Homegrown & Well Known: DEWA PALGUNA

The terms "from zero to hero" or "rags to (intellectual) riches" may well suit Dewa Palguna perfectly.

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The terms “from zero to hero” or “rags to (intellectual) riches” may well suit Dewa Palguna perfectly. When he was just a wee lad he sold newspapers at a bus terminal to pay for his own schooling, from there he progressed to a career as a radio presenter, became a member of the People’s Consultative Assembly and went on to hold a position as a judge in Constitutional Court. Today, whilst he continues to enjoy his freedom as a university lecturer, his life revolves around the transmission of knowledge. In possession of some hard-hitting integrity, a personal attribute which keeps him in high regard amongst the general populous, you’ll find his name fair square and centre at any event, social cause, and movement aiming for a better Indonesia. He’s still human, he sometimes gets tired, desperate, loses hope, and thinks of quitting, but he fails every time. According to a colleague of his, he’s been cursed. Dewa Palguna should just swallow the fact that activism is his unfortunate fate. The activist community believes in his strength and his intellect as both an advisor and a leader and shall continue to try to persuade him. With much ado, let me introduce you to the man who should be Governor…

What have you been doing since Constitutional Court? Not many of us know.
A simple enough question, but it’s one which comes with a long and boring answer! Within a few days of concluding my work commitments with the Constitutional Court in 2008, I was “hijacked” by my friend Kadek Suardana, the Director of Arti Foundation. I was still in Jakarta at the time and Kadek asked me to take on the position of Executive Producer for Sri Tanjung, a dance-drama which he hoped to see performed at Taman Ismail Marzuki. This was an ambitious vision, and it was a project with zero money. However, as I happen to be one of the co-founders of Arti myself, having established the foundation with the aim of having it focus on art and cultural development, especially within the performing arts sector, it was an irresistible opportunity. In saying that though, you can’t imagine how tough it is to convince sponsors to financially support performances which have been based around ancient traditions. Amazingly, in the end, even though it was both hard and exhausting, having approached the more generous of my contact database, and by hassling a few good friends, Kadek and I managed to actualise our ambitions for Sri Tanjung.

At exactly the same time as this I was also in the process of completing my doctoral dissertation at the University of Indonesia. After the Sri Tanjung project was over, I returned to Bali to be with my family. The relocation was stressful as I was somewhat concerned that I wouldn’t be able to finish my dissertation in Bali, because, as per Balinese culture, I was regularly required to attend community social engagements. Just as I had predicted, my concerns became reality; my heavy social engagements impacted my workflow and delayed the finish of my doctoral dissertation. I was lucky that my dissertation supervisor, Prof. Jimly Asshiddiqie, was really nice to me; he would send me reminder texts every once in a while, when it was I who was supposed to be the one to update him! Then one day, in late 2010, he decided to force me to complete the paper, by the end of that same year. Needless to say, I wasn’t really on time, but I did eventually complete the dissertation in the May of 2011. Oh well, I guess the man knew how to motivate me!

There, that’s my post-Constitutional Court story. These days I spend my time lecturing at the University of Udayana in Denpasar or guest lecturing at other universities throughout Indonesia. And there you have my story, from Constitutional Court to a position where I’m invited to travel to other cities in order to exchange knowledge; I can’t complain.

People say that the Balinese people currently involved in national politics are predominantly grey whilst you are considered relatively white or clean. Bali needs to be represented in the national sphere by someone like you. Why don’t you continue your brilliant career at Constitutional Court?
White or clean?! Ha! Thanks; I’m flattered. Never be a servant to your rank, title, or position and don’t get trapped inside your desires. Those are my basic principles. In any field of work that involves authority or trust, which could be as small as having been a team leader for a small event, I have always felt as if my integrity and character were being tested and that’s why I have always tried to follow my heart; when it says “no” then I won’t do it. It doesn’t matter if, say, there’s some guy offering me a good position or some level of financial happiness, I will refuse. Honestly speaking, there are a few offers for me to go back to Jakarta–including going back to Constitutional Court, but I haven’t accepted any of them. My response remains, “Please let me enjoy my freedom as a lecturer.” Some people might think it’s absurd but my heart said “no”, so no—well, not yet, maybe. I mean, you don’t know how happy I am doing what I am doing; it’s hard for me to express these feelings in narrative form. For instance, it feels like heaven to see my students developing strong arguments and getting complimented for their thesis in front of his or her lecturers. Although it’s quite probable that in the future, after my honeymoon with freedom is over, and these freedoms have become a routine, I’ll rethink.

For your information, I’ve never actively positioned myself as a politician. And this includes the time when I was still an active member of MPR (People’s Consultative Assembly) and involved in the amendment of the Indonesian Constitution. I imagine that this is at least part of the reason behind why my colleagues, without burden or concern, put forth my name as a candidate for a position as a Constitutional Court judge, just like that. What I mean to say by this is that my colleagues had no psychological-political obstacle when they put forward my name. Their motivation was due to factors of friendship, rather than the result of heavy political consideration.

Also, never underestimate the potential of the youth. I believe that in the near future there will be more young Balinese people appearing in the national political scene. Many of them have significant talent, they’re intellectually smart, and they are also very brave. For example, the personnel within Bali’s KPU (General Elections Commission), in both the provincial and regency areas, are predominantly young people—and some are women! On a national level there’s a young Balinese man named I Gede Pasek Suardika who is currently the Head of Commission III in House of Representative, and there is I Gusti Putu Artha who is a former member of KPU at a national level. Not long ago we also had a young vice governor, IGN Kesuma Kelakan, who is currently a member of the Indonesian Senate. Can you imagine, these smart young people, the potential they have to create their own history for this country?

You involve yourself in almost all activism relating to the ‘for a better Indonesia’ socio-political movements in Bali—and have subsequently been given the position as one of the formal or should I say informal leaders. What would you say are the three most urgent issues that need to be sorted out in Indonesia?
Trust me; I also wonder why, for almost every event these young activists organise, they want me to get involved. Sometimes it feels as if it is because they want to tell the general public that I’m involved so that their event appears legitimate, clean, committed and crime free. The validation that my presence provides seems important.

Hey, not only that, lately I’ve been approached by a few government offices, requesting that I participate, or to do things that I’m not an expert in. I was once asked to be a keynote speaker for a human resource training event, and of course I refused. I asked the event organiser why he wanted me to talk and he said, “Well, you used to be a radio announcer and a theatre/stage actor.” Hmmm…weird. It wasn’t at all contextual. I have to say, this “justification” phenomena isn’t too healthy for me; it’ll turn me into a big headed megalomaniac. No, don’t you worry my friend, so far I’m still able to control it.

Outside of school, even though I dedicate most of my time to the Arti Foundation, it turns out that I can’t really close my eyes and choose to be ignorant about what happens in this country. I inevitably end up, at the very least, putting forth my input and sharing my opinion with local or national entities and colleagues that I know. Sometimes I feel tired, desperate, and I lose hope, and then I think of quitting. But I fail every time. I always end up back with activism, and I get myself involved in both a big and small volumes. One of my colleagues at the university, cynically commented when I mentioned quitting activism, “You’ve been cursed. Just swallow the fact that activism is your unfortunate fate.”

Anyway, let me give you my opinion surrounding—here I am again, activism attracts me—what is currently happening with this country. We are in transition from authoritarian rule to democracy; it’s not unusual that hyper euphoria appears which sometimes ends up resulting in long uncontrollable chaos. Faced with this bad situation, when the problems have gone on for too long and we have been exhausted, the strong temptation to go back to the old days where things seemed to be more stable, more safe and orderly, will show up again (in this case, a desire to return to the Soeharto era). This is normal. In terms of real democracy, Indonesia hasn’t progressed that far forward. It has only reached the norm, and with this we have the most basic of democratic hallmarks, which is our constitution. The further implementation of the democratic norm and democratic institutions is through rules and legislation. Meanwhile the constitution itself is still not final, and is far from being acceptable. Democracy itself is not as simple as rules and legislation but is about value; you can’t practice democracy without comprehending democratic values. In other words, democracy won’t be healthy if it’s treated only as part of a political system, it should be part of a complete value system. That’s why it takes a bit of time to internalise democratic values within society. This should first be started by political parties; it is they that need to educate society about democratic values. This hasn’t happened yet. In general, Indonesian democracy is still very much on a surface level, it’s still only procedural and superficial. So, yeah, how can I keep my mouth shut, remaining ignorant, when I am so aware of this particular fallacy?

Dewa Palguna, Konstanz, 2008
Palguna after delivered a guest lecture about “Status and Role of Constitutional Court in Indonesia’s Legal System”, Konstanz, Germany, 2008

Whilst we are planting the foundation of democratic values, there are three key things that need to be sorted out urgently in this country; a strong emergence of ethno-nationalism—which goes hand in hand with primordial issues, the low trust our society has towards both the supra and infra structure of politics, and weak leadership. The worst fact is that, in some cases, those three problems not only seem connected but each creates casualties, one is conditio sine qua non to the other. I’m really worried if these three fundamental issues aren’t sorted out soon, we will be counting down the days to a major democratic set back, one that comes hand in hand with a strong possibility of nation disintegration.

A few of the local democracy activists have started a socmed campaign for supporting you as the next Governor of Bali. I can’t be objective here, I’m a fan. I do hope you join the election, become one of the candidates. You have a lot of potential.
Thanks again, I’m really flattered. Ok, due to the fact that registration to join the election has already closed and the participants have already been announced, I’ll share with you what was going on. At the time I was in Jakarta, Gunandjar, an NGO activist, contacted me and explained to me that a group of activists called Bali Integritas were having a discussion about the perfect criteria for Bali’s future leader. After classifying the problems and types of challenges that Bali has to deal with, came the next topic: Who’s the right person to be the leader, then? That’s when my name came up. Gunandjar called asking, “Your name will be published in the media. Are you okay with that?” Jokingly I responded, “Well, if it’s only for showing up in a democracy fiesta, sure, I’ll do that. My concerns are more about political education. But if it’s serious, no, I’m not interested.” It turned out that they were serious. They organised a press conference and all that. It became quite big news that I was ready to compete in the election. And this news was followed up by many phone calls and text messages. There’s even an entity claiming to be ready to back me, as a major financial supporter. Some of my ex-students have tried to convince me to go ahead and promised to activate their networks. One of my friends, Arya, stated that some village chiefs in Kintamani would totally fight for me and make sure that I’d win, at least in Kintamani. The funny thing is that my colleagues from political parties, those who used to phone me quite frequently, have stopped calling me all of a sudden, whilst old friends, who rarely called, suddenly phone me a lot.

I’m chilled about it all though; it’s all business for me, as per usual. As I said, I’m not too interested. I once wrote an article titled, “Betapa Tak Menariknya Jadi Gubernur Sekarang” (How Uninteresting to be a Governor Today). This article is my criticism of the decentralisation that is being applied in Indonesia which was started by the enactment of law no. 22/1999 (which was then revised with law no. 32/2004). Decentralisation grants huge authority to the regent/mayor, whilst the governor only possesses quite minimum authority and that authority is basically limited to coordination and limited supervision. A governor has no power in front of the regent/mayor and that law regulates that the governor is not the direct superior of the regent/mayor either. That’s the simple explanation. So what’s so sexy about becoming a governor? Let’s say we have a visionary governor, one that really knows what to do to make Bali a better place, but he or she can’t make his or her vision a reality due to the fact that the authority, to change vision into action, is owned mostly by the regent/mayor. What often happens in Bali is that the governor invites the regent/mayor to meetings, but the regent/mayor doesn’t always show up. What’s so good about being a leader in that kind of political system?


Many people are unhappy how Bali development has moved to a worse rather than better state. Bali is currently facing very complex problems. Bali should stop its development and focus more on, say, enforcing spatial law, reorganising public transport, better garbage management. We need your input.
Indeed. If you are diligent enough in following along with the articles I have written, many of which contain opinions I may have already mentioned above (Several of Dewa Palguna’s articles have been compiled in his book, Saya Sungguh Mencemaskan Bali (I Worry About Bali So Much) published in 2008), you will begin to grasp my opinions. In regard to positive developments within Bali and whomever is to run the Bali government in the future, it would be incorrect and old fashioned to continue to think that in order to promote Bali we should only present traditional art ambassadors, as we always do. Yes, of course, it’s important. But please remember the existence of contemporary artists in Bali is also significant, and must also be prioritised. Take a look at bands such as Navicula and Superman Is Dead, just to name a few. Those rockers, even without government support, have been promoting both Bali inside and outside of the country. And as the meeting point of many different international cultures it’s about time Bali builds a decent concert hall and a representative opera building. This will create a double benefit: Bali will be known globally and, in reverse, the Balinese community would benefit and learn. I have a dream that if Bali could have a concert venue such as this, Bali could be host to international music festivals such as a Bali International Rock Festival. How exciting would that be! Imagine also, how incredible it would be if creative artists in Bali could perform Giuseppe Verdi’s Aida at our very own opera building. The whole world will look toward us, enthusiastically.

As you mentioned earlier, you used to be a radio personality, ran your own program and played your own taste of music—which is basically rock. Do you plan to go back to the radio world or are you happy enough to remain behind the scenes?
I stopped my career in radio after I received a scholarship for my Master’s Degree but I loved working in radio. It all began unintentionally. When I was a university student, I was an active member of a student organisation and we had an idea to do law counseling via radio in a light chat format. That was the birth of our program, Kantin Justitia, at the now-defunct Radio SIS (still in AM format). This was my first gig as a radio announcer and then, one day, I was offered to do a radio program outside of Kantin Justitia—the boss said that he liked my husky voice! After around two years, I applied for a position at PAS FM (which later transformed into HOT FM) and I got accepted. I’d like to think that this wasn’t just because of my husky voice but due to my knowledge of rock ‘n’ roll. The interviewer, one of the owners of the radio, expressed his amazement at the extent of my rock ‘n’ roll knowledge but just so you know, I used to sell newspapers and magazines at the bus station when I was still in the early years of high school, and among the magazines I sold were music magazines like Aktuil and Vista. I always wrote about whatever information was stated in those magazines. That’s how I gained my rock ‘n’ roll knowledge.

Aside from getting paid to do what I like doing, working as a radio presenter taught me how important radio is as a bridge to reach the youth, to provide the youth with a medium with which they can build and express their creativity, to empower them. We used to have a pretty solid radio listeners club; this group of young men was really active at organising off-air events. You can also use radio as a medium for art appreciation, in this case music. I used to be the presenter for a special radio program called Beatles Night. The content was not only about me putting on cassettes of The Beatles but I also initiated some kind of discussion between me and the listeners, say, the story of “Hey Jude”, when it was born, what it was about, who wrote it, and so forth; why, for example, is John Lennon also known as The Dark Poet?


To this day, I’m still receiving offers to return to the radio world—and radio work remains a huge attraction for me. I still have a great deal of passion for radio; radio makes me feel both alive and useful. The only problem is that, because of how seriously I take the role of presenter, I don’t have the time to do it again. When I was still working as a presenter, I always did research before each show and that sure needs a fair amount of time, I take radio seriously, and I would never be able to just come to the studio, grab the mic, and say stuff. Let me just be the guy behind the scenes; I’ll share my knowledge and perspectives, empower the youth.

Name three of your all-time favourite records and why.
Only three? That’s really tough but since you’re insisting that I make up my mind I’ll narrow it down to Queen’s A Night at the Opera, Led Zeppelin’s Celebration Day and Deep Purple’s Burn.
Firstly, I admire A Night at the Opera because it features the tracks “Bohemian Rhapsody” and “Love of My Life”. Who in the world doesn’t get goosebumps when they listen to “Bohemian Rhapsody”? And tell me, who’s not shivering when they hear “Love of My Life”?
The reason I have chose to list Celebration Day, Led Zeppelin 2007’s concert album tribute to Ahmet Ertegun (Atlantic Records, Founder and President), is because I really commend Robert Plant on the way he has managed to maintain such power in his voice, especially when he sings “Ramble On”—it sounds so similar to when he first sang this song in the 60s! Also, and this is crucial, I can’t help but appreciate how Plant interacts so harmoniously with John Paul Jones’ bass, John Bonham’s drums, and Jimmy Page’s guitar playing. And Burn? This album made me realise the magnificent consequence of mixing the lazy, smoke-infused, bluesy voice of David Coverdale with the voice of bass player, Glenn Hughes.

Any last nagging words?
How often do you contemplate about crime? It’d better be often. After all, you may not have realised that you were practicing evil all those times you thought you were doing good deeds.

• Homegrown & Well Known is my biweekly column in The Beat (Bali) mag. Basically it’s an interview via e-mail with Bali’s local big shots. This is the 25th edition, was firstly published—a slightly different version—on The Beat (Bali) #332, Mar 01-14, 2013
• Co-editor: Lauren Shipman

Rudolf Dethu

Rudolf Dethu

Music journalist, writer, radio DJ, socio-political activist, creative industry leader, and a qualified librarian, Rudolf Dethu is heavily under the influence of the punk rock philosophy. Often tagged as this country’s version of Malcolm McLaren—or as Rolling Stone Indonesia put it ‘the grand master of music propaganda’—a name based on his successes when managing Bali’s two favourite bands, Superman Is Dead and Navicula, both who have become two of the nation’s biggest rock bands.
Rudolf Dethu

Rudolf Dethu

Music journalist, writer, radio DJ, socio-political activist, creative industry leader, and a qualified librarian, Rudolf Dethu is heavily under the influence of the punk rock philosophy. Often tagged as this country’s version of Malcolm McLaren—or as Rolling Stone Indonesia put it ‘the grand master of music propaganda’—a name based on his successes when managing Bali’s two favourite bands, Superman Is Dead and Navicula, both who have become two of the nation’s biggest rock bands.


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