It is not easy to define what Jakob Oetama has achieved through founding, expanding and always improving his media empire. You can call him a “media mogul”; but the fact is that he was much more than that.
He was our “renaissance person,” as he had interests in so many diverse issues. He was first and foremost a publisher. He was a publisher in print media, through various newspapers and magazines in Jakarta and across the Indonesian archipelago.
He was a publisher in television through successful TV programs, one of which is now considered one of the best national news programs. He was an online publisher, through kompas.com and tribunenews.com, both now considered among the best in the world.
He owned the best bookstore in Indonesia, Gramedia, with more than 100 outlets nationwide. He, through his son, established 100 hotels, catering to upper-, middle- and lower-class clients. He also established one of the best printing houses in Indonesia, producing books and other works.
But above all these, he was the “guru of Indonesia”. He was completely committed to national education through the many outlets he created. He was a philosopher by training and implemented his thoughts and ideas in his management style.
Despite his achievements, he opted to live a simple life. He always maintained balanced opinions, and offered a positive contribution in his thinking of Indonesian political, economic and social policies. He was always a good philanthropist — he helped people, leaders, students and others in need, without having to show it off or seeking respect.
He continuously supported the art industry in Indonesia by continuing the initiative of his best friend and co-founder of Kompas, the PK Ojong initiative. The initiative provides help to young artists and many other artists in need through shows and exhibitions of their works, as well as regular coverage of the arts and culture industry of Indonesia in his various media outlets.
I was lucky to have known him in the mid-50s, when I was a student activist and he was the editor of a Catholic weekly, Penabur. I met him several times and wrote a piece or two during the years he was at Penabur.
We met more often after Kompas was established in 1965. The founding of Kompas was supported by the Catholic Party, just a few months before the Sept. 30, 1965 Movement. Before the failed coup by the Indonesian Communist Party, there were a number of very left-oriented news outlets such as Harian Rakyat, Bintang Timur and Suluh Indonesia.
After the aborted putsch, very right-oriented news outlets like Angkatan Bersenjata and Berita Yudha, both owned by the Armed Forces, dominated the national media. Ojong and Jakob through Kompas did an excellent job in providing balanced news in a situation that was already skewed. The newspaper became the most popular in Indonesia within a very short time.
Jakob and I had a lot of respect for each other. Six years after Kompas was founded, some intellectuals, including myself, founded the Centre for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS). During that year, 1971, Kompas had achieved a lot already.
I have learned a lot from Bung Jakob, not only from his balanced thinking and outlook in politics, but also his open-mindedness for others, including and especially toward our Muslim leaders, and his empathy toward different groups in society. I also followed his example of balancing our work in politics, economics and international relations with a passion for arts and culture. Since then, we have collected some good art pieces for the CSIS office.
Jakob and I shared the same thoughts about politics, the Republic of Indonesia, the people and society, while nurturing empathy for others, especially the have-nots. We had maintained consultations with each other over many issues during the New Order and the aftermath (i.e. the Reform period).
But in my opinion, the greatest cooperation we had achieved was through publishing the only credible daily newspaper in the English language in Indonesia, The Jakarta Post, together with Tempo magazine and Suara Pembaharuan daily.
The Jakarta Post was my idea. When I served as publisher of Suara Karya daily, I proposed to Pak Ali Moertopo, who then was just appointed the minister of information, to allow us, a coalition of newspapers (Kompas, Suara Karya, Suara Pembaharuan and Tempo magazine) to establish a decent English newspaper. We thought that it was not right for Indonesia, being the biggest country in Southeast Asia, not to have a decent English newspaper.
At that time, there were already two other English newspapers but they were, with due respect, really below par for Indonesia. Pak Ali agreed, and Bung Jakob was very supportive from the beginning. He was very proud of the Post, and continued to be so until the last few years that we met.
In 2020, the media industry is facing serious challenges due to the COVID-19 pandemic, which has damaged our income. For the last few years, the challenge has been to go through a transition to online media. Kompas, led by Bung Jakob’s family, has been very supportive toward the Post as we go through this transition together. However difficult it may be sometimes, with certainty and optimism, and supported by Tempo and the former Suara Pembaharuan Group, the Post will manage this transition.
Bung Jakob, thank you for your friendship and cooperation since 1965. My brother Sofjan and I have always trusted you, your ideas, you vision for our future, and your effort to become a good citizen of Indonesia. Indonesia should be thankful for your achievements, your dedication and your sacrifices.
In the end, I would like to say that you are more than a Renaissance man — you are our “great teacher”, “the national teacher of Indonesia”. You are a perfect Indonesian and we are proud to be your friends and to be able to follow your good example.
I would like to convey my best wishes to Jakob Oetama’s family to stay strong. They are now my very good friends. With them I feel more like we are members of a greater family. May they face the future in the way you taught them.
Vice chair of Board of Trustees, CSIS Foundation
Disclaimer: The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not reflect the official stance of The Jakarta Post.