Bambang Kesowo's return revives past fear
By Kornelius Purba
JAKARTA (JP): Many fear that the promotion of Bambang Kesowo as State Secretary/Cabinet Secretary by President Megawati Soekarnoputri will also mean the revival of the office, described in the past as the feared "super ministry". It was even branded "a state within a state" by Megawati's predecessor Abdurrahman Wahid.
Megawati's quiet character, her reluctance to talk to the media and her preference for rigid protocol and tight security, has also fueled public suspicion that the State Secretariat (Setneg) and presidential office will repeat past practices.
The State Secretariat under then president Soeharto mirrored the office of the iron-fisted man where practically no one, including the House of Representatives (DPR) and the Supreme Audit Agency (BPK), had the guts to probe the office.
Third president Abdurrahman tried to clean up the secretariat by placing inexperienced friends in strategic positions and increasing the number of his secretaries, but many alleged the corruption that followed was not very different from the previous era.
Among Abdurrahman's first decisions as president was trimming the secretariat. Initially he wanted to reduce the number of employees from 3,000 to only 800.
Abdurrahman reportedly harbored a grudge against the office because he had often suffered from its corruption; presidential funds for the Nahdlatul Ulama (NU) organization, which he chaired, were often cut by the officials.
Megawati's strong confidence in Bambang after his disgraceful fall from the once powerful State Secretariat under former president B.J. Habibie three years ago does not only mean a personal "revival". It could also mean the return of the State Secretariat to its original power.
Born on March 27, 1945, Bambang obtained his master's degree from Harvard Law School in 1983. He was continuing his studies at the same university when Megawati asked him to become her aide two months after her election as vice president in October 1999.
Bambang has openly pledged to return the office's power. "A strong but transparent and efficient State Secretariat is needed to back up the President," Bambang hinted.
Habibie sacked Bambang as Cabinet vice secretary only four months after replacing Soeharto in May 1998, amid allegations that Bambang had received US$2 million in bribes to speed up the bankruptcy law and his blunder in the drafting of the widely opposed government regulation on freedom of expression.
Bambang complained at that time that he was only made a scapegoat by Habibie after the regulation received strong opposition from students and anti-government groups. After losing his position he then had to use a very small office just a few meters from his previous room without many of the office facilities he was used to.
Ironically, former state secretary Akbar Tandjung who had privately informed Bambang about Habibie's decision to sack him reportedly rang him up upon his recent appointment and asked him to reorganize the office and return it to its former stature.
Bambang, who had worked in the position of Cabinet vice secretary for five years under Soeharto, was in charge of drafting bills, government regulations and presidential decrees under Soeharto's rule.
Many of the presidential decisions or government regulations were merely meant to justify the business activities, corruption, collusion and nepotism (KKN) of Soeharto's children and cronies. State Secretary officials often collaborated with them in enriching themselves.
At that time the office also supervised state ministries, lucrative state-owned companies like oil and gas firm Pertamina. Government officials like governors and even ministers could not do much to resist pressures from the presidential office.
But now the situation has totally changed compared to under Soeharto's era. The center of power is no longer dominated by the President, the distribution of power has spread to the People's Consultative Assembly (MPR), the House, political parties, the media, nongovernmental organizations and students.
Megawati needs a strong bureaucracy. The replacement of current civil servants with fresh people at the presidential office will not guarantee improvement, as Abdurrahman found out to his cost.
The House and the Ministry of Justice and Human Rights have replaced Bambang's office in drafting bills. The presidential office is no longer a "sacred" place where outsiders are not welcome. Soeharto possessed huge sums of money to finance his presidency, including secret funds and presidential aid funds (Banpres). Some of the funds reportedly still exist.
When she was still vice president Megawati realized her lack of experience in bureaucracy. She did not change the bureaucratic structure at Merdeka Selatan Palace. She recruited Bambang although she had not known him before. Former state secretary Moerdiono reportedly recommended Bambang's name to Megawati.
Megawati learned from Abdurrahman's bitter experience after selecting journalist Ratih Hardjono as presidential secretary. Ratih did not only fail to weaken the office but even fell victim to her measures. These measures included replacing a number of staff at the State Secretariat and trying to reduce the traditional involvement of the office's bureaus in the issuance of presidential decrees, only to find that it was all quite a handful.
In a recent conversation with Bambang, he vowed to help Megawati in leading the country. He said, as a civil servant, he had reached the highest level and as an experienced legal expert he could easily open a law firm once he was no longer in the government.
A strong State Secretariat is needed to back up Megawati in her duties during these difficult times. She fully realizes the past practices of the office and as the daughter of former president Sukarno she learned how her father handled a strong office.
Bambang has the chance now to prove whether public perception of him has been misleading and whether he really is a valuable asset to President Megawati.
The writer is a staff writer of The Jakarta Post.