I want to build a people’s economy

INDONESIAN Cooperatives Minister Adi Sasono is a highly controversial figure. Dubbed by the media as “the most dangerous man in Indonesia” and President B.J. Habibie’s staunchest ally, Indonesians accuse him of everything – from being a Muslim extremist to stirring up riots.

In person, he is usually dressed in a business suit and espouses a vision of a modern, non-sectarian Indonesia in which small and medium-sized businesses provide the backbone of a transparent, predictable economy.

He is a prototype of the modern Indonesian politician, one who believes that little of the crony capitalism and feudal mentality of the past can be part of the future.

Q: Is Indonesia on the brink of a social revolution?

A: Indonesia is enjoying liberation after hundreds of years of oppression under the Dutch, Japanese, Old Order and New Order regimes. There is a tradition of violence. More than 500,000 people died in the 1960s’ political transition. The change from New Order to Reform Order, from suppression to freedom, will not be easy. But I don’t agree with people who say we are going down the road of a social revolution.

Recovery will take time. Look at Russia. It was under communist rule for 70 years before the sudden change to a democracy. Russia has been in chaos for the last nine years… The Philippines is another example. Cory Aquino did not get a chance to rebuild the economy after she took over from Marcos. Her government faced seven coup d’etat attempts in six years.

It has been six months for Indonesia so far, and it is not fair to dramatise our problems as the harbinger of a social revolution. Yes, there are demonstrations. But this is definitely better than regular coups.

Q: Law and order seems to be the country’s biggest problem now. Can it be addressed without reversing the trend towards more openness and democracy?

A: The essence of democracy is freedom but democracy also needs the firm hand of law. People have the right to demonstrate on the streets, for example, but this must not be at the expense of other people’s rights to have less congested roads and to travel safely…

We don’t want a democracy that allows Indonesians to have sex in the parks or access to pornographic material like in the United States. We want a democracy that allows freedom of political expression and equality before the law…

We need to strike a balance between freedom and stability. If we do not find this balance and the country’s survival is at risk, there is a danger that we might return to the repressive practices of the past.

Q: Why are people crying for former President Suharto’s blood? Should he be brought to trial?

A: Suharto was in power for too long and holding on to it in an undemocratic way. So there is still a lot of bitterness in people’s hearts. There is also a perception that the government is doing too little or is too slow in meeting their demands for retribution.

I think the government should not cave in to such pressures. The best way to respond to legitimate demands for justice is to bring him to trial. Suharto himself wants this because he wants to clear his name… Like everyone else he deserves a fair trial.

Q: What was the New Order regime’s biggest flaw?

A: Creating what I call a “dirty primitive capitalist system”. The big players dictated the supply and prices of goods. They even influenced government policy to monopolise imports and production for flour, cement, paper and cooking oil. This is primitive capitalism at its worst. People close to the power centre got priority in the distribution of economic assets. It was a “Santa Claus approach” to preserving power.

Q: What is your economic vision for Indonesia? A: I want to build an economic democracy, a modern economy, where small businesses are the key element of the economic structure. Small businesses have been sidelined for far too long. What’s happening now is that 0.1 per cent of Indonesian firms control 61 per cent of the country’s assets. That must change…

Indonesian businesses have to also become more sophisticated and use the best technology. I dream of developing Indonesia as an industrial country. We must…not just be confined to exporting only agricultural products. Indonesia has the resources to be a major economic player.

Q: How do you hope to build a “people’s economy”?

A: The number one element is political power. Habibie supported this project the day he was sworn in as president. It is now policy. Not to worry, I have more than enough money. I got 10.8 trillion rupiah (S$2.1 billion) this year already and expect to get another 20 trillion rupiah soon… I also have thousands of people working for me in the field from 52 universities and 400 non-governmental organisations.

Using cooperatives is the best way to deal with the millions of small businesses in Indonesia. They offer an open management style and a collective decision-making process. It is democracy for the people…

I don’t have any time-frame for this project. I don’t believe in setting targets. The important thing is getting it off the ground.

Q: What have you achieved so far?

A: The economists said we were doomed to fail. They were wrong. Under the cartels, prices of staples only went up. But after the cooperatives entered the market, prices and inflation dropped because of competition…

Can you imagine if this did not happen and prices kept rising? There would not be 10,000 people on the streets, but 100,000 or 200,000…

The credit given to small businesses is 0.5 per cent, miniscule compared to the 80 per cent given to big businesses, many of which have gone bankrupt. So, which is more competitive and professional – monopolies or cooperatives? The facts are clear.

Q: Is there any particular country Indonesia would like to learn from to restructure its economy?

A: The American model is attractive because it is a free market economy that is very sensitive to monopolistic practices. That has been evident for the last 108 years, when anti-monopoly and anti-trust laws were introduced in the US. The Microsoft case illustrates how sensitive the market and government are to such practices.

Taiwan is also interesting. It has created an environment for small businesses to flourish. There are no conglomerates in Taiwan.

Q: Do you see the Malaysian-style New Economic Policy as an alternative for Indonesia?

A: Our basic qualifications are very different. Indonesia rejects a system of politics and economics along ethnic lines. We are also not an Islamic state like Malaysia and we don’t have sultans. We don’t seem to have anything in common with them…

Q: What role do you see the Chinese playing?

A: It is wrong to see things as a Chinese or pribumi issue. If the Chinese worked well and encouraged employment, why should we discriminate against them? I will create a friendly environment for the Chinese to do their business. More than 1,000 Chinese small firms have received government aid and there are cooperatives headed by the Chinese…

Chinese businessmen who complain that their distribution networks are being destroyed by cooperatives are cronies. There is no place for them to do their dirty business anymore… The aim is to build an economic democracy where everyone, big and small, Chinese and pribumis, have a chance.

Q: What is Islam’s place in Indonesia today? What are the possibilities of Indonesia becoming a theocratic state?

A: Pre-Islamic values are still entrenched in Indonesia. A religious leader can do no wrong and can even expect people to kiss his hand. This is feudalistic and not suitable for a modern society. Islam is egalitarian and inclusive in character… Indonesia will never become an Islamic state.

How can people say that Habibie is a Muslim fundamentalist when one looks at his Western background and close friends. I come from a similar background. I was in the Netherlands for 11 years.

The issue for Indonesia today has nothing to do with Islam but everything to do with democracy. Habibie is Muslim. Sri Bintang Pamungkas is also Muslim. But they are political rivals… Islam is a tolerant religion. We have Christian Cabinet ministers and officials holding important government positions.

This is rare in many countries. In the Philippines, where the Muslims make up 15 per cent of the population, there are no Muslim ministers. The US is a predominantly Christian society, but there are traditional stereotypes that prevent a minority, a Muslim, from being president.

Theoretically, our system does not prevent a Christian from becoming president. But in reality this might be impossible.

Q: There is speculation here that you are the mastermind behind recent riots in Indonesia.

A: It is character assassination. Some of these rumours are outrageous and stupid. I was accused of killing black magic practitioners in East Java.

I work from seven in the morning to midnight every day. I travel around the country, through Sumatra, Java and Irian Jaya. It is nonsense to say that I have time to plot mindless killings when I have so many other things to do. Do I have the face of the most dangerous man in Indonesia?

Q: What would you say is the most misunderstood thing about yourself?

A: There are three things I would like you to tell your readers. First, I am not anti-market. I am anti-crony and pro-market. I want to work in a market economy that is not distorted and dominated by big players.

Second, I am not against conglomerates or big companies. I have worked for big companies for the last 23 years. What I want is a level playing field for big and small businesses.

Third, I am not a Muslim extremist or anti-Chinese. Read my name. It is Adi Sasono. It is derived from the Sanskrit. I don’t have an Islamic name like Abdurrahman.

My wife is of Dutch descent. She was a Catholic who became a Muslim when she married me. Some of my relatives are ethnic Chinese. It makes no sense for me to hate the Chinese or Christians.

In fact, I recommended strongly to Habibie in May that we get Kwik Kian Gie, an ethnic Chinese to join the Cabinet. Kwik Kian Gie turned us down.

Q: How would you describe your relationship with President Habibie? What is the single most important piece of advice he has given you?

A: Habibie is an open-minded and democratic leader. Cabinet discussions are never one-way. He believes in one thing Suharto told him a long time ago and something he passed on to me as advice recently: “Whatever you do, don’t start a revolution”.


Q: How would you describe bilateral ties with Singapore?

A: Singapore women protested against the mass rapes of ethnic Chinese in Indonesia. But did they protest against the rapes of Indonesian maids by Chinese Singaporeans? They are so biased…

The Singapore government offers permanent residency to Chinese Indonesians. But a pribumi who pays them US$1 million (S$1.65 million) will never get in. We want Singapore to sign an extradition treaty to bring back to Indonesia economic criminals seeking refuge there.

We also want them to reveal bilateral trade figures so that there will be no future misunderstandings…

I say “thank you” to Singapore for its humanitarian assistance and the gas line project. But that is not enough. There are so many conditions attached that make it impossible to say they are helping us…

Singapore has to be honest and not too business-minded in its dealings with Indonesia. Singapore needs to see us as something more than an economic entity… I look at Singapore as being more than a huge supermarket.

I look at the new Singapore and its growing culture. Singaporeans have to do likewise with Indonesia. Singapore has to understand that there is a new Indonesia in the making and a younger leadership that is emerging.

There won’t be Liem Sioe Liong or Anthony Salim or those connected to Suharto to give concessions in Bintan anymore, for example. Indonesia will change and Singapore has to adjust to that fact.

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