Sat, 15 May 2004

Challenges for new leadership in running the government

Aziz Kuala Kencana, Papua

The upcoming direct election for national leadership (president and vice president) certainly invites a certain level of passion on the part of the people, amid rising expectations of a more legitimate and better government.

Chances for manipulation and dirty maneuvering by politicians are limited, and now every politician must admit that power is not fully subscribed under their fingertips any longer. The power has gone back to the people.

But restoring power back to the people through a direct election does not constitute a guarantee whatsoever that the new leadership will bring about improvements. It takes a lot more than direct election to make improvements happen. As much as a direct election is obviously a great step forward for the Indonesian political system, hope must still be carefully reserved in people's minds.

At best, a direct election generally assures a more legitimate and valid claim about the people's choice; though this may not always be the case. Remember George W. Bush and Al Gore in the 2000 U.S. presidential election, when the margin was so close that the decision on the winner had to be made by the Supreme Court.

The real challenge is how the new leadership can run the government to make improvements. This is where Indonesians must put their faith in being able to choose the right leaders who are truly capable of taking care of the people's well being.

What makes a good government? This is the central question and the new leadership must a have a clear definition about the elements that make a good government (aka civil service). It might be too late to start from scratch in building an efficient and non-corrupt civil service, but it is a prerequisite for making the improvements work.

Forget for a moment the government's economic white paper, civil society, legal supremacy, fair competition, an excellent education system and many other hopes thrown out by economists, lawyers, businesspeople, educators, etc.

None of this can be accomplished without a good running government.

In the short term, the making of good government must stem from the recruitment of Cabinet ministers.

One school of thought advises that Cabinet ministers should be professional types and politically sterile appointments will ensure objectivity and the ability to do the job, without intervention from political parties, which by definition is considered short-sighted and against wider national interests.

Another school of thought conversely argues that since the political system, especially given the current composition, requires a coalition of political parties, Cabinet ministers must be recruited primarily based on their political support. Otherwise, coalition partners may be disappointed and feel left out, prompting them to try and hassle the government, with the possibility that they may even try and topple the government down the road.

This school of thought reinforces its argument by pointing out that the larger portion of a minister's job is political, not professional, hence a political appointment can meet the requirements for the post.

The new leadership must be able to synthesize these two approaches. One solution is to find qualified people to fill the Cabinet from supporting political parties with a set of standards known as "helicopter qualities". What are these? Powers of analysis; a logical grasp of the facts; concentration on basic points, extracting the principles. Not only do these people have to be down-to-earth enough to do real work, but also able to soar above the reality and say, "This is also possible" -- in other words, must have a sense of imagination. That is the approach that Lee Kuan Yew took in recruiting his Cabinet ministers.

And this leads to the next fundamental question.

How much is a good minister worth? The new leadership must bravely ask this question and answer it to his or her supporting and opposing political parties and to the nation, even before they get elected. Such communication is needed to convince the whole nation that appointing and choosing the right candidate is as important to doing the job itself.

One dilemmatic problem to attracting the best people to fill ministerial posts is that those who are capable are usually reluctant to move away from lucrative positions in the private sector, and those who eagerly pursue Cabinet positions do not have sufficient skills other than their political connection.

On the other hand, when ministerial appointments based on political adherence take place, it discourages the second and third-liners below the minister level (directors general and directors). They are usually careerist and climb the ladder from the bottom with sweat and tears, and to tell them that they cannot move upward and are blocked by political appointees is counterproductive. They have a proven record in the government and ignoring these people will derail the effort to establish a performance-based system in government institutions.

The policy of ministerial recruitment must be explained; where the appointees come from and how the appointees surpass the standard set by the new leadership. With such an approach, although the decision is a presidential privilege, this transparency helps it to a good start.

What is the trouble with the civil service and the private sector?

Along with the newly appointed Cabinet ministers, the new leadership must take further steps by identifying and assessing the troubles they encounter in the civil service and the private sector, and then form plans to overcome these problems during their tenure.

Perhaps the country's problems are already too complicated to solve. But good leadership must be able to say that good or bad, easy or difficult, what this nation has (people, government bodies, private companies, infrastructure, foreign debts, etc.) is what this leadership accepts and will utilize to the utmost.

Since the two most important players in the country are the civil service and the private sector, the new leadership has to address the role and relationship between these two institutions. The leadership must elaborate on the meaning of "state" and "private" in the context of globalization, and realize that only by improving the civil service and private sector together will the country get better.

What are our leaders thinking? People need to know what is in the minds of their leaders. Like it or not, people actually need guidance and they expect to be led by competent leaders. This is even true in developed countries where people are well educated and independent enough to take care of themselves. But how can people know whether their leaders are competent if they cannot communicate their thoughts openly and clearly?

Last note, it is good to recall that even the best-laid plans do not always work out as expected. But the absence of a good plan and good government can have only one result: failure for the nation. The new leadership will be embracing one of the toughest jobs in the world, and people must trust this job to the best candidates who are able to take up the job professionally, honestly and responsibly.

It is time for Indonesia to move forward, never mind the artificial labels like civil-military, Muslim-nationalist, Javanese and non-Javanese used by politicians. As already proven by developed countries, the nations that win are those that can adopt and place modernity, rationality and logical thinking above primordial values. These are the same nations that take pride in hard work and learning to do their jobs better.

The writer can be reached at