Inside Story

Soeharto’s Australian whisperer

How a former Jehovah’s Witness activist became a secret intermediary between the Indonesian leader and the West

Hamish McDonald Books 21 March 2024 2193 words

The confidante: Clive Williams with one of Soeharto’s sons, Sigit Harjojudanto, in 1976. Tuti Kakialatu/TEMPO

For decades the outside world tried to understand Soeharto, the little-known Indonesian army general who emerged from Jakarta’s shadowy putsch attempt of 30 September 1965, seized power from the ailing independence leader Sukarno and obliterated the army’s communist opponents by orchestrating mass slaughter.

It took a while for diplomats to realise they had a window into the mind of this reticent figure courtesy of a Westerner — an Australian, in fact —who had become part of Soeharto’s household a decade before these events and was to remain a key intermediary between the general and the West until Soeharto stepped down in 1998. In the words of an American diplomat in Jakarta at that time, Clive Williams was Soeharto’s “Australian whisperer.”

But as former Australian diplomat Shannon Smith writes in his intriguing biography, Occidental Preacher, Accidental Teacher, Williams’s role was kept largely secret from the public for more than fifty years. “Those who knew him in an official capacity are confined to several dozen international diplomats, journalists and politicians, and they had national interest, and sometimes self-interest, in keeping his name, his position and his role out of the public spotlight,” says Smith. The man himself would divulge only that he came from Geelong. “Beyond that, to every single person who ever came across Clive Williams, he was a puzzle, a riddle, a mystery, an enigma.”

So who was Clive Williams? How did this cashiered Jehovah’s Witness missionary and self-trained chiropodist become attached to Soeharto? How important was he in the power transition and Soeharto’s long presidency? And what did he know about the manoeuvrings around the night of 30 September 1965? Thanks to exhaustive research, Smith has answers to the first three of these questions, but only a hint about the fourth.

Williams was born in Geelong in 1921 to a family on the edge of survival, his father shattered by two years as a German prisoner of war. His mother died when he was sixteen, robbing him of close emotional support just as he was coming to the realisation that he was homosexual.

Feeling “hunted” in Geelong, Smith conjectures, Williams needed somewhere to “hide in plain sight.” He found it as a Jehovah’s Witness. Though the sect had only about 2000 followers in Australia, it was well known thanks to its early adoption of new technologies. Sound vans cruising the streets, radio broadcasts, pamphlets and foot-in-the-door house calls — all these were used pushed its millenarian belief that Christ would soon return to Earth and replace all worldly governments with a paradise populated only by Witnesses.

The group was unpopular, of course, and as Australia entered the second world war it was also suspect for its pacifism. Its eventual banning in 1941 added to the attraction for Williams. “An ardent, proselytising Jehovah’s Witness must have felt a real adrenalin rush pitting themself against community standards, breaking laws, and actively seeking pushback or confrontation,” Smith thinks. “Living in a society where one felt pressure for being ‘other’ or ‘less,’ such as a homosexual, it would have been an ideal outlet for barely twenty-year-old Williams to fight back, especially where the attention was on one’s religious beliefs not sexuality.”

Having started out as a self-supporting “pioneer” roaming the towns in a sound-van, Williams graduated to a central role in the Jehovah’s Witnesses headquarters in Sydney, got exempted from call-up as a religious minister even as the sect continued to operate semi-underground, and then, in 1950, gaining induction into the sect’s global training centre, Gilead, in upstate New York. The following year, when his class was dispatched as missionaries, he landed in Manado, the province in the north of Indonesia’s Sulawesi island.

Williams lasted not quite three years in that role. Smith found a cryptic reference in the sect’s records for 1954 — “During the course of the year it became necessary to disfellowship a person from the congregation for unchristian conduct” — but Williams was otherwise expunged from the sect’s history books. He might have been expelled for attending more to charity than conversions, Smith generously observes, but his sexuality seems a more likely cause.

Aged thirty-six, Williams then moved to Semarang in Central Java, taking with him a younger Manadonese man. “It was also a good place to lose oneself or, indeed, hide from view. A place to shake off a religion and find some spirituality, to conceal sexuality, and to reset,” Smith writes. “Over the next few years, Williams delved into Javanese culture, became fluent in the local languages and established a series of lifelong friendships. Like many who enter witness protection, he emerged with a new identity.”

Despite his humble schooling, Williams had always been well spoken, had become a confident speaker from years as a missionary, and no longer had a mission to convert the local Muslims. He quickly tapped into the immense demand for English-language tuition in the new nation, particularly among upper-echelon Indonesians who could pay for classes and textbooks.

Word of Williams’s activities reached Tien Soeharto, wife of the rising army officer. The two struck up a rapport: “he delighted her with his demonstrations of Western etiquette and customs, he became the couples’ English tutor, and like most Australians, he was practical and handy at fixing things (including cutting her in-grown toenails).” Clive also followed international affairs: “he had travelled to London and New York! And his knowledge about the human condition, gained from travelling around the cities and isolated communities of Australia and his missionary work, was extremely broad. To the inward-looking Javanese couple, Williams was a revelation.”

It was during these years, the 1950s, that Soeharto rose to command the army’s crucial Central Java region, building a patronage style of leadership bolstered by commodity smuggling, protection rackets and other business activity. In the process he attracted life-long loyalty from army colleagues like Sudjono Humardhani, Ali Murtopo and Yoga Sugama and among Chinese-Indonesian compradore businessmen like The Kian Seng (known as Mohammed “Bob” Hassan) and Liem Sioe Liong (Sudono Salim).

Eventually the business deals got too much for the puritanical army head, Abdul Haris Nasution, who transferred Soeharto to the new staff college in Bandung in 1959. But that didn’t stop Soeharto’s rise. He took command of a new Jakarta-based ready-reaction force called Kostrad that also had the job of regaining Western New Guinea from the Dutch. Tien stayed in Semarang through this period, with Williams becoming a trusted male presence while frequently flying to Jakarta to see Soeharto.

Smith takes us through much of the still-emerging history and analysis of the events of 1965, though he misses some parts of the story, notably the role of the double agent Sjam Kamaruzaman, an army intelligence asset inside a “special bureau” attached to the top leadership of the PKI, the Indonesian Communist Party.

What Smith’s research reinforces, though, is that neither the CIA nor other foreign intelligence agencies were masterminding events. Although Western powers quickly piled in with propaganda blaming the killing of six army generals on the PKI, they were taken completely by surprise by the nature of the military putsch and knew virtually nothing about Soeharto. A provincial figure, he had not been among the more cosmopolitan Indonesian officers given US army training.

As Soeharto moved to undercut Sukarno, first by facing down his attempt to appoint someone else army commander, then by forcing the handover of executive powers in the famous 11 March 1966 letter Sukarno was intimidated into signing, then by becoming acting president in 1967, foreign embassies were baffled by the opaque responses they were getting from the emerging leader. When he said “yes” it could mean yes, or maybe, or just “I have heard you,” or even a no.

Then, in mid 1966, Williams was discovered by American ambassador Marshall Green and soon became an indispensable intermediary for the embassy, and vice-versa. He would often turn up on the doorstep of an American diplomat’s house at the behest of the acting president, and the embassy also chose Williams for reciprocal approaches.

Williams was very different from other potential intermediaries including members of the ring of ex-Semarang army officers serving as “special advisors” to Soeharto, or foreign minister Adam Malik and other civilian politicians who sometimes had different political agendas. He was non-political, incorruptible and simply not interested in money. He understood “Soeharto’s nuances and communication style; he could read Soeharto’s mood and could tell whether he was angry or prevaricating or anxious, and he could anticipate Soeharto’s thinking and reaction to an issue.” He also spoke both English and Indonesian fluently, “ensuring there were no linguistic or cultural misunderstandings.”

By 1967, Soeharto was ensconced in the large house at Jalan Cendana in Menteng, the old inner suburb of Dutch officialdom. Williams took a small house, connected by gate, at the back. He would come in for meals, take Soeharto through what the foreign media were saying, coach the six children in English, and guide Tien through the Australian Women’s Weekly.

The Australian embassy was two years behind Marshall Green in discovering Williams as the best conduit to Soeharto. Or at least its mainstream diplomatic staff were. An army attaché, Colonel Robert Hughes, met Williams in Central Java in 1966 and got a meeting with Soeharto, with Williams interpreting. Murray Clapham, a suave young officer of the Australian Secret Intelligence Service, became friendly with Williams, as did his chief of station Kenneth Wells.

The ABC’s correspondent, Tim Bowden, also discovered Williams and persuaded him to give a radio interview in October 1966. While current politics were barred, the hour-long encounter went deeply into the kind of divination that Soeharto — like many Javanese — practised as they reached major decisions.

But these insights were disregarded by Australia’s ambassador from 1966 to 1969, Max Loveday, a rigid and self-important character who insisted on using conventional channels, notably the Indonesian foreign ministry and Malik, its minister, whom Soeharto distrusted. The Australian government consequently made a number of diplomat blunders by pushing proposals that Williams would have advised were bound to be refused. A visit by prime minister John Gorton in 1968 to cement reopened political contact was a near failure, redeemed mostly by the Indonesian-language fluency of Gorton’s wife Bettina.

It was not until Gordon Jockel — who knew about Williams from a memorandum the exasperated Ken Wells circulated in Canberra behind Loveday’s back — became ambassador in March 1969 that the embassy tapped into the Whisperer.

Smith’s biography ends about there, with the relationship from 1969 to Williams’s death in 2001 to be covered in a second volume. Those who met Williams over these decades know he remained fervently loyal, especially to Tien Soeharto (and her memory after she died in 1996). During the tension over East Timor he remained a vital channel for Canberra.

His house in Menteng remained a modest one, as did the former home and hobby farm of Soeharto himself by the standards of Marcos, Mobutu or Putin (or even Sydney’s harbourside mansions these days). Whether he exercised any restraint over Soeharto’s children in their business dealings would be interesting to discover. From the available evidence it would seem not. Any role he took in the nuptials of Soeharto’s daughter Titiek to the dashing special forces officer Prabowo Subianto would be of added interest now that Prabowo is president-elect.

On the last question — what did Williams know about 1965–66? — Smith has found only tantalising clues. When a German-born Jesuit, Franz Magnis-Suseno, met him just prior to the 30 September coup, he was surprised by Williams’s conviction that Soeharto was ready to act against the communists. “What was clear from Magnis-Suseno’s account of his conversation with Williams — and it wasn’t a [later] recollection, he recorded it in his diary — was that Soeharto was either planning his own initiative or preparing to respond to another scheme,” Smith writes.

But then Smith backs away. “The 30 September Movement seems to have been no more than an old-fashioned army putsch by disgruntled middle-level officers using whatever support they could get,” he writes. “But it was a clumsy, poorly planned operation and probably didn’t expect Soeharto’s quick counter-reaction. It might also have been subverted by Soeharto; he certainly didn’t orchestrate the movement but it is very reasonable to assume he knew the plans in advance, and that he both infiltrated the putsch and then took action against it.”

So Smith, despite have read and cited much of the still-expanding literature about 1965, hangs back from the logical leap that other scholars are making, and that the Jesuit’s diary points towards. This is that Soeharto’s own spooks fired up impressionable middle-ranking officers to mount the 30 September putsch against pro-American generals allegedly about to overthrow Sukarno, in the hope of drawing the PKI into a power grab, thereby justifying an army counter-coup.

We live in hope that the second and third volumes of David Jenkins’s account of Soeharto’s rise to power will clarify further, and that Williams grew less discreet in his later years. So far, though, Soeharto’s Australian whisperer remains largely enigmatic.

Occidental Preacher, Accidental Teacher: The Enigmatic Clive Williams, Volume 1, 1921–1968
By Shannon Smith | Big Hill Publishing | 254 pages | $34.99