Indonesians sit on the roof top of a train to get to the capital Jakarta December 2007. Inadequate infrastructure in the world's 4th most populous nation is seen as a major impediment to development. (Photo by Crack Palinggi/Reuters.)
Optimism ran high when Indonesia’s newly re-elected president appointed Kuntoro Mangkusubroto to a new position charged with ensuring that the cabinet reached its goals for the first 100 days and beyond. Kuntoro is widely respected as the country’s top get-it-done technocrat, a seemingly incorruptible public servant lauded for his work managing reconstruction after the 2004 tsunami.
Indonesians had great hope for President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono’s second term in office. They elected him with more than 60 percent of the vote and handed his party, the Democrats, a similar mandate several months earlier.
With control of parliament and seemingly little else standing in his way, analysts saw potential for big changes during Yudhoyono’s first 100 days, which were up on Feb. 1.
In his new role, Kuntoro immediately set out to fast-track hundreds of key programs and several large infrastructure projects. Later he would begin to tackle the long-overdue reform of the country’s judicial system.
But two major scandals – the arrest on false charges of two senior corruption fighters and the $700 million bailout of a small bank – have threatened to derail the government’s plans. Despite all the optimism, his second-term appears to have started slowly.
To learn more about the man charged with fulfilling Indonesia’s agenda, Passport’s Peter Gelling caught up with Kuntoro in Jakarta.
Passport: You’ve been praised for your management of the reconstruction effort in Aceh following the earthquake and tsunami in 2004. How did you end up as the head of the Aceh Reconstruction and Rehabilitation Agency?
Kuntoro: Basically the president asked me to take this assignment and I immediately said yes. It was a humanitarian assignment for the sake of the people in Aceh and Nias, who were struggling to recover from such a huge natural disaster. So when the president asked, I said “yes,” because it was a chance for me to help my fellow citizens.
Passport: Why do you think you were so effective at the Reconstruction Agency? It must have been a massive management job.
Kuntoro: Well basically, what I needed was a good understanding of the overall problem and how to tackle it. I was a CEO for three major state-owned companies in Indonesia, so I have a good understanding of how to manage things. That is the number one. Number two, there was nobody who had the kind of experience needed, because there had never been a disaster of this magnitude before. There was no textbook, there was nothing. So, the most important thing was that I was ready to learn, adapt. I’m a problem solver I guess, a no-nonsense decision maker. That helped. It also helped that I knew how the bureaucracy worked in Indonesia and that I had experience dealing with the international community. I spoke the language and knew how they thought.
Passport: What was the biggest challenge for you in Aceh?
Kuntoro: Coordination. This wasn’t a problem anyone could solve systematically. Everything had to be done in parallel. There was a huge amount of pressure to help the victims, almost 1.5 million of them. Everything had been destroyed, totally destroyed. You only just saw foundations of buildings. That’s it. Then you had 800 non-governmental organizations, multilateral agencies and international donor countries all anxious to help. But they all had to be coordinated if they were going to do their jobs effectively. This was the biggest challenge.
At the same time there was no local government, so I had to not only coordinate the reconstruction effort but also act as the local government. There is no experience that can ever compare to this experience of mine in Aceh and Nias.
Passport: How about managing the money? I imagine that was challenging as well. How much money were you managing? How much was donated?
Kuntoro: Indirectly, the world gave $7.2 billion. Incredible.
Passport: And has it all been spent?
Kuntoro: Well, by the end of 2008, 93 percent of the funds had been spent. I believe it is now around 95 or 96 percent. The remaining funds are allocated for ongoing projects until the year 2011.
Passport: There was no local government. The province had been the site of an almost 30-year civil war. And Indonesia already had a troubled reputation. Was avoiding the loss of any of this money through corruption a particular challenge as well?
Kuntoro: From the beginning I knew that this would be a huge challenge. Avoiding and fighting corruption was priority number one. We were working in a conflict area. We were dealing with a corrupt environment. At the time, the governor of the province was in jail. What else do you need to make someone anxious about their money, right? We had a special unit for anti-corruption and we established an international standard mechanism for protecting all that money from corruption and loss.
I knew that as soon as someone reported that there was corruption in the building of just one school, the flow of money would stop. Just one school and the money would be gone. So, I had to avoid that. When it came to corruption, there was no argument. It could not happen.
Passport: But surely it did. Can you give me an example of where it did happen? And how you responded to it?
Kuntoro: You know, it was a huge area. There was 800 kilometers of coastline destroyed. And then there was the island of Nias, in a whole different area, a different province. It was impossible to monitor it all.
But the most important thing was that there was no systemic corruption. If there was corruption between the contractors and a project manager, then yes, I must admit to you that it happened. But our system was good, effective and was in place early on. So I can say that there were only instances of petty corruption.
What’s an example of this kind of corruption? Well, there was one time when somebody claimed that a hundred boats had been distributed to fisherman. But later we found out that only 83 or 85 had been distributed. Where did the rest go? I don’t know. So, I took them to court and let the court decide how to handle it.
All together, in the four years I was there, only seven or eight cases went to court. So I think that is okay for something that involved more than 12,000 different projects.
Passport: The Reconstruction Agency has dissolved. You have a new position in Jakarta and many international groups have left as well. Is the job of rebuilding Aceh finished?
Kuntoro: Well, for me it is finished. Everything that was in the pipeline toward the end of our mandate has been finished. That’s not to say reconstruction is finished. There are still organizations there building houses. I’d say about 93 percent of the reconstruction was complete when I left. It wasn’t 100 percent because we purposely left that other seven percent for the local government to take over. We planned it like that so the local government could learn how to manage the reconstruction by itself, without us.
Passport: You are now in another high-profile position, this time back in Jakarta and working alongside the president in a department created just for you. It seems like you have a vast array of responsibilities. What exactly is your job here?
Kuntoro: This is an extension of the president’s office. I report to the president and the vice president and manage all of the strategic government projects.
Passport: What do you mean by a strategic government project?
Kuntoro: Strategic government projects are programs that are directly related to the achievement of the president’s vision and mission and projects that were promised to the public during his re-election campaign.
Passport: What are some examples of those?
Kuntoro: Primarily they involve infrastructure projects, since improving the country’s infrastructure is one of the president’s biggest goals. For example, he has a vision that the islands of Java and Sumatra should be connected [by a bridge]. So, how are we going to do that? That is one program that I will be monitoring. Also, developing an additional 10,000 megawatts of power is another important strategic project that I am monitoring.
Basically, I am making sure that a number of programs or projects that have not been accomplished, or have been delayed for whatever reason, finally get done. For instance, the expressway across Java started two years ago but has seen little progress. I’m here to make sure the project moves forward.
Passport: You turned down several other ministerial positions before agreeing to head this new presidential unit. What is it about this job that appealed to you?
Kuntoro: I had helped the president and vice president since July to develop a plan for the next five years and also the first hundred days. The president wanted me to help establish, manage and evaluate this overarching plan and suggested I do it through one of several ministries. But I felt that if I were to do this it would need to be full-time, with no other responsibilities.
Passport: So you convinced the president to create a full-time job for you?
Kuntoro: Yes. It had to be done if I am to “debottleneck” all these programs that have not been achieved as planned. I think this is a sort of nerve center of the government. It is too important to be attached to another portfolio. It is a full-time job.
Passport: You said you are trying to debottleneck these programs. Is it difficult or frustrating to be the man who is in charge of cutting through the red tape in a country where there is so much red tape?
Kuntoro: Well, it can be difficult. But basically the debottlenecking is focused on a number of projects, especially the easy things like the revision of the land acquisition policy, which can help streamline infrastructure projects. The issue has been lingering for two years now. I just don’t understand — why has this taken such a long time? So I pushed everyone to get moving. And now it’s done. You know, it often happens in a bureaucracy like this that something that is supposed to be very easy takes a very long time to come to a conclusion.
Passport: Do you think your work in Aceh has helped you in this new position?
Kuntoro: Yes, very much so. Aceh was [like a] college and I am very proud of it. I learned a lot, dealing with such a huge task with very high level of pressure coming from all sides. So sure, it has given me a better capacity to deal with this kind of job.
Passport: You said you helped the president develop his plan for his first 100 days. How’s the progress? Are you on track?
Kuntoro: Information is still coming in, but in general I can say that everything is on track. Halfway through, there are only three programs [where] we were not satisfied with their progress.
Passport: Which three programs?
Kuntoro: Oh, I forget.
Passport: You forget?
Kuntoro: They are no big deal. Examining things now, I can say that everything is so far on track.
Passport: What are these major things in the first hundred days that you wanted to accomplish?
Kuntoro: There are 45 programs, all together 129 action plans. For instance, with regards to connecting Java and Sumatra, it is a major public infrastructure project. We established a national committee to study it. And that study is done, so that is good.
Passport: In the wake of several high-profile controversies within the country’s judiciary, including a public fight between the Corruption Eradication Commission (KPK) and the National Police that culminated in an arrest on false charges and an attempted framing of two Commission deputies, your office received another major task — to reform the judicial system. How’s that going?
Kuntoro: Well, it is not my task to reform the judicial system. I am here to make sure the reform is moving forward. It is nothing special really and nothing new. It was already within the framework of bureaucratic reform and governance, which we are also monitoring. So, the evaluation of the judiciary is part of that. Bureaucratic reform and governance is already priority number one. So it is nothing new.
Passport: It might not be anything new, but it gained some importance after the whole scandal between the police and the KPK. So, within bureaucratic reform in general, has the judiciary become the most urgent area of reform? Would you say that is true? What are some of the strategies and first steps that you are taking?
Kuntoro: Well, basically, we are not going to take over any function that is already being done by other ministries. So the strategy is just to coordinate things that were always delayed or bottlenecked in the past and [to] facilitate so the process can [move] forward faster and more effectively. That is the most important thing.
Passport: Can you give me an example?
Kuntoro: Well, not yet, because the task force has only just been formed.
Passport: It seems that going into this second five-year term there has been a lot of optimism around the president. He enjoyed a hugely successful re-election and it seemed like he had the kind of mandate that would really allow him to get things done. And [your] appointment to this new department added to that optimism. But then with the KPK scandal and now the Bank Century scandal, do you think some of that optimism has been lost? Has that initial energy been drained by these scandals?
Kuntoro: Well, for sure. These issues have absorbed a lot of our energy. Things that could have been done optimally and quickly before are now being reduced and delayed. But things are still okay. We are not too disturbed by all this.
Passport: Sri Mulyani has also been praised for her no-nonsense way of getting things done. She is now at the center of the Bank Century scandal [involving a $700 million bailout that critics say was not essential to the economy]. Do you worry that your work could lead you into a similar situation?
Kuntoro: Hopefully not, because there is no money here. I don’t deal with budget or funds, this is purely technical. I think that as long as there is no money, then I can say no one will bother with me.
Passport: What do you think of her situation now?
Kuntoro: She has done the job. She has done it excellently. And she made the right decision to bail out Bank Century. She had to make that decision. It is very unfortunate that it has ended up like this.
You know, in Aceh, everything was an emergency. If I waited for the legal processes to be completed then things would have gone nowhere and the people would have been in trouble. So I took emergency action. Just like Sri Mulyani. There is risk in that for sure. But she did what she thought was necessary during that emergency period. And now the economy in Indonesia is much better compared to other countries. So why are they complaining about these kinds of things?
Passport: So, you think this scandal is politically motivated?
Kuntoro: Oh yes, definitely. I mean, six trillion rupiah is peanuts. Ten years ago we lost 600 trillion rupiah. That is the decision Sri Mulyani faced. The rate of inflation now is the lowest in 20 years. Unbelievable.
Passport: Would you describe yourself as a reformer?
Kuntoro: I don’t know about that, whether I am a reformer or not. But I get things done, with no nonsense. If that is a reformer, then yes, I am a reformer.