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An Indonesian dynamo emerges

Publication Date : 21-01-2014


The ruling Democratic Party of President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono (SBY) is on the ropes.

As Indonesia heads into the polls, the party is currently holding its Presidential Convention, in search of a leader to revive its image and deliver victory in the 2014 polls: a daunting task.

The Minister for State-Owned Enterprises (SOE), Dahlan Iskan, is leading the pack of Democrat hopefuls (there are 11 of them), with 16.1% of support according to a poll by the Indonesian Survey Circle.

In fact, Dahlan is one of the few reasons SBY has to be cheerful in 2014.

After a depressing New Year with a torrent of negative publicity, ranging from surveys that revealed plunging support levels for the Democrats and the detention of former party chief Anas Urbaning-rum, SBY can rest assured that some things are going well.

While the Convention has failed to boost the party’s popularity, at least Dahlan has caught the public eye.

The other frontrunner and the president’s brother-in-law, Pramono Edhie Wibowo, has also attracted attention – if only for his family connections.

Before I proceed any further, I should disclose that I am biased because Dahlan is an old friend and I write regularly for his wildly successful media group, Jawa Pos.

Dahlan was a “Jokowi-type” public figure long before anyone knew about the now super-popular Jakarta Governor.

Dahlan was and is mediagenic, problem-solving and always on the move.

Back in 2009, when Dahlan was appointed to head the state utility Perusahaan Listrik Negara (PLN), many were surprised at his willingness to enter the public sector.

However, having toured his own privately owned power plant in East Kalimantan and knowing of his commitment to the country’s electrification, the move made sense.

Dahlan’s tenure at PLN was literally “electrifying.”

With his relentless enthusiasm, he brought the unwieldy power generator to heel – turning it into a more service-orientated entity.

When, in 2011, Yudhoyono tapped Dahlan to lead the SOE Ministry, the appointment was welcomed across the country.

Furthermore, in a cabinet that lacked drive, Dahlan provided the nation with a sense of dynamism, while always focusing his efforts on enhancing SOE performance.

Of course, there were times when he overstepped the mark.

In a well-publicised incident soon after he was made minister, Dahlan forced open the Semanggi tollgates in South Jakarta for drivers caught in the early morning traffic.

Repeating the action at another tollgate a few weeks later, he later discovered that the second toll didn’t even belong to an SOE.

Still, the public applauded his determination to do something, rather than just sitting by idly.

Meeting Dahlan in Jakarta last week just after a high-profile setback over the pricing of subsidised gas canisters – which he supported but SBY opposed – I came across a chastened but still determined minister.

Remember, this was the same man who was told that he only had six months to live due to cirrhosis and had to undergo a liver transplant about seven years ago.

Having just completed his early morning exercise at the National Monument, Dahlan tucked into his breakfast as we chatted: “The price hike is necessary, but the amount of increase has to be reasonable.”

Throughout the discussion, Dahlan’s core message was clear enough.

When asked about his strategy for the Convention, he said: “The key for a successful campaign is your track record.

“You have to be used to working long and hard – 16-18 hours and sometimes you need to be able to make quick decisions so that you don’t lose the momentum.”

Despite the gas canister issue, he spoke warmly of the president: “The programmes outlined under the tenure of President SBY are fundamentally good. If chosen, I will continue adding value to the infrastructure development, food security, domestic industrialisation and other policies.

“I also understand the president’s unease about the pitfalls of an immature democracy.

“SBY is concerned that a populist candidate could well be elected whilst highly-qualified candidates are side-lined.”

More work has to be done should Dahlan really get on the ticket for the presidential race.

A survey by IndoBarometer in December revealed that Dahlan was only favoured by 12.1% of the wider electorate – trailing behind the other parties’ candidates.

Still, there’s no doubt that Dahlan has accumulated an enormous amount of experience both in terms of administration and indeed geographical reach.

No one knows the republic better than the man with over two hundred newspapers from Aceh to Papua.

Dahlan is clearly ready to step up to the challenges of leadership.

In a country where rhetoric dominates, he brings substance and a track record.

It’s something that everyone, especially our Malaysian leaders, can learn from.


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