09 September 2011

Hope and change, Indonesian style

May this candidate for mayor of Jakarta, a Chinese-Indonesian originally from Bangka-Belitung, turn out to be all he seems. And if so, may he then get to put his promises into action.

Graft Fighter Guns for Jakarta’s Top Office
Febriamy Hutapea | September 05, 2011

Campaigning for public office in Indonesia invariably entails handing out cash or free T-shirts to voters, but don’t expect either when Basuki Purnama mounts his bid to become Jakarta’s next governor in 2012.

Instead, Basuki, popularly known as Ahok, will be looking to the people to give toward what he brands a breakthrough move to change the capital.

“I want to change this city, so I need the people’s support to fulfill it. We should make the change together,” he says.

Even among the batch of eyebrow-raising candidates lining up for a shot at City Hall next year, Ahok stands out. He was the first Christian, and a Chinese-Indonesian to boot, to head up a Muslim-majority region when he was elected district head of East Belitung in Bangka-Belitung province in 2005.

Though he has largely refrained from splashing out on the self-aggrandizing billboards that other prospective candidates have put up all over the city — “Not all candidates on the banners can win the people’s hearts,” he says — prior experience leads him to believe that once his candidacy is approved by the elections commission, his popularity will get a boost.

And while technically a member of the Golkar Party — he was elected on the party’s ticket to the House of Representatives in 2009 — Ahok is standing as an independent in the Jakarta race. That means he has until November to collect signatures from 500,000 residents backing his bid in order to be considered eligible to run.

The Personal Touch

Ahok started as a businessman but shut down his quarry business because of the frustration of dealing with a corrupt bureaucracy in Bangka-Belitung.

He was always expected to pay bribes to win tenders or grease a few palms to ensure his business ran smoothly. And because he refused to play along, his business suffered, he says.

“If my goal was just to make a profit, then I’d be rolling in it,” he says. “ The more corrupt the system, the better the business. But my conscience just couldn’t deal with that.”

So his response was to confront the system head on. He immersed himself in the local political scene, and in 2004 made a successful run for a seat on the East Belitung legislative council.

Just seven months into his term, he had gathered enough support to run for district head, a contest he won to many people’s surprise. That a Christian, ethnic Chinese councilman was able to become the head of a 93 percent Muslim-majority district can be attributed to his hands-on approach and close relationship with the people.

He eschewed the usual campaign method of putting up banners and handing out flyers with printed promises. Instead, he handed out his private cellphone number so that people could contact him at anytime.

“They could reach me directly. They told me about everything, from general issues to private problems. I even knew who was having an affair with whom because of these calls,” Ahok said with a laugh.

Once in office, he made major breakthroughs in East Belitung, particularly in the fields of health care and education.

He cut the development budget put out to tender by 20 percent, to reduce corruption from rigged bids. He also slashed the administration’s travel budget by 80 percent from about Rp 1 billion ($117,000) a year.

Ahok plowed the savings into health and education programs designed to guarantee that all residents had access to health care and to schools.

His efforts won him recognition in 2006 by the venerated Tempo magazine as one of the top 10 Indonesians affecting change in the country. He was also named an anticorruption champion in 2007 by the Indonesian Chamber of Commerce and Industry (Kadin), the Transparency Indonesia Society (MTI) and the State Ministry for Administrative Reform.

Candid Revelations

Ahok’s actions in both the district legislature and the House have been no less trailblazing. While in East Belitung, he lifted the lid on a host of budget misappropriations in the council, which he credits for helping him win the seat of district head.

At the national level, he is showing no signs of letting up. “Everything I know, I post on my Web site,” he says.

The reports on his site, ahok.org, include his revealing take on why legislators tend to hold their meetings at a villa in the Puncak area of Bogor rather than at the House — the villa is considered out of town, for which legislators are entitled to a bonus payment.

However, his candidness has cost him seats on both the House Legislative Body and the Budget Committee. The Budget Committee has recently come under increased public scrutiny over a raft of allegations of bid-rigging and budget misappropriations.

But Ahok harbors no grudges about being booted out for revealing the truth.

“I welcome the decision because it gives me more time to think about Jakarta with my team of volunteers,” he says.

The team of around 500 volunteers meets every day to discuss the problems plaguing the capital, before spreading out across the city, visiting slum areas and talking to people about their everyday concerns.

Vicious Cycle

While traffic and flooding may be the first concerns that come to mind, Ahok argues that these problems are merely symptoms of an inadequate social security system that leaves people without proper access to housing, health care or education.

This leads to an ever-growing number of vehicles on the city’s streets, and hence the notoriously bad traffic. This situation is only exacerbated by the fact that affordable housing near train stations and other transportation hubs is impossible to find, he says.

Ahok lays out his argument in an animated manner, explaining how the city’s problems are intertwined with each other and constitute a vicious cycle that is hard to break.

But he remains confident that there is a way out of all the problems and is prepared to take concrete action to break the cycle.

A survey carried out in June by the Jakarta Prosperous Circle (LSJ), a polling firm, shows deep disappointment in the administration of the incumbent governor, Fauzi Bowo, in addressing welfare issues.

Only 25.4 percent of respondents said they believed Fauzi had succeeded in providing cheap and decent housing, while 55.6 percent said he had performed poorly on this front.

Less than 30 percent were satisfied with his handling of education, health care and transportation issues.

Ahok says the problem is that the current crop of city leaders is swayed by interest groups.

“Let me ask you: Who among our leaders has the guts to reveal their wealth?” he says “No one.”

He makes promises that his governorship will be marked by an unprecedented level of transparency and openness.

“I can say this because my actions when I led the Belitung district have proven my words, and that applies even now that I’m in the House,” he says.

And for his prospective running mate? A retired career civil servant or one entering retirement, Ahok says. “Or maybe a Betawi or Javanese civil servant who has no ambition but plenty of honesty.”

Standout Candidate?

His track record notwithstanding, Ahok needs to convince voters that he is a man of action.

“We need a governor who knows how to build a city,” says Christine Putri, a Jakarta resident working in advertising. “Not someone who eyes projects that can be corrupted and does nothing to resolve the problems in Jakarta.”

Djaelani, an office building security guard, agrees. “I’ve been a security guard for almost 27 years, and in that time I haven’t seen any dramatic change in the city,” he says.

What he wants in the next governor is someone who can bring real change to marginalized communities, like the one he comes from, no matter the candidate’s background.

“I don’t mind if they’re from the military or if they’re civilian, ethnic Chinese or indigenous,” Djaelani says. “As long as they don’t forget about us.”

Among the host of big-name candidates jockeying for prominence ahead of next year’s vote, only Ahok stands out for his antigraft track record in an executive position.

The question now is whether the city’s voters are ready for a Chinese-Indonesian governor. Whether Ahok gets the chance to clean up City Hall will ultimately depend on the people of Jakarta.

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