Susilo rides the momentum

By Karim Raslan

ASEAN can expect a far more assertive Indonesia given the Democrats’ success in last month’s Legislative polls.

LAST Friday in Bandung, capital of West Java, incumbent President and Democrat party leader Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono (SBY) amazed the assembled crowd with a rare display of bravado during a ceremony marking the declaration of his candidacy.

After nearly five years of hesitancy and uncertainty, the former general – emboldened by his party’s extraordinary success in last month’s Legislative polls (in which the Democrats tripled their representation in Indonesia’s parliament by securing 150 seats) – showed his countrymen what he was capable of as he selected his running mate.

Despite the mewling entreaties of his erstwhile political allies, most of whom were lobbying for one of their number to be adopted as his running mate, SBY turned them all down.

In quick succession they were all considered and found wanting. Firstly, Akbar Tanjung, the controversial former Golkar leader; secondly, Hatta Radjasa, SBY’s close confidant and Amien Rais’ acolyte; and finally Hidayat Nurwahid, the Islamist icon from PKS.

Instead, the 59-year-old general chose a former Coordinating Minister of Economics (and currently Governor of Bank Indonesia), Pak Boediono.

Boediono has admittedly not registered on Indonesia’s political radar much and many greeted his bid for the Vice-Presidency of the Republic with disbelief.

The soft-spoken, diplomatic and incorruptible academic from Jogjakarta’s elite Gadjah Mada University seemed so unlikely that very few people took the political chatter that he was to be chosen seriously.

However, on Friday, most of us were dumbfounded as Pak Boediono stepped forward to join SBY as his running-mate.

Still, as a Malaysian, I confess my feelings were mixed as I watched the event.

On the one hand, it’s hard not to be buoyed by the mounting sense of manifest destiny evident in Jakarta – a confidence that emanates from yet another fairly successful and democratic election (thus far at least), the looming consolidation of power under SBY, an economy that’s still humming with activity despite the global downturn, and a growing international profile arising from the recent G-20 meeting in London, not to mention US President Barack Obama’s unique childhood connection with the republic.

Certainly after 11 years of drift (and at times near chaos) following Suharto’s fall in 1998, the republic deserves its moment in the sun, even if it proves to be short-lived.

It’s as if the perennial “sick man” of Asean has recovered and is in blooming health just as the rest of us are reeling from a mixture of swine flu and the financial crisis.

So what does Pak Boediono’s appointment tells us about Indonesia?

Firstly, it shows that the President is enormously confident. If mishandled, his choice could backfire badly. But SBY is the master of political communication; and, when he speaks, he really connects with ordinary Indonesians.

Secondly, he is turning his back on Jakarta’s craven political elite, most of whom enjoy very limited traction beyond the Parliament in Senayan.

Indeed, supposed heavyweights such as DPR Speaker and Golkar faction-leader Agung Laksono almost lost their seats in the recent polls. While it’s a risky ploy, SBY is right to be bold and use his political capital immediately.

Thirdly, SBY will be drawing his team from the professional classes – from academia and the private sector. These men and women will be younger and without the political baggage he so detests.

As SBY stated (in a deliberate but understated rebuke to his former Vice-President Jusuf Kalla, with whom the fall-out appears to have become quite bitter), the focus will be on achieving a more rational and effective administration.

It will also be one that hopefully minimises the political in-fighting and accusations of personal business interests that have dogged his government hitherto.

In another departure from conventional wisdom, I suspect the President will also be trawling through the provinces to find successful local leaders for his Cabinet.

Interestingly, the popular and well-respected Governor of West Sumatra, Gamawan Fauzi, was tasked with reading out SBY’s campaign manifesto.

Finally, I’d like to end by reminding policy-makers across Asean that we’ll be dealing with a far more assertive Indonesia in the event of an SBY victory.

The best indication of this change in mood was when the President turned to discuss the economy at the ceremony, and in a sign of his immense pride in his administration’s achievements, he bracketed Indonesia alongside the two Asian giants – China and India – as the only nations in the world still registering positive economic growth.

The message is two-fold: firstly, that his team’s management of the unfolding crisis has been infinitely better than Suharto’s back in 1997/98 and, secondly, that the republic has pulled away from its counterparts in the region like Thailand, Malaysia and the Philippines and is now assuming its rightful place among the continent’s giants.

This leads to another more sensitive issue. Basically there is going to be a change in the balance of power in Asean as countries such as Thailand slip from the forefront and Indonesia – with an ambitious English-speaking leader – assumes a more commanding position.

Strangely, the biggest losers in all this may well be the Singaporeans – at one time the region’s premier private bankers and compradors. The Singaporean elite have long prided themselves on their special links to Washington, not to mention the success of their economic model.

But as its sovereign wealth fund Temasek continues to haemorrhage cash, its financial sector comes under increased scrutiny and the city-state’s pre-eminence seems like a fragile dream alongside the exuberant diversity and barely-managed anarchy of the archipelagic republic.

But we, too, will have to deal with an Indonesia that is becoming far more powerful and dynamic than we are.

It would be easy to play the old game of sour grapes, but the wise thing to do would be to change the way we do business and govern this country lest we get left behind.

(source the star online)