Indonesia has its challenges. With slow global growth and falling commodity prices, President Joko Widodo has yet to deliver his promise of seven per cent economic growth or of economic liberalisation. Riding a wave of enthusiasm during his campaign in 2014, some supporters of the president feel reform of the bureaucracy has not been as adequate or efficient, even if the problems of politics and graft are entrenched. And with recent attacks in the capital city of Jakarta, for which the Islamic State has claimed responsibility, the threat of radicalism in the most populous Muslim-majority country has again surfaced.
And Dr. Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono conceded as much about his own stint. The former president – one of the many distinguished guests we met in the Indonesian cities of Jakarta and Bandung between February 21 and 26, 2016, as part of a study trip with the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy – said he had achieved over 70 per cent of his commitments from 2004 to 2014. In fact in the post-Suharto era, before Dr. Yudhoyono was elected, three presidents took office, but none lasted for more than five years. Effects from the 1997 Asian Financial Crisis were still felt, coupled by demands for democracy and good governance.
But a complex Indonesia – with over 14,000 islands, over 700 languages and dialects, and over 300 ethnic groups in 34 provinces – has “very simple needs”, for prosperity, peace, as well as justice and democracy. And Dr. Yudhoyono has had his achievements. He was pro-growth, pro-jobs, and pro-poor, reducing poverty and unemployment in Indonesia, increased counter-terrorism efforts, and the rule of law prevailed in his two terms. A peace treaty was also signed in 2005 between the separatist Free Aceh Movement and the Indonesian government, ending a thirty-year insurgency which claimed over 15,000 lives. And peace has endured.
With more than 60 per cent of the votes – over 73 million of the vote – Dr. Yudhoyono secured his re-election in 2009 without a run-off.
“Theories Must Be Tested”: Economic and Political Challenges
Current Vice President Jusuf Kalla, who was also involved in the Aceh peace-building process when he served under Dr. Yudhoyono’s first term, shared four economic challenges, so as to reduce inefficiency and increase competition. A population of 250 million means a vast production and consumption base, yet Indonesia has to improve its finance sector (its interest rate policies, in particular), logistics and infrastructure (to link the many islands), energy (in terms of the amount used), and the bureaucracy.
These challenges, however, are not new. Crafting an agenda for the future seems more elusive. Researchers from the Centre for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), a leading Indonesian think-tank, echoed Dr. Kalla’s economic assessment that the country has “strong economic structures”. A new growth strategy is needed in the post-commodity boom era, involving higher levels of foreign direct investment and incentives for a growing tech and startup ecosystem. And this strategy – for the long-term – has to be communicated effectively too.
One of the persisting hurdles is that of endemic corruption. Of “cartel politics” in Indonesia post-Reformation [after the fall of Suharto], in which major political players collude rather compete with one another.
CSIS argued that if Indonesia were to improve its poor ranking of 88 – out of 168 countries in 2015 – on the Corruption Perceptions Index published by civil society organisation Transparency International, the independent Corruption Eradication Commission or the KPK needs “more bite”. The lack of political will and attempts to undermine the commission have been challenges. Aggressiveness of and generally positive perceptions of the KPK has to be backed by greater institutional capacity, and both the public and a new breed of politicians – “running at full speed” to reform the bureaucracy – are challenging the status quo.
“Getting Down to Business”: Running the Government Like a Corporation
Staffing the government with technocrats, not bureaucrats, therefore appears to be a key administration strategy. And not just technocrats, but technocrats who hail from successful private-sector backgrounds, and in fact Mr. Widodo himself was a furniture exporter before his entry into politics.
One of his working cabinet appointees was Minister Susi Pudjiastuti, who heads the Ministry of Maritime Affairs and Fisheries. With her 30-year business background in a seafood export company and a charter airline, she has been tough on illegal, unreported, and unregulated fishing, seizing and blowing up foreign vessels found without permits. And Ibu Susi is not only tough on these illegal ships. Characterising her tough approach in the ministry as “Susinisation”, she bans the use of complex or complicated words in internal communications and stresses restructuring of the bureaucracy. “Competition can boost systems”, she added.
A no-nonsense straight-talker, she emphasised efficiency. “I only have four lists”, the minister explained. “A do list, a done list, a wish list, and a problem list”.
Perhaps these business backgrounds mean common, first-hand experiences with red tape in Indonesia, thereby strengthening their political resolve against corruption. Jakarta Governor Basuki Tjahaja Purnama, or Governor Ahok, recounted regulatory hurdles when he was building his company dealing with mining contracts. A four-hour bus ride from Jakarta in Bandung, its mayor Ridwan Kamil has been an academic, a businessman, and a social activist before his foray into politics. His interactions as an entrepreneur with an architecture company should have further revealed the extent to which graft could stifle businesses and their growth.
Decentralisation and transparency have hence featured in the agendas of Governor Ahok and Mayor Kamil. For the former this meant the appointment of district estate managers and sub-district heads – along with firings of officials found guilty of corruption – and for the latter district heads helm neighbourhood units. Besides being tasked with “fixing the small things”, with an annual sum of around S$14,000, these district heads have more than 50 powers and the mandate to implement or innovate small-scale initiatives within their units.
Someone from the group asked Mayor Kamil he could lost grip on power as a result, but he disagreed. In fact besides maximising results, citizen evaluation through the neighbourhood units allows him to also check for abuse of power.
And in the footsteps of President Widodo, both the governor and mayor have made their administrations more transparent. In addition to regional budgets published in public places and on the Internet, Governor Ahok has plans to templatise the city’s financial data for e-budgeting. “Since the root of many problems is corruption”, he explained, “the answer is higher levels of transparency”. Furthermore, platforms have been created for permits to be processed online, so that there is greater convenience and even fewer opportunities for graft.
“Smart Cities, Smart Nation”: Stiff Competition
It should thus come as little surprise that efficient and “clean” Singapore – in more than one sense – was cited as inspiration in the cities of Jakarta and Bandung. Our city-state has at the moment benefited from stronger institutions, and our policy advances in public housing and public transportation will continue to be emulated in the coming years. But this value proposition could be eroded over time. Mayor Kamil expressed that he was trying to use the wisdom of the late Lee Kuan Yew “to serve people”. And in this vein recent technological advancements have empowered those in office – like the effusive mayor – to advance development plans, and to put together best practices speedily.
Ibu Susi has made her mobile number public on her Twitter account. And through these texts she has communicated with Indonesians, and also received the occasional tip-off.
These new-generation leaders have not just adopted these platforms for engagement with the public, but also incorporated technology in their policies and governance strategies. The “Smart Nation” movement in Singapore sees its parallels in the “Smart Cities” of Jakarta and Bandung, where big data is operationalised in the command centres tracking key amenities, infrastructure, or personnel updates. Governor Ahok described his office as a “co-working space for developers and programmers”, who use open data and technology to improve policies.
Yet as impressive as the embrace of technology was, it was the disposition and passion of the two leaders of the most populous and third-most populous cities of Indonesia which were truly remarkable. Governor Ahok of Jakarta spoke with enthusiasm about the 40 young interns he regularly gathers in the same room, who – with no vested interests – reflect the governor’s faith in youth. “If you are stupid, learn from me, and if you are smart, teach me”, he muses, as he elaborated the meetings he organises on YouTube, how the interns are involved in different departments, and how they produce policy solutions and reports for him.
The same can be said of Mayor Kamil. “I believe in leadership in the middle”, he declared during a script-less presentation – albeit with the occasional gesture to his staff to search for a project or report on Google and Google Images, before projection on the screen – “and 50 per cent of my time is spent outside of the office”. Having started with the fundamentals of fighting corruption and improving performance on the national bureaucracy index, increasing Bandung’s happiness index is his priority. His professional experience in architecture and design thinking has been useful in this regard. The mayor bikes to work every day, spends one hour a week having dinner with the poorest families in the poorest districts and making a speech to a school, and encourages his district heads to do the same.
“Bhinneka Tunggal Ika”: Unity in Diversity
Overcoming this laundry list of challenges will not be easy, and it will have to go beyond a few good politicians like Ibu Susi, Governor Ahok, and Mayor Kamil. While they are proud of their own achievements thus far, they are certainly not blind to institutional hurdles or primordial interests which may slow progress for the future.
Nonetheless, few will deny Indonesia’s growing potential.
“Indonesia was born out of imagination”, Mayor Kamil mused, as he shared his vision of a more decentralised, innovative, and collaborative Bandung. “Born out of imagination”, because Indonesia is “so diverse”. And on the notion of diversity – in response to one of the 25 questions on the floor – Governor Ahok explained the national emblem the Garuda Pancasila, a bird-like creature gripping a white ribbon scroll with the national motto “Bhinneka Tunggal Ika”, which translates roughly into “Unity in Diversity”. In line with that, throughout our meeting with the Governor Ahok, the fact that a Chinese-Christian is the governor of the capital city of the most populous Muslim-majority country often appears to be taken for granted.
Because for all the talk about intolerance and threats of radicalism (which remain concerns, no doubt), remarkable strides have been made. And if Indonesia’s young and passionate leaders stay the course, continue to embrace diversity, competition, and efficiency in response, as well as to chip away at antiquated norms, the agenda for the future will be an exciting one.