Surabaya Sue

Jakarta24 Monthly Magazine, #18 / September 2005, Page 11.


Perhaps Indonesia’s most internationally famous voice of the airwaves was Surabaya Sue. She ranks right up there with Lord Haw Haw, Tokyo Rose, axis Sally and Hanoi Hannah as a wartime radio propagandist. Radio was the medium of mass communication in the war-wrecked world of the 30s and 40s and Indonesia was no different. Resistance to both the Japanese and The Dutch was often communicated across the country by radio, as of course was Sukarno and Hatta’s proclamation of independence.

In November 1945, British forces had descended upon Surabaya to ‘restore order’. When their commander was killed, his successor issued an ultimatum: all leaders of the Indonesian resistance would surrender themselves by dawn the next day, or Surabaya would be bombed flat. Surabaya was bombed from the air and sea.

Again it was the immediacy of radio, care of Surabaya Sue, that would register the events and lodge them in the public consciousness. Her immaculate English voice rang true and clear:

Hundreds upon hundreds were killed. Streets ran with blood, women and children lay dead in the gutters. Kampongs were in flames, and the people fled in panic to the relative safety of the rice fields. But the Indonesians did not surrender.”

The voice introduced herself as K’tut Tantri and for the next three years she would broadcast from underground radio stations on behalf of the Indonesian struggle for independence from the Dutch. In the tradition of radio propagandists, she was given the nom de guerre, Surabaya Sue – a national icon had arisen.

Her real name was Muriel Pearson and although her origins are still clouded, most believe her to be a Scottish-born American. She was among the many expatriate artists, writers and intellectuals who came to Bali in the 30’s and settled there. Together, the bohemians would make Bali famous the world over. Their books, paintings, photographs and anthropological studies are still among the most valuable documentation and literature ever produced about the island. Pearson was one of these bohemians, painting under the name Manx, and was later adopted by a Balinese raja and his family who gave her the name K’tut Tantri.

When the Japanese invasion in 1942 ruined paradise, she became embroiled in politics, listening in Japanese radio for shadow network of Indonesian resistance, American spies, and Australian guerillas. It was during this phase that her sympathy for the Indonesian cause was born. She was arrested by the Japanese and tortured to the point of near insanity. After the Japanese capitulation it was the Indonesian who nursed her back to health. The Dutch total rejection of her pleas for help was the final nail in coffin and Surabaya sue was born.

She hated her nickname, though, and disagreed with the description of herself as a war propagandist. “I’m trying to tell the world the true facts about Indonesia. I’m a free agent. I take whichever side I like. The Dutch have been also to tell their part of the story but every time the Indonesians went on their short wave they were bombed off the air. They have no station large enough to be heard.”

She stopped broadcasting in 1948, when the Indonesians signed the Linggarjati agreement, and traveled to Australia where she became a minor media obsession and rallied the labour unions behind the Indonesian cause. While anxious to build trade relations whit Indonesian’s new leadership quickly, the Australian government distrusted her motives and Tantri was deported as a communist.

After returning to Indonesia she worked for the Department of Information in Sukarno’s government and became part of his entourage.

By 1960 she had left Indonesia and was last noticed as a civil rights activist in Greenwich Village, New York. There the trail goes cold. Her memoirs meanwhile had become a bestseller and had begun to contribute to the creation of what Edward Said later called “an imaginative geography of the east”. Translated into a dozen languages, Revolt in Paradise (London: Heinemann, 1960) describes a white woman-alone on an amazing adventure in a place of lush jungles, pristine beaches, friendly Princes and exotic societies. Building on Bali’s exotic bohemian mystique, the Hollywood connections, and primed by Broadway hits such as The King and I and South Pacific, readers escaped the realities of post-war society by joining the Great Adventure of Tantri’s larger-then-life story. The book attracted filmmakers, empowered women, educated Indonesians and would become the inspirational starting point for an entire generation of expatriate Indonesianists.

One of them was barrister and historian Tim Lindsey. As with so much of the early days of republic, the friction between myths a reality became increasingly obvious and, as time wore on, Lindsey noticed “an intriguing quagmire of inconsistencies in K’tut Tantri’s story.” For his PhD in history he traveled around the world to discover the boundaries between her dubious autobiography and the historical events she obviously experienced. And so often, truth was more beautiful than fiction. In The romance of K’tut Tantri and Indonesia (Kuala Lumpur: Oxford University Press, 1997) we even catch up with Tantri herself, outrageous charming, defiant, lonely and almost 99 years old.

K’tut died in her sleep on 27 July 1997, in Sydney, Australia. Her coffin was draped with the Indonesian flag and Balinese yellow and white. Among the small group attending were former Australian ambassador to Indonesia Bill Morrison and his wife, filmmakers, scriptwriters, a historian, and anthropologists, The Indonesian deputy ambassador said she had been a true hero of the revolution.

As she requested her ashes were scattered in Bali.


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