SBY's plodding pace

Andrew Steele, Jakarta

Most jobs take time to settle into and a learning curve always exists when venturing into unchartered waters. As a military man possessing little experience with democratic governance, it is safe to say that the true rigors of the presidential palace were not entirely clear to Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono (SBY) before he threw his hat into the ring in 2004 and successfully ran for president. But with 20 months of leadership now under his belt, he has had ample time to familiarize himself with his new occupation as the Indonesian president.

He assumed the presidency with unprecedented expectations for an Indonesian head of state not only because of an electorate that was eager to see systemic changes take root but also because of his own unrealistic campaign promises. While the pace of reform to date has been lacking, the direction Indonesia is moving in under SBY's guidance remains on track.

An increased degree of political stability can be felt, international perceptions of Indonesia have undoubtedly improved, and SBY remains more presidential than any of his predecessors.

The jury, however, remains out on whether SBY should be and will be seen as a successful, productive leader of the nation. His slow, deliberative approach has been well documented by pundits inside and outside of Jakarta.

Originally, the approach was accepted and explained as SBY's way of doing things; it was said that he examined all points of view and arrived at the appropriate decision, even if it was delayed. Since then though, he has been silent on a series of key issues affecting the country, including the revision of the labor law, the anti-pornography bill, and, most recently, the handling of the Soeharto case.

Furthermore, SBY's ability to focus on key issues and reach for solutions under pressure is no longer wholeheartedly accepted, as it was in his early days in office when he was dealing with the aftermath of the tsunami.

On the business front, SBY's promise to resolve three pending international business disputes in Indonesia, involving Cemex, Newmont, and ExxonMobil, within his first 100 days has still not been realized. Cemex was told that they could not obtain a majority stake in Semen Gresik and so decided to get out of the Indonesian cement market.

Ironically, after meddling by the minister of state enterprises they were told they could not sell their stake to interested parties outside of government either. Regarding Newmont, the government withdrew its civil suit but is pressing ahead with criminal charges against the company's former head, Richard Ness.

While ExxonMobil's onshore Cepu deal has theoretically been resolved, in late May a group of 60 House of Representatives (DPR) members filed a Right of Questionnaire, which was later rejected, over the company's alleged violation of its contract. The government and SBY's handling of all three cases has hardly sent the right message to investors.

One common thread connecting all these issues is the fact that SBY remains risk averse. But this timid leadership style is putting him at a greater risk of being seen as ineffective and ultimately a president not worth re-electing. Moreover, the macroeconomic stability he has achieved has not translated into microeconomic gains for the poorer sections of Indonesia.

This lack of growth in the real sector has done little to ameliorate the problems facing his electorate, as polls show that public patience for SBY is wearing thin.

Finally, while SBY and Vice President Jusuf Kalla make a good team, it appears that SBY has allowed Kalla to take the lead too often. During the remainder of his term, SBY must assert himself and become more decisive in his policy approach. SBY will also need to remember that a person working in his capacity has a finite time to seek out advice and opinions before making an assessment of his own.

It is one thing to sit back and make calculated decisions and it is another to go silent. The time has arrived for SBY to begin to manage the message and again prove to the country that they elected the most capable candidate.

The writer is the Managing Editor of the fortnightly Van Zorge Report on Indonesia. He can be reached at asteele@vzh.co.id.
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