Journalist John McBeth introduces his new book, 'The Loner: President Yudhoyono's Decade of Trial and Indecision' at The Writers Bar in Raffles Hotel, Jakarta, on Tuesday (21/02). (JG Photo/Dhania Putri Sarahtika)

Veteran Journalist Exposes SBY's Failings in New Book


FEBRUARY 23, 2017

[Updated on 1.14 p.m. on Friday (24/2)]

Jakarta. New Zealand-born veteran correspondent, John McBeth, captured the darker side of former president Susilo "SBY" Bambang Yudhoyono's presidency in his new book "The Loner: President Yudhoyono's Decade of Trial and Indecision."

The title is a good indication of the book's tone: a critical look at Yudhoyono's two-term presidency. McBeth, a regular columnist on Indonesian politics with Singapore's the Straits Times, considered Yudhoyono's presidency a profound disappointment in many aspects, especially the clumsy way he handled fuel subsidies, terrorism, corruption and the Bank Century scandal.

"I don't think I've been overly harsh on SBY. There were serious failings in his presidency. It's my opinion, of course, but the opinion of a man who's watched this country for 20 years," McBeth told the Jakarta Globe at his book launch, hosted by the Jakarta Foreign Correspondents Club (JFCC) at The Writers Bar in Raffles Hotel, Jakarta, on Tuesday (21/02).

The book is not just a compilation of McBeth's columns. In fact, he hates authors who put out a collection of random columns. He interviewed people to fill the gaps in his stories, divided his findings into sections and rewrote everything into a narrative with in-depth analyses.

One of the issues he got to the bottom of was Yudhoyono's already much-analyzed betrayal of Indonesia's fifth president, Megawati Soekarnoputri, in 2004, when Yudhoyono decided to run for president against her after quitting as her Coordinating Minister for Political and Security Affairs.

The incident by all accounts still leaves a bad taste in Megawati's mouth.

Though he calls himself a journalist instead of an author, McBeth does not hold back in his criticism of Yudhoyono.

"I started my career as a reporter. I went out, researched stories and wrote them. I was told to report in an objective and accurate way. That stays with me today. [But] when you write a book, it's different. Then you're expected to offer your opinion. Otherwise people won't read your book. You have to explain to them why you think a particular person was good or bad, especially when that person used to be a president," McBeth, one of the most senior foreign correspondents in Asia with a career spanning over 40 years, said.

He also pointed out that in Asia it is difficult to find people writing in a forthright way about respected figures.

What made SBY a loner?

McBeth's decision to title the book "The Loner" was not lightly taken. Along with its subtitle, "The Loner" points a finger straight at the tragic flaw of the "hero" of the story.

However, it was not the original title of the book. "It was called 'The Lost Decade' right until the last few months before I finished it. But I went around to ask people who were lifelong analysts of Indonesia what they thought, and what they said gave me the idea for the title we have now. I didn't pluck it out of nowhere," McBeth said.

McBeth felt his own research seemed to suggest "The Lost Decade," as a title, was too harsh on Yudhoyono.

He wanted to find the perfect title that not only describes Yudhoyono's presidency, but also his personality.

"I remember a conversation I had with Lt. Gen. Agus Widjojo, who was very close to SBY when they were in the military. I asked him about SBY's friends, and he looked at me rather strangely. He said, 'He [SBY] doesn't have any friend.' That comment stuck with me for a long time," McBeth said.

He recounted another story, which also helped him to decide on the book's eventual title.

In 1995, when Yudhoyono joined a United Nations (UN) Peacekeeping Force in Bosnia, he made friends with a US Special Force captain. The captain was asked to file a report every time he met Yudhoyono.

The reports were submitted to a psychoanalyst who concluded that Yudhoyono was a classic loner.

"'The Loner' captured the essence of his presidency in so many ways, especially in the second term. He retreated into himself quite a bit. In all the reporting I did, I couldn't find anyone he felt comfortable confiding in apart from his wife. I think that might still be the case today," McBeth added.

Yudhoyono's indecision and oversensitivity, according to McBeth, may have been rooted on his upbringing and life journey, among other factors.

According to McBeth's findings, Yudhoyono was an only child from a lower-middle class family with a modest home on the south coast of Java. He went to the military academy in Magelang, where he met his future wife Ani Yudhoyono, after his family broke up.

His marriage into a blue-blood military family headed by a legendary strong man that everyone looked up to, former Special Forces Commander Sarwo Edhie Wibowo, who eventually became his father-in-law, only made his insecurity even more acute.

"I think he was competing with Sarwo Edhie himself and his legacy later on. [...] I think it was always a struggle for him to assert himself in a family that he felt somehow dominated by," McBeth said.

With his record as president, McBeth said in hindsight Yudhoyono would have made a good referee, or a mediator, but not a leader.

[Correction: The previous version of this story said Yudhoyono went to the military academy in Malang. The Jakarta Globe regrets the error]