TEMPO.CO, Jakarta - There are no words to describe the negative reports that seem to be hitting President Joko Widodo's government. It has recently faced charges of being anti-Islamic, a lackey of China and the mover behind the revival of the Indonesian Communist Party (PKI). Two weeks ago, rumors spoke of relations between President Jokowi and Vice-President Jusuf Kalla going southward. Jusuf Kalla immediately called a press conference to deny the reports.
According to the President's Chief of Staff Teten Masduki, 54, the profusion of fake news and rumors was a consequence of the government's reform agenda. He said reforms were affecting sectors like mining, plantations, trade, oil and gas and making people uneasy. Opportunities to commit irregularities had become more restricted. "Some people are quite upset by the President's reform agenda," said Teten.
He should know, being familiar with the ins and outs of the presidential palace. He is never too far away from President Jokowi's side, having been with him since the early days of the 2014 presidential campaigning. In fact, it was because of Jokowi that he left his previous world of activism, to become a bureaucrat.
Hailing from Garut, West Java, Teten eventually rose to become the presidential chief of staff, an office much like the West Wing at the US White House. It became a meeting place of intellectuals, experts and professionals, who gathered to help smooth the work of President Jokowi. "We work in silence, away from noisy conflicts," Teten explained, responding to criticism that the president's office produced no concrete results.
Teten, winner of the 2005 Ramon Magsaysay Award for public service, spoke with Tempo reporters Sapto Yunus and Raymundus at the State Palace in Jakarta, last week. Sitting amid his posh surroundings, Teten feels a bit guilty, recalling past early years when he was an activist, criticizing former President Suharto. "Today, my work is to meet with protestors. It can be excruciating, but at times, it can be quite humorous," said Teten.
What was the reason for Vice-President Jusuf Kalla’s abrupt denial of a split between him and President Joko Widodo?
If the rumors were ignored, people would think there was some truth in them. Attacks against the government come in very strange forms these days. They are nothing substantial about the government’s work, like being anti-Islamic, a lackey of China and reviving the PKI. Yet, if this group ever dared to rise again, we would surely clobber it.
You were once accused of being a PKI cadre.
The person who said that was a big joker. It would make more sense if I was accused of being a Darul Islam member, because I was born in Garut (laughs). I was just two years old when the PKI was dissolved in 1966. Why bring it up?
So, relations between the president and vice-president are good?
They complement each other. Don’t compare him to the time when he was vice-president during President Yudho-yono’s era. Today, President Jokowi himself leads and manages programs, including the weekly blusukan (unscheduled visits) to the provinces, to find out for himself whether his programs are working.
But the two seem to be at odds over a number of policies, such as the management of peatlands.
Their attitudes are always the same. The president and vice-president agree on the commitment to protect the environment, particularly since haze from forest fires in the past affected neighboring countries. So, the issue of a split is untrue.
So, how did the rumors start?
There are efforts to split up the government, but they have not been successful.
Who would want the government to split up?
Rent seekers who feel upset by President Jokowi’s reform programs. This makes sense because the government’s reform agenda affects many sectors, along them mining, oil palm, trade, oil and gas. The elites and experienced business people are also impacted because they feel their interests have not been attended to.
Can you name them?
We found it easy to map out the (affected) sectors because their growth has been quite small. So, the profiles are of the same people again and again, and the bureaucracy is still dominated by the old culture.
Does that mean the President’s reform agenda is yet to produce results?
Judging from President Jokowi’s hard stance, businessman and bureaucrat are still imbued with the old culture, finding it difficult to comply. The President will not compromise because he is working for economic progress and the people’s welfare. One example is the way oil palm businesses still try to apply traditional schemes by continuing to expand their land. Yet the President has imposed a moratorium (on land expansion), he has involved local farmers and strengthened the downstream industries. Eventually, some of them do understand the President’s policies.
How do you deal with those who disagree with the policy?
We are unlikely to embrace everyone, but they need to be acknowledged. The consequence of implementing changes is that some people will feel upset and they will protest noisily, but there will be others who remain cool. Despite the political uproar, clearly reforms and the government’s programs are working.
The President is not worried that his reform agenda could endanger his re-election in 2019?
The President always reminds us just to work, not think what to do in 2019. He once said, "I’m surprised that I was elected president." If we seek changes with long-term results, five years would not be enough.
What is the Government’s attitude about radical Islamic groups?
The government is quite firm that Pancasila and Bhinneka Tunggal Ika (Unity in Diversity) is non-negotiable. If diversity is affected, national unity can be endangered. Most likely, (resulting in) a horizontal conflict.
Tempo heard that the President told you he might dissolve the Islamic Defenders Front. Why is this not happening?
The President’s language was very clear: whatever the mass organization, if it comes into conflict with our state ideology, they must be eliminated.
It began with religious issues, and the President was almost shaken by this. What happened?
The issue of ethnicity, religion and race is not a threat to President Jakarta alone, but to all of us. The President pleaded publicly, "People must learn to think productively." How can we progress if we keep on arguing about primordial issues, while other countries are already planning to build projects in space? If criticizing the government is necessary, do it on substantial issues.
The office of the President was once criticized for taking over the work of other institutions. Have you managed to reconcile differences with other agencies?
The office of the president will only be involved so long as the program is a priority of the president. Strategic issues and those which have socio-political impact can also grab our attention. A number of tasks have been divided between our office, the national planning board and the coordinating ministry for the economy, which oversees the committee to accelerate priority infrastructure development (KPPIP). We make sure that monitoring and evaluation of the programs are followed.
Read the full interview in this week's edition of Tempo English Magazine