Yudhoyono’s ‘big white book’ sparks debate about president’s legacy; Indonesian president’s reflections offer little insight

February 3, 2014 8:38 am

Yudhoyono’s ‘big white book’ sparks debate about president’s legacy

By Ben Bland in Jakarta

Indonesian president’s reflections offer little insight

Fifty years after Mao Zedong’s “little red book” was first distributed in China, Indonesia’s President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono has published his own rather less pithy “big white book” of reflections on politics and leadership.

Eager to revive his flagging reputation before he steps down in October after a decade at the helm of southeast Asia’s biggest economy, Mr Yudhoyono’s book – entitled There is Always a Choice – stretches to an eye-watering 822 pages.

The unfortunate timing of the release, coming as Indonesia battles deadly floods in Jakarta and Manado and a huge volcanic eruption in North Sumatra, has seen the president lampooned by his many critics.

It has also sparked a lively debate about the ambiguous legacy of this former general. In his first term, Mr Yudhoyono led a successful rehabilitation operation after the devastating Aceh tsunami, tackled entrenched Islamist terrorism and oversaw a dramatic turnround in the country’s economic fortunes.

He secured a second term with a landslide election victory in 2009 after vowing to fight widespread corruption.

However, Mr Yudhoyono’s approval rating has since slumped as the once booming economy has fallen victim to poor management, key policy decisions have been kicked into the long grass and his Democrat party has become mired in high-profile corruption scandals.

Until recently a darling of international investors, Indonesia is now considered one of the “Fragile Five”emerging markets that are vulnerable to a painful downturn because of their overheating economies and underperforming governments.

With one eye on his personal legacy and one eye on the political prospects for his party and his family, the book is an attempt to set the record straight.

Mr Yudhoyono recounts discussions with Indonesian politicians and world leaders to explain why he has not achieved more.

He recalls revered former Singapore prime minister Lee Kuan Yew telling him that even though he might only be able to complete 70 per cent of his objectives, that will be more than any other president could achieve in such a vast, complex nation.

Then Mr Yudhoyono turns to history for support, citing a John F. Kennedy dictum that although presidents must have goals, there is insufficient time to achieve them, even in two terms.

The book, which the president insists is only a precursor to his memoirs, gives little insight into the vicissitudes of policy making and coalition building in this young and rambunctious democracy, the world’s third biggest.

But, says Yohanes Sulaiman, a politics lecturer at the Indonesian National Defense University, it does shed light on Mr Yudhoyono’s thin-skinned nature.

The president is a nice guy who tried his best but lots of opportunities were wasted in the second term. That’s what people will remember

– Yohanes Sulaiman, lecturer at Indonesian National Defense University

Without naming names, Mr Yudhoyono bemoans his adversaries from the press to analysts to the mysterious “thick black cloud” that one day invades his residence and can only be expelled through prayer.

Chapter titles such as “A president often feels alone” and “Maintain communications although you are often frustrated” do little to dispel the notion that this is one long exercise in retrospective self-justification.

But Jakob Oetama, the publisher of the book and the founder of Indonesia’s pre-eminent newspaper Kompas, has said it is meant to educate the public about the challenges of leadership as this country of 250m gears up for parliamentary elections in April and a presidential vote in July.

Unfortunately, it fails to explain the main mystery surrounding Mr Yudhoyono: why he did so well in his first term only to disappoint during his second, when he has equivocated on key issues such as cutting costly fuel subsidies and failed to make headway in the fight against endemic corruption.

Many observers believe a too-eager-to-please president was hamstrung by his rift with Jusuf Kalla, the straight-talking tycoon who was vice-president during the first term before the men fell out and Mr Kalla ran for the top job himself.

Mr Kalla was replaced by Boediono, a bookish economist and former central bank governor who had neither the profile nor the political heft to play the necessary “bad cop” to Mr Yudhoyono’s “good cop”.

“The president is a nice guy who tried his best but lots of opportunities were wasted in the second term,” says Mr Sulaiman. “That’s what people will remember.”

While Indonesia’s gross domestic product grew by an average of nearly 6 per cent per year under Mr Yudhoyono, little progress was made on revamping the country’s woeful infrastructure, reforming its Byzantine bureaucracy or fixing its ailing education and health systems.

High on hot money inflows and a general sense that Indonesia was taking its rightful place on the world stage, Mr Yudhoyono’s government implemented protectionist economic policies with as much ease as it dodged tough calls.

The tapering of the US Federal Reserve’s extraordinary monetary stimulus is adding to the financial pressures on emerging markets with large current account deficits such as Indonesia. Mr Yudhoyono’s successor will need to show more resolve if the country is to live up to the high expectation of investors and the fast-growing middle class.

Indonesians do not doubt that the president always had a choice. But, as Mr Yudhoyono completes his second term, many are left asking: where were the decisions?


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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