This article is written as a part of Journalism Online project at the Journalistic department of FSPAC, Babes-Bolyai University, Cluj-Napoca.
Indonesia is a unique country that stores a plethora of hazardous potential. Located off the coast of mainland Southeast Asia in the Indian and Pacific oceans, the tropical archipelago country lies across the equator. It is also home to 147 volcanoes; hence it faces constant threats of earthquakes due to the meeting of major tectonic plates and volcanic activity in the region.
In this ‘dangerous’ paradise, Sutopo Purwo Nugroho lived. Throughout his lifetime, he served as the Head of Data, Information, and Public Relations Center at the Indonesian National Board for Disaster Management (BNPB). Nugroho was the bridge that connected the scientist and the Indonesian people, sometimes through local journalists, and his sudden death in July 2019 sparked a nationwide outcry.
I had the privilege to sit down with Fenty Effendi, an Indonesian writer who wrote a biography of the late officer. We had a good talk over the book, titled Terjebak Nostalgia (tr.: Stuck in Nostalgia), and what kind of person Nugroho was, according to her first-hand experience.
How was the writing process of the book like? How did it start?
At first, it was actually his request. I feel like his spirit is still with us somehow and he was always there during the writing process. He told journalists that if anyone would be interested in writing his life story, and how he rose from poverty, then became one of the president’s right-hand men in disaster preparedness, then fought stage IV lung cancer. It was amazing; I hope I managed to do his story justice. I travelled to his hometown in Boyolali to interview his parents, former teachers, former childhood friends, and everyone who’d been involved in his life.
On a personal level, what kind of person was he like? And why, out of all biographers and writers, did he choose you?
I knew everything he did but didn’t even know him at a personal level until a few months before his death back in 2019. I connected to him through my colleague Najwa Shihab. He trusted her and we clicked. We did a few meetings, and it was inspiring. He was such a professional person who paid attention to details and it is extremely important in reporting natural disasters.
The first impression I had is that he was the perfect man for the job. He was the humanitarian hero of the country. He had his way with words. His Indonesian language was concise and clear, and he left no room for interpretation. He would always be precise on punctuations and capital letters, even when he was writing WhatsApp messages for us, journalists, and I detailed all of this in the book.
What a man he was. I only read the first chapter of the book, but it already feels really personal. Speaking of the book, which chapter do you think was the most impactful for you to write?
If I’m honest, all four chapters were so impactful to me. I almost couldn’t pick, but I liked the third chapter – “Tarung” (tr.: Fight). It was the story of when he was diagnosed with stage IV lung cancer and how he fought it. He couldn’t sleep and it weakened him, but he still fought it, came to the office, and shared his knowledge. He had such a big presence on social media.
Especially in 2018 when it was one of the worst years in Indonesia when it comes to natural disasters. We had the Sunda Straits Tsunami in December, a 6,4 M earthquake in Lombok, liquefaction and tsunami in Palu & Donggala, and more, right?
Exactly, until the end of the year. But he was still present for us. He once borrowed a room from a local school because so many of us, journalists, want to know what happened. To me, he had an amazing dedication. I couldn’t imagine.
From his personal side, as a son, father, and husband, I liked the epilogue chapter – “Kesempurnaan Takdir” (tr.: The Perfection of Fate). This reflects what he felt throughout his lifetime from his poor upbringing to becoming the person that he was. We couldn’t choose what family we were born with, but he’d never shown an excuse. He used to live under a roof that’s always leaking from rain as his parents struggled to provide means. He admitted that he was never an A-lister in academics, but he was a hardworking underdog.
I heard that he had refused to be the Head of the Department, not once, but three times. Why is that?
Yes, three times, and it’s in chapter four in the book. He didn’t want at first because he didn’t wanna be just a “people pleaser.” “I’m a doctorate, I should be in the ministry or something,” he used to think. But there’s a certain turning point that turned him into the position. He felt some sort of soul call to be there, and it was a destiny to him. He was just a “public relations officer,” he was not a minister, he was not a first-echelon officer, but he was President Jokowi’s most trusted man when it comes to natural disaster preparedness. How awesome is that?
I remember the last tweet by him on Twitter when he was on his deathbed in Guangzhou back on June 15, 2019. It was a caption-less picture of the aerial image of the latest visual hotspot information in Indonesia. He was still caring for the people even in his last days. To end the interview, I’d like to quote my favorite words by him. He once said, “Wherever you work, magnify your position.” What do you think this means to you, having that you’ve known him personally?
It means to always do the best in whatever job that is you’re doing. Be a perfectionist. Whether you’re a blue or white-collar worker, whether you’re behind or in front of the desk, always be the best in your job. Thrive for perfection. I wish we’re going to see more Sutopo Purwo Nugroho in any lines of work, wherever they are in Indonesia. It’s for the good of the country. (RG)