Sat, 29 Apr 2000

Removal of Laksamana bad for RI

By Jeffrey A. Winters

CHICAGO (JP): President Abdurrahman Wahid (Gus Dur) showed poor judgment when he fired Laksamana Sukardi from the Cabinet. No one can disagree that a president should be able to choose ministers he can work with and who can work with each other.

This is surely a minimum requirement for effective governance. But ousting Laksamana was a mistake, and the way it was done was disgraceful. To lump the firing of a man with an impeccable record for honesty like Laksamana together with Yusuf Kalla, who is suspected of corruption (which the latter has been denied -- Ed.) is an injustice.

Even Gen. Wiranto, facing charges of crimes against humanity in East Timor, received more respectful treatment at the hands of Gus Dur.

Indonesians deserve to know who conspired to remove Laksamana and they have a right to know why.

After more than three decades of authoritarian rule, Indonesia has a severe shortage of quality leaders untainted by corruption and dedicated more to the betterment of the country than their own personal (or factional) enrichment or egos.

Laksamana is one such leader. His removal from the government marks a dark day for the country.

It is unfair to charge Laksamana with being slow or ineffective. As a minister, he was constantly undercut from above and below. He had insufficient backing from Vice President Megawati Soekarnoputri, faced open hostility from the new leadership of the Indonesian Democratic Party of Struggle (PDI Perjuangan), and was not a close confidant of Gus Dur (though their relationship was regarded as friendly and professional).

What went wrong for Laksamana? Sincere in his campaign pledges -- made with and through Megawati -- in early November 1999, he immediately set a strong standard for rule of law and demonstrated a low tolerance for the typical corrupt games of Indonesian elite politics. This fits well rhetorically with the new government, but in fact it caused friction.

It is not an exaggeration to say that no minister started faster and more aggressively than Laksamana. With a fresh audit from PriceWaterhouseCoopers showing multibillion dollar losses at Pertamina, he immediately tried and failed to get control of this largest of state companies in an effort to clean it up through what he called "shock therapy." He was undercut from above.

Initially Laksamana was responsible for the health of the state banks, though this part of his portfolio was snatched away by his political competitors.

He understood the intimate connection between taking firm action against corruption to establish rule of law on the one hand and Indonesia's credibility as a predictable destination for new investment on the other.

When he discovered that a well-connected businessman had severely damaged the capital position of a state bank through questionable borrowing, he moved fast to raise the obvious and serious allegations of wrongdoing to the House of Representatives and attorney general.

This was the infamous Texmaco case. But in time-honored Indonesian tradition, the accuser quickly became the accused, and a fairly straightforward case turned into an absurd political debate focusing more on criticizing Laksamana than those responsible for the bank's heavy losses.

The elite ran for cover and the already corrupt together with the soon to be corrupt closed ranks. The Texmaco case made Laksamana an overnight hero of the people.

But for many in the power elite he was a villain. Even those within his own party, PDI Perjuangan, turned against him, undercutting the lofty campaign themes that Eros Djarot formulated and Megawati presented.

Being a "team player" in Indonesia often means going along with business as usual and showing a willingness to compromise even your most basic principles.

Laksamana showed early signs that he was unwilling to be this kind of team player, and that he did not accept the delicate rules of corrupt elite politics that are as alive and well today in the country as they were throughout the Soeharto regime.

In the eyes of the new status quo, it was clear that Laksamana was a troublemaker who had to be isolated and, if possible, pushed out.

He did not stop with the Texmaco case. Fully aware that state enterprises in Indonesia were being used by political players to grab rich resources, Laksamana was determined to use his power to block the ordinary skimming from the people's corporations.

The established practice is that men who want to lead or attain high positions in state firms must pay a fee (upeti) for the opportunity. This could be hundreds of thousands or even millions of dollars, depending on how rich the company is.

Laksamana blocked this game by introducing a new rule -- candidates must meet a "fit and proper" test to qualify. And worse, he said, he wanted to use outside experts in the assessment process for top posts in the state companies -- people, he hoped, who would be beyond the reach of the dirty money game.

This was shocking news for those eager to get their share of the leftovers from the feeding frenzy of the Soeharto decades.

In a sense, it is a step forward for Laksamana to be driven from the Cabinet. He was wasting his time and abilities there.

What good is it to fight with fellow ministers and the bureaucracy when the state's economic policies lack direction and vision?

Why speak out for stronger rule of law when past criminals can so easily defy the legal system and future criminals are so hungry to have their chance to get rich overnight? And why travel the globe trying to attract and reassure potential investors when the country is facing multiple bloody regional conflicts, rumors of possible coups, increasing levels of mob violence and vigilante street justice and calls for holy wars?

Only a foolish businessman with no alternatives would risk his investments in such an environment.

A word about motivation is in order, since this is something Indonesians are always so suspicious about. No one could claim that Laksamana wanted to become a minister so he could get rich or be famous.

He was already financially comfortable before he dedicated his life and resources to the principles he wanted PDI Perjuangan to uphold. He is rather a shy man who does not feel at ease in front of crowds or in the glare of TV cameras.

In fact, he expended most of his personal resources to support a movement for democracy when other elites lacked the guts or inclination to do the same. For almost all of the 1990s, his colleagues in the business world feared being seen with him in public.

Did he struggle and make these sacrifices because he hoped he could cash in later, become a minister, and become even richer? Definitely not. No rational person hoping to get rich would have joined Megawati and the PDI Perjuangan as Laksamana did in the early 1990s.

Every indication was that Soeharto and his dynasty would remain entrenched for the foreseeable future. Laksamana actually got poorer as a minister, not richer.

When his ministry's budget was too limited for travel or staff, he was sometimes forced to dip into his own personal savings as a supplement in the hope of getting the job done. Who else in the Cabinet ever did this?

He made sacrifices and struggled for two simple reasons -- because he genuinely is a democrat and believes in the inherent worth of the struggle for justice, and because he loves Indonesia and the Indonesian people more than he loves the security money can bring.

One wonders what sorts of political forces worked to attack such a noble and dedicated figure as this. Who was whispering in the ear of Gus Dur this time and what were they saying so that the President would fire a loyal and distinguished member of the Cabinet in such a callous manner?

If there is a lack of coordination in the Cabinet, the blame obviously falls not on individual ministers, but on the President, Vice President and coordinating ministers.

The firing of Laksamana is one of those watershed events that will ultimately define Gus Dur's government when tough questions are asked (whether in August or in the history books) about how much has been accomplished to confront collusion, corruption and nepotism.

Instead of firing Laksamana, Gus Dur should have given him a strong green light.

Laksamana will be better able to serve his principles and his nation from a position outside the government. My guess is that if he has any regrets, it is that he did not resign months ago when it became frustratingly obvious to him that working inside the system was not likely to produce the economic recovery, reforms and justice he and his colleagues promised to the people.

Now that he is out, perhaps Laksamana should consider establishing an independent institute through which he and others can carry on the struggle for good governance.

The writer is a professor of political economy at Northwestern University in Chicago in the United States.