Tue, 22 Aug 2000

Conscientious Cabinet

If recent history provides any guidelines, President Abdurrahman Wahid or Vice President Megawati Soekarnoputri should opt for neither professionals nor politicians in selecting their new Cabinet. Both groups of people have let the nation down, and are responsible for much of the country's current problems.

Those who are debating whether President Abdurrahman Wahid should select more politicians or more professionals in his new Cabinet have grossly missed the whole point about what was really wrong with almost all past cabinets: That virtually all the ministers, whatever their backgrounds, lacked the conscientiousness that is essential for serving in public office.

Presidents Soeharto and B.J. Habibie both relied mostly on professionals in their cabinets. These people, or "technocrats" as they were once popularly referred to, had their merits as they were apolitical. They did not have any political ambitions, certainly not to the same extent as true politicians would have.

Professionals are strongly dedicated to their professions and very loyal to the masters they serve. As true professionals, they can therefore be relied upon in getting the job done.

Their strength, however, is also their chief weakness. For such important posts, they lack public accountability. Since they are not elected by the people, they do not feel that they owe their positions to the people. Their loyalty first and foremost is to their profession, and second to the person who hired them, in this case the President. The people come third, if at all.

Most of Soeharto's teams of economists, for example, were truly able and dedicated people, so much so that they stuck rigidly to their textbook theories often with little or no regard to political realities. When things went wrong -- and they often did -- these ministers blamed the nonconducive conditions, including political instability, rather than their policies.

Since they were professionals rather than politicians, they also acted as if they were beyond public reproach. When things got really bad, they would take shelter behind the president. Even today, we still hear some of these former ministers, who are no longer running the show, blaming their erstwhile boss instead of admitting their role in these mistakes.

If these ministers were conscientious in the first place, many would have resigned rather than be forced to defend and implement policies that they knew were wrong. Since not a single economic minister ever resigned during Soeharto's 32 years in power, it is safe to assume that they had all put dedication to their profession and loyalty to their boss ahead of their conscience, assuming that they had one to begin with.

A Cabinet made up of politicians may not fare any better as the experience of the last 10 months under President Abdurrahman Wahid has shown. The main argument for appointing politicians as ministers is that they are supposed to have a greater sense of public accountability than professionals because they owe their position first and foremost to the voters.

Because deep down they are politicians, these ministers are also more likely to stand up to the President when they feel his policies are detrimental to public interest.

Another major reason for having a largely political Cabinet is to ensure strong legislative support, especially since President Abdurrahman's National Awakening Party (PKB) only controls 11 percent of the seats in the House of Representatives.

The chief weakness of having politicians as ministers is precisely because they are first and foremost politicians, with personal ambitions and strong partisanship.

Abdurrahman's rainbow coalition Cabinet represents the worst possible combination that could be envisaged, which is why the idea of politicians being appointed as ministers seems so repugnant to many people. None of the politicians serving in the Cabinet have been able to shed their political jackets. They serve two bosses -- the President and their party leaders -- and at times are guilty of pursuing their own party's political agenda through the Cabinet. Few of these ministers have observed the adage which is applied to politicians serving in public office: that their loyalty to their party ends where their loyalty to the country begins.

Like the professional-ministers, many politician-ministers in the outgoing Cabinet have not demonstrated the conscientiousness to be expected from the holders of high public office precisely because they have acted like politicians pursuing narrow political interests.

It is clear now that the chief criteria in selecting the members of the Cabinet should be not whether they are professionals or politicians, but whether the candidates have any conscience at all. Second, as trusted aides of the President or Vice President, they must share their respective visions of where they want to take Indonesia. That means, at the very least, having the same political vision and ideology.

Professional competence, while crucial, comes after these two criteria are fulfilled. It is no good picking professionals if they are heartless, corrupt, have little sense of public accountability, and are pursuing a completely different agenda.

Surely it is not that difficult for President Abdurrahman and Vice President Megawati to find persons with conscience and compatible vision as well as the professional competence required to become members of the Cabinet, is it?