By: Our Correspondent

The planned appointment of former Jakarta Governor Basuki Tjahaja Purnama (above) as director of an as-yet unnamed state-owned enterprise, widely expected to be the giant state-owned energy company Pertamina, is intriguing on many levels.

For a start, it continues the rehabilitation of a Chinese Christian who was defeated in 2017 for reelection as Jakarta governor, charged with blasphemy of the Quran and jailed on charges widely viewed by human rights organizations as trumped up politically to get rid of him. It is also a clue to the wider commitment of the government to rein in growing Islamist fevers generated by such organizations as the thuggish Islamic Defenders Front, assumed to be backed by the national police, and the radical Hizbut Tahrir Indonesia (HTI). 

Ahok, as the former governor is known, served his full two-year sentence before being released earlier this year. At the time of his release, he said he would never serve again as a government official. But at the annual Bali conclave in August of the Indonesian Democratic Party of Struggle, or PDI-P – now the country’s major political party – party leader Megawati Sukarnoputri, who increasingly is regarded as a major kingmaker, dramatically brought the 54-year-old Ahok back into the limelight, welcoming him from the stage and referring to him affectionately with the honorific “Pak Ahok.”

Ahok obviously has a big job ahead of him. But by all accounts, after he succeeded Jokowi as Jakarta governor, he built an enviable record in running what many had regarded as a near ungovernable city, moving to put a light rail system in place, tackling the city’s strangling traffic, seeking to clean the massively corrupted rivers, closing down the infamous red-light district of Kalijodo in North Jakarta, bringing in excavators to tear down cafés, residences and houses of worship.

Along the way, he alienated many residents with his brusque manner, moving residents who had lived on the city’s riverbanks and public rail tracks for decades in his drive to clean up the city. 

But it wasn’t his unpopularity that brought him down. It was the drive to install a Muslim in his place. While campaigning in 2016, he had told residents of a housing project that some voters would turn him down because they were being “threatened and deceived” by those using a verse of the Quran as an excuse not to vote for him. A video was later edited to create a misinterpretation of his statement. The video went viral, spurring huge outcry. He was later reported to the police by Islamic militants. Despite his public apologies, the uproar cost him his job and a prison sentence. 

Serving Notice on Fundamentalism

Megawati’s entire performance at the PDI-P conference was interpreted as a gesture that she, and not President Joko Widodo, was in charge, and was also designed to serve notice that growing Islamic fundamentalism would be curbed.

The message from the stage was followed up later by cabinet appointments made in October by President Joko Widodo, who pointedly replaced a Muslim cleric in the religious ministry with a former general, Fakhrul Razi. The Ministry of Education and Culture was also taken away from Muhammadiyah, the country’s second-largest Islamic organization, which has actively shaped politics and education for decades, and handed to Nadiem Makarim, the western-educated founder of the popular ride-hailing company Go-Jek, one of the country’s most popular startups.

The Health Ministry was handed to another former general, Terawan Agus Putranto, a military doctor and radiologist by profession. Former National Police Chief Tito Karnavian, once the chief of police in Papua and known to have extensive knowledge related to terrorism, was named interior minister.

Brought into the fold by Megawati as well was Prabowo Subianto, who lost to Jokowi in the May general election, courting Islamists in his bid for the presidency. But Prabowo, a member of one of Indonesia’s oldest aristocratic families, is widely regarded to have taken on Islamic trappings as a marriage of convenience in his election. His appointment as defense minister appears to have put paid to his religious dalliance. 

The president earlier this week confirmed that Ahok was undergoing the selection process to become a leader in one of the SEOs. Rumors have spread that Jokowi himself had recommended him. Although Islamist groups that took part in the so-called 212 protests—named for the December 2 rally that started the furor – against him in 2017 have objected to his selection, the Indonesian Ulema Council (MUI) has defended him, saying a position in a state-backed company wasn’t offensive. It was the Ulema council that issued the fatwa that accusing him of insulting Islam that sparked massive demonstrations by Islamist groups.

SOEs said to face crisis

Handing Pertamina to Ahok could also be construed as an admission that Indonesia’s state-owned enterprises are threatened with disaster across the board, and that someone regarded as both competent and honest is needed to help run them. The ministry itself was given to Erick Thohir, the former head of the Mahaka media and entertainment group who served as Jokowi’s campaign manager.

The SOEs are said to be swimming in debt and mismanagement. Overall private sector debt, which includes the SOEs, was put at US$196.3 billion in the second quarter of 2019 officially, although it is believed to be far higher than that. According to a 2018 report in Kontan.com, the combined SOE debt stood at Rp5.27 quadrillion (US$369 billion) as of the third quarter of 2018. The government said that if third-party funds and reserve funds were excluded, the sum would the equivalent of US$176.73 billion. Indonesian government revenues only reached US$106.671 billion in 2018.

The biggest of these agencies is Pertamina, the sprawling oil and gas company that has provided Indonesia with a major portion of its revenues since it was nationalized in 1968. It is the second-biggest energy company operating in the country after the US-owned Chevron. Its 27 subsidiaries pump 127,000 barrels of oil per day and 1.052 million standard cubic feet of natural gas, move it onshore and distribute it locally as well as shipping it overseas. It has long been criticized as deeply inefficient and corrupt. 

The new governing officials have started out to streamline the bureaucracy of the SOEs, dismissing seven sectoral-based undersecretaries and the secretary-general, according to local media, supposedly to be followed by cutting back on bureaucratic layers and removing individual boards of commissioners and directors.

However, Jokowi himself betrays overly nationalistic credentials. Anti-foreign sentiment has resulted in a World Bank report in September that structural impediments hamper foreign investment including arbitrary rules, limitation on imports of necessary inputs and many other problems.