In Indonesia, a New Breed of Politician Is on the Rise

Updated October 8, 2013, 10:15 p.m. ET

In Indonesia, a New Breed of Politician Is on the Rise

‘What We’re Seeing Is Extraordinary”

BEN OTTO And ANDREAS ISMAR

Fifteen years after the overthrow of strongman Suharto, and less than a year before Indonesia’s first transition between two directly elected presidents, leaders that bear little resemblance to their predecessors are emerging in this young democracy of more than 240 million people. They are mayors, governors and technocrats with a reputation for clean hands in a country dogged by corruption. Many have risen with little money and few connections in a political system where leaders traditionally hail from the military or dynastic families.“What we’re seeing is extraordinary,” said Douglas Ramage, an analyst based in Jakarta associated with consultancy BowerGroupAsia. “The compelling logic of popularity is what drives Indonesian politics now, and the perception of a candidate as clean, transparent and authentic is what most drives popularity.”

On the main island of Java, the political and financial heart of a near trillion-dollar economy, a dozen new faces are redefining expectations of public service.

The most prominent of them is Joko Widodo, former mayor of Solo, a small city in Central Java where he earned a following by cutting through red tape and boosting transparency. His inexpensive campaign in the capital of Jakarta a year ago secured him the country’s most important gubernatorial seat.

For the plain-talking Mr. Widodo, who now tops polls of potential presidential candidates for the 2014 elections though he hasn’t said if he would run, the difference is simple.

“Right now, you’ve got the policy over here and what people want over there; they don’t meet,” he said. “But the people know what they want.”

Voters have moved on from the euphoric days following Suharto’s downfall in 1998 when election turnouts were near 90%, and have become more demanding about good governance. In elections in the past decade, more than half of all incumbents have regularly been booted out.

President Susilo Bambang Yudoyhono won the first direct elections in 2004 on an anticorruption campaign; five years later, he won a landslide re-election largely for delivering on services like cash handouts to the poor. His popularity has plunged as his party has been hit by corruption scandals and his leadership has weakened as the end of his term nears.

At the regional level there are some Jokowis in the making.

In Indonesia’s second city, Surabaya, the country’s first directly elected female mayor, Tri Rismaharini, has earned a following—and political enemies—for decisions such as rejecting a downtown toll-road project and rerouting it to the city’s outskirts.

When the governor of East Java province told the city to shut down its red-light district almost overnight, Ms. Rismaharini reasoned that it could only be done gradually, by teaching sex workers new skills.

Other young politicians are getting a chance too.

In Bandung, a city southeast of Jakarta that has long been considered one of the worst-governed municipalities, Ridwan Kamil, a former architect, entered office last month pledging to tackle floods and improve public transport.

On a recent weekday, Mr. Kamil biked with his entourage to a city bus station filled with angkot, small motorized public-transport vehicles. He talked with drivers and passengers about safety and the standards of service they expect before driving an angkot across the city, picking up passengers and dropping them off.

It was good publicity for a new mayor, but also a sign that more leaders are borrowing from Mr. Widodo’s playbook.

Political analysts say the majority of Indonesia’s leaders are at best unexciting and at worst corrupt. Half of all governors are either in jail or have been indicted on corruption charges, though many denied wrongdoing. Since 2004, more than 40 governors, mayors, and district heads have been convicted of corruption.

Political analysts say more inspiring leaders are on the way.

“This is the end of the era of ideology in politics. We’ve entered the era of competency” and authenticity, said Bima Arya, a young political scientist who recently won the mayoral seat in Bogor, a satellite city of Jakarta.

Indonesia has enjoyed a decade of stability even as it has been plagued by endemic corruption, wide inequality and infrastructure woes. Labor unions are growing. The press is free. Elections are largely fair.

For all those gains, Indonesia is at a critical juncture. Democracy is messy in a country that encompasses three time zones and dozens of ethnic groups and main languages. The economy has been one of the world’s fastest-growing in recent years, but has begun to sputter because of lackluster global demand. President Yudhoyono’s recent weakness has also held up reforms.

Religious intolerance is also rising in the world’s most populous Muslim country, long celebrated for its moderate brand of Islam. Transparency remains poor. Civil-rights organizations fault the government for its handling of the haze caused by land-clearing fires this year that angered neighboring Singapore and Malaysia.

“The danger is that we’ve gotten to a point where voters on the whole don’t trust their leaders or the system anymore,” said Yenny Wahid, daughter of Indonesia’s first president in the democratic era, Abdurrahman Wahid, and today a leading voice in civil society. “And so they listen more to religious leaders—including the extremist ones, which is one reason why we’re seeing religious intolerance rising.”

Other young leaders point to problems with education, especially important as Indonesia integrates with the global economy.

Another challenge is Indonesia’s old guard. The largest political parties are still controlled by leaders dating back to the Suharto era, and they have raised barriers to new entrants to the national political stage.

Some voters remain skeptical about clean government because of the number of people in Mr. Yudhoyono’s team who faced corruption charges.

Still, other scenarios were predicted 15 years ago. Yet the world’s largest archipelago nation hasn’t broken apart. The military didn’t take control. Elections haven’t been bought and sold wholesale.

“We have a tendency to see only what went wrong,” said Anies Baswedan, a university president and one of one of 11 candidates competing in President Yudhoyono’s Democratic Party primary as its leader steps down. “But when we became an independent nation, more than 90% of Indonesians were illiterate. Look where we are now. There are a lot of things that went right.”

About bambooinnovator
Kee Koon Boon (“KB”) is the co-founder and director of HERO Investment Management which provides specialized fund management and investment advisory services to the ARCHEA Asia HERO Innovators Fund (www.heroinnovator.com), the only Asian SMID-cap tech-focused fund in the industry. KB is an internationally featured investor rooted in the principles of value investing for over a decade as a fund manager and analyst in the Asian capital markets who started his career at a boutique hedge fund in Singapore where he was with the firm since 2002 and was also part of the core investment committee in significantly outperforming the index in the 10-year-plus-old flagship Asian fund. He was also the portfolio manager for Asia-Pacific equities at Korea’s largest mutual fund company. Prior to setting up the H.E.R.O. Innovators Fund, KB was the Chief Investment Officer & CEO of a Singapore Registered Fund Management Company (RFMC) where he is responsible for listed Asian equity investments. KB had taught accounting at the Singapore Management University (SMU) as a faculty member and also pioneered the 15-week course on Accounting Fraud in Asia as an official module at SMU. KB remains grateful and honored to be invited by Singapore’s financial regulator Monetary Authority of Singapore (MAS) to present to their top management team about implementing a world’s first fact-based forward-looking fraud detection framework to bring about benefits for the capital markets in Singapore and for the public and investment community. KB also served the community in sharing his insights in writing articles about value investing and corporate governance in the media that include Business Times, Straits Times, Jakarta Post, Manual of Ideas, Investopedia, TedXWallStreet. He had also presented in top investment, banking and finance conferences in America, Italy, Sydney, Cape Town, HK, China. He has trained CEOs, entrepreneurs, CFOs, management executives in business strategy & business model innovation in Singapore, HK and China.

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