Tuesday, May 11, 2010

The Day I Morosely Picked a Side (by Lynda Ibrahim)

Dear all,
We are sad that the country's top reformist is finally leaving us. Sri Mulyani Indrawati is our role model, as we believe she is to many of you, friends. While wishing her success in her new endeavor in Washington DC (Rizal, Ujang, please take care of Mbak there, will you?), Cafe Salemba would pay tribute to her. Today, Lynda Ibrahim share hers with us. Kate


-Lynda Ibrahim-

One rainy afternoon in November 2008, I attended a birthday soiree in a South Jakarta’s novelty patisserie-cum-café. The US credit crunch was fast snowballing into a global financial crisis, and everyone was bracing for the worst.

On domestic front, Finance Minister Sri Mulyani Indrawati was persistently defying all kinds of pressure to bail out Bakrie-owned mining company Bumi who got itself into a mess by, in laymen’s term, having borrowed more than its assets could ever pay back for. She rightfully stood her ground, declaring that her main job was to manage or safeguard the country’s assets and created policies for market player, not to rush rescuing the assets of market players who got into trouble. Or as I unreservedly added—a player who got into trouble due to their own imprudent corporate practices and complete disregard of Corporate Finance 101, duh.

There were three male guests in the soiree that I found myself debating with amid lattes and piecrusts. A man who might know more than he could say, a man who wanted to know more than what he said, and a man who wanted to be known for knowing everything and everyone. Despite the psychodynamic sidebar, they shared an opinion that, after crusading against corruption and publicly taking an opposite stance from the Bakrie the Behemoth over Bumi, in addition to having previously refused to open the state’s coffers to compensate for Bakrie-owned Lapindo Brantas’ mudflow victims, Mulyani had garnered enough enemies that her Cabinet days were numbered.

Fueled by linear logic, trust of human intelligence, conviction of greater good, and perhaps too much caffeine, I ardently argued that our dear President certainly understood that not only his Finance Minister stood her ground for some valid, nation-serving, reasons, she was also a highly valuable asset on his Cabinet who was valiantly trying to reform deep-corrupted institutions under her ministry. An uphill battle that was long overdue, until she stepped up and shook down both Custom-Excise Office and Tax Office, Indonesia’s most notorious devil’s lairs of corruption. The boys called me over-optimistic, and I called them status-quo suckers.

SBY got reelected on a landslide about a year later. Indonesia was relatively shielded from the global crisis’ worst nightmares thanks to Mulyani’s rock-solid acumen and policies. Seemingly oblivious to the plentiful of accolades, Mulyani went tending to her business, riding the reform wagon further up and around. I thought about those three doomsayers from the birthday soiree and was seriously tempted to call and sing ‘nyah, nyah, nyah’—but resisted and danced to Mamma Mia tunes by my living room instead.

What a difference six months make! Last Wednesday, still limping from a podiatric procedure, I almost tripped when news broke that Mulyani stepped down to work as World Bank’s Managing Director. For two days it was all hazy for me, and it wasn’t the work of the painkiller prescribed for my left sole, but because I just couldn’t settle with the issue. I refused to believe that, after showing unwavering focus and unflagging spirit in carrying duties, even during months-long Centurygate that soon reshaped into a personal vendetta against her, she just went off to accept some job to enjoy a greener pasture, to spite the seemingly thankless stakeholders, or as insultingly suggested by some political potheads, to flee the country avoiding legal battle. Probably the same potheads who said that the prayer beads she was seen clutching under desk during Pansus hearing as a sign of fear—whereas I saw it plainly as a pacifier in dealing with loaded questions and hostile attitude served before her for 12 straight hours. Heck, there were some blatantly nasty moments then that, had I been her, and clearly this is why she’s the Minister and I’m not, I probably would’ve leapt off the desk in an ass-kicking, take-no-prisoner, Jennifer Garner’s Alias way.

The weekend prior to Mulyani’s resignation I just had watched Alejandro Amenabar’s latest epic, Agora, which starred Rachel Weisz as Hypatia, the fourth century’s renowned philosopher and astronomer who taught in a much-acclaimed science academy under the dome of the legendary Alexandrian library. As a remote Roman province, Alexandria was a melting pot that wasn’t spared from the embroiling conflict among the old guard of pagan belief-- mostly Roman-educated and Greek-influenced scholars such as Hypatia--, the fast-growing Christians coming off centuries of oppression and now armed with their FPI-like parabalani, and the struggling Jewish population.

Religion or realpolitik, Agora’s blood-curdling scenes that were eventually followed by blood-spilling kind showed that once a leader standing idly as a limited group’s vested interest was schemed as public issue and maneuvered onto public stage, bolts would unscrew sooner than Paris Hilton undress, and by then it would be too late to enforce any legitimate law and order unless, or even in spite of, a sacrificial lamb being served up the platter to appease the berserk beasts. Ancient Alexandria and modern Indonesia have so much in common I still have chills down my spine 10 days after I watched the movie.

This past week there have been so many rumor swirling around, ranging from the ‘hush-hush’ to the ‘you spill, we kill’ variety. Maybe this was the graceful exit for her, or the most amicable solution for many. Maybe she is being ‘safe-kept’ until sensibility returns. Maybe she retreats to regroup, so she can return for a bigger ticket in 2014. Everything and anything is possible at this point— but to me one thing is crystal clear. I grew up dancing and I can spot choreography, however subtle, when I see one. And this was one.

I started out objective when the whole Centurygate unfolded. I admittedly got disturbed by the Salem witch trial style that some Pansus members were demonstrating during the hearing week that I made my thoughts public, yet I still strived to remain fair. But somewhere along the way gloves have been off, claws are out. And although I didn’t draw the first blood, on the morose Wednesday May the 5th, I got to pick a side.

And as I understood, so did many previously non-committal, middle-ground mass.

Hence, for those of you dancing victory laps screaming ‘rah-rah’ around the bonfire, just thought you guys might want to know.

Jakarta, 10 May 2010


  1. Just stumbled across your blog from twitter, and very glad I did.

    Even if the Indonesian media blows over this, when a new scandal breaks out, like it often does, the way Sri was treated by some will not be forgotten by me, I hope I can say by many others too.

    Very interesting read. Thanks.