Basuki Tjahaja "Ahok" Purnama has redefined the country's political landscape and is now working to transfrorm Jakarta. (GlobeAsia)

GlobeAsia’s Man of the Year: Ahok, Indonesia’s Shooting Star


JANUARY 05, 2015

Basuki Tjahaja Purnama has seen his profile among the Indonesian public rise meteorically. Now he has the task of proving himself a worthy leader for the capital city after the departure of his predecessor as Jakarta governor, Joko Widodo, for the presidency.

It has not been an easy path for GlobeAsia’s man of the year to sit where he is today. The native of Belitung, where he is one of the island’s roughly 30 percent of residents of Chinese descent, was inaugurated as the 17th governor of Jakarta on Nov. 19.


The former deputy governor finally took the oath as governor after political intrigue involving city councilors and protests from radical Muslim groups, who dislike the Christian taking charge of the Muslim-majority nation’s capital.

The inauguration marked a new milestone for Jakarta as he was the first Jakarta governor to be installed directly by the president and only the second — after Ali Sadikin — to be sworn in at the State Palace. The home affairs minister usually represents the president in inaugurating governors at their respective provincial legislatures or at the ministry.

Basuki is a phenomenon in Indonesian politics not just because of his combative and outspoken style, which has drawn many supporters as well as detractors. He also represents a new milestone for inclusiveness since he is the first ethnic-Chinese and non-Muslim governor of the capital in 50 years.

His predecessor in those respects was Henk Ngantung, who was appointed by Indonesia’s first president, Sukarno, in 1964. He lasted in office only a year, and was swept out of power as a result of the tumultuous changes in the political constellation that engulfed the nation the following year when Sukarno was deposed.

While Indonesia is a Muslim-majority nation, unlike many other Muslim-dominated countries in the Middle East or elsewhere in the world, the country is also a democracy, the third-largest in the world.

First is India, and then comes superpower the United States, which also has a long list of minorities serving as governors, including media darling Bobby Jindal, the 55th governor of Louisiana, an Indian American from the Republican Party.

This is a rare time for the Republican Party, typically more conservative than the Democrats, to host a figure such as Jindal. Like Basuki, the Louisiana governor is known as an outspoken leader who has pushed for comprehensive ethical reform that has required, among other steps, financial disclosure for elected and appointed government officials, an end to lavish lobbyist-funded meals and the prohibition of conflicts of interests in his battle against corruption.

Basuki Tjahaja Purnama, popularly known as Ahok, represents a new milestone for inclusiveness since he is the first ever ethnic-Chinese governor of the capital and the first non-Muslim for 50 years. (SP Photo/Joanito De Saojoao).

History in the making On Dec. 22, GlobeAsia’s Arientha Primanita sat down with Basuki in his office at Jakarta City Hall for an interview. Before he would take any questions, Basuki spent some time looking at the paintings of former governors hanging on the walls of the reception room. He asked his aide where his own painting was likely to be hung once he had finished his term.

The man who began his professional career in the mining industry in the late 1980s also asked where the picture of his predecessor, Joko, was. He nodded when his aide replied that the picture was still being painted.

“These paintings are really good. They all look like photographs. I think the painting of my face will be different from my real face,” Basuki said with a laugh.

Basuki, elected with Joko in 2012, will see his term end in 2017. The question remains whether he will seek another term in office, and whether the people of Jakarta will still vote for him if he does. That will depend to a large degree on what he can achieve over his remaining three years in City Hall.

Taking care of business Basuki was never overshadowed by Joko when the latter was in charge of the capital. While Joko was out roaming the slums and back streets of Jakarta, in his now famous blusukan meet-and-greets with residents to get to know the issues they faced, Basuki was back at City Hall, coming to grips with the internal issues of the Jakarta administration.

Now, with newly installed deputy governor Djarot Saiful Hidayat by his side, Basuki still chooses to remain in his office to receive guests, do his paperwork, lead meetings as well as ensure that the city administration is working properly.

Basuki deals with conflicts in his own way, not like the calm and measured Joko. It is not unusual for the new governor’s hot-headed style to emerge in video footage in the news or on YouTube, and his harsh comments have often drawn angry responses from his critics, including city councilors.

Luhut Panjaitan, a former three-star general who is a close adviser to Joko, believes this is just the type of leader that Jakarta needs.

“I don’t care about the issue of ethnicity, religion or style. Even if he was a ghost, but could get things done, I would choose him,” he said.

Jakarta has never been an easy city to govern. The public has for years grown increasingly frustrated with the slow progress of development in a city famous for its traffic jams, regular floods and messy spatial planning. At the same time the city is the business and financial hub of the nation, as well as its capital.

Luhut said his sentiments reflected the frustration of the people of Jakarta, who have long dreamed about a firm leader who could introduce breakthroughs and create order in a city that should be the showpiece of the nation.

“Basuki provides such hope even without Joko at his side in Jakarta,” he said.

Asked about his relationship with Joko, Basuki smiled and said he was a lucky governor as he had the Indonesian president as his good friend.

He recalled traveling with Joko after he became president, when he was asked to join Joko on a visit to Kupang in East Nusa Tenggara on Dec. 19.

Joko asked him to sit beside him in the presidential jet on the journey. They discussed many things and caught up with each other’s news. Basuki said he believed that his close ties with the president would have benefits for Jakarta.

When he was deputy governor, he was one of the people who pushed Joko to run for president.

The problems of Jakarta cannot be solved by a single governor, but require a concerted effort from the central government and the surrounding provinces, he argued.

“Now that I have the president’s backing, I can just call him and report on what I need,” he said.

Action-oriented leader Born in Manggar, East Belitung, on June 29, 1966, Basuki began his career in politics as a district legislator in East Belitung in 2004, before winning the election for district head a year later.

It was there that he developed a reputation as a tough, action-oriented leader. The skills he learned there have proved essential for his successes to date in Jakarta.

He told GlobeAsia that resolving Jakarta’s traffic jams and severe flooding remained his main priorities for 2015.

Getting officials to work is another priority: Basuki has proved no less firm than Joko when it comes to dealing with underperforming public officials.

Joko, the former mayor of the Central Java town of Solo, threw out the head of the Jakarta Public Works Office, Manggas Rudy Siahaan, for not doing his job. He also replaced the head of the transportation office, Udar Pristono, who was later charged with corruption in the procurement of buses for the TransJakarta network.

Basuki has been similarly outspoken in pushing for improvement in the bureaucracy. He announced at the end of 2014 that he would purge more than a thousand officials.

His aim is to see Jakarta’s roughly 72,000 civil servants working hard. There will be transparent selections for promotions, and he plans to replace around 3,000 officials with new ones.

“There will be friction because of this in 2015, but I am sure in 2016 our bureaucracy will run more smoothly,” he said.

On a more positive note as far as the officials are concerned, salaries of civil servants will increase to encourage them to improve their services to the public. Urban ward chiefs, known as lurah, will get salaries of Rp 25 million ($1,980) per month in recognition of their role on the front line of public services.

His other main priorities include better welfare, education and health care programs.

“Our goal is to make your brain, stomach and wallet full. That’s what we want to do,” Basuki said, adding that he considered himself the chief servant of the Jakarta public.

As part of his policies, he has launched a “smart city” program that will receive and monitor reports and complaints from the public and then follow up on them. The program accounts for six factors: economy, mobility, environment, humanity, livelihood, and administration.

The Jakarta administration also plans to install 4,000 closed-circuit television cameras throughout the city, starting with 2,500 units this year. This will make it easier to monitor the roads and rivers — and city officials. Jakarta citizens are also expected to contribute feedback, and can access the information via smartphone.

Deputy Governor Djarot will get out on the road to carry on Joko’s blusukan visits. Basuki has no concern that the former Blitar mayor’s popularity might eclipse his own.

“The most important thing is we complete our mission for Jakarta. If the Jakarta people think Djarot is better than me, that’s good. I get a better deputy governor than I was,” he said.

Weathering protests

Head of Front Pembela Islam (FPI) or Islamic Defenders Front Muhammad Rizieq Shihab, center, with muslim protesters march towards Jakarta city hall during a protest in Jakarta on Nov. 10, 2014.  Muslim groups led by The Islamic Defenders Front (FPI) have demanded incoming governor Basuki Tjahaja Purnama (Ahok) be prevented from taking office because of his ethnicity, religion and controversial statements. (JG Photo/Yudhi Sukma Wijaya)

During our interview, a noisy demonstration was taking place outside City Hall. Dozens of protesters, led by organizers shouting their complaints through loudspeakers, were criticizing Basuki’s ban on motorcycles riding on Jalan M.H. Thamrin and Jalan Medan Merdeka Barat.

The protesters were mostly motorcycle taxi, or ojek, drivers, who lambasted Basuki for costing them their livelihood.

“There are more people buying cars. Does Basuki dare to forbid cars to pass?” said protest organizer Babak. “Why does he ban motorcycles and make ojek drivers’ lives miserable?”

Basuki and his blunt style have also been the target of regular protests from the hard-line Islamic Defenders Front (FPI).

While they say they oppose him because he is a Christian, they are also believed to be unwilling to accept him because of his Chinese ethnicity.

Salim bin Umar Alatas, the head of the FPI’s Jakarta branch, once said Basuki was too arrogant to be a public official, and called him “an enemy of Islam.”

The group’s protests included attacks on the Jakarta City Council, when it demanded that councilors oppose Basuki’s succession to governor. In early December, the FPI nominated Fahrurrozi Ishaq, a teacher of the Koran and an FPI member, as its own “shadow” Jakarta governor.

Criticism has also come from city councilors. Johnny Simanjuntak, a councilor from Joko’s party, the Indonesian Democratic Party of Struggle (PDI-P), criticized Basuki for being too plainspoken, saying that the governor’s abrasive style had caused a stir in the city administration, but there had not been much change in the quality of services to the public.

He pointed out that many of Jakarta’s programs were not executed well, including flood mitigation and traffic management, because the directives from top officials were not making it to the bottom of the chain.

Basuki acknowledged the criticism but said he would not change his style. His main focus, he said, is to do his best as governor and serve the people of Jakarta.

“I can handle criticism. The only thing they [the protesters] can do is not elect me for the next term. So I am focusing on my remaining three years so I can prove to them that I did something,” he said. “I don’t ever think about my image. What’s in my heart and what comes out of my mouth are the same. Do you need someone with substance or someone with a polished skin?” he asked.

But for all his thick skin, some of the criticism does sting.

“The only problem is that people out there still can’t accept the fact that I, with slanted eyes and a Christian, can be governor,” Basuki said.

“Don’t oppose me just because I’m ethnic Chinese and a Christian. That’s not fair. Judge me for my work,” he said, adding that he was accustomed to tough times.

Popularity was never his aim when running for public office. He intends to be himself, warts and all.

“Once you become a public official, it’s tiring if you play a role to maintain a good image. One day your true character will be discovered. I never pretend to be who I am. I’ve always been like this,” he said.

His aide, Sakti Budiono, is perfectly happy with Basuki’s leadership skills. The boss does not beat around the bush and knows exactly what he has in his mind, Sakti said.

“He lets us work with our own creativity and improvisation as long as we get the job done,” he added.

‘We just do what we can do best’ Following Joko’s rise to the presidency, there has been talk that Basuki could also be presidential material one day. The governor did not deny his ambition to become president.

“The best way to improve our country is by being president. If there are better people than me, then I wouldn’t run, but if there aren’t any better people, then why shouldn’t I run for the sake of this country,” he said.

Basuki, who once planned to flee to Canada after the anti-Chinese riots of 1998, said Indonesia remained a democracy. The people, he said, represented a power that cannot be overlooked, and he said he strongly believed that Joko would be able to safeguard democracy. As for his own prospects of future high public office, Basuki said that was a matter of fate.

“In Islam, we say ‘Wallahualam’” — it all depends on God’s will.

Turning philosophical, he added that nobody knew what the future held for them. His own path to the Jakarta governorship, after coming from a limited political background, and that of Joko, who shot to the presidency, showed how life can bring surprises.

“We don’t know about our lives and when we will die. We just do what we can do best. For me, at least I can have a painting of my face hanging in City Hall,” Basuki said with a laugh.

One of his obstacles to higher office is the lack of party backing. Basuki said he was relieved to have quit the Great Indonesia Movement Party (Gerindra) of losing presidential candidate Prabowo Subianto, which had supported the Joko-Basuki ticket in the 2012 gubernatorial election.

Now, he said, he had more time to work and did not need to attend any political party events, which in the past meant he had to work during the weekends. Running for president in the future is a long way away, and who knows what could happen in that time.

Additional reporting by Muhamad Al Azhari


Correction: An earlier version of this article mischaracterized the ethnicity of Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal. We regret the error.

GlobeAsia's cover January 2015