Wimar Witoelar, Puckish Spokesman for Indonesian President, Dies at 75

As a college student, he was briefly imprisoned for his activism. He later served President Abdurrahman Wahid and had a thriving career as a media figure.,


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

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

A professor of management who was briefly imprisoned in 1978 for leading campus opposition against President Suharto, Mr. Witoelar became a popular television personality, known for his puckish and indirect criticisms of the Suharto regime.

Suharto was forced to resign in 1998, and from 1999 to 2001 Mr. Witoelar served as the press secretary for President Wahid, a quirky and unpredictable Muslim cleric, also known as Gus Dur, who shared his love of witticisms.

He stood by President Wahid when the cleric was disparaged for his erratic and impulsive style of leadership and ejected from office by parliament. Mr. Witoelar said the president had brought a transformative sense of decency to the nation.

“Gus Dur’s major achievement was to show us that it is possible for Indonesia to rise above its image of being a barbaric society,” he wrote in his 2002 autobiography, “No Regrets: Reflections of a Presidential Spokesman.”

“All by ourselves,” he continued, “we elected a president who supports human rights, who is a pluralist, an intellectual, a leader who opened the door to a better world for the entire nation.”

President Wahid’s style was casual and informal, Mr. Witoelar wrote. “I would say I was like a pet dog in the family. I could walk in and out anywhere and be treated very nicely, but that did not mean I had political power. In a kinder metaphor I was John John hiding under J.F.K.’s desk.”

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

In his parallel life as a talk-show host and commentator known for his piquant style and his head of wild, curly hair, he enlivened political discourse during the transition from President Suharto’s strongman rule to a more freewheeling democratic era 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 newspaper The Australian. “Audiences from London to New York have seen him almost bursting from their TV screens, quipping and joking and trying to make sense of the latest twists and turns 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 chairman of the student council and became involved in student activism.

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

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

He received a bachelor’s degree in electrical engineering, a master’s in systems analysis and an M.B.A. in finance and investment from Georgetown University in Washington before returning to Bandung to teach and do research focusing on financial analysis and corporate strategy. It was during this time that he was imprisoned for his involvement in campus activism.

“In Indonesia, anything you said that was less than complimentary about Suharto was quite risky, so actually saying we didn’t want him got you in jail,” he said in a 2007 interview with 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 next year by the Suharto administration. He immediately reincarnated it as stage show and then a radio show, “Perspektif Baru.”

He later hosted current affairs programs on television with titles like “Wimar’s World,” “Wimar Live” and “Perspektif Wimar.” In his public relations work, he was committed to issues surrounding 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; a sister, Kiki Waskita; and three grandchildren. His wife, Dr. Suvatchara Witoelar, a neurologist, died in 2003.

A vivid public personality, Mr. Witoelar sometimes seemed to be everywhere. “In the same month he can be a judge in the Miss Indonesia contest, speak at an exclusive dinner in the diplomatic circle of Jakarta, and act as commentator to the president’s annual speech to the parliament,” Perspektif Online, the official website of “Perspektif Baru,” said in 2012. “For most audiences, Wimar’s witty delivery is the most attractive feature, brightening up all kinds of dry topics.”

Muktita Suhartono contributed reporting.

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