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Maybe I am also a thief

'PF Journey' is a new Webdiary columnist who writes about Asia.

It’s a cry from an Indonesian’s heart. It expresses the frustration and exasperation of the Indonesians about corruption in their own country. They are helpless to do anything about it because it has become the norm. No one is clean anymore. Corruption has become us.

It’s a poem by the well known Indonesian poet, writer and journalist Taufiq Ismail. It has been circulating on the Web since December 2004. I first came across it after the Tsunami. I cannot find out where it was first published. I saw a reference that it was published on a literature supplement of the paper Media Indonesia but no date was given. I'd like to hear from anyone who can throw light to its origin.

The Indonesian title is Mungkin Sekali Saya Sendiri Juga Maling; literal translation is "It is very likely that I myself is also a thief".


Maybe, I am also a thief, by Taufiq Ismail

We are a nation on the brink of a complete mess,
Our back is crooked, by the heavy load of our debts,
As we slither and crawl in misery in this world.

40 million unemployed,
11 million of our children cannot go to school,
6 million of our youth are drug addicts,
1 million of our people are refugees of our civil wars,
20 million of pornographic VCDs are on sale with criminals on every street corner they rule.

On our shoulder we carry the debt of 1600 trillion rupiah like a burden, (About A$300 billion)
The hand and feet of Indonesia are chained to the counter of the world pawn shop,
At our back, prominently printed, like a silk screen,
that we are the prisoner of IMF and defaulter of the World Bank.

We have become a nation of coolies and servants,
We sell our labour to the lowest bidder worldwide,
When our workers and labourers are departing at the seaport or airport to work overseas,
See how happy they are,
They are departing full of hope and dream,
When they return,
They return full of sadness and mourning,
Because their wages have not been fully paid by their employers.
Many were assaulted,
Some were raped,
As soon as they landed back to their own country,
They are also exploited at the first opportunity.

We are no longer an independent nation,
Our nation is being colonised again,
Welcome to the new era of colonisation my friend,
In the past, we were colonised by one nation,
Now there are multi colonialists from many countries,
They wear silk tie,
Super friendly and plentiful of smile.

The more we borrow money,
The happier they are,
Because it will be easier for for them to break our neck.

In our country,
The future prospect of the industries are very good,
Many different industries show great promises,
The feasibility reports said we could,
But one, and one alone,
High on the valuation list,
With future of great promise,
Is the industry of corruption.

Especially in our country,
For a long time now, the boundary between the permitted and illicit have become blurred,
Like the black line being unfurled,
At one o’clock in the darkest jungle night.

When we move to the left we run into the pickpockets,
When we move to the right we bump into the snatchers,
The road ahead is controlled by thieves,
The road behind is full of extortionists,
The road above, the elites, are both our exploitors and oppressors.

Just staying sane in Indonesia is already a good fortune,
Just look, the thieves are now stealing as a community,
They stand and line-up in closely, orderly, disciplined and full of dedication,
So close together they stand,
It will be difficult for you to barge in.

So systematic and procedural, it is impossible for you to sabotage,
So devoted, it makes you think they are worshippers,
And then we ask ourselves,
Can you have thieves who are straight and narrow?

Look at them, their number has increased over the years,
Spreading from the front to the back,
Spill over from the top to the bottom,
Adding and adding to the long line of the community.

This community is inter religions,
Inter tribes,
Inter genders.

How do you fight the thieves who steal under the guise of community,
How do you arrest the thieves whose way of stealing are protected from top to bottom,
In reality, they are being protected by those who hold the gun and authority.

How can this be?

The left hand of the community signs the disposition for the MOU and MUO (mark up operation),
The right hand creates scholarship for foundations, orphanages and schools,
The left foot of the community carry the tributes paid here and there,
The right foot becomes religious, doing Umrah (mini Haj) and making the Haj pilgrim,
The left brain is planning for kickback commission from cutting the expenditures,
The right brain thinks of the donated assets, goes to confession and prays for God’s forgiveness.

How do you fight the thieves who steal like a community?
The community that is as solid as the wall of a castle,
That cannot be shaken by a quake or flooded by a deluge,
In fact they are the ones who interpret the regulations and design the laws,
They are also upholder of the laws at the same time undermining the laws,
They have interchangeable functions.

How do you process the punishment for hundred of thousands of thieves,
Their number maybe in millions,
Enough for a mini state,
Including those who steer and guide the Government,
The executive and the legislative, the judiciary, and the world of business,
Those who hold the guns and canons,
Those in suit and tie.

How do you do it?

To investigate and examine based the Laws?
To make them sit on the accused chair in the court room?
And to bring the witnesses that are free from intimidation?
With lawyers and judges that are clean from corruption?


Even with 100 years of court sessions, everyday with 8 hours of court time,
Even with God’s permit, it cannot be done.

So, my friend, what is the way?

What is the way so that they can be persuaded, coaxed to return willingly the things they have plundered and amassed for many years and generations,
We pray to Allah to open their heart,
Particularly because many of them are also men of prayer,
They are also men who fast,
They are also men of Haj.

We cajole them with gentleness and we pray for them,
Unfortunately, some of thieves of the community are also from our family,
They are blood relation or school friend,
So that we tend to just close our eyes,
We cannot bring ourselves to say anything.

Unfortunately, some of thieves of the community are also from our Party,
People of the same religion or from the same village,
We are more inclined to just cover-up the facts,
Then quietly and inconspicuously,
Hoping that we might also can get splashes of fortune without others knowing.

These thieves are just like the real termites and white-ants,
Just look at it now, the windows and doors of Indonesia house are being infested,
The timber, the frame, the rafters, the joists of the Indonesia house are being eaten by termites,
The wall, the sky, the floor of Indonesia house have been chewed by termites,
The bedroom, the wardrobe, the table, the chair,
The sofa and the television of Indonesia house have been ravaged by the termites,
The fences of the courtyard,
Even the foundation and the roof of the Indonesian house are almost being gobbled up by the termites.

The Indonesian house is only waiting for the right moment to collapse.

As I stand in the courtyard, watching with amazement,
A mob of young people from the neighbouring village,
They shout: “This is him, the termite, this is him, the white ant”
“Not me, I am not the termite, no”: said I in protest,
They keep on shouting and approach me in a menacing manner,
I try to run away as fast as I can,
They chase after me even faster,
They catch me,
One of them shouted: “go and get some gasoline”
“Burn the termite”, shouted another at the same time,
The gasoline was sprayed and poured on my head and my body,
One of them flicks a match,
I was on fire,
The friendly smell of burned termite,
Rise skyward.


Translation note:

I could not find a translation of this poem, so I decided to do it myself and share it with fellow webdiarists. I am not a professional translator and stand to be corrected by those who are more qualified. The Indonesian language is one of the most dynamic in the world. The vocabulary changes virtually everyday, with new words and applications. This makes the job of a translator doubly hard. I have tried to capture the spirit of the poem rather than literary side.

One of the key words I had problems translating was “jemaah” as in “Jemaah Islamiah (JI)”. The word means “assembly; religious congregation or flock; community”. The word is normally used in the religious context. Jemaah is in Islamic context. Jemaat is in Christian context. I decided to use the word “community” to denote a wider and more neutral context.


Taufiq Ismail was a student activist in the 60s. At one time he was banned by the Sukarno regime, had his scholarship to the USA cancelled, and was sacked from his Government job.

Taufiq Ismail was asked once about the role of poetry in political struggle. He likes to cite "the case of the mid-19th century Achinese poet Chik Pantee Kulu, who wrote a 2000-line epic entitled Hikayat Prang Sabi which became hugely popular and inspired the Achinese struggle against Dutch colonial rule".

"Parts of it were actually read to Achinese fighters before they went into battle. Forty years on, the poem’s appeal was still strong enough to hearten the Achinese in their next struggle, against the Japanese invaders."

"Chik Pantee Kulu did not write his epic for the express purpose of stirring up anticolonial sentiment. He finished it many years before it came to serve that purpose."

In the context of the current Aceh conflict, it would be interesting to find out if the current GAM fighters read the poem before they go into battle.

Taufiq Ismail gave a speech in April 2004 where he said that the root cause of the many problems faced by the Indonesian nation is that it has become too materialistic. He said the Indonesian nation is trapped in a situation where material possessions, assets and money have become an end to itself. Along the way it has destroyed the Indonesian values systems into pieces. Corruption has become the easiest and quickest way to accumulate these material gains. It is my belief that this has led him to write this poem.

Taufiq Ismail is a contemporary of Arief Budiman, a Professor at the University of Melbourne's Institute of Asian Languages and Societies and a well known Indonesian commentator in Australia, and of Mochtar Lubis, the well known journalist who passed away in July 2004. "My friend Mochtar Lubis was always on the front line when it came to press freedom," Taufiq Ismail said in a tribute for Mochtar held at the Taman Ismail Marzuki Art Center, Central Jakarta. (Jakarta Post, 4/7/04)

The lives of writers in the regimes of Sukarno and Suharto have not been easy. If you disagree with the regime’s policies and politics you either shut-up, go into exile or be locked up. The most famous is Pramoedya Ananta Toer, who turned 80 this year. Pramoedya is a much decorated writer and a regular Nobel Prize candidate. He was imprisoned for 14 years by the Suharto regime without trial. He was accused on being a Communist. Released in 1979 but was still under virtual house arrest until the fall of Suharto in 1998. his books and writings are now freely available in Indonesia but still technically banned.

Pramoedya was also accused by his fellow writers and intellectuals for his role in the communist backed cultural organisation LEKRA in the early 60s. They accused him of “intellectual plurality betrayal” in Indonesia during the last few years of Sukarno regime. Pramoedya has categorically denied this accusation. In 1995 this led to a famous literary event in Indonesia, when the Magsaysay Foundation in Manila had granted Pramoedya that year’s literature award – the Asian Nobel Prize.

This caused an uproar in the Indonesian literary world. Twenty six prominent writers and intellectuals, including Taufiq Ismail, sent a protest statement to the Magsaysay Foundation. “The statement tries to enlighten the Magsaysay Foundation on the role of Pramoedya in suppressing the freedom of creativity during the 'guided democracy' years,” wrote Taufiq Ismail to the Jakarta Post on 5/8/95.

On his literary outputs alone Pramoedya deserves the Nobel Prize. However, this controversy is probably causing him the Nobel Prize. Only time will tell. Pramoedya’s life and times deserve an article on its own in the future. It is interesting to note that Arief Budiman refused to sign the statement.

Taufiq Ismail has expressed his love for books and libraries since a very young age. Funding for libraries in Indonesia is very poor and librarianship as a profession does not enjoy high status. He has been active in encouraging Indonesian primary and secondary students to appreciate and value books and libraries and has often lamented that literature and writing have been largely forgotten in the Indonesian school system.

On February 11 this year Ismail and other poets and writers conducted a prayer session for the victims of the tsunami in the Grand Mosque of Banda Aceh, where he recited 4 of his famous poems.


A short biography of Taufiq Ismail I compiled from various sources

Renowned Indonesian poet and writer Taufiq Ismail was born Bukittingi, West Sumatra, Indonesia in 1937 and grew up in Pekalongan, Central Java. In the 1950s, with a scholarship from American Field Service (AFS) International, he completed his high school at Whitefish Bay, Milwaukee, Wisconsin, USA. He came to know and love the writing of Robert Frost, Edgar Allan Poe, Walt Whitman and in particular, Ernest Hemingway. The Old Man and The Sea is his favourite novel.

After returning to Indonesia, Ismail graduated as a doctor in veterinary medicine from the University of Indonesia in 1963 and practiced briefly. But he followed his heart and his soul and became a poet.

It was a turbulent times in Indonesia under Sukarno. He became a student activist in 1966, the same year his poetry collection Benteng, about the awakening of students against oppression, was published. He received the National Art Award for the best works in Indonesian literature in 1970. The following year he participated in the International Writing Program at the University of Iowa. He was a contributor to the International Poetry Festival in Rotterdam in 1971. He was the representative for Indonesia in poetry reading events held in 25 countries around the world covering USA, Europe, Australia, Asia and Africa.

Ismail is Poet Laureate of Indonesia and a former executive director of the Indonesian Arts Council. He was also the co-founder of the Horison magazine in 1966. His new manuscript is Rerumputan, Dedaunan ("Leaves and Grass"), a compilation of 180 American poems he translated in 1992 during his research at the University of Iowa under the sponsorship of the Fulbright program.

Currently Ismail and his group are preparing a literary anthology publication for high school students. This will be a four-volume publication covering 249 poets, short story writers, novelists and playwrights, covering Indonesian literature in the past four centuries.

In 1994, he was awarded the South East Asia Writers Award under the patronage of the King of Thailand. He married his wife, Esiyati, in 1971 and they have one son. He lives in Jakarta.

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Corruption was well defined by Bob Bottom years ago.

Corruption at the highest level promotes corruption right to the bottom.

The poem is gut wrenching and a serious comment on what we don't want here. I would see, any appeasement of Indonesia on the amendment to the Migration legislation as curtailing to a corrupt and dangerous neighbour.

Yesterday’s strangulation of the Senate and the constant use of expedients and the fear card, put the incumbent Government into the category sheer dishonesty or guilty of the sin of omission, at best.

Watching Ruddock prostitute himself for the Government, on SBS the other night was sickening and he just might win the grand prize of saying nothing (i.e. after R Hawke).

My hope is that our neighbours see a destinction between the Government and the Australian people.

Labour must be squeaky clean and make a firm stand for more humane government!

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