Honoring first ladies as the presidents’ soft power

The writer says it is time for the nation to pay tribute to the six Indonesian first ladies.

Kornelius Purba

Kornelius Purba

The Jakarta Post


First Lady Iriana Widodo (center) waves with Mufidah Jusuf Kalla (right), wife of previous vice president Jusuf Kalla, and Wuri Estu Handayani, wife of Vice President Ma'ruf Amin, prior to the presidential inauguration at the House of Representatives building in Jakarta on Oct. 20, 2019. PHOTO: AFP/THE JAKARTA POST

August 2, 2023

JAKARTA – After watching two United States television series, The First Lady and First Ladies Revealed, the faces of Indonesia’s former first ladies Tien Soeharto and Sinta Nuriyah Wahid and current First Lady Iriana Widodo crossed my mind. Like the US women, these three Indonesian first ladies have contributed much to their husbands’ work as chief executives of the nation.

The First Lady is a revelatory reframing of US leadership through the lens of three first ladies. Starring Viola Davis as Michelle Obama, Michelle Pfeiffer as Elizabeth Anne Ford and Gillian Anderson as Eleanor Roosevelt, this series delves deep into the women’s personal and political lives.

Meanwhile, documentary-based First Ladies Revealed portrays Nancy Reagan, Rosalyn Carter and Jacqueline Kennedy, who all left an eternal legacy at the White House and the history of the US.

While in the US the history of its first ladies is well documented, our history pays little appreciation to first ladies, as if they are only complimentary to their husbands. I think it is time for the nation to pay tribute to the six Indonesian first ladies.

During her 12 years as first lady, the unprecedented breadth of Eleanor Roosevelt’s activities and her advocacy of liberal causes made her nearly as controversial a figure as her husband. She instigated regular press conferences for women correspondents. Wire services that had not employed women were forced to do so in order to have a representative present in case important news broke.

After his predecessor’s death, president Harry Truman appointed Eleanor as a delegate to the United Nations to serve as chairman of the UN Commission on Human Rights. She played a major role in the drafting and adoption of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in 1948.

Elizabeth Anne Ford, popularly called Betty Ford, was known for her bravery in publicly announcing she had breast cancer and admitting to the American people that she would undergo treatment for her alcohol addiction. Her husband Gerald Ford replaced president Richard Nixon, who resigned to avoid impeachment because of his deep involvement in the Watergate scandal.

Michelle Obama was the US’ first black first lady. She was involved in various causes such as fighting childhood obesity and supporting military families. One of the most touching moments in the TV series is when Hillary Clinton asks Michelle to speak on the campaign of the wife of former president Bill Clinton.

Michelle initially was very reluctant to fight for Hillary because she remembered vividly how Hillary spread slander about her husband Barack Obama during the Democratic Party preliminary, including fake news saying he was a Muslim. Michelle eventually accepted Hillary’s request, but it was not enough to help Hillary win.  

Indonesia has seen six first ladies since our independence in 1945, starting with Fatmawati, the first wife of founding president Sukarno. We are luckier than the US because we also had one first gentleman, Taufiq Kiemas, the late husband of third president Megawati Soekarnoputri, who served for three years from July 2001 to October 2004.

Taufiq was a key troubleshooter for Megawati, who is Sukarno’s daughter. Long before she became a prominent politician, Taufiq, who was a businessman, not only supported his wife to reach the chief post of the Indonesian Democratic Party of Struggle (PDI-P), but also was a breadwinner for the children of Sukarno. Second president Soeharto oppressed the Sukarnos in such a way that they barely had an opportunity to earn money for themselves.

Like the US, Indonesia also has no specific law or any written regulations detailing the roles of the spouse of the president. Unsurprisingly we often overlook the contributions of the first ladies and gentlemen to the nation, often becoming trusted advisors or morale boosters for their spouses during trying times.

But I apologize to Defense Minister Prabowo Subianto, one of the presumptive presidential candidates bidding to contest the Feb. 14 elections. He has been single since 1998 after his divorce from Siti “Titiek” Hediyati Heriyadi, Soeharto’s second daughter.

Titiek’s mother, Siti “Tien” Hartinah, played the first lady role from 1966 when her husband replaced Sukarno until her death in April 1996. She was probably the first former first lady to receive a nationwide homage during her funeral.

Three months after her demise, Soeharto awarded Tien national hero status. Tien’s death was devastating to Soeharto, and two years later, on May 21, 1998, he stepped down following nationwide demonstrations demanding reforms amid the country’s economic collapse. Soeharto died in January 2008.

One of Tien’s strongest legacies to the nation was her antipolygamy stance. In 1983, Soeharto signed Government Regulation No. 10 on the permit for marriage and divorce for civil servants and police and military personnel. It was so rigidly enforced that at least two powerful ministers reportedly lost their posts after picking a second wife. Tien never forgave those polygamists.

Unfortunately, during her life, Tien was often cynically called Madame Ten Percent, as she allegedly liked to receive 10 percent commission for any government projects awarded to foreign companies.

How about fourth first lady Sinta?

In 1992, Sinta’s car was hit by another vehicle that caused her to be half-paralyzed. There were rumors the spy agency masterminded the accident because they thought her husband, Nahdlatul Ulama (NU) chairman Abdurrahman “Gus Dur” Wahid was in the car. At that time Soeharto was angry with Gus Dur who had become an outspoken critic of Soeharto.

Gus Dur was elected the fourth president in October 1999 and served until July 2001. Until now Sinta and her four daughters remain active in promoting a moderate and tolerant Islam together with other activists, including non-Muslims. The former first family is highly respected for their defense of minority groups.

As for Iriana, one of her most impressive services as the first lady was her courage to accompany President Joko “Jokowi” Widodo during his visit to war-torn Ukraine and then to Moscow in June last year.

Many adore Iriana particularly because of her simple life and the fact that until now the first family is relatively clean of corruption, collusion and nepotism (KKN) allegations, which used to confront Indonesian first families.

As the famous saying goes, “Behind a great man stands a great woman”. So let us, like the Americans, pay tribute to the first ladies for their dedication and contribution to the nation.


The writer is senior editor at The Jakarta Post.

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