worked to support himself. He was briefly the secretary of the Indonesian Association (Perhimpunan Indonesia), an organization of Indonesian students in the Netherlands. Sjahrir was also one of the co-founders of Jong Indonesie, an Indonesian youth association in lieu of the need of an association to assist in the development of Indonesian youth for further generations, only to change within a few years to Pemuda Indonesia. This, in particular, played an important role in the Youth Congress (Sumpah Pemuda), in which the association helped the congress itself to run. During his political activities as a student in the Netherlands he became a close associate of the older independence activist Mohammad Hatta, future vice-president of Indonesia.[5]

When the 'Indonesian Association' (PI) drifted to the far political left, both Hatta and Sjahrir parted with the organisation.[6] In a reaction to the intrigue by communist cells in the PI against Hatta and himself Sjahrir stayed calm and in character. In his memoirs their Dutch associate Sol Tas recalls: "He was not intimidated for one minute by official or quasi-official declarations, by communiques or other formulae, not afraid for one second of the maneuvers directed against him, and still less concerned for his reputation. That mixture of self-confidence and realism, that courage based on the absence of any ambition or vanity, marked the man."[7]

Nationalist leader in the Dutch East IndiesEdit

Sjahrir had not finished his law degree, when Hatta sent Sjahrir ahead of him to the Dutch East Indies in 1931, to help set up the Indonesian National Party (PNI).[8] Within a relatively short time he developed from a representative of Hatta to a political and intellectual leader with his own standing. Both leaders were imprisoned in the Cipinang Penitentiary Institution by the Dutch in March 1934 and convicted for nationalist activities in November 1934, exiled to Boven Digul where they arrived March 1935, then to Banda a year later, and just before the Indies fell to the Japanese in 1941, to Sukabumi.

Resistance leader during the Japanese occupationEdit

During the Japanese occupation of Indonesia he had little public role, apparently sick with tuberculosis, while he was actually one of the few independence leaders that was involved in the resistance movement against the Japanese occupation. Sukarno, Hatta and Sjahrir had in fact agreed that Sjahrir would go underground to organise the revolutionary resistance while the other 2 would continue their cooperation with the Japanese occupier.[9]

Prime ministerEdit

File:SoetanSjahrir OnzeStrijd Bookcover.jpg

At the height of chaos and violence during the early Bersiap period of the Indonesian revolution Sjahrir published an epoch-making pamphlet named 'Our Struggle'.[10] "Perhaps the high point of his career was the publication of his pamphlet 'Our Struggle'. Whoever reads that pamphlet today can scarcely comprehend what it demanded in insight and courage. For it appeared at a moment when the Indonesian masses, brought to the boiling point by the Japanese occupation and civil war, sought release in racist and other hysterical outbursts. Sjahrir's pamphlet went directly against this, and many must have felt his call for chivalry, for the understanding of other ethnic groups, as a personal attack." Sol Tas.[11]

File:Sutan Sjahrir 1 October 1946 KR.jpg

After writing his pamphlet he was appointed Prime Minister by President Sukarno in November 1945 and served until June 1947. Professor Wertheim[12] describes Sjahrir's early accomplishments as Prime minister as follows: "...Sjahrir knows what he wants and will not be distracted by popular sentiment or circumstantiality. He is able to overturn a ministry fabricated by the Japanese and establish a new ministry of honest, fairly capable, fairly democratic and social minded men under his leadership. No small feat in revolutionary circumstances..."[13]

Due to his non-cooperative stance during the Japanese occupation he was one of the few Republican leaders acceptable to the Dutch government during the early independence negotiations. In 1946 Sjahrir played a crucial role in negotiating the Linggadjati Agreement. Because his thoughts were ahead of his time he was often misunderstood and started to acquire internal political adversaries.[14][15]

“A national revolution is only the result of a democratic revolution, and nationalism should be second to democracy. The State of Indonesia is only a name we give to the essence we intend and aim for.” In 'Perdjoeangan Kita' (Our Struggle), October 1945, Sjahrir.[16]

Political leaderEdit

File:Sjahrir speaking at 1955 PSI election rally in Bali.jpg

Sjahrir founded the Indonesian Socialist Party (PSI) in 1948 to politically oppose the Indonesian Communist Party (PKI).[17] Already in the mid 30's Sjahrir warned for the tendency of socialists to be dragged into the notions of the extreme political left. Sjahrir described his fear of the trend of socialists to adopt ideas of communist absolutism as follows: "Those socialist activists, with all good intentions, suddenly and unnoticed become 'absolute' thinkers, 'absolutely' discarding freedom, 'absolutely' spitting on humanity and the rights of the individual.[...]They envision the terminus of human development as one huge military complex of extreme order and discipline [...]"[18]

Although small, his party was very influential in the early post-independence years, because of the expertise and high education levels of its leaders. But the party performed poorly in the 1955 elections, partly due to the fact that the grassroots constituency at the time was unable to fully understand the concepts of social democracy Sjahrir was trying to convey.[19] It was banned by President Sukarno in 1960.

Final yearsEdit

In 1962 Sjahrir was jailed on alleged conspiracy charges for which he was never put on trial. During his imprisonment he suffered from high blood pressure and in 1965 had a stroke, losing his speech. He was sent to Zürich, Switzerland for treatment and died there an exile in 1966.


Although a revolutionary opponent of Dutch colonialism his intellectual prowess was recognised by his adversaries and he remained highly respected in the Netherlands.[20] After his death in 1966 the former Dutch Prime-Minister Professor Schermerhorn commemorated Sjahrir in a public broadcast on national radio, calling him a "noble political warrior" with "high ideals" and expressing the hope that he will be recognised as such by next generations in Indonesia.[21]

In the 21st century Sjahrir's legacy in Indonesia is being publicly rehabilitated.[22][23][24][25]

In 2009 Indonesian Foreign Minister Hassan Wirajuda said: “He was a thinker, a founding father, a humanistic leader and a statesman. He should be a model for the young generation of Indonesians. His thoughts, his ideas and his spirit are still relevant today as we face global challenges in democracy and the economy.”[26]

See alsoEdit


  1. Anwar, Rosihan (2010) Sutan Sjahrir: Demokrat Sejati, Pejuang Kemanusiaan (“Sutan Sjahrir: True Democrat, Fighter for Humanity”)[1]
  2. Tas, Sol "Souvenirs of Sjahrir" P.148
  3. Tas, Sol "Souvenirs of Sjahrir" P.148
  4. Legge, J.D. 'Intellectuals and Nationalism in Indonesia' (Publisher: Equinox, Singapore, 2010) ISBN 978-602-8397-23-0 P.36 [2]
  5. Image of Sukarno & Sjahrir together
  6. Legge, J.D. 'Intellectuals and Nationalism in Indonesia' (Publisher: Equinox, Singapore, 2010) ISBN 978-602-8397-23-0 P.34 [3]
  7. Tas, Sol "Souvenirs of Sjahrir" P.143
  8. Sjahrir was heavily involved in the Daulat Rajat, the strategic paper of the new PNI. See: Legge, J.D. 'Intellectuals and Nationalism in Indonesia' (Publisher: Equinox, Singapore, 2010) ISBN 978-602-8397-23-0 P.35 [4]
  9. All 3 biographies (Sukarno, Hatta, Sjahrir) confirm this. See: Mrazek, Rudolf Sjahrir: politics in exile in Indonesia (SEAP Cornel South East Asia program, 1994) ISBN 0-87727-713-3 P.222
  10. Note: 'Our Struggle', originally published in the Dutch language 'Indonesische Overpeinzingen' ('Indonesian Musings') and soon thereafter translated into the Indonesian language 'Perdjoeangan Kita' in 1945, was translated into the English language by Charles Wolf Jr. and named 'Out of Exile' published by John Day, New York, 1949. The later English version contains a considerable amount of additional text. See: Kousbroek, Rudy Het Oostindisch kampsyndroom. (Publisher: Olympus, 2005) P.233 ISBN 90 46 0203 0
  11. Tas, Sol "Souvenirs of Sjahrir" P.150
  12. Wertheim's obituary by Professor Herb Feith, 1999.
  13. Wertheim, W.F.[5]"Nederland op de tweesprong." (Publisher: Van Loghum Slaterus, Amsterdam, 1946)
  14. Anwar, Rosihan (2010) Sutan Sjahrir: Demokrat Sejati, Pejuang Kemanusiaan (“Sutan Sjahrir: True Democrat, Fighter for Humanity”), Jakarta : Penerbit Buku Kompas : KITLV Press, 2010 [6]
  15. One of his opponents was Subandrio who became Sukarno's right hand man and was later on involved in Sjahrir's imprisonment. Mrazek, Rudolf Sjahrir: politics in exile in Indonesia (SEAP Cornel South East Asia program, 1994) ISBN 0-87727-713-3 P.464
  16. [7]
  17. Encyclopædia Britannica
  18. Sjahrir, Soetan "Indonesische overpeinzingen" (Publisher: Bezige Bij, Amsterdam, 1945)
  19. Anwar, Rosihan (2010) Sutan Sjahrir: Demokrat Sejati, Pejuang Kemanusiaan (“Sutan Sjahrir: True Democrat, Fighter for Humanity”) Jakarta : Penerbit Buku Kompas : KITLV Press, 2010 [8]
  20. In the Netherlands there are even streets named after Sjahrir. See image of Sjahrirstraat in Leiden:[9]
  21. Historical Audio Archive: Schermerhorn, Willem In Memoriam: Soetan Sjahrir, (RNW, 1966). Full audio file: [10]. Image of Schermerhorn & Sjahrir: [11]
  22. Newspaper article, Jakarta Post 2009 'Sutan Sjahrir, teacher of the nation.'[12] Retrieved 23 September 2010
  23. News article, Jakarta Globe 2010 'Remembering Sutan Sjahrir' [13] Retrieved 23 September 2010
  24. Template:Id iconArticle Tempo 2009 'Manifest of an anti-fascist.' [14] Retrieved 23 September 2010
  25. 'Sjahrir 'a model for the young.' The Jakarta Post 2009
  26. Quoted in a news article by Multa Fidrus in The Jakarta Post, 3 November 2009.


External linksEdit

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