The shape of the world a generation from now will be influenced far more by how we communicate the values of our society to others than by military or diplomatic superiority. William Fulbright, 1964

Saturday, July 22, 2006



In a nation of paradoxes, this one’s a real head-scratcher:

Why is a former four star general turned politician best known for being slow and indecisive, while his deputy – a businessman – has a think-it, do-it image?

No soldier advances far in any army if he or she can’t make snap decisions in a crisis, while corporate czars have a reputation for caution - taking their time and checking all options before signing off on policy.

No problem if these two were small-time players in some backwater legislature, but the men in this story run the biggest show in South East Asia.

Indonesia’s sixth president Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono (SBY) always looks happiest on the parade ground. His Dad was a soldier and he married into a military family. One of his sons has donned the khaki.

With that background most would expect the commander of a nation of around 240 million people and a similar number of political, social, economic and environmental problems to be Action Man.

Election analysts reckon Yudhoyono didn’t get 60 per cent of the popular vote in 2004 just because he sought to clean up a country corroded by corruption. Voters wanted the reforms to be run by a tough man at the top who was also a democrat.

His three predecessors (Habibie, Gus Dur and Megawati Sukarnoputri) had been ditherers, while the first two presidents (Sukarno and Suharto) had been no-nonsense heavyweights.

However there was one daunting problem; while Yudhoyono had the credentials his Democratic Party didn’t have the numbers. His handpicked running mate Jusuf Kalla was in a similar position.

Kalla was a politician and self-made entrepreneur with a reputation for straight dealing. He’d built a transport and industrial conglomerate in South Sulawesi and successfully moved his Kalla Group into Java.

Kalla had been kicked out of Golkar when he backed Yudhoyono. Golkar is the party founded by Suharto and which ran Indonesia for 32 years. After the 2004 election Golkar formed a loose ‘Nationhood Coalition’ with former president Megawati’s Indonesian Democratic Party of Struggle (PDIP) – creating a potentially formidable opposition.

But the smarter heads in politics rapidly realised that although Yudhoyono and Kalla could be trounced in the Parliament, they had the people’s mandate for change - and the voters were in no mood to tolerate party poopers for the next five years.

Kalla was sweet-talked back into Golkar and in December 2004 elected party chairman in a landslide.

Suddenly Yudhoyono had real muscle in the Parliament – and a debt to his politically nimble offsider. As Yudhoyono wandered the world glad-handing leaders, the older Kalla zipped around the archipelago tackling the really messy problems. His major triumph was getting peace in the north Sumatra province of Aceh, a goal that had eluded all previous administrations and the Dutch colonialists.

The December 2004 Tsunami that did most damage in Aceh certainly helped the long-time warring separatists and military rethink their priorities and tactics in the province. But it was Kalla’s persistent energy and political skills in pushing for reconciliation that kept the peace initiatives alive and ultimately successful.

Then Kalla started making decrees, which is the president’s prerogative, and blandly offering views that contradicted his colleagues.

The scuttlebutt flared: will the real president please rise?

Physically they’re like an old-time stand-up comedy duo – the plumping and ponderous president looking older than his 57 years, and his bouncy little sidekick seemingly younger than 64. Both deny any rift and claim they work as a team.

Which is what you’d expect them to say – but in this case it could be true. Part of the problem is the public’s expectations. In the past VPs were of no consequence – just fete-openers when the big man was overseas. Kalla is reinventing the job and having fun.

When Yudhoyono speaks off the cuff it’s usually to make some worthy but boring observation. Kalla’s cracks are newsworthy. When told that a local version of Playboy would be nude-free he quipped this meant Indonesian men were being duped into buying a misrepresented product.

Then he unveiled plans to lure wealthy Arabs to Indonesia. It seems the VP doesn’t want the usual idyllic isle and shopping spree promotion. He knows what Middle East males really want. Advertising the availability of widows and divorcees seeking men with Mastercards would be a big come-on.

In the West such an idea would be clawed to shreds, but in Indonesia where men are number one citizens, not all saw this as insulting and degrading to women.

The feminists said the predictable things and the remark was later reinterpreted by Kalla’s spin-masters - but it was the guffaws from the blokes around the VP that indicated Kalla has got the common touch.

More important was Kalla’s performance at an open public meeting held in East Java last month (June). This was to discuss a huge mud eruption from a ruptured gas well - and showed the man at his best.

The villagers and others whose lives and businesses have been seriously damaged by the non-stop hot and stinking ooze now covering hundreds of hectares were rightly furious - and demanding compensation. They were in no mood for bland assurances.

Kalla deftly ad-libbed his way through the claims and counter-claims. He bluntly accused the company (linked to a fellow minister Aburizal Bakrie) of being at fault and ordered payouts. That sort of plain speaking is unusual in Indonesian politics – unless directed at another nation.

Inevitably the idea that Kalla might go for the top job in the 2009 election has taken root. But it’s unlikely to flourish – the terrain is wrong.

Kalla is from South Sulawesi and however popular he becomes the geography of his birth is a major handicap in a country where ethnicity is more important than education.

Java is the nation’s most heavily populated island - the source and centre of all power. It’s a given that the country has to be run by a Javanese.

Then there’s his age. The man may be spry but if by some fluke he did become the nation’s seventh president he’d be 73 by the time his term finished. Running Indonesia is no job for a pensioner and Kalla says he’s not interested.

Of course he has to say that or the partnership would be untenable.

But there’s one thing more. Kalla seems to have slipped into the VP job as though it was tailor made. He usually looks at ease and in charge – and that’s not always the situation with his boss. Kalla isn’t into photo opportunities or bland comments and seems little fazed by criticism.

In a country where protocol is more important than policy, jolly little Kalla as VP can leave the salutes and parades to his more uptight superior, and get on with being Mr Can Do.

At the moment both appear happy with the arrangement and the public seems to have adjusted. Whether it can last for three more years is another head-scratcher.

(First published in On-Line Opinion, w/ending 22 July 06)


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