“God willing, in the next five years, the world will say, ‘Indonesia is something; Indonesia is rising’”
— Yudhoyono at a political rally ahead of his re-election in 2009
For nearly thirty years he served in the military. He was the first leader chosen by the people, and his ascension began a new progressive era that put an end to a dictatorial regime. And now, Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, President of Indonesia, is building upon his legacy with his July 2009 second term re-election.
Yudhoyono, popularly known as SBY, was elected in 2004 in the country’s first direct presidential elections. Yet before the year ended, the devastating tsunami that rocked the world had torn Indonesia to shreds, stultifying the leader’s plans for the country’s development. Displaying his innate composure, Yudhoyono helped rebuild the nation from a watery grave.
In 2005, the island of Bali was singed by the exploits of Islamic extremists that claimed lives, and one year later a devastating earthquake left more people dead. It seemed that Yudhoyono was once again destined to soothe the raw nerves of a people racked by calamities.
Through the string of crises, Yudhoyono remained stoic, winning appreciation on the global stage. “He has shown leadership, poise, and grace under extreme pressure,” says Ray Jovanovich of Hong Kong’s Credit Agricole Asset Management to Business Week. With aplomb, Yudhoyono walked the fine line between cracking down on Islamic extremist groups and taking care not to upset the clergy in the world’s most populous Muslim nation. He also successfully tackled the long raging civil war in Aceh. Yudhoyono has disentangled the tightly knit web of corruption rampant in the archipelago’s government bodies, sending numerous politicians and bank officials, including his son’s father-in-law, to jail.
The colorful Indonesian leader, who is usually found dressed in dapper safari suits or neatly pressed silk batik shirts, is also a talented musician who has launched three pop record albums. He prides himself on communicating openly and being accessible to all, an exhilarating change for Indonesians who have been used to an authoritarian regime. Yudhoyono even boldly made his cellphone number public soon after he took over as President, to encourage the reporting of fraudulent activities.
Social sculpting apart, Indonesia’s economy has shown a remarkable turnaround under Yudhoyono’s watch. Already, Indonesia is expected to gallop ahead in the next six years to become the world’s biggest exporter of power-station coal and largest producer of palm oil. The global financial crisis left but a few scratches on this economy, which was mostly sheltered by its weak dependence on exports.
Yudhoyono, who holds a PhD in economics, has held the reins steady on the country’s political environment, and this has boosted consumer confidence. He has slashed budget deficits drastically and facilitated procedures for new businesses. Indonesia grew at its fastest pace last year at a growth rate of 4.5%. And now Yudhoyono has pledged to pin economic growth at 6.6% by the end of 2014. Forbes observed that the country’s 40 richest people saw their combined wealth double in 2009, a feat matched only by China in the Asia Pacific.
The President’s critics say that concerted efforts are needed if Indonesia hopes to achieve the economic growth he has promised. After all, fourteen percent of the population remains living below the poverty line, a crumbling infrastructure becomes more worrisome with time and entangled bureaucracies continue to challenge foreign investors.
In a country infamous for its high level of corruption, even the President has not escaped without blemish. Recently, thousands of protesters accused Yudhoyono and some of his allies of pilfering from the 2008 government bailout of a bank worth $710 million. The usually unruffled Yudhoyono was shaken and angered as he vehemently denied his involvement. However, a national poll revealed that only 10% of Indonesians thought the President was guilty.
Indonesia had been a nation that had sunk itself into a morass of unscrupulousness, nepotism and anarchy under Yudhoyono’s predecessor, Suharto, a despot whose regime lasted 32 years. But with the 60-year-old former army general’s forthright and sensible hand directing the country, Indonesia has risen to become one of the most promising economies to grab global attention today.
If Indonesia can outdo itself it is possible perhaps only with Yudhoyono’s capable guidance. After all, he has brought Indonesia to a point where it can dream of becoming the second “I” in the elite BRIC group comprising Brazil, Russia, India and China. SBY and Indonesia still have their challenges to bear, but as the cover of Yudhoyono’s new music album firmly states, “I’m Certain I Will Get There.”
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© Thomas White International, Ltd. 2018