A general and an intellectual
WHILE researching Indonesia’s military in 1996, I drew up a list of 20 rising stars to watch.
Going back to the yellowing list recently, I found that one of the top men I had identified was the chief-of-staff in the Jakarta garrison, Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, a one-star general.
He was among stellar contemporaries such as generals Wiranto and Prabowo Subianto, the son-in-law of then-President Suharto. These three especially were the talk of the town then as future leaders of the armed forces.
Of the three, Gen Yudhoyono was the quiet, contemplative one. But senior military men pointed to his potential. As summed up by retired three-star general Agus Widjojo: ‘He’s someone to watch.’
Keep watch I did, but I must admit that back in the mid-1990s I would not have wagered that he would one day be President.
He did not exhibit the macho swagger that went with being a star performer in the Suharto-era military.
He struck one as being more of an intellectual. Back then, his friends said he was one of the few officers who kept a personal library. Today, this has grown to some 13,000 titles that feature works on Sun Tzu as well as Indonesian classics.
He always came across as being sopan santun or polite, with none of the brash ‘shoot first, talk later’ mentality of some other generals.
Yes, his was a steady presence, but I thought that he lacked the ruthless instincts needed to climb up the hierarchy.
But even so, from my first meeting with him in April 1996, he clearly seemed set on a bigger mission, championing reforms in the military even before it became fashionable. This was reinforced over five more interviews that year when, as a researcher, I was trying to understand the thinking of a new generation of military leaders in Indonesia.
He addressed a range of issues from democratisation to the military’s dual function role to Islamic politics. I sensed that he enjoyed a good intellectual joust while munching on his favourite tahu and tempe goreng with green chilli.
Together with Gen Widjojo and the late Lieutenant-General Agus Wirahadikusumah, he was part of the ‘Gang of Three’ that spearheaded the discourse on military reform in the dying days of the Suharto regime.
While other officers brushed aside my request for interviews – some lodging complaints to the military intelligence agency that I should be ‘thrown out of Indonesia for interfering in internal affairs’ – Dr Yudhoyono kept the door open even if it meant incurring a reprimand from his commander for talking to a foreigner.
He also arranged meetings for me with other generals, including Gen Wiranto.
‘It is important for us in the military to learn what others think about us,’ he explained.
Privately, he made known his dream of one day becoming commander of the armed forces.
But my sense then was that given his intellectual bent he would rise to become the military’s chief of socio-political affairs.
That turned out to be his last post when he was ordered in 1999 by then President Abdurrahman Wahid to quit the military for a relatively minor Cabinet position as energy minister.
It was a dark time as it meant the end of his hopes of becoming military chief. ‘I don’t know what this will all mean,’ a clearly downcast Gen Yudhoyono told me then. ‘The military has been my life.’
The change forced him to confront the rough and tumble of politics and led him to aim higher.
I met him several months before he contested the vice-presidential race in 2001. He had then been promoted to security czar.
‘At this stage, the vice-presidency would be the best to aim for,’ he had said earlier that year. ‘It is too early to think about becoming president in 2004. After Suharto, Indonesians are not ready yet for a former general to become their leader.’
He lost the No. 2 position to Mr Hamzah Haz in a bruising battle for approval in the National Assembly despite getting the tacit backing of Golkar leader Akbar Tandjung.
A close family member told The Straits Times: ‘It really opened Bapak’s eyes to how dirty politics can be. Akbar turned his back on him at the eleventh hour, leaving him to crash out of the race. He was determined never to allow something like this to happen to him again.’
The episode left him less politically naive but more determined to capture the top post. Quietly and cautiously, he set about the task.
His critics see it as indecisiveness but Dr Yudhoyono is not a soldier to charge ahead without scouting the terrain and going over battle plans several times over.
His wife Kristiani, better known as Ibu Ani, revealed: ‘He is a perfectionist even in the way he carries himself. He feels uncomfortable if he is not neat and tidy. He always needs to wash his face to look fresh before meeting guests.
‘He gets very unsettled if things don’t go according to plan.’
Mr Syamsir Siregar, a former military intelligence chief who has known Dr Yudhoyono for 30 years, said: ‘Some generals like Wiranto prefer to have it simple, just two options. But he wants at least five before deciding what to do.’
This trait came through in his painful decision to declare his candidacy for the presidency.
Then a minister in President Megawati Sukarnoputri’s Cabinet, he still lived by the soldier’s code. As Dr Yudhoyono explained: ‘I am a general. I was trained to follow orders. I cannot oppose Ibu Mega. I cannot act on anything unless she gives me the orders.’
He vacillated right until the end. A close aide disclosed: ‘On the day he announced his decision to run for the presidency, he kept asking me and others whether it was the right thing to do.’
But once his mind is made up, he is steely in his resolve. And the genteel Javanese in him can give way to the no-nonsense military man.
On a trip to Bali with Ms Megawati last year, his entourage lost its way when going to a function. Journalists accompanying him revealed that Dr Yudhoyono got out of his car and upbraided his staff before a crowd.
More recently, his advisers were summoned for a late-night meeting at which he gave them a shelling for misrepresenting facts to the press.
These are seldom seen aspects of a man now facing the toughest challenge of his life. As President, he will have to fight to strike a balance between his reformist ideals and the dictates of realpolitik.
Perceptions of Dr Yudhoyono have changed over the years with the transformation of the political milieu in Indonesia.
The scholar-soldier is now seen by many Indonesians as their hope for a better future. Given his strong mandate, it will be interesting to see how he uses the presidency to live up to their expectations.