Mayor who’s the people’s chief servant

With direct elections for all local leaders, ordinary Indonesians now feel they have a greater say over how their respective communities are managed.

By Karim Raslan (The Star)

AS Barisan Nasional belatedly refocuses its attention on the people, the issue of local government will become increasingly important, especially in the urban areas.

To my mind, Malaysian policy-makers would be well advised to see how Indonesia has coped with the same challenges.

The republic has embraced decentralisation whole-heartedly with direct elections for all local leaders whether at the district level – Bupatis and Wali Kotas – or at the Provincial level – Governors.

While the results in terms of administration have been patchy, there is no doubt that greater autonomy has increased the level of public service and responsiveness. Indirectly, it has also taken the pressure off the central government in Jakarta.

Nowadays, for example, education and health-care are managed and implemented at the Wali Kota and Kebupaten level. Indeed the degree of authority can be quite surprising.

A few weeks ago I was fortunate enough to sit down with Jogjakarta’s Wali Kota (or Mayor), Pak Herry Zudianto.

Praised by Transparency International no less for his super-clean administration of this storied centre of academic excellence, Pak Herry, a former businessman (his family business, Batik Magaria, is among the largest in the city) is currently serving his second (and final) four-year term as Mayor.

Of course, the 54-year-old Pak Herry is an exception. Most of his fellow local leaders – especially in the resource-rich islands of Kalimantan and Sumatra – are notorious for their corruption and abuse of power.

Still, this loyal supporter of Reformasi figure Amien Rais (he’s also a member of Pak Amien’s party PAN) is a dynamic and engaging interlocutor: in short he’s a superb politician.

Pak Herry is very firm as he outlines his views on the nature of power: “We must distinguish between the nation (negara) and the government (pemerintah). As individuals, we sacrifice for the nation not for the government.

“In fact most of our problems – corruption and abuse of power – start when we confuse the two.”

Pak Herry has strong opinions: “In the past, with kingdoms (kerajaan) the concept of power was very different. We granted extraordinary privileges and wealth to those who wielded power over us.

“Now with democratisation, it’s all been reversed. Now, as the directly elected Mayor of this city I’m the ‘Chief Servant’ of the people. I’m paid to serve the people. I’m obligated to serve. The people aren’t bound to grant me privileges!”

Clearly these ground-breaking ideas have yet to gain full acceptance in Indonesia.

As someone who’s visited Jogja regularly over the years, I can attest to Pak Herry’s successes.

His city of just over half a million inhabitants – along with many other urban centres in the republic – has become neater, brighter (especially at night) and safer.

There is no doubt that much of this is due to the on-going process of decentralisation.

Ordinary Indonesians now feel they have a greater say over how their respective communities are managed.

If the Bupati or Wali Kota is sub-standard or corrupt, they can vote him or her out of office.

This sense of “ownership” is particularly evident in the urban centres such as Surabaya and Surakarta where the improvements have been the most noticeable.

As Pak Herry explained to me: “I set out to make Jogja bright and safe. We’ve installed street lights at every junction and this has helped cut petty crime. It’s also improved security for small traders (pedagang kaki lima).

“At the same time and even though, I’m a PAN member, I’ve refused to allow my fellow party members to use Jogja as a cash cow. Frankly it didn’t make any sense to my responsibilities as Wali Kota, though it’s made me unpopular in the party!

“When I was first elected, I started with the poorest communities. I needed to understand their problems and aspirations properly.

“Economic grievances are, to my mind, the main source of racial and religious conflict and I wanted to tackle these problems head on. Development has got to be comprehensive. Everyone has got to feel they are benefiting to some degree from the improvements.

“By this yardstick, Jogjakarta is very tough. You have heaven and hell right next to each other! The gap between rich and poor is just too obvious.

“Still, in order to manage expectations and be ready to face problems, you have to maintain constant communication with the constituents – I have a radio show twice a week, my handphone is always accessible and I’m meeting people all the time.

“Of course when you meet people, especially the wong cilik you mustn’t be too formal. I just say a few words before I ask them to tell me their problems.

“They must get the chance to speak and I must answer their questions. It has to be two-way traffic.

“Whether you like it or not, you’ve got to be transparent. And if you’re transparent and open, it’s much easier to deal with the people.”

Malaysia needs to undergo the same process. Our cities need directly elected leaders who are responsible and responsive to their electorate.

The only way for Prime Minister Datuk Seri Najib Tun Razak to turn the tide in the cities that line the west coast is to empower the population and give them the same sense of ownership.