Sun, 10 Oct 1999

Sri Mulyani wants to be a kindergarten teacher

By T. Sima Gunawan

JAKARTA (JP): Economist Sri Mulyani, known for her bold statements and sharp analyses, can sometimes be a witch or a cruel step mother.

If you don't believe it, you'd better ask her children, Dewinta, 10, Adwin, 7, or Lukman, 3, with whom Mulyani often acts out the famous tale of Hans and Gretel, not in a theater building, but in their house in Bintaro, on the outskirts of Jakarta.

"I like perform drama with my children," said Mulyani, who also loves singing and gardening. "I really love children. I want to be a kindergarten teacher one day."

But she is not a kindergarten teacher. She teaches at the graduate program of the University of Indonesia's School of Economics, and heads the university's Institute of Economic and Social Studies. In fact, she does not have much time to play with her children, especially as the country is still battling against the prolonged economic crisis, which started in July 1997.

Due to her easy accessibility, many people contact Mulyani and invite her to talk. She almost always accommodates the invitations, that is until about a year ago.

"My children started to complain. When my eldest child saw me on TV, she would complain: 'Isn't there any other economist who could talk and replace you?' She was very angry.

"So we talked and made an agreement. She promised to study hard and be a good girl and I promised to reduce my activities in the evening. I would try to get home by 8 p.m. If I am not home at that time, I have to tell her my whereabouts."

Born in 1962, Mulyani graduated from the School of Economics at the University of Indonesia (UI) in 1986. Two years later she married Tony Sumartono who works at the Export Development Board. The same year she went to the University of Illinois and returned home in 1992 with her Ph.D. degree.

At 5 p.m., when all her staff had left for the day and during a break in her hectic schedule, she met The Jakarta Post at her office on UI's campus compound on Jl. Salemba, Central Jakarta. Later in the evening she had an appointment with State Minister of National Development Planning Boediono.

Below is an excerpt from the interview:

Question: It seems that you are very busy with your work but you are also close to your family. How do you juggle both aspects of your life?

Answer: I try to balance the attention I give to my family so that we are like other normal families. I try to equal the time I give to my job and to my family.

I have a secretary at home who works out my schedule, deals with e-mails, document filing and so on.

I am lucky because my brother also lives in the neighborhood and he has kids who are about my children's age. Basically, my children have a 'step mother' who is their auntie and my sister- in-law.

My extended family helps a lot. My mother-in-law often shops for our monthly needs. So, actually, I don't do much housework. I only play with the children and spend time with my husband.

Q: Some women could not build a career outside the house because they have to take care of their family...

A: If a woman could not build her career because she had to manage the household, I think that idea should be reviewed, especially in Indonesia where labor costs are relatively cheap. This is about time management. But I think that some tasks can not be delegated to housemaids, like educating the children.

Housemaids are downstream workers, they do the hard work. They help with the hardware, while we have to take care of the software, the system, the soul of the household.

Q: Why did you want to be an economist?

A: Actually, I wanted to be a teacher. When I was in senior high school I had an English teacher who was very smart, beautiful and neatly-dressed. I liked English, I liked her and I wanted to be a role model like her.

Since I was in junior high, I have read books on psychology provided by my mother, who is a psychologist. Both my parents are lecturers and professors at the Semarang Teachers' Training Institute (which is now a university). They have 10 children, I am the seventh.

In high school, I majored in natural sciences, but when I graduated, I did not want to continue with it. I enrolled in the School of Economics, which, I think, is the hardest of the social sciences. I was not serious about it, but I was accepted. And I was not wrong. I enjoy economics.

Economic science has much to do with psychology, it deals with human behavior, but in economics, it is about the behavior of achieving welfare.

Q: How big is the role of your family in shaping your personality?

A: I was raised in a Javanese family with a strong Javanese culture, but in a Western-style education and environment. My parents were democratic, open and transparent. They taught the children to talk. When we had breakfast, lunch and dinner we discussed many things, including politics.

Q: What are the activities of the Institute of Economic and Social Assessment?

A: It is a research and education institution. We receive a lot of research orders, especially those dealing with the analysis of policies, and we produce policy recommendations, we deal a lot with the National Development Planning Board, the Ministry of Trade and Industry, the Finance Ministry and Bank Indonesia.

Our training center mostly deals with finance and development planning.

We have many partners from the government, but we have become more and more independent.

Recently we also dealt with multilateral institutions like ADB (Asian Development Bank).

Q: It seems that in Indonesia research is not considered important...

A: Absolutely true. In government institutions, the research and development agency conducts research only to generate funds from the state budget. Only a small amount of research conducted gets an input into the process of policy making, and that started to happen only recently.

The general view is that research is not important. Researchers are not respected here and the results of their research is generally not used.

Q: How could people have such a view?

A: Maybe because for Indonesians, the process is not important. What is important is the outcome. They do not give room for jobs that require a lot of time to think and to design. And the result is what we are now facing. There are many policies which are made without coordination, made in wrong sequences, because all of them are based on ad hoc decisions, not based on research, even though almost all government institutions have a research and development department.

I think it has much to do with the attitude, 'I know that, you don't need to carry out any research.' Such an attitude prevails especially among government officials.

Q: How about the private sector?

A: We all have the same problems. We need a certain level of education (to be able to respect research). Even at school, the process (of learning) is not respected... the students cheat and bribe the teachers.

In Indonesia we have 200 million people. About 70 million are of school age. The government has a mass education policy, everything is the same, ignore the local content... everybody has to go to school but the quality is ignored.

Q: Teachers of state schools are poorly paid. How about the lecturers?

A: Lecturers don't make much money. The standard of payment is marginal, especially in Jakarta where commuter costs are high. Some big universities have research institutes which can provide income for them. In other places (not in UI's School of Economics), there are lecturers who neglect the students because they are too busy with side jobs. There are others who teach in many places to make money. They sacrifice the quality of education.

Q: Most experts, like yourself, graduate from overseas universities...

A: We really have a lack of education institutions at graduate level. There are some local institutions which offer graduate programs, but many of them are of poor quality. Unfortunately, many Indonesians are crazy about titles. Many government officials buy titles for job promotion.

Q: How about the graduate program at your school here, do you dare to compare it with those abroad?

A: To some extent, yes, but not in the ratio of lecturer and students and not in relation to the library. In this area, we really have a lot of catching up to do.

Q: What was the best academic experience you had while studying abroad?

A: The lecturers dedicated their time fully to the students. The quality of lecturing and the materials were well prepared. They had clear office hours.

Q: About the new government, which will be heterogeneous. They might need a lot of time to make decisions while in this time of crisis we need to work fast...

A: I don't think that their differences would hamper in making fast decisions. If the process takes a bit longer, that's fine. This is part of the learning process of a nation.

This country has to learn that we are in an unfortunate situation, which is inevitable in our life as a nation. It can be said that it is all our fault because we have not done our homework step by step. Now it is due all at the same time. The homework is economic, political, social, and legal.

Q: When will the economic recover?

A: If it can recover in five years, that's good enough.

Q: We need professionals to help with the recovery. But many of them, especially the Chinese Indonesians, have reportedly left the country because they think it is not safe here...

A: Many have left, not only the Chinese, but also native Indonesians. It is a market mechanism. We are unhappy, but this is part of the (learning) process. To some extent, it is inevitable, this is the cost of the learning process. But I am still optimistic because there are still many others who have the idealism and still want to contribute.