Many voices, one chorus


Politics is his world, says the new man at the helm of Golkar, Akbar Tandjung – an adept practitioner of politics as the art of persuasion and compromise.

STATE Secretary Akbar Tandjung wept when he put his name on a letter that sealed former President Suharto’s fate. He and 13 other ministers had decided not to join any new Cabinet under him.

Mr Suharto resigned the following day.

“I was just so emotional,” Mr Akbar said. “I knew Pak Harto would not like what we were doing but under the circumstances, that was the best course of action.”

He was crying for Mr Suharto, but perhaps he was also carried away by the historical poignancy of the moment.

It was a turning point in the country’s politics and, although he did not know it then, it would also provide a significant push in his own career. Mr Akbar was appointed to the post of State Secretary, and would later become chairman of Golkar, the largest political party in Indonesia.

One has to go back to 1966 to find a moment of equal historical and personal significance.

Former president Sukarno had been stripped of his powers and ironically, Mr Akbar himself was part of the student movement that helped bring Mr Suharto to power and created the New Order government. This was the time he also began his full-time political career.

He was born in Sibolga, North Sumatra, on Aug 6, 1945, three days before Indonesia proclaimed independence from the Dutch.

It was a precarious freedom. Indonesia had to fight for three more years before the Netherlands finally conceded that the former was independent.

The independence struggle and growth of separatist movements in the ensuing years left an indelible mark in the mind of the young Akbar, who became acutely aware of the fragility of the distended Indonesian archipelago.

It was to shape his political views later in life.

The ninth child in a family of 12, he spent most of his early years in Sibolga and Medan in North Sumatra. His father, a trader, died when he was three, and it was left to his mother and eldest brother to look after the family.

Spiralling social and economic unrest made life difficult, but he managed to get a decent education. He studied mostly in Christian schools, despite coming from a strongly Islamic family.

It might seem ironic now, but he developed a fascination for the armed forces (Abri) in his youth.

“I wanted to be an Abri officer and join the navy,” he said. “We lived near the port and I was always fascinated by the naval ships and the dashing uniforms the soldiers wore.”

He tried to get in but failed. The bespectacled young man was told he was not physically fit for the job.

But he was not disillusioned. In 1960, he left for Jakarta and a few years later, enrolled in the engineering faculty of the University of Indonesia. It was the start of his political apprenticeship as he joined student and Islamic youth groups to rally against the communists, who he believed would tear the country apart.

“Communism was divisive. Everything was black and white. I chose to fight it because it went against the Pancasila ideology and my religion Islam. I believe strongly in a united Indonesia,” he said.

His obsession with national unity led him to set up the Cipayung Group in 1972 – a network linking students’ alumni associations representing different religions.

A year later, he helped establish the pro-government Indonesian National Youth: “I did not want to be an engineer because it would never have given me the satisfaction politics gave me for the last 30 years. Politics is my world.”

But he became a politician to his fingertips only after joining the ruling Golkar party in 1977. He moved up the ranks quickly to become its deputy-secretary general and, most recently, the party’s chairman.

Long-time Golkar associate Din Syamsuddin said Mr Akbar represented the new face the party was trying to present to the public.

“Unlike his predecessors, he is a party man with strong grassroots support,” he said.

His supporters believe that the soft-spoken and amiable Mr Akbar has more friends than enemies. His private secretary Mahdar, who has worked with him for the last 10 years, said he was well-liked in the Cabinet and Golkar, and was always referred to as the “anak baik” (“good child”) by both Mr Suharto and the current President, Dr B.J. Habibie.

“He is not a person who likes open combat,” he said. “He wants to maintain harmony in his own quiet way. He is people-oriented and is open to differing views.”

If the politics of accommodation is his hallmark, it was most conspicuous during the Golkar congress recently. He showed his skill in lobbying support, the ability to get along with different groups and a preference for give and take.

His “soft-approach” to politics turned out to be an asset as he beat General Edi Sudradjat to the Golkar chairmanship.

In the new team that he formed, he brought in several people from the losing side to show that he is prepared to close ranks.

The 53-year-old Mr Akbar, a Batak, attributes his political style to the influence of his wife, Krisnina Maharani, his 40 years in Jakarta and books on local culture and politics.

“There are a lot of things I have learnt from Javanese culture, in particular avoiding open conflict,” he said. “Problems should be resolved by compromise.”

His political thinking revolves around the themes of harmony and unity – the need to unify Golkar and work with the military to ensure the country does not fall apart in these difficult times.

That explains why he is also very supportive of the Habibie administration and its policies.

But his detractors charge that he is nothing more than a stooge of Dr Habibie’s, who backed his appointment for the top Golkar post.

Mr Akbar is perceived widely here to be very close to the President.

Noted an aide: “During one of Dr Habibie’s trips to Batam last year, he welcomed a delegation at the airport with handshakes. But with Mr Akbar, it was a hug. They are really like brothers.”

But Mr Akbar points out that his links to the President are relatively recent: “I only began to get closer to Dr Habibie from 1993, when we both worked together during the Golkar congress. But before 1993, we did not have any close links.”

He denies talk that he is a Habibie man, and remains coy about how long he will continue to support him. His support is certain until the general election next year.

But he is not thinking about the top job for himself: “I don’t have any ambition. I know my capabilities.”

Basically, he is more committed to political outcomes than personalities. His current support for Dr Habibie, for example, is based on a desire to see the reform process succeed: “If he succeeds, he will get the legitimacy of the people. It all depends on his programmes, whether they are successful or not.”

This approach suggests that Mr Akbar is very much his own man. He may not be a visionary, but he is principled and understands the limitations and possibilities of politics.

He also understands that politics is not everything. He is a family man whose biggest influence was his mother. Now, he enjoys spending time with his wife and four children.

“My daughters visit me at the office sometimes for lunch. When I am free I take my family out to restaurants, hotels and supermarkets. I make it a point to drive myself. I love driving.”

Perhaps this is the sort of figure who is going to dominate Indonesian politics in the future – the modest, hardworking leader who wants to include all groups, and to work towards realistic objectives.

After two larger than life presidents, it could well be that this is exactly what Indonesia now needs.

AKBAR: A life in politics

MR AKBAR TANDJUNG was born on Aug 14, 1945, in Sibolga, North Sumatra. He is married to Krisnina Maharani R.A. They have four children.

EDUCATION Early education in Sibolga and Medan; high school in Jakarta; graduated from the University of Indonesia with an engineering degree.

1966: Student movement leader against the Indonesian Communist Party.
1967-68: Chairman of the student senate, engineering faculty of the University of Indonesia.
1970-74: President of Indonesian Muslim Student’s Association.
1978-81: Chairman of the Indonesian National Youth Committee.
1977-88: Golkar MP for East Java.
1983-88: Golkar’s deputy secretary-general.
1987-97: Secretary of Golkar faction in People’s Consultative Body.
1988-93: Member of the Golkar Board of Patrons
1988-93: Minister for Youth and Sports Affairs.
1993-98: Minister for Housing.
May 1998: State Secretary.
July 1998: Chairman of Golkar.

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