TEMPO.CO, Jakarta - When Rizal Ramli's name appeared in the new cabinet lineup following the reshuffle by President Joko Widodo, there was surprise and perplexity, given that he once was one of the government's worst critics. The question among Jakarta political pundits was: who brought 60-year old economist Rizal, founder and former head of the Econit Advisory Group, into the fold? For he now holds an influential position among a select group of presidential advisors.
Barely had this public debate simmered down when Rizal Ramli came out with a series of controversial statements that irked his cabinet colleagues and Vice President Jusuf Kalla. How dare he openly criticize a policy of the government he is a member of.
But that's vintage Rizal Ramli. During the presidency of Abudrrahman Wahid (Gus Dur), for example, he attacked the government's plan to purchase Airbus A350 aircrafts for Garuda Indonesia, saying it would ruin the nation's flag carrier. He also lashed out at the 35,000 megawatt power project, calling it unrealistic, and charged that the Jakarta-Bandung rapid rail project was nothing more than a source of profit for officials.
Given his oft-disparaging remarks, Vice President took it upon himself to reprimand Rizal. Seemingly, State-Owned Enterprises (SOEs) Minister Rini Soemarno, was reportedly uneasy about Rizal's interference in Garuda's affairs, which is clearly under her jurisdiction. Yet, for all the furor he has created, Rizal remains cool and even challenged Kalla to a public debate over the electricity project.
According to Kalla, President Jokowi has reprimanded Rizal for his rash statements, which he denied, even after the President summoned him to the palace on Wednesday last week. "I thought I was called in to be scolded, but no. Next week, I am to meet Prime Minister Najib Razak in Malaysia," said Rizal, in an interview with Tempo reporters, Retno Sulistyowati, Isma Savitri, Akbar Tri Kurniawan and Devy Arnis at this office last week. Excerpts:
You've just barely been sworn in, yet you're already at cross-purposes with other fellow ministers and with Vice President Jusuf Kalla. What's your intention?
Well, this is how a hawk attacks. It has sharp claws, right? And it flies freely, blowing in a new, stronger wind. It goes down then attacks. It's a kind of a shock therapy. After that, we fix it up, we consolidate. So, why the fuss?
Does that include your mention of a minister behind the rapid railway project?
Come on, no names need to be mentioned here.
Why are you doing this?
Otherwise, we'll always be in the comfort zone, where everything looks good. But we need some kind of a shock therapy. I hadn't been in a cabinet meeting before, so I was able to speak freely, and my aim was to trigger some improvement. Now that I've attended my first official cabinet session, I'll keep the criticism to myself.
Does that mean you'll put a break on your criticisms?
No, no brakes. The difference will be that outside, I will be critical, but inside my criticism will be aimed at initiating change. Rizal Ramli at Bulog (state logistics agency), at the BNI (Bank Negara Indonesia) never kept silent, but always led towards transformation.
Likewise at Semen Gresik. At that time, I invited all directors and commissioners to lunch together. I told them that I had been offered the position of board chairman in a number of state-owned companies, but that I chose Semen Gresik because it was the easiest. Then I gave them one year to improve Semen Gresik, otherwise, they had two options: Rizal Ramli would resign or I use my influence to replace all them. That's why many resent me, but I don't care. Great leaders like Lee Kuan Yew, Ali Sadikin and Mahatir spoke their minds without fear or favor. So, if there are people who say all Rizal Ramli knows is how to criticize and as such would not be a good minister, they have a low-level analytical capacity. Very shallow. They don't know history. People who change the world and change his country must be a transformer.
Did the President reprimand you for being at cross-purposes with the Vice President?
The President actually likes me, because our characters are similar. We think out of the box. Just look at how he spent his Lebaran holidays outside of Jakarta. That's going against convention.
The President once said that ministers should manage their own strategic issues, not poke their noses outside of their authority. Do you feel slighted by that?
That's just one interpretation. When I met him during Lebaran, I told him, "Mas, I will use the way of the hawk." He laughed and seemed to like my comment. Don't forget, Pak Jokowi wants fighters. Pak Syafii Maarif wants fighters. We are seen as fighters.
Just now (Wednesday afternoon, August 19), I met with the President. I thought I was being summoned to be scolded, but no (that wasn't the case). Next week, I am to meet Prime Minister Najib Razak in Malaysia. Indonesia and Malaysia will create a special, palm oil, oleo-chemical industrial zone, because we (jointly) produce about 90 percent of the world's palm oil. One of its products will be aviation fuel for jet airplanes. We want to be the world's biggest biodiesel aviation fuel producer in five year's time.
Why did you refer to a hawk's way of attacking over Garuda Indonesia's plan to buy Airbus A350 planes and the construction of the 35,000 megawatt power project?
I have actually discussed this with the President during Lebaran day. After we spoke about economic and other issues, I said, "Mas, I would like your help about a personal matter." I told him I had emotional links with Garuda, that when I was economics coordinating minister during the 2000s, Garuda was unable to pay its US$1.8 billion debt to a consortium of banks in Europe. They had threatened to confiscate Garuda aircrafts. I then sent a message to Frankfurt: go ahead and confiscate Garuda planes because we will take the case to arbitration. They had underwritten soaring credits at that time, so their planes were sold to Garuda, at a credit of a 150 percent interest. That's known as odious interest. It was wrong. So, if we had taken it to a court in Frankfurt, we would have won. After I sent that message, dozens of European bankers came here to ask that we make peace instead. That's because the risk for them would be the plunging of their shares, due to the penalty of issuing that odious interest rates. They could even end up in prison.
I agreed to a reconciliation if there was a restructurization (of the loan). They also asked for a 100 percent guarantee, but I rejected it. If the Indonesian government could do that, we wouldn't need them in the first place. I wanted some kind of a token, US$100 million guarantee, so that if something happened, the Indonesian government would not be at fault. That's why I asked Pak Jokowi not to let Garuda go bankrupt again.
How long have you known Jokowi?
I've known Mas Jokowi for a long time, since he became governor. I call him 'Mas' and he also calls me 'Mas'. He once visited my office to ask how to reform the bureaucracy. I told him there were two ways. First, by using the threat model which is not effective. The other option would be my way when I headed Bulog, which at that time was the second most corrupt government agency in Indonesia. First I looked for the pattern of corruption over there. It seems the corrupt ones were placed in 'lucrative' places and vice-versa. Once I knew the pattern, I rotated people. That was my suggestion, and Mas Jokowi seemed to like it. Secondly, he also asked about the mass rapid transit (MRT) project, because he thought it was too costly. He had tried to bring down the price, but it was difficult, because there had been too many officials 'piggy-backing' on it. I also helped him on that because, by chance, I happen to know a Japanese involved in the project.
So, how did you end up as a minister in Jokowi's cabinet?
I met Pak Jokowi at a location which I won't mention because many people want to block me. So it was arranged that I join in without anyone knowing about it. Over there, Pak Jokowi said, "Mas Rizal, I want you to be coordinating minister for maritime affairs." Of course, I had heard something about it and before I arrived I had decided to refuse (the offer). But people close to him had called me, advising me to 'just take it'.
Who were they?
Various people. But I didn't want the 2004 incident to happen again. At that time, President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono had chosen me as economic minister, but then someone 'torpedoed' it. Someone at that time didn't want me to be minister because he wanted to settle his debts (Rizal failed to join the cabinet at that time Ed.). That's always the pattern of the game, to intervene during injury time. This time also there are people who don't want Rizal Ramli in the cabinet. (*)
Read the full interview in this week's edition of Tempo English Magazine