The Man Who Rode the Waves of History

Lippo Group deputy chairman Ginandjar Kartasasmita says Indonesia's democratic journey was a strong plus for the regional bloc, as well as for the wider Asia region. (The Peak Photo/A.A. Kresna)

By : Shoeb K. Zainuddin | on 8:20 AM June 03, 2013
Category : News, Politics, Featured

Ginandjar Kartasasmita worked with a team of Japanese experts to produce 'Managing Indonesia's Transformation — An Oral History.' (The Peak Photo/A.A. Kresna) Ginandjar Kartasasmita worked with a team of Japanese experts to produce 'Managing Indonesia's Transformation — An Oral History.' (The Peak Photo/A.A. Kresna)

It is 15 years since the fall of the New Order regime and the rise of democratic Indonesia. While many Indonesians recall the days of former president Suharto, many younger people have little recollection of the era. As that period of the country’s history fades into the background, it is vital that it is not lost altogether.

One person well qualified to speak about that period is Ginandjar Kartasasmita, who served two presidents and spent more than two decades in government, 16 of them as a Cabinet minister. His story in many ways reflects the story of modern Indonesia and in telling it, he ensures that it will not be forgotten.

His time in government and politics started when he joined the cabinet in 1983 and ended when he left the Regional Representative Council (DPD) in 2009.

“History is a like a line or a river; you cannot stop it but you must learn from the past,” Ginandjar, 72, said. Having lived through tumultuous times over the past half century, the former minister, politician and Air Force marshal hopes to leave behind the lessons of the past for future generations of Indonesians to learn from.

It was for this reason that he worked with a team of Japanese experts on Indonesia to produce “Managing Indonesia’s Transformation — An Oral History.” The book, which has just been released, took five years and countless interviews to complete, but for the veteran politician, it was worth it.

Written in a question-and-answer style, it is detailed without being bogged down with statistics. It is packed with facts but also offers perspective and context to many of the challenges facing the country today. For students of history and political science, Ginandjar’s recollections of the Suharto regime, the fall of the former president and the years that followed are priceless.

“I feel very relieved having worked on this book,” he told the Jakarta Globe in his office within the State Palace compound on Thursday. “I can unburden myself with the weight of history and with this book, I can contribute something for the next generation.”

Ginandjar wants to draw attention to how decisions were made and “how we had to take unpopular measures both for the public as well as for those in power.”

For example, Ginandjar served as the minister of mines and energy for five years and during that time, he raised fuel prices twice. “Fuel prices have a big impact on the economy and in fact were the trigger that led to Suharto’s fall.”

But he adds, such steps are unavoidable and should be taken swiftly. Before taking unpopular measures, however, the government must prepare the ground and ensure that those worst impacted are aided by other government policies.

Ginandjar disagreed with monetary handouts to poor families, saying this money is quickly spent. Rather, his ministry laid the ground by raising the buying price of rice from farmers so they would have higher purchasing power.

“The way we approached creating a social safety net was not through charity but by providing opportunities and dignity,” he said. “We gave them jobs, even if it was cleaning sewers and repairing fences or building rural roads.”

Today’s leaders, he added, want to make it easy, but this approach is very expensive to the state, both financially and because of the psychological impact on the public. These insights should prove valuable to today’s policy makers and underscore the fact that the challenges facing Indonesia today are not new.

Takashi Shirashi, president of the National Institute of Policy Studies Japan and president of IDE-Jetro, notes the book “offers one of the most extensive and detailed accounts of Indonesian politics and policy making. It is not an as-told-to biography, let alone a hagiography. The book is based on frank discussions between a long-time Indonesian politician/policy maker and Indonesianists with extensive fieldwork experience.”

An insider’s view

As an insider and participant in some of the key turning points of the country’s history, Ginandjar had a prominent role in how these developments panned out.

“Many of the policies, actions and speeches were widely reported but there were many things not many people were privy to,” he said.

His account of the final days of the Suharto government is illuminating. While the riots and chaos of May 1998 were widely reported, Ginandjar provides a backroom perspective on the politics and the key players who led to the collapse of the government of the time.

Ginandjar, who was then serving as the coordinating minister for economics, has previously been reported to be one of the key players who persuaded Suharto to step down.

In the book, he provides his version of the story. “First I need to emphasize that there was no en masse resignation. In fact, there was no resignation at all. We would never have done that. I would never have done that,” he writes. Ginandjar’s retelling of the events of those frenzied and anarchic days provides new insights on how the wheels of history turned.

Another incident that has been widely debated was the rejection of President B.J. Habibie’s accountability speech before the People’s Consultative Assembly (MPR) in 1999. The events leading up to the pivotal moment were tense.

“On the evening of Habibie’s accountability speech, at midnight after I had just returned from the MPR, I got a call from Fadel Muhammad who told me that the Singapore Ambassador Edward Lee would like to see me. Another person, a businessman friend, Johnny Widjaja, also conveyed the same message from the ambassador. ... Because it was important, I told them that I would receive the ambassador although it was very late.”

After the meeting, Lee showed Ginandjar a letter from Prime Minister Goh Chok Tong who had just received US Assistant Secretary of State Stanley Roth, conveying a message from President Bill Clinton that America would no longer support Indonesia’s economic recovery if Habibie was re-elected.

The US government, in fact, supported Megawati Sukarnoputri for the presidency as her party had won the highest number of votes in the preceding elections.

“I asked the ambassador why he had come to me, and he said because I was the vice chairman of the MPR, they assumed I had strong political influence,” Ginandjar wrote.

The MPR went on to elect Abdurrahman Wahid (Gus Dur) as Indonesia’s fourth president, a tenure recounted in another tumultuous and gripping chapter of the book — one that also retells the political intrigue that pushed Gus Dur ahead as electoral frontrunner to defeat Megawati.

Never president

Given Ginandjar’s experience in government, his political skills and his international connections, it is a surprise that he did not run for the presidency himself, a point that is raised toward the end of the book.

His answer was that “divine providence” was not with him. “A man can and should try, but there is a higher power that will decide the ultimate result.” The reader is left wondering whether, if fate had been kind to him, Ginandjar may have become Indonesia’s first democratically elected president.

It is telling that in closing the book, Ginandjar is critical of the current administration for not making the most of its popular mandate by driving through tough reforms. The middle way, he notes, does not always work and sometimes a leader must deviate and go to extremes.

Looking ahead, Ginandjar has mixed feelings about the country. The next elections will likely involve political renewal and the new generation of leaders are better educated than their predecessors.

But Ginandjar has two major concerns for his countryfolk: Indonesians, he said, have lost their feeling of national pride and of being Indonesian. Without compassion and understanding of where the country has come from, the next generation of leaders will not have the necessary historical context on which to base their decisions and policies.

“Secondly, I am worried about the integrity of Indonesians. There is too much corruption and if tomorrow’s leaders have to choose between being clean or being rich, I am not sure what they will choose.”

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