Wednesday, May 14, 2014

Ahok: Being the Change He Wants to See

Last week I took part in an intensive comparative learning tour of Indonesia. It was an opportunity to learn about Indonesia’s journey towards democracy from 1945 under the leadership of Sukarno, the “New Order” under General Suharto from 1965 and the “Reformasi” which began in 1998 and is ongoing. Over the next few weeks I will share my reflections about what Indonesia has learned – the preconditions for democracy in their context, the process of dialogue, development of mechanisms for accountability, work towards interreligious tolerance and other transitions that take place along the journey, including the situation in Tanah (West) Papua. As we continue our own journey towards democracy, both pre and post September 2014, perhaps we may be able to learn something from Indonesia’s longer and more intense journey.

Indonesia is the fourth largest country in the world, behind China, India and the United States of America with an estimated 253,899,536 (237,424,363 according to 2010 census) people living on its 17,508 islands. There are over 300 ethnic groups in Indonesia.95% of those are of Native Indonesian ancestry, the largest being the Javanese who make up nearly 42% of the total population. Indonesia is also has the largest Muslim population in the world (approx. 202.9 million) making up 88.2% of Indonesia’s population. With these statistics, I was surprised to learn that the Vice Governor of Jakarta, the capital and largest city of Indonesia, the most populous city in Indonesia and in Southeast Asia, was a triple minority. Basuki Tjahaja Purnama is ethnically Chinese, a Protestant Christian and from Bangka Belitung, a small province of islands to the east of the island of Sumatra.

I met Vice-Governor Purnama, commonly known by his Hakka Chinese affectionate nickname, Ahok last week, when he spoke to our Fijian group as part of our comparative learning programme. Striving to be an example of an agent of positive transformation, the story of Ahok’s political rise is an example of how social issues and not race or religion is important to voters in his context. Ahok, a geologist by profession (although he also holds an MBA) started as a businessman but shut down his quarry business because of the frustration of dealing with a corrupt bureaucracy in Bangka-Belitung. He entered politics to prove that political leaders can be chosen by the people based on their track record, accountability and work ethic.

In 2004, in a country where patron-client politics, locally known as money-politics is a reality, Ahok chose to run for local provincial parliament in a clean campaign. Rejecting the usual campaign method of putting up banners and handing out flyers with printed promises, he again handed out his private cellphone number so that people could contact him at any time.  Although that campaign resulted in only 93 votes, it was enough to get him elected. Just seven months into his term, he had gathered enough support to run for Regent or district head of East Belitung, a contest he won to many people’s surprise. That a Christian, ethnic Chinese councilman was able to become the head of a 93 percent Muslim-majority district can be attributed to his hands-on approach and close relationship with the people. During his term as Regent, he introduced policies such as ensuring free healthcare and education for the people. He cut the development budget put out to tender by 20 percent, to reduce corruption from rigged bids. He also slashed the administration’s travel budget by 80 percent from about Rp 1 billion ($215,278) a year. These savings were directed to health and education programs designed to guarantee that all residents had access to health care, to schools and build infrastructure in slum areas. He also began to document corruption in local politics.

In 2008 he founded the NGO, Center for Democracy and Transparency (CDT) to channel his personal donations to the poor. The Center is involved in social work that includes helping Jakartans with legal, education and health problems.

In 2009 Ahok took his “clean campaign” to the national level. He was successful and elected to Dewan Perwakilan Rakya, (People's Representative Council), one of two elected national legislative assemblies in Indonesia. His tough attitude against corruption did not help in a campaign against the incumbent governor when he tried to get support for senior citizens in the form of a $15 monthly allowance. Even when supported by Abdurrahman “Gus Dur” Wahid (Indonesian Muslim religious and political leader who served as the President of Indonesia from 1999 to 2001), Ahok lost due to what he claimed was cheating and a corrupt supreme court. Yet he still chose not to play the “money-politics” game.

“When it was suggested to me that by paying a bribe I could get the Supreme Court to rule in my favour, I asked my wife for advice,” he said during our meeting. “She in responded by asking me if I was Jesus’ disciple or Barabbas’ disciple. I chose to remain Jesus’ disciple in this political world. Unfortunately most chose the Barabbas way.”

In his first month as Vice or Lieutenant Govenor, Ahok confronted key issues related to traffic congestion, labor, and the bureaucracy. He successfully mediated a minimum wage increase, proposed incentives for street vendors to move to specified markets in order to reduce congestion, launched surprise inspections of government offices, and proposed installing closed circuit televisions to improve accountability.

For the sake of “truth-telling” – accountability and transparency, Ahok has his meetings filmed and uploaded on YouTube for the public to see. The YouTube broadcast of Ahok’s budget meeting with public works agency officials was viewed more than 1.3 million times in 2012. According to the Jakarta Post, while Ahok’s videos have been criticised by some as an unnecessary public humiliation of officials, “many Jakartans hoped that the YouTube video revealed a new reality in the era of multi-media and Internet technology, with secrecy, collusion, cronyism and conspiracy having no place in the public realm.” Ahok’s policy of uploading videos of his budget meetings and the work of his subordinates on YouTube has inspired the Corruption Eradication Commission (KPK) to do the same with videos of corruption trials at the Jakarta Corruption Court. Even our meeting was filmed, although perhaps it was not important enough for YouTube.

Ahok still gives his personal number to all he meets, although now he has 13 blackberry phones which his interns (with whom he even shares his office space) help him manage.

“My policy is to obey the constitution, not the constituents, “he said. “My motto is: No bribery; justice for all, including minorities; follow the constitution and; be prepared to die for your values.”

Ahok’s commitment to be an actor for positive change is a lesson in leadership for us all.

“Simplicity, Serenity, Spontaneity

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