Thu, 02 Oct 2003

Syaukani lifts regency to new heights

Pandaya, The Jakarta Post, Tenggarong, East Kalimantan

When tens of thousands of people gathered in the Rondong Demang stadium in Tenggarong for the opening of an international arts festival, the biggest thrill was provided by two low-passing gliders towing a banner carrying a government slogan.

"Gerbang Dayaku Program Bupatiku" (Gerbang Dayaku is My Regent's Program) screamed the giant yellow banner.

The people in the stadium cheered as the gliders passed overhead after Syaukani, the regent of Kutai Kartanegara, which is hosting the festival, delivered a speech in which he underlined the importance of preserving cultural heritage.

So, is Syaukani building a personality cult?

"I saw it (the gliders) but I have no idea who did it," he replied when The Jakarta Post mentioned the scene during an interview at his cozy residence next to the majestic Kutai Palace.

The slogan Gerbang Dayaku is seen throughout Kutai Kartanegara, a regency going from rags to riches thanks to regional autonomy, which gives it 30 percent of all the money the central government rakes in from the regency's natural resources. Before autonomy began in 2001, it received none.

Gerbang Dayaku sums up Syaukani's people-oriented development programs, which he launched when he assumed office in 1999. It aims at lifting Kutai Kartanegara's economic status to the height of Brunei.

High on his agenda are the development of infrastructure, empowering the people's economy and improving human resources.

There is no doubt that the residents like what he is doing to lift the regency out of backwardness and poverty. This man is idolized. His fervent admirers lovingly call him "our king".

Kutai Kartanegara, which covers an area of 27,000 square kilometers and has a population of just 426,000, has become a symbol of success in regional autonomy, which began in 2001 three years after the end of the Soeharto regime. And the credit for this success goes to Syaukani.

Under his populist leadership, each village is entitled to Rp 2 billion in development aid. New roads and bridges are being designed or are under construction.

Education has been made free of charge up through high school, at both state and private schools. School textbooks are provided to students at no cost and every teacher gets Rp 500,000 in "incentive" allowance a month -- something that teachers elsewhere in the country can only envy.

Of the regency's 2003/2004 Rp 2.4 trillion budget, Rp 100 billion was for the education sector.

"In fact, we don't set any limits on the education budget. We will provide as much as needed," said Syaukani, who keeps pet monkeys and snakes.

What he has been doing to realize his promise of "glorious Kutai Kartanegara" is indeed impressive. As soon as one reaches Tenggarong, about an hour's drive from the East Kalimantan capital of Samarinda, visitors will see the new bridge that swoops over the Mahakam River. The "Golden Gate of Kutai Kartanegara" has become a symbol of Syaukani's leadership.

And countless other mammoth development projects are underway. These include the 76-hectare Kumala Delta just across from the regent's office, which is being transformed into a modern Rp 4 trillion Ancol Dreamland-style family resort. There is also a Rp 800 billion international airport project that is being designed and a 220-kilometer toll road linking Balikpapan, Samarinda, Tenggarong, Bontang and Sangata, which is expected to open by 2008.

"Before autonomy, we received zero percent from the exploitation of our natural resources. We were just foolish spectators then. Now we get 30 percent. Ideally, the regency's share would be 50 percent and I am fighting for this," Syaukani said.

Much of the money comes from the numerous multinational companies operating in Kutai Kartanegara, which need the necessary infrastructure.

"By the year 2007, Kutai Kartanegara will no longer have the problems of poverty, child labor and neglected elderly citizens," he said.

But don't let all these astronomical figures and sparkling development projects dazzle you: most of the projects are still on the drawing board and the regency is struggling with a lack of qualified local human resources.

Born on Nov. 11, 1948, Syaukani Hasan Rais - a father of three - began his career as a civil servant. His political career took off when he chaired the Kutai regency legislative council in 1999 before being elected regent the same year.

In the Soeharto era, he courted trouble by publicly calling for greater autonomy for East Kalimantan, frustrated by how the central government treated the natural resource-rich territory like a milch cow. His first bid to become regent was shot down by Jakarta.

He caused further controversy when, in front of hundreds of supporters at the Tenggarong Grand Mosque, he declared Kutai Kartanegara an "autonomous regency" before the law on autonomy had yet to be finalized.

Despite all the progress that autonomy has brought to Kutai Kartanegara, Syaukani is not pleased with the degree of freedom the central government allows regencies to enjoy.

"It is half-hearted autonomy," he says. "The political will is very weak on the part of the central government. Very often it fails to serve as a role model in law enforcement. For example, the agrarian law gives the regional administration the right to manage land, but then came the lower Presidential Instruction No. 103/2003 shifting the right back to the central government."

His relentless efforts on behalf of regional autonomy have propelled him to national prominence. He was appointed chairman of the Association of Regency Administrations (Apkasi).

Beside Apkasi, he chairs over a dozen organizations, from the East Kalimantan chapter of the Golkar Party to the provincial branch of the National Sports Council. He is also the rector of Kartanegara University in Tenggarong.

Syaukani works hard to portray himself as a friend of the people. On holidays people gather at his residence, asking for everything from alms to money to build mosques. Like a celebrity, he pleases his "fans" by signing autographs while he strolls down the street.

With 324 regents grouped in Apkasi lining up behind him, Syaukani is a maverick that regional leaders look at with awe and Jakarta's top bureaucrats with suspicion.

"We are striving for more autonomy and are always strengthening our bargaining position," he said.