Sutopo Purwo Nugroho, Indonesia’s highly regarded disaster agency spokesperson, a man who continued to provide updates on the country’s inordinate number of natural disasters even as he suffered lung cancer, has died aged 49.
Sutopo, known affectionately across the country as Pak Topo, an amalgamation of the Indonesian word for mister and an abbreviation of his first name, had been undergoing cancer treatment in the Chinese city of Guangzhou.
The news was confirmed by Indonesia’s disaster agency and Sutopo’s eldest son, Ivanka Rizaldy.
“Tonight, a hero and my beloved father, Sutopo Purwo Nugroho, has returned to God while undergoing treatment in Guangzhou, China. To all friends and family, we ask for your forgiveness and prayers for Pak Sutopo. Thank you for everything you have given me Pa, I will always pray for you,” he wrote on his social media account, alongside a family portrait, with his father, mother and younger brother.
Known for his indefatigable commitment to the job, personal mission to combat fake news, as well as his quirky sense of humour, as often displayed on his Twitter account, Pak Topo was hailed as “true servant of the nation” by Indonesian social media users on Sunday, including by the president, Joko Widodo
A household name in Indonesia, Sutopo had been spokesperson for the national disaster agency since 2010, and was known for tirelessly providing clear information and regular updates on the country’s frequent natural disasters, from earthquakes to volcanic eruptions, and landslides to tsunamis.
But last year Sutopo revealed his own personal disaster, announcing he had stage-four lung cancer and might not survive a year.
With a string of deadly earthquakes in Bali and Lombok in August, and a catastrophic tsunami in Palu on the island of Sulawesi, which killed more than 2,000 people last September, 2018 was one of the worst on record for disasters in Indonesia.
Even as he became increasingly gaunt and unwell, Sutopo remained deeply committed to his job, writing press releases from his hospital bed, drip in hand, or in between bouts of chemotherapy.
In an interview with the Guardian last November he said he thought about quitting, but couldn’t bring himself to do it.
“I thought, my illness is my fate, I was destined to it, so I have to keep working, it is my responsibility,” he said, “When a disaster hits I have to share that information quickly, in any condition. As long as it gives benefit to people, I do my job whole-heartedly. Every job, if intended with heart, will have good results.”
In a show of how much he was loved, when the Guardian visited him a large table in Sutopo’s office was covered with a mountain of packages from across the country filled with medicines and tinctures from well-wishers he had never met. There were so many packages, he noted, he would never get the chance to open them all.
Sutopo, who was born in Boyolali, in central Java, the son of a schoolteacher and typist, studied geography at university, earning a doctoral degree from Bogor Agricultural University.
“Life isn’t determined by how long we live, but how useful we are to other people. That’s what I do,” Sutopo told the Guardian last November, “Although the doctors say that I don’t have so much time left, in my last days, I want to try to do good, to be useful. That’s so much better than having a long life but making people miserable!”