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

Sunday, December 28, 2008


Kuntoro Mangkusubroto
Working as the hands of God Duncan Graham

At the time it was the toughest job in Indonesia.

Repair a landscape ripped raw by the world’s most extreme natural disaster; house the grief-torn survivors who’d lost more than 170,000 relatives, friends and neighbors; rebuild roads, bridges, ports, power stations, hospitals – all the infrastructure that makes cities function.

Manage a huge budget and be accountable to governments and NGOs in Indonesia and around the world.

Cope with the hostility, the prejudice, the deep-seated suspicions still virulent after 30 years of civil war, the jealousy, the angry confrontationists and the back-stabbers. Aceh was a tortured land drained of trust, particularly hostile towards Javanese from the central government.

That Kuntoro Mangkusubroto stayed the distance, achieved the goals and at 61 looks fresh enough to tackle another epic catastrophe indicates that the director of the Bureau of Rehabilitation and Reconstruction in Aceh and Nias (BRR) is a distinctly gifted human being – though he rejects this appraisal: “I’m just myself.”

Four years ago this Boxing Day a massive undersea earthquake off Aceh triggered a tsunami. Waves to 12 meters swept across 800 kilometers of coast and up to 1.6 kilometers inland.

It was a scene from Armageddon.

The world pledged US $7.2 billion and paid $6.7 billion. Thousands of aid workers flooded in with a multiplicity of agendas. Also lured were those who saw the chance to exploit the situation and milk the largesse.

Indonesia ranks 143 on the world’s corruption index and the cynics predicted much of the aid would never reach those hurting most, and that petty bureaucracy would destroy even the best intentioned and most resilient.

There has been some minor project-level corruption that’s being pursued, according to Kuntoro, but the BRR has not been infected. The agency’s accounts have been checked by international auditors and given an unqualified pass.

“We set up an internal anti-corruption unit, the first for any Indonesian government agency,” he said in Wellington, New Zealand. He was in the country to address a conference on disaster risk management and thank Kiwis for their aid. Like Australia, NZ was among the first countries to offer help.

“We developed new standards of accountability for Indonesia and in advance of many other countries.

“We encouraged everyone to blow the whistle if they saw anything amiss. They just had to send me an SMS. I asked my staff to pledge their honesty and promise never to take one penny they were not entitled to have.”

When President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono hand picked the former Minister for Mines, business rescuer, company director, academic and civil engineer to take on the new BRR job in April 2005 Kuntoro dictated his terms.

They included ministerial ranking, direct access to the President (a privilege used only three times) and a salary three times larger than other ministers, an issue that drew much criticism.

“They were able to moonlight to supplement their salaries. I have no other income,” he said. “I do not take speaking fees or envelopes for anything I do.

“I fly economy class and not just to save money. At the back of the plane people talk to me and tell me what’s really happening. I thought this job was the chance given by God to touch the hands of the needy people, to go and do something good.

“Not many have that opportunity. Our success can be measured.”

Kuntoro said he draws his moral values and anti-corruption stand from his parents: “My father was a straight lawyer and my mother a professor of English.

“They brought me up to do good for other people, to be a good person, to be happy. We led a simple life. Although I started as a civil engineer (he was educated at Bandung Institute of Technology and Stanford University in the US), I fell in love with decision analysis.

“This discipline covers so many issues, but above all moral values are the most important. There are consequences to every action and the last defence is your conscience. You can compromise your strategy but never compromise your values.

“Have I been tempted? Many times, but it’s always like that. Life isn’t all about money. How does money relate to family, values and God?

“There were no how-to textbooks available for this job, no models of what to do. The task was so huge. I’ve had to face demonstrations and brutal words.

“Management was a nightmare. People blamed me for being too slow or not sensitive enough, but I had to remember they were the victims and had the right to blame.

“Twice I felt like giving up. I’m not too religious, but I believe. Yes. I trusted that we were sent by God to do this job. We are the extension of the hands of God and it is our duty.”

The first bureaucratic challenge came within hours of Kuntoro being sworn into office at the Presidential Palace. No one in the government would give him the money for airfares to Aceh because there was no system in place and it was a weekend.

The Australian aid agency AusAID stepped in with US $100,000 cash and Kuntoro and his team were able to get to ground zero. But there was no office or housing. Then the United Nations High Commission for Refugees gave the BRR space.

“I thought these things were God’s doing,” he said. “I was just the man in the middle.”

“When I chose staff I sought people of the highest integrity. I didn’t know them before. I asked if they were willing. If they said ‘yes’ they were employed. If they asked ‘how much?’ or ‘I’ll have to ask my boss’ then they were out.

“I have self confidence – some think I have too much. A good manager must have guts and be self reliant, have a nothing-to-lose attitude. You will make mistakes. The art is in solving problems at the lowest cost, to create harmony and make unbiased judgements, to get results.”

In April the BRR vanishes from everything except the history books. One of these will be written by Kuntoro unless he’s headhunted to fix another crisis.

In material terms the BRR has changed Aceh for the better. Much good has come from much horror.

More than 93 per cent of the job has been done. People are back farming and fishing. Traffic chaos has returned. The roads are bituminised, the bridges sturdy, the 125,000 new houses hygienic, the public buildings of a standard better then other provinces. Visa, work permit and import clearance procedures have been streamlined and accelerated, delivered through a one-stop shop.

Land titles now include the wife’s name ensuring her security should her husband die – a reform yet to spread to other provinces. National whistle-blower laws are being considered.

The templates for business and departmental propriety are there for other agencies and managers to pick up – if they so desire. Could corruption be eliminated and Indonesia rank high among the world’s clean countries?

Kuntoro, normally master of the snappy response, paused: “Yes. But only if there’s the political will.”

(First published in The Jakarta Post on Boxing Day 2008)