Fishing for trouble? Indonesia president taps political outsiders for cabinet

President Joko Widodo's selection for several key ministries highlights his reform-focused approach to governing. But can appointees like Maritime and Fisheries Minister Susi Pudjiastuti, a former business woman, deliver?

Dita Alangkara/AP
Indonesian Maritime and Fisheries Minister Susi Pudjiastuti, center, prepares for a photo session after the inauguration ceremony for the newly appointed cabinet members in Jakarta last Monday.

When it comes to cabinet appointments in Indonesia, the minister of maritime and fisheries is usually not one of the blockbuster posts.

But President Joko Widodo’s decision last week to appoint Susi Pudjiastuti to the position has garnered the fishing industry – and Ms. Pudjiastuti – newfound attention.

For Mr. Widodo, popularly known as Jokowi, appointing Pudjiastuti underscores his aim to tap talent from outside the established political elite. In Indonesia, where presidents have historically used cabinet positions to repay their loyal supporters – regardless of their credentials – Widodo’s focus on expertise reflects his own status as a political outsider.

“This was a bold move,” says Sandra Hamid, the country representative in Indonesia for the Asia Foundation, a nonprofit research group. “He moved past politicians in some areas and went to people who had made it on their own for some of his cabinet ministers.”

Pudjiastuti, better known as Ibu Susi, is a cigar-chomping, tattoo-clad high school dropout who got her start in business by selling fish at auction as a teenager in Pangandaran, a city in West Java. Now, as the newly appointed minister of maritime and fisheries, she is drawing attention to one of the poorest segments of Indonesia’s population – one struggling to survive on dwindling fish stocks ravaged by overfishing and climate change.

“In my life, I’ve seen a lot of what’s out there,” Pudjiastuti told The Christian Science Monitor at a press conference in Jakarta on Monday. “There is huge promise, huge potential in this industry, but for years fisheries hasn’t contributed to the wealth of the country.”

Critics say Widodo is taking a huge risk by appointing Pudjiastuti and others like her. Pudjiastuti has almost no national profile and little political experience, meaning reforms risk getting stuck in parliament where Widodo lacks a majority.

Unkept promise

Widodo made some major concessions to appoint Pudjiastuti and other political novices to his cabinet. He appeared to cave on appointments to several powerful ministries, including home affairs and defense. Widodo offered those spots to members of his Indonesian Democratic Party of Struggle (PDI-P) who have deep ties to its chairwoman, Megawati Sukarnoputri, a former president – something he promised not to do.

Critics called his appointments risky and a payoff to Indonesia’s elite. Kevin O’Rourke, a veteran Indonesian political analyst and author of Reformasi, a weekly newsletter, calls the cabinet “mediocre” and potentially a big risk for Widodo’s reputation.

“If certain patronage-style appointments trigger scandals the fallout could damage Widodo’s own reputation for clean governance – a key pillar of his popularity and strength thus far,” Mr. O’Rourke says.

For some, the controversial appointments suggest Widodo has sold out. But for others it reflects the price of doing politics in Indonesia. His supporters say he likely did the best he could, Hamid says.

Political outsiders

Still, in return for appointments of Megawati loyalists, Widodo selected some ministers with proven track records.

At the head of transportation is Ignatius Jonan, former chief executive of the state-owned train company, PT Kerata Api. Under Mr. Jonan’s tenure, the company expanded services and improved safety while covering its expenses without government subsides.

Rahmat Gobel, chairman of the Gobel Group of companies, will head the Ministry of Trade. His business dealings include a joint venture with Panasonic, the Japanese electronics manufacturer. His appointment reflects Indonesia's aim to move up the export value chain to manufactured goods.

For her part, Pudjiastuti has vast experience in the fishing industry. She eventually outgrew the local fish auction and began exporting her products across Asia on her own airline, Susi Air.

As minister, she plans to tackle illegal fishing and to help small-scale fishermen develop sustainable business practices. With 59,000 miles of coastline, Indonesia has struggled to fight against over fishing and the threat of climate change.

An estimated 20 million families make a living from the fishing industry. They split a scant $2.5 billion in sales between them, compared with $4 billion in 2003. Virtually all Indonesian fishermen run small-scale operations with a single boat.

Pudjiastuti says she’ll also lean on Indonesia’s navy to help clamp down on illegal fishing by some of Indonesia's neighbors, including Malaysia, Vietnam, and China.

“I have watched for 15 years as foreign fishing vessels come into our waters when other countries have restricted access to theirs,” she says. “It’s ridiculous.”

Despite her credentials, critics say she may well be out of her depth and that her business dealings may lead to conflicts of interest.

“If half way through, the president doesn’t think I’m doing a good job, he’ll pull me,” Pudjiastuti says with a shrug. “I’ll return to my freedom where I can do and say as I please. I didn’t come to do this job to get rich. I did it to get results.”

For now, analysts and voters appear happy to wait and see how Widodo’s first cabinet fares and to see whether his gamble with the Jakarta elite will pay off.

“Widodo has safeguarded the ministries he’s identified as key to implementing his reform agenda,” Hamid says. “Whether he’s identified the right ministries is another matter.”

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