30 January 2011

A Conversation with Teten Masduki (Part 1)

This is the first installment of the "Conversations with the ANSA-EAP Executive Committee series", that feature individual Executive Committee members sharing their various advocacies and how these relate to social accountability. In this interview, Teten Masduki shares the early days of his advocacy work—from student activism during the Suharto regime to teaching students, and labor workers.

He sits quietly on a lone chair as our crew of two sets up in the villa-turned-makeshift studio. Hands folded neatly into each other on his lap, he’s the picture of calm and anonymity. Truth be told, had he chosen a different path, it would be hard to pick him among a sea of his fellow Indonesians.

ANSA-EAP Executive Committee member and Transparency International-Indonesia Secretary-General Teten Masduki, however, has long turned his back from a life of quiet and obscurity.

For instance, instead of teaching Chemistry to high school students in Indonesia—as was his original plan—he’s spending this particular Friday morning revving up for an interview on his ongoing and sometimes thankless fight against corruption in Indonesia and East Asia. At 47, Teten has made his good governance advocacy a life-long career and dream. A vision that is, in his experience, fraught with more than its fair share of hurdles. A fight that, for him, transcends national boundaries and can only be triumphant through the cooperation of the government, private and civil society sectors.

ANSA-EAP: How did you find yourself in the good governance advocacy?

Teten Masduki: Growing up, I saw a lot of social issues. The government (Suharto regime) at that time was very authoritarian. When I went to college and started learning more about social issues, my friends and I realized that there was something we can do about them.

ANSA-EAP: So you were learning and hearing about the theories and at the same time witnessing the reality of it all. What was the most critical point in your student life that made you say, “This is what I want to do”?

Teten Masduki: The iconic moment for me was the point in the history of the student movement when social changes during the Suharto regime were happening. The government suppressed demonstrations and student protests, but the more the government restrained us, the more our desire to break the regime was fueled.

ANSA-EAP: Were you ever brought to jail?

Teten Masduki: Yes, like a lot of student activists at that time.

ANSA-EAP: So you were very active in the student union; you were the head of the student council in your university. After graduating, you became a Chemistry teacher?

Teten Masduki: Yes, in the high school in Talarang, the industrial area. I taught during the day and went to the house of the laborers afterwards to listen to their problems. I wanted to know what was happening with the industry and what I heard about Indonesia’s national and political economy shocked me. This made me want to try to help the workers. At that time, they were very afraid. They were oppressed by the military; there was no [labor] union. Cheap labor and discipline, that was the rule of labor policy to attract foreign investors.

ANSA-EAP: Were you identified by the police and the military as a person of interest?

Teten Masduki: At that time, people didn’t know me. I was just a teacher, and teaching in the housing was not dangerous.

ANSA-EAP: Were you a part of any group who was doing community organizing?

Teten Masduki: I was, at that time, alone. I was looking for partners among my friends, who I met when I was a student in Bandung. So after teaching, if I was not going to the laborers’ housing to meet with the laborers, I went to Jakarta to meet my friends. My friends and I discussed the idea to organize a program, to advocate for and support the laborer.

ANSA-EAP: In the school where you taught, was there already a teachers’ union?

Teten Masduki: Not yet.

ANSA-EAP: Did you start the teachers’ union?

Teten Masduki: Yes.

ANSA-EAP: So you were doing three things: you were teaching, you were doing community housing immersion, and then when you went to Jakarta, you linked up with your former comrades in the protest movement to put up a program to help the laborers that you visited.

Teten Masduki: When I was working with the laborers, I only taught two days a week. But I was also trying to raise awareness among my colleagues in the school, the teachers, about their independence…. “wake up”. I was trying to awaken the sensibility of my colleagues.

ANSA-EAP: From there, how did you get into Indonesia Corruption watch?

Teten Masduki: The labor movement was then growing very fast amidst the intense repression from the military. I thought we needed to create a bigger movement. So I established a workers solidarity forum, which opened many various NGOs, leaders, social activists and so on. I was the leader and coordinator of the forum at the time.

ANSA-EAP: You were doing coalition building already.

Teten Masduki: Yes, and one of the members of the forum is Legal Aid Foundation, a very important and strong NGO at the time. The government could not attack this institution because many reputable lawyers joined the group. I, myself, joined Legal Aid for protection. We were campaigning for three special issues: freedom of association, to stop military infiltration in the labor dispute, and for better wages. We were successful at appropriating freedom of association, and the government gave freedom for laborers to organize labor unions. At some point, the military could not interfere in labor dispute anymore. But I think the labor condition—like the wage condition—remains bad although the basic principle of strengthening the movement is already done.

ANSA-EAP: Were you a regular staff of the Legal Aid Foundation or just a member?

Teten Masduki: [I was a] legal staff. At that time, I could not teach anymore. My time was consumed by Legal Aid activities. I think I became a teacher for the workers, not for the school [anymore]. So I stopped teaching.

Read part 2, and part 3

Interview conducted by A. Gregorio-Medel. Writeup by K. Aquino.  Special thanks to Rhesa Hadisoebrata and Novi Indriani.

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