Wimar Witoelar, Puckish spokesperson for Indonesian president, dies at 75

Wimar Witoelar, columnist, talk show host, business consultant and political activist who served as media spokesperson for former Indonesian President Abdurrahman Wahid and brought a colorful presence to public life, died on May 19 in a hospital in South Jakarta. He was 75 years old.

The cause was multiple organ failure, said Erna Indriana, the managing director of the public relations firm founded by Mr. Witoelar, InterMatrix Communications.

A management professor who was briefly jailed in 1978 for leading the campus opposition to President Suharto, Mr. Witoelar has become a popular television personality known for his flirtatious and indirect criticism of the Suharto regime.

Suharto was forced to resign in 1998 and from 1999 to 2001 Mr. Witoelar was press secretary to President Wahid, an original and unpredictable Muslim cleric also known as Gus Dur, who shared his love of jokes.

He stood alongside President Wahid when the cleric was criticized for his erratic and impulsive leadership style and kicked out of office by parliament. Mr Witoelar said the president brought a transformative sense of decency to the nation.

“Gus Dur’s major achievement has been to show us that it is possible for Indonesia to rise above its image as a barbaric society,” he wrote in his 2002 autobiography, “Not of regret: Reflections of a presidential spokesperson ”.

“On our own,” he continued, “we elected a president who supports human rights, who is a pluralist, an intellectual, a leader who has opened the door to a better world for the nation. whole. “

President Wahid’s style was casual and informal, Witoelar wrote. “I would say I was like a companion dog in the family. I could go in and out anywhere and be treated very well, but that didn’t mean I had political power. In a nicer metaphor, I was John John hiding under JFK’s desk.

In what he called his “serious life,” Mr. Witoelar served as a university professor, real estate developer and management consultant serving clients such as the Asian Development Bank, Indonesian government agencies and private companies.

In his parallel life as a talk show host and commentator known for his prickly style and wild, curly-haired head, he led the political discourse during the transition from President Suharto’s strongman regime to a democratic era. freer at the turn of the last. century.

“His chubby features have become the international face of Indonesia,” Andrew Dodd wrote in a July 2000 profile in The Australian newspaper. “Audiences from London to New York saw him almost burst from their TV screens, joking and joking and trying to figure out the latest twists in Indonesian affairs.”

Wimar Witoelar (WEE-mar WIT-oh-lar) was born in Padalarang, West Java, on July 14, 1945, the youngest of five children of Raden Achmad Witoelar Kartaadipoetra, a diplomat, and Nyi Raden Toti Soetiamah Tanoekoesoemah.

He studied at the Bandung Institute of Technology, where he was president of the student council and was involved in student activism.

“While others did the physically dangerous thing of going against Suharto’s government and dealing with Suharto’s army,” he wrote, “I spoke instead at public rallies, in speaking in forums and writing articles in newspapers.

As an activist, he wrote, he forged his own path. “While the emotion of the student movement of 1966 represented anti-communism, mine represented anti-totalitarianism.

He received a BA in Electrical Engineering, an MA in Systems Analysis, and an MBA in Finance and Investment from Georgetown University in Washington before returning to Bandung to teach and do research focused on financial analysis and strategy. business. It was around this time that he was jailed for his involvement in campus activism.

“In Indonesia, anything you said that wasn’t complimentary about Suharto was pretty risky, so actually saying we didn’t want him to put you in jail,” he said in a statement. interview given in 2007 to the Jakarta Post. His imprisonment in 1978, he said, was “a defining moment.”

In 1994, he started a television talk show, “Perspektif”, which brought him to prominence but was banned the following year by the Suharto administration. He immediately reincarnated it in a show on stage, then in a radio program, “Perspektif Baru”.

He went on to host TV news shows with titles like “Wimar’s World”, “Wimar Live” and “Perspektif Wimar”. In his public relations work, he is committed to issues relating to indigenous peoples and the environment.

Mr. Witoelar is survived by his sons, Satya Tulaka Witoelar and Aree Widya Witoelar; three brothers, Luki Djanatun Muhamad Hamim, Toerki Joenoes Moehamad Saleh and Rachmat Nadi; one sister, Kiki Waskita; and three grandchildren. His wife, Dr Suvatchara Witoelar, neurologist, died in 2003.

A living public figure, Mr. Witoelar seemed to be everywhere at times. “In the same month, he can be a judge in the Miss Indonesia pageant, speak at an exclusive dinner in the Jakarta diplomatic circle, and act as a commentator on the president’s annual speech to parliament,” Perspektif Online, the site official of ‘Perspektif Baru’ said in 2012. ‘For most audiences, Wimar’s spiritual performance is the most appealing feature, illuminating all kinds of dry topics. “

Muktita Suhartono contributed reporting.

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