On July 29, 2019 | 0 Comments

“TPS” is the Indonesian acronym for “Tempat Pemungutan Suara” or “polling station,” in English. Whenever I see these three initials it’s not the image of a voting booth that comes to mind; it’s something else—which I will come to momentarily—but in the recent national elections more than 150 million Indonesian voters went to the polls. To serve their needs, the General Election Commission established 809,500 TPS. The one in the area of Jakarta where I live was set up in a small park less than 50 meters from my house and it was there, on April 17, as I watched my neighbors dip the tip of their index fingers into an ink pot as a sign that they had voted, I began to muse about that other TPS.


That other “TPS” is Toenggoel Paraloan Siagian—teacher, boss, mentor, and friend—a person who played a key role in the development of Indonesian studies in the United States.

Toenggoel was born in Jakarta in 1935. His mother was a schoolteacher and his father a Protestant minister and the founder of PSKD (Perkumpulan Sekolah Kristen Djakarta), the Association of Christian Schools of Jakarta which he established in 1942. Several decades later, Toenggoel would take over his father’s position as head of PSKD but the long road he traveled between his departure for the United States in 1960 and that time is an important one not sufficiently recognized in the history of Indonesian studies abroad.

Though initially educated in Dutch, Toenggoel was semi-fluent in English by the time he graduated from the University of Indonesia in 1958 with a Bachelor of Economics degree whereupon he was awarded a scholarship by the International Committee of the Young Men’s Christian Associations (YMCA) of the United States and Canada to continue his studies at George Williams College in Chicago. Because the financial stipend that he received was minimal, during his studies there he worked as a freelance photographer to make ends meet. He graduated with a Masters in Social Work in 1962. His brother, Sabam, was also in the U.S. at the time, working as an assistant to Protestant minister on the Cornell University campus. Having heard about Cornell’s Southeast Asian program and the university’s great modern Indonesia collection, Toenggoel decided to visit his brother and pursue further education there. Either ridiculously naïve or fervently optimistic, he somehow assumed that with the two dollars he had left in his pockets by the time he reached Ithaca that he would be accepted as a student at Cornell, a school with one of the highest tuitions in the United States.

Maybe it was because of his parent’s prayers, faith, and devotion—It certainly wasn’t his!—God smiled on Toenggoel and after a meeting with John Echols, professor of Indonesian at Cornell, and the chance departure of the professor’s teaching assistant, Toenggoel was offered the T.A. position and had his tuition waived.

A Masters degree usually takes two years to complete but Toenggoel, because of his need to work and his love to learn took four years, finally graduating with a Masters in Education in 1966. Had he persevered just a little longer, he might have completed his PhD as well but, by this time, he was anxious to find a real job. Once again God smiled on him when, in 1967, he was offered a job to teach Indonesian at the University of Wisconsin in Madison. Three years later, in 1970, he established the Indonesian Summer Studies Institute (ISSI) which offered intensive courses in Indonesian and Javanese and brought together senior and aspiring scholars of Indonesia to its Indonesian Studies Conference.

UW Madison had at that time a considerable number of Southeast Asia specialists but no Southeast Asia “program” per se and in 1973, the idea of establishing such a program emerged from a conversation between Toenggoel and political-science specialist, Donald Emmerson. With the Vietnam War in full tilt and the U.S. government fearing the fall of other Southeast Asian countries to Communism, public funding for Asia-related ventures was easier to come by and Toenggoel was able to raise a sufficient amount of funding from the government and other sources for the establishment of a Southeast Asian Studies program.


In the autumn of 1973, I was a wannabe dalang who had just finished summer courses in the study of wayang kulit and Javanese dance at the University of Washington in Seattle. There, I decided to go to Indonesia to further my study wayang performance techniques and, having learned of the recently-established Southeast Asian Studies program, I returned to my home state to prepare for that eventuality.

In my first semester at U.W., starting in January 1974, I didn’t see all that much of Toenggoel but in the summer I became one of his unpaid elves, helping to manage Wisma Indonesia, a fraternity house that he turned into a boarding house for ISSI students. This work eventually led to me being hired by him the following year to serve as secretary for the Indonesian Studies Program, in which position I then came to know all the teachers and graduate students at UW and a large number of Toenggoel’s friends, including most leading lights in the fields of Indonesian studies.

Over time our working relationship developed into a true friendship and many were the nights that Toenggoel sipped on a glass of cheap wine at my place on South Mills Street or I chugged a beer with him at his place on Lake Monona.

Toenggoel’s lack of a PhD had long ruffled the feathers of certain PhD holders at the university who did not like taking orders from a person with a lower degree and by the summer of 1976 (when I left Madison for Indonesia), Toenggoel decided to remove himself from an increasingly untenable situation. “Fuck it!” he no doubt said. If U.W. didn’t want him; he no longer wanted U.W. And with an offer of employment at the University of California in Santa Cruz, he packed his bags and left.

In Santa Cruz Toenggoel rapidly developed that university’s Indonesian Studies program and, also from that base, helped to strengthen U.C. Berkeley’s program as well before finally returning to Indonesia in December of 1978 to take over his father’s mantle at PSKD.

After Toenggoel’s departure from Madison, ISSI gradually morphed into SEASSI, the Southeast Asian Summer Studies Institute but it is where students continue to go each summer to learn Indonesian. This is one of Toenggoel’s lasting legacies.


Toenggoel’s legacy for me is my dedication to the world of Indonesian literature. As a teacher, Toenggoel used literary texts as primary resource material. In the two years that I was at U.W. Madison I took an equivalent of four years of language study and, with guidance from Toenggoel and other mentors, graduated from children’s books, to short stories and then to novels. Thus, when I came to Indonesia in 1976 and saw my dream of studying wayang kulit collapse, I was sufficiently prepared to enroll in the Faculty of Literature at the University of Indonesia where friends of Toenggoel helped me to enroll and found me a place to live.

Over the years, from 1976 until now, I have been an eye-witness to all of Indonesia’s national elections. I have seen and applauded the strides that Indonesia has made towards becoming a truly democratic country but have been also forced to shake my head at the many backslides that have taken place, especially in recent times, but both the TPS the polling place and TPS the man remain high on my list of things I most respect.


Photo Caption: With TPS and Milly Wagemann in May 1976, a few days before I left for Indonesia.