Monday, October 17, 2011

Protect Our Finance Minister, Mr. President

photo: Dwianto Wibowo for Tempo Magazine

It could look a little bit déjà vu if this three-week drama of cabinet reshuffle concludes with the dismissal of Indonesia’s tough Finance Minister Agus Martowardojo from President Yudhoyono’s administration.

Previously, Yudhoyono had let go another stellar Finance Minister, Sri Mulyani Indrawati, due to pressure from his mischievous coalition partners that were spearheaded by the Golkar party last year.

There is a possibility that last year’s drama could repeat itself this year with the same protagonist, same villain, and same ending: The villain bullies the protagonist, the protagonist is afraid and bows to the villain’s demand, and the ending wraps up with the protagonist ends up as the losing side.

The protagonist is of course President Yudhoyono, who decided to let go Mulyani last year even though she was arguably the best minister he ever had in years.

Yudhoyono clearly did not learn from his past mistake as Agus Martowardjojo, the current Finance Minister, is currently on the hot seat again. Just like last year, Yudhoyono did not give Agus enough protection to shield the Finance Minister from politicians’ perpetual harassments, leaving Agus standing alone in his battle to defend the state’s interest.

On the other side of the ring, the villain in is still the same as well: Golkar chairman Aburizal Bakrie who, impressively, managed to dictate many important decisions in Yudhoyono’s presidency and made the president himself very much like a controlled puppet.

After succesfully expelled Mulyani last year, the ousting of Agus from the Finance Minister post this year would reflect both Aburizal’s massive clout in the administration and Yudhoyono’s lame leadership. By driving Agus out, the message delivered by Aburizal was clear: You can mess with Yudhoyono, but don’t ever try to mess with me or my party.

Like Mulyani, Agus maintained a tough stance towards the Golkar party politicians and their power-hungry peers at the House. Agus was especially known for his clash with Golkar politicians over the government’s plan to purchase Newmont shares –a plan that Agus strongly believed would benefit Indonesia.

Lawmakers were against this plan and slammed Agus’s proposal. They furiously insisted the shares must be acquired by West Nusa Tenggara’s local administration, which is supported by a joint venture of a business unit that is owned by Golkar’s Aburizal.

The Finance Minister vs. House lawmakers battle repeated again last week over debates on the fuel subsidy quota, in which Golkar lawmaker Melchias Markus Mekeng lambasted Agus and described him as ‘does not have the authority to dictate the House’.

The fact that many Golkar politicians dislike persons with integrity such as Agus Martowardojo, Sri Mulyani, or even Trade Minister Mari Elka Pangestu (a Golkar lawmaker once uttered a racist statement and baseless accusation against her) is very much incomprehensible. For neutral political observers, it could only show that the party’s ideology is more about power and money, not the advancement of Indonesia to become a better nation.

Besides, if Golkar’s politicians and President Yudhoyono really care about Indonesia, they should understand that the timing of Agus’s exit could not be worse than now.

On Thursday last week, President Yudhoyono stated that he “would focus the next cabinet reshuffle to harness global economic challenges”. In truth, his decision to eject Agus from the Finance Minister chair would prove otherwise.

It is no exaggeration to say that if the current situation remains unchanged, we could bump into one of the world’s biggest economic crises next year. The European and American politicians are particularly responsible for the mess: Eurozone leaders are yet to reach agreement on what to do with their problematical currency, while the Republicans and Democrats legislators in United States are busy scuffling for their respective interests for the 2012 elections rather than controlling the country’s soaring fiscal burden.

Consequently, investors were scared off by recent developments in the West and symptoms of worldwide-scale economic crisis started to surface In Indonesia in the last few months. The once-strong rupiah –which once touched the level of 8,650 against the US dollar on August– has been under heavy pressure lately, while the Indonesian Stock Exchange index has plunged from the psychological level of 4,000 to 3,200 in a very short period.

By the time the crisis turns from symptoms into veracity next year, there is no doubt that the leadership of Agus –a former top dog CEO who successfully transformed Bank Mandiri to become one of Indonesia’s largest banks during the global financial fiasco– would be sorely missed.

There are signs that President Yudhoyono would try to minimize the issue by not ousting Agus at the upcoming reshuffle, but merely moved him to other ministerial post, such as the Investment Coordinator Board to replace Gita Wirjawan.

But this strategy makes little sense for two reasons. The first is the fact that the Finance Minister post is very vital, and there is no doubt that our current Finance Minister, who is a highly respected figure among investors and the global economic community, is among the few persons –if not only– capable for the job

The second is moving Agus Martowardojo to other ministerial posts is the same analogy with a football manager who plays his tough centre-back as forward.

In other words, Mr. President: It's like you have the best defender in disposal, yet you still leave a huge loophole in your defensive line as you give the crucial centre-back position to a less capable player.

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