The shape of the world a generation from now will be influenced far more by how we communicate the values of our society to others than by military or diplomatic superiority. William Fulbright, 1964

Monday, September 16, 2013


Sige Dina Voges
Two halves make whole   

Good morning and welcome to Malang.  My name is Sige Dina Voges.  I’ve been a tour guide here in East Java, North Sumatra, Bali and Lombok for more than 36 years.
You’re right, my first name is Japanese, my second Indonesian and my surname Dutch, though I’m an Indonesian citizen.  You’d like to hear my story? Many people ask.
I was born in 1942, the year the Japanese invaded Java. My mother, Charlote Schneider, was a German citizen although born in Medan. She was living in Batu on the slopes of Mount Welirang.  In those days it was a hilltown retreat for the colonials.
My Dutch father wasn’t present when I arrived. He’d been arrested by the Japanese, then transported to a camp in Bandung.
Although my mother was European she was protected because Germany and Japan were allies.  Although pregnant she and her friend Peggy, who also had a husband in the camp, went by train to West Java to try and see their men. That was very brave.
My father burrowed under the wire to see her. He knew she was expecting. A day later the men were transported to Thailand.  They were sent to work on the railway between Bangkok and Burma. 
About a quarter of the 60,000 Allied prisoners of war died on the jungle track before the war ended.  Half the indentured labor – many of them Indonesians – also perished. It was known as the Death Railroad.
My mother thought my father had gone forever.  She became friendly with a Japanese officer who protected her. His name was Honda.  He left her his samurai sword and decorations when he was deported at the end of the war. That’s why I have a Japanese name, but my father was Karel Voges.
When the war ended my mother heard that her husband had died on the railway, so she married an Indonesian man from Manado. But my father had survived; it was his brother who had passed away. In the chaos it seems their names had been mixed.
When the truth became known my parents divorced. He went back to Holland, married and migrated to Australia.  I wasn’t told he existed.
After the Japanese left the guerrilla war against the Dutch began and ran for four years.  It ended when Queen Beatrix surrendered sovereignty on 27 December 1949.  That was my birthday – I was seven years old.
Those were harsh times for Europeans in Indonesia but I don’t remember any cruelty or unkindness towards me. I could speak Indonesian and Javanese, so mixed well with the other children at school even though I’m a blond blue-eyed European.
I really can’t recall any bad things happening to us, though some Europeans, including women and children, were killed by revolutionaries when the Japanese camps were opened. We kept a low profile.
My mother had no other children. She worked with Indonesian women and was well liked. She wanted to help people.  My stepfather, John Pejoh, was Indonesian.  I don’t know exactly but that must have made a difference particularly when President Soekarno told the Dutch to ‘go to hell’ and started nationalising foreign businesses.
My step father got sick and died suddenly when he was just 39.  Only then did my mother reveal that my real father was Dutch and probably alive.  But I wasn’t interested. 
I fell in love with a Manado man. I married when I was 17 and had five children. Two of my sons died but the other three are living in Jakarta and Bali.
One day I was working as a tour guide when a woman in the party queried my name. She put me in touch with a couple in Bangkok, also Voges.  Through them and the International Red Cross I was able to find my father.  He was an architect working on Queensland’s Gold Coast.
We met in Singapore between flights. I must have been in my 40s.  When my father held me for the first time something special happened. I discovered the real me. Although I had never seen him before, I immediately knew him.
I stayed with my Dad several times before he died aged 88.  My mother also died at the same age. They never met again after Bandung. My father had children, so I have another family in Australia.
My father was not an arrogant colonialist. Like many men who have been through terrible times he never spoke about his experiences in Thailand. When I divorced I took his name.
Surprisingly I still have some European habits.  I’m precise about appointments and hate jam karet (rubber time). I wear Western clothes, but eat Indonesian food, particularly Manado cuisine.
I also dream in Dutch, though I’ve been fluent in several local languages since I was a child.
I’m neither ashamed nor proud of the Dutch treatment of my country.  What’s done is done. Move on. I’m not interested in politics. I’m a Catholic, though not that serious. I believe in God. Who else can I turn to when I have to talk after all the things that have happened to me?
Like my mother I’m a woman who likes people.  I can adjust. I’m humble.  I’ve visited Holland several times.
Unfortunately Indonesia is not a truly multicultural country like Australia where even the foreign born and ethnically different can be accepted. 
Javanese are friendly, caring and communicative, not like the Dutch. Indonesians know we need each other.  Yet most see me as a Belanda (technically a Hollander, generally anyone with white skin), and rich. I’m Indonesian, alone and poor. I have no social security. 
I’m a product of the war. I’m half and half. I don’t want to retire in Holland, though I’d get health care there and I’m not well. I prefer to live with Indonesians and keep working.
This is my country. Yet I’m still considered an outsider.  That’s sad. When I die, throw my ashes in the ocean.

First published in The Jakarta Post 16 September 2013

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