Reform starts in the presidential office

The Jakarta Post
29 December 2006

By Wimar Witoelar

Ever since 1998 made 'reform' the most popular word in politics, its meaning has become more elusive every year. This will continue in 2007. Reform is like dieting. The more you try, the more you know about it, but the more you discover how difficult it is. The problem is that reform, like dieting, is not just a question of will, but also of choosing the right combination of trade-offs. Everyone knows the good things that need to be done, but the hard part is to stop doing the bad things.

You need good guys in government but bad guys are more dedicated to the pursuit of power. When you elect a good guy to a position of leadership, the bad guys undermine his leadership with money and dirty tricks. The moderately good guy tries to appease the bad guys so he can remain in power by making everybody happy – an impossible task. All you have left is a mess from which opportunists can collect their pickings.

Here is where the conundrum lies. Broadly defined, a conundrum is any problem where the answer is very complex. We can make things less complex way if we involve people in looking for solutions but reserve the decision for ourselves. Rather than turning the reform issue into a political football, remember what Confucius said, 'Life is really simple, but we insist on making it complicated.'

When President Yudhoyono says, 'Reform is not as easy as turning over your palm, it takes time,' the question is, does he really intend to turn over his palm? This is an important question, because the president has the largest role to play in reform. The president is more instrumental to reform than his cabinet, than political parties and parliament members, than the bureaucracy or the military, and certainly more than the Vice President. The president stands alone. Where he points, the nation follows.

The president might get punished if he tries too hard to reform the country, but the nation will benefit from his initiative. Some might find Abdurrahman Wahid's political journey unsuccessful, but three areas of reform remain a legacy to the nation: ethnic and religious pluralism, reducing military dominance, empowerment of the civil society. Reforms stay in the public mind even when they flounder later on. The world remembers the 'Prague Spring' of 1968, when Alexander Dubcek introduced political and economic reforms. Later tanks rolled into Czechoslovakia and the nation went back into hard-line hands. But the seeds of reform had been sown, the fruits of which were harvested twenty-some years later making Europe what it is today.

Some might find the Yudhoyono presidency does not call for such dramatic events. SBY wants to reform at a moderate pace. SBY is a decent person but not a firebrand reformer. He makes his own changes slowly over time, from a Soeharto loyalist to a democratic bureaucrat. His military background shows in his personal discipline and respect for seniors. Unfortunately decisiveness is not part of his character portfolio.

The issue is, can Indonesia afford a president like the SBY of 2004-2006, uncertain in purpose and action, always hesitating? Can we make the SBY or 2007 more presidential in assuming authority, pointing directions, and most importantly, can Indonesia look forward to a president who is clear and active on reform? How should the president react to the constant wrangling between political elite groups that in the end curtail the reform and prevent the administration delivering promises to its constituents?

First of all, a president should not react to politics; he should be proactive in finessing political conflict. Much has been written about SBY's lack of a political base and the necessity of keeping Golkar happy. Those who know Indonesia's political history and the nature of our politicians know that the politicians thrive in a vacuum. When there is no national leadership, the politicians step in. But the wind is blowing by firm political leadership, the politicians follow the wind. The case of Jusuf Kalla is highly revealing. From a non-political background Mr. Kalla joined Golkar bringing large financial contributions. When Golkar failed to nominate him for president in 2004, he deserted the Golkar campaign to join Yudhoyono. As for Golkar, once their candidate Wiranto was defeated, they flocked to Jusuf Kalla and made him chairman to gain executive access. When the VP was defeated in the showdown over the UKP3R (the unwieldy acronym for the three-person team assigned to speed up government reform), Golkar officials start to challenge Kalla's chairmanship. Like President Bush, Kalla is a lame duck and Golkar might support SBY directly if he shows the backbone to accommodate that support. Otherwise, SBY could go straight to the people by remaking his Partai Demokrat.

Optimism has to rest on hope, and our hope certainly is that he will emerge as the reformist president so often portrayed in his campaign image. The brouhaha over the appointment of UKP3R proves that deep inside the hesitant president lies the heart of a decent person.

Now comes the entrée after this appetizer of ideas. You don't have to change the president's personality to make him a good president. You just need to improve his support system. SBY is Indonesia's first directly elected president, and holds the world record for gathering the highest number of direct votes (67,196,112) and highest percentage (60.9 %) in a presidential election. In comparison, George W, Bush won his presidency in 2000 by 50,460,110 votes which were in fact less than his opponent Al Gore's tally of 51,003,926. Bush was declared the winner because the US does not vote for its president by direct vote, but through the Electoral College. Yet SBY does not show signs of having the world's strongest mandate. When Bush came to Bogor, SBY looked much less confident than the US President who had been repudiated by his constituency.

Since SBY appointed his first cabinet, he has not been in control of the decision on personnel appointments, yielding to Vice President Kalla who was elevated to national figure status by his association with the winning candidate. This has led to a somewhat disjointed support system. Reform of the President's office must eliminate this dualistic conflict of interest.

The President's office does not articulate its political agenda in other than normative terms. The President has able spokespersons who speak in the stle of the eighties, rich in bureaucratic content. The Presidential Secretariat (Sekpres) and the Cabinet Secretariat (Sekkab) have disappeared. In previous administrations they have helped to streamline the coordination of presidential tasks. The State Secretariat (Sekneg) has no special function related to the presidency. It stands as an unwieldy reminder of Soeharto-style bureaucracy, obstructing rather than assisting reform. This is especially true in dealing with foreign governments and NGOS where they undermine the effort of SBY in portraying a modern international image.

You could go on from these findings to recommend structural change in the office of the president. But administrative tinkering will not transform SBY into the type of president the nation needs. You need to reduce the baggage that hinders SBY from becoming a strong leader

First, we need to a Vice President who strengthens the popularity and authority of the President, not weaken it. The President's slow tempo should not be an excuse for the Vice President to preempt him. The Vice President should act in the President's interest, preparing his brief and assisting in follow-up. Most importantly, as Mr. Jusuf Kalla shows a penchant for public speaking, he should be the President's main spokesperson, as the official spokespersons seem unable to rally public opinion behind the President's reform agenda.

With the recent launching of the UKP3R, the lack of a reform agenda may be swiftly overcome. Reform does not require reinvention. It just calls for a reactivation of the directions Indonesia has shown to the world: human rights protection, anti-corruption measures, and legal reform. All others follow these basic reforms. They were the theme of the SBY campaign, set aside to placate pressure groups who have jumped on his bandwagon. Bureaucratic reform of the presidential office should be designed to enable sharp focus on the reformist theme.

The year 2007 may give us a new reformist President, still the same Mr. Yudhoyono but strengthened by a support system which can bring out the best in him. Keep things simple, go for the jugular. The public will support the president for whom they voted in 2004.


This is the original version of an article that appears on a special year-end issue of The Jakarta Post devoted to the overall outlook of Indonesia's politics and economy in 2007.

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  1. From Ramli Sihaloho on 30 December 2006 14:29:06 WIB

    In my opnion, it’s an excellent article with some notes/additional comments as follows :

    1.Of course the president stands alone and that’s why we called "President" or in another word "the first man in a country". Means, he should be able to control his vice president, ministers and else by used his judgment or power. Also he should be able to stop doing the bad things in this country if he least trying to make it come true or improvement or continuous improvement but unfortunately it was not occurred and looks like will be never happen during on his period. He is just an ordinary people.....ordinary human being, nothing special apparent so far. Expectation of people to him was too high and disconnected with the reality. Everybody can see that.....

    2.SBY lack of a political base and trying to keep golkar or the others party in happy. By doing and maintain the condition, his objective which expressed during campaign period and what’s country need will be never happen or screw up. Why he did it !! I believe that everybody can see the answer clearly.

    3.This country is really looking for an new president in new election of 2009. Hope we are able to find and to get an right person by learning from the past. We are always in learning process on this subject/matter, is it !

    4. that's all for now.
  2. From jaenoel on 31 December 2006 18:41:10 WIB
    A very interesting article I ever readed out. I completely at the same line and perspective talking about reformation in our beloved country although I don't really into politics. I just wanna drop some words of my independence opinion on why SBY looks less confident whilst he was with Bush on Bush's last visit recently to bogor. He was less confident coz he was facing the Super power country's President. He may be felt so small at that time. That is it I guess!! and I was smiling on what you noted on one of the paragraph which says Jussuf kalla suppose to be the one assigned as the presidential spokesman. Well finally I just a bit confuse on what you mentioned that the Sekneg and sekkab disappear from the presidential office. What does it means ?

    just wanna highlight on what Mr. Ramli commented above,

    Whoever the president would definitely hits by the same comments and critics as the former presidents or current president had. It will not stop, will never!! till then they realized that it's only by hand to hand or supporting each other we would be able to bring this nation back to normal again at least or even better.

    What I'm trying to say here is. whoever the president...let's give him a chance and time. Let them brainstorm, plan and implement it. I'm very much sure that they their best ideas on how to get it done. Remember! this nation is drowning since the crisis moneter occured few years ago and it went deeper and deeper when the people tend to tackle down each other and even kiill each other just to be on the top. Can we see now on what's the main cause of this failure ? the people who are crazy of "POWER" or let me call them as the "POWER HUNTER". Most of them are the people who supposedly always think about the nation's needs but not their own needs.

    Finally I would like to say " To get this nation up again is not an easy work. So let's give them chance, time and full support as Mr. Witoelar noted in one of the paragraph which says "assist him to improve his support system"
  3. From Anwari Doel Arnowo on 01 January 2007 04:24:54 WIB
    I always give advise to my children who are all maintaining their own households: "If you want to make a betterment anywhere in the world, you must begin from your own house, beginning with the head of the family"
    In the case of Republic Indonesia, which I consider as a household too, The President is the Head of the Family.
    No exception, in my house, in Republic anywhere, in the Kingdom and other Governments and in the United Nations too !!

    Anwari Doel Arnowo
  4. From Ramli Sihaloho on 01 January 2007 15:06:44 WIB

    Thanks Mr. Jaenoel to highlight my commented. I do appreciated that and it's a very good thinking.

    however i would like to emphasis here couple things in effort to avoid any missunderstanding regarding my commented. chance and time that you were talked about were there and still belong to him and no body able to take over eventhough very very dissappointed. we know that we have an fixed system for any changes.

    second one, we understand and very realize that it's not easy work but it doesn't means that there is nothing to do with that in effort to improve the situations and nation requirements. we talked about the fact....reality and what's the hell is going on during under him. those things are just a personal opinion and will be no impact on goverment policy. let's make up our mind and develop it by our self and don't forget to remember who we are !!

  5. From ricka on 25 January 2008 17:13:59 WIB

    never lose hope ... vote for SBY :)

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