Prabowo Wants to ‘Manage’ Indonesia

Prabowo Subianto wants to bring business-style management to Indonesian government and he hopes the idea will lead him to the presidential palace in next year’s election.

Railing against corruption and inefficiency, the controversial and hard-charging former general has been tirelessly transforming himself from a symbol of military rule under his former father in law, President Suharto, to an advocate for change in his bid to become Indonesia’s next president.

In a recent conversation with AmCham Indonesia, Prabowo painted a picture of a nation badly in need of change and the kind of strong management he says he can provide. “We don’t have to have a radical revolution,” he said when asked how he would lessen corruption. “We can use modern management techniques: IT, transparency, e-government.

“I believe that running a corporation, running a country, running a household is basically the same. You safeguard your investment, you take care of your expenditures and you guard your earnings.”

Prabowo’s charismatic presence and plain talk have won him a steady showing in the polls in recent years as he has pursued a tireless comeback. He has defied predictions that his high-profile public career was over once he was discharged as a Lt. General under murky circumstances in 1998 after the fall of Suharto.

To return to a place of prominence, Prabowo has had to face numerous charges of human rights abuses in East Timor, Papua and elsewhere during his military career. His role in the chaotic and violent events of 1998 remain unclear in the public mind. Even his marriage to Suharto’s daughter, Siti Hediati Hariyadi, which ended in divorce, caused controversy when he was accused of using the Suharto family to advance his fast-rising military career.

Since returning to Indonesia after a period of self-exile in Jordan following 1998, he has steadily rebuilt his profile. He has had a successful business career with his tycoon brother Hashim Djojohadikusumo, and in 2004 he turned to politics to pursue his long-standing dream of leading the country. He lost out in a bid to run under the Golkar banner in 2004 and then formed Gerindra, taking the No. 2 spot to former President Megawati Sukarnoputri in the 2009 presidential election.

When that election ended in victory for President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, Prabowo began campaigning almost immediately for 2014 and he says he is determined to stay the course despite the long odds facing his medium-sized party. “I am of the opinion that if there are free and clean elections, I am very confident I and my party will win. And if I win, it will be because the majority of the Indonesian people want clean government. I will have public opinion on my side,” he said.

Turning to policy questions, he said he would run an investment-friendly administration if he wins and that Indonesia needs more energy exploration. “Indonesia is a trading nation. We have been a trading nation for hundreds of years. We welcome all countries, all parties to our country. We need foreign investment, foreign expertise. The world is getting smaller,” he said. “I support a strong US presence in the region and I would like to see more US participation in our economy.”

On other issues, he says he has been in close contact with labor unions and believes rising worker discontent can be managed with better policies. “If the national budget is spent wisely, rationally, my conviction is the unions will not be too much of problem,” he said.

He said that soaring food costs eat up 70 percent of an average worker’s wages, leaving little for health care, education, housing and other necessities. The answers, he said, start with more efficient agricultural policy. “If you follow my writing, you will see, food security, food security, food security.”

Prabowo is often credited with being a strong nationalist and indeed both his grandfather and father were prominent figures in earlier eras. Margono Djojohadikusumo, his grandfather, was the founder of Bank Negara Indonesia and active in the independence movement. His father, Sumitro Djojohadikusumo, was an economist and cabinet minister in Suharto's government.

But Prabowo also spent much of his early life abroad, going to Western schools in Britain and Switzerland before coming home to enter the military academy in 1970. In interviews he frequently notes his Western background and pro-business attitude in seeking to calm worries that he would pursue a populist agenda to the detriment of business.

“I will do my best to create an environment that is business friendly,” he told AmCham. “And that is why I am very concerned about issues of governance, efficiency and the necessity of trying to mitigate massive corruption, which I think is now detrimental to Indonesian competitiveness. The business environment is not healthy if you have a very weak, inefficient and corrupt bureaucracy.

“A country is the same as a corporation; the shareholders are the people, so how can you have management stealing from the shareholders?”

The theme of combatting corruption comes through in virtually every appearance Prabowo makes on the campaign trail. It is the centerpiece of his appeal to the voters and he traces current problems to mistakes made in the aftermath of the Suharto era.

“In the end we found that the political and economic system we built in the last 15 years turns out to be a very weak system,” he said. “Corruption has increased. It is so massive at every level. This is common knowledge. Even the poorest people in the street know this is happening. They see it every day.”

The warnings he makes sound dire in light of Indonesia’s rapid economic expansion in recent years, but he insists the nation is in crisis. “If we do not overcome this challenge of a corrupt political, economic and legal system, Indonesia will face the danger of becoming a failed state,” he said, citing a favorite theme from his stump speeches.

He is concerned, he said, because a small minority is prospering while there are still about 100 million people living in poverty. “When there is vast disparity, if there is no social justice, sooner or later it will explode,” he said.

The solution, Prabowo believes, lies in having a strong leader to start sorting things out and be a good role model.

“If the CEO, the president, has the will and public opinion on his side, change is possible. In developing countries the role of a leader is so important in my opinion,” he said.

“In the short term, it is going to be [leadership] by example. There is no other way. Everything is by example. If the top guys steal, everybody is going to steal. It’s as simple as that. It’s lead by example.”

(A. Lin Neumann is a co-founder of Asia Sentinel. This is reprinted from the website of the American Chamber of Commerce in Indonesia)