Published articles

Ubud Writers and Readers Festival

Southeast Asia’s largest and most renowned cultural and literary event, Ubud Writers and Readers Festival (UWRF), will return this year for its 12th edition  from 28th October to 1st November at Bali’s cultural heart, Ubud. This upcoming festival will celebrate the theme”17,000 Islands of Imagination”, which was chosen by the Frankfurt Book Fair.

UWRF includes more than 200 events comprising 85 panel discussions, lunches, workshops, night parties, poetry slams, food tours and more, over five days. The festival has elected to present a united front in order to best showcase the rich literature and arts of the country to the world.

The festival will be attended by 160 authors from more than 25 countries which include American literary giant and Pulitzer Prize laureate, Michael Chabon, award-winning British foreign correspondent Christina Lamb, founders of the acclaimed Lonely Planet series Tony and Maureen Wheeler, and celebrated Pakistani author of ‘How to get filthy rich in rising Asia’,  Mohsin Hamid.

This prestigious festival will showcase talents from across Asia, including North Korea defector and TED-talk sensation, Hyeonseo Lee, and American author Elizabeth Rush, whose book ‘Still Lifes’ showcases her photographs of Yangon.

This year, discounted festival passes are available for ASEAN citizens. The ASEAN 4-Day Pass, which will be available to nationals from Malaysia, the Philippines, Singapore, Thailand, Brunei, Cambodia, Laos, Myanmar and Vietnam, offers 20% off the international ticket price.

The 4-Day Pass (ap US$223), the 1-Day Pass ($67) and the international visitor pass – for those without ASEAN passports – are all available for online purchase through the event’s website www.ubudwritersfestival.com

The Ubud Writers & Readers Festival is the major annual project of the non-profit foundation, the Yayasan Mudra SwariSaraswati. It was first conceived by Janet DeNeefe, co-founder of the Foundation, as a healing project in response to the first Bali bombing. The mission of UWRF is to create a world class festival that celebrates extraordinary stories and amplifies brave voices, tackles global issues and big ideas.

*This article is published on indonesia.travel website

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Economy, Published articles

Building the War Chest

The palm oil business is in a slump. As of August, the price of palm oil stood at $484 per tonne, down from $606 in June. Many investors are now gloomy about palm oil prospects but not Arif Patrick Rachmat. Following Warren Buffett’s suggestion to be contrarian, Arif is optimistic about palm oil.

Arif, 40, is now building up his war chest. He is busy acquiring plantations nearby the company’s plant as prices keeping going down. He is able to buy many plantation and mining concessions at asset values. “Just like Warren Buffet said, when the market is pessimistic, we have to be optimistic. Build up your balance sheet, because the opportunity is here. The opportunity is now,” says Arif, chief executive of PT Triputra Agro Persada, a palm oil producer.

In relation to that, this year, Arif has set aside Rp 2 trillion for capital expenditure, which will be used for plantation intensification, maintenance, road hardening, and plant expansion. Arif got started in the palm oil business in 2005 when he came back to Jakarta after a few years working at General Electric (GE) in the U.S. Initially, he returned purely to help out his elder brother, Christian Ariano Rachmat, who was working on the buyout of coal miner Adaro. “I was very surprised when my brother told me the size of Adaro was $1 billion. Then I decided to come back home and left GE for good,” says Arif.

After the Adaro transaction, Arif settled down in Indonesia and moved into palm oil. Why palm oil? “Our country is strong in natural resources,” says Arif. Despite the palm oil price decline, Arif still has faith in the business as the country’s palm oil yield is still good. Currently, Triputra employs 20,000 to work on 165,000 hectares of plantation, which is almost twice the size of Singapore.

Moreover, Arif believes in the future of palm oil as it can be used to reduce fuel imports. “The country’s palm oil production is 30 million tonnes. About five million is dedicated for food, 20 million for exports, while the rest for biodiesel, which can be converted into 100,000 barrels of oil per day,” says Arif. Sooner or later, he adds, the country should lower its 500,000 barrels of fuel imports.

This year, Arif is confident that Triputra can increase palm oil output by 60% compared to the previous year. “It will bring significant growth output,” says Arif. Subsequently, he added, the harvest time probably the best time to tap the capital market. “Yes, we are planning for IPO, but we are waiting for the perfect time,” he says. The company also has stringent sustainability and environmental policies, such as a zero burning policy and a moratorium on growing on peat or primary forests. The company is also a member of the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil and the Indonesian Sustainable Palm Oil.

*This article was published on Forbes Indonesia 5th anniversary issue of October 2015. For further information, please visit: http://www.forbesindonesia.com

Published articles

Singapore: Constricting the space for online expression of opinion

By Ulisari Eslita

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“If freedom of speech is taken away, then dumb and silent we may be led, like sheep to the slaughter” – George Washington, first US first president.

It is past 10 pm and I am walking along the dimly lit street, looking for the headquarters of Singapore’s main opposition Workers Party (WP). Cars parked on both sides leave almost no space for vehicles to pass through the narrow road. Two-storey shop houses, some of them Chinese restaurants, line my side of the street while on the other, cigarette-smoking young women in skimpy dresses and high heels, their faces covered in thick make-up, are ‘negotiating’ with potential clients.

Nervously, I walk on, thinking, surely I have lost my way while following directions to his party’s office at 216G Syed Alwi Road #02-03, given me by Gerald Giam, a Non-Constituency WP Member of Singapore’s Parliament. After walking back and forth past the shop houses for half an hour and asking people for directions, an old woman working in one of the Chinese eateries, finally showed me the way to the WP office located above a Chinese restaurant and across the road from the street walkers.  The party logo on the shop house wall is barely visible in the dark and the office is a single, medium-sized room on the second floor, reached after climbing a narrow stairway and one among other rooms lining the corridor.

Like its political influence, the office of one of Singapore’s oldest political parties is in stark contrast to that of its rival, Singapore’s ruling People’s Action Party (PAP) which works out of a large, corporate-style building set in its own grounds in an upscale area near Singapore’s Changi international airport.

State of political opposition a pointer to freedom of online dissent?

 

Yet, sitting in his office, Mr. Giam does not share the general pessimistic view of the state of the political opposition in Singapore. Pointing to the WP’s impressive showing in the 2011 national election after going unrepresented in parliament between 1968 and 1981 and having only five lawmakers in the legislature between 1981 and 2006, he says Singapore citizens have become more politically aware since 2006, with the Internet playing a big role in this.

“I see that there is an increasing political awareness in Singapore, particularly among young people, even among many older people,” he says.

The first-time lawmaker who joined politics in 2009 after a career in the civil service also does not think that online freedom of expression is under threat in Singapore. A keen political blogger himself, he says he was inspired by the emergence of bloggers commenting on social and political issues starting with the 2006 election.

Mr. Giam, however, does not think bloggers will replace mainstream media for a number of reasons, including their inability to match the news gathering resources of traditional media. “They will definitely complement the mainstream media. They add different opinions and perspectives. In a way many of them are freer to speak their mind than mainstream media journalists.”

He is optimistic about the future for freedom of expression in his country. He doubts Singapore’s rulers will be able to control online media which is playing an important role in political development in Singapore.

Social media had a significant influence on the outcome of the 2011 elections to parliament, providing information to let people make the right choice.  In particular, it helped opposition candidates in reaching out to and connect directly with voters.

The opposition lawmaker is critical of the May 2013 online licensing regulation issued by the state media regulator, the Media Development Authority (MDA), which requires online sites reporting at least one Singapore news story a week over a period of two months and visited by at least 50,000 unique IP address from within Singapore, to pay a licensing fee of S$50,000.

But he hastens to add that it should not be interpreted as an attempt at stifling online freedom of expression. “In general, I don’t agree with the MDA regulation. But it doesn’t mean the government does not allow online media,” he says, adding that it cannot be compared to the much harsher restriction on online political activities in Vietnam which has banned sharing of anything other than personal information on popular social media like Facebook . “There’s been no such regulation in Singapore.”

He tries to explain the reason behind the MDA regulation. “I think that from the government perspective, the regulation’s purpose is to ensure that any news, whether online or not, which has a significant following, comes under a certain type of regulation.”

He is, nonetheless, concerned that the regulation was issued even though Singapore has the Singapore Broadcasting Authority (SBA) and Broadcasting (Class License) Notification of 2001, which, he says also, covers news websites.

Yet, he expresses optimism that the MDA regulation will not be a major obstacle to independent online bloggers. “I don’t see that the MDA licensing framework for online media is a big impediment to political development in Singapore.” As of now, the new rule does not affect any individual blogger in Singapore, he says. “I don’t see it as a restriction on the freedom of expression,” he adds.

“Although we still have the PAP, the ability to restrict the flow of information has been severely curtailed by the emergence of the Internet and online media,” he points out.

“Unless they are prepared to shut down the Internet like in North Korea, put opposition politicians in jail or restrict the (flow of) online information. I think those days are hopefully over.” Mr. Giam thinks the government will not be able to secure popular backing for “such tactics”, adding, “I think Singaporeans will not stand for that.”

But Mrs. Lina Chiam, Non-Constituency Member of Parliament and Chairwoman of the opposition Singapore People’s Party believes the MDA regulation is detrimental to media freedom because of its ambiguous wording. “The definition of news sites under the regulations, as they stand, are so arbitrary, and can encompass any website posting at least one news-related article in a week,” she says.

Mrs. Chiam thinks one does not even need to believe in the constitutional right to free speech to realize how worrying the new MDA rules are, from the point of view of legal order, transparency in governance, and good business sense. “With the freedom of expression suppressed, Singapore is not living up to its potential as a First World country,” she adds.

The Singapore People’s Party has called on the government to withdraw the MDA regulation.

A long history of media regulation

The Singapore government’s relationship with traditional news media organizations is hardly encouraging for those trying to use the online space to criticize the ruling party’s philosophy that has guided the city state’s development over the past six decades.

Speaking at the National Day Rally last year, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong took a dig at online media, accusing it of unreliability and lack of balanced reporting. “It (online media) lends itself to many negative views and ridiculous untruths,” Singapore’s leader said on the occasion.

Over the past four decades, government control of mainstream media has been aided by legislation such as the Newspaper and Printing Presses Act (NPPA) and the Broadcasting Act. All print and broadcast media in Singapore are also owned by the government-linked-company, Singapore Press Holding and Mediacorp.

Kumeran Pillai, Managing Editor of the online alternative newspaper Independent Singapore says government ownership is a “fear factor” for the journalist.  The feeling is that “if I write something bad, I am going to lose my job.”

“In Singapore you don’t have private ownership. All (media outlets are) owned by the government.  So if a journalist wants to write from a different view (to that held by the government), the government is in a position to hit them very hard,” says Leon Perera, advisor of Independent Singapore.

Singapore’s first political website Sintercom (Singapore Internet Community), launched in 1994 by Tan Chong Kee as a public platform for free discussion on a variety of national issues, had to license itself in 2001 with the national internet policy maker and regulator – the Singapore Broadcasting Authority (SBA). (The SBA’s role was taken over by the MDA in 2003.) Mr. Kee said he decided to shut down the website after realizing that it was impossible for him to run it with integrity.

Last year, the popular socio-political blog The Online Citizen (TOC) was registered as a political organization under the Broadcasting Act. The government said this was necessary as TOC was in a position to influence public opinion and shape political outcomes in Singapore. Registration has barred TOC from receiving foreign funds or allowing foreign citizens to take part in its events. Moreover, the Political Donations Act requires a registered website to list domestic sources of funding – a potentially crippling blow in a country where dissent results in political and economic marginalization.

 

Cautious optimism that government may be unable to control online opinion

Prominent blogger Ravi Philemon whose investigative online reports have embarrassed the government and triggered debates in Parliament, thinks it is not easy for the government to control expression of opinion online.

“I think the internet is a different animal altogether. Because how do you control the internet unless you are a country like China, which is so big and where citizens are inclined to speak in one language,” he says. Even though the government is trying to regulate Internet content, it is not easy to control. Singaporeans are turning to online media to get a perspective on news other than that offered by mainstream media, he says. “There is always another side of a story. I am sure, that what mainstream media tells is not the whole story,” says Philemon.

Technology has also made it easier to evade state control, he points out. “There are so many tools for you to bypass censorship. So how do you control something like that, especially in a country like Singapore which is so connected? So how do you restrict peoples’ reading? It is a very big challenge.”

Moreover, information is now “just one Google search away”. So the government can now no longer “control the political discourse, and for any government, it will be very troubling if you can’t lead the social-political discourse”.

“If you can’t lead it (political discourse), it means you (go) down (in) your power. In my opinion, it is understandable why the government wants to control the Internet, but it’s impossible,” he says.

By making it possible to reach out to a much wider audience, online communication can be a powerful tool to challenge authority, he says, citing his own example. During the severe haze crisis in Singapore in June this year, Mr. Philemon highlighted on his blog the public frustration that was expressed on social media over the government’s failure to keep its promise to make air filter masks available in all pharmacies. The government accused him of lying but could do nothing more, he points out.

Mr. Philemon says that after ignoring online media for a long time, the government has become aware of the importance of Internet-based communication after the 2011 election.

Well-known Singaporean media freedom advocate and Professor of Journalism from Nanyang Technological University, Cherian George also thinks it is not easy to control online expression of opinion. “Criticizing the government through online media with your own name is more common now, because you are not alone. The Internet has given confidence to the Singaporean, that if you have critical views about the government, you are not alone,” he says.

The government will have to arrest thousands of people if it starts cracking down on those expressing critical views online, he explains. He cited the large number of online comments criticizing the Prime Minister’s statement at the August 18 National Day rally.

The Singapore government is getting “very annoyed” with online criticism but it has to realize that there are limits to regulating online expression of opinion, Prof. George says. While “realists” in the government “realize” that it will have to learn to live with online criticism, the danger is that “hardliners” may have the urge to act, he says. This is evident in the new MDA licensing regulation for news bloggers. “There is nobody outside government who can understand why it is necessary or what problem it is supposed to solve. I can only conclude that it is more a symptom of frustration.”

“I am not afraid about the regulation (in itself), but what this regulation signals about government thinking. It shows that the government still doesn’t understand the need to reform the media. It is the clearest sign for many years that the government doesn’t want to recognize the reality,” he adds.

“It seems that the government is trying to make online media more like mainstream media. (The cases of) China, Iran, North Korea show it is possible to restrict (online media freedom). But, is that the direction you want to go?” he asks rhetorically. “Nobody imagines Singapore will go that way.”

Choo Zheng Xi, Co-founder of The Online Citizen thinks likewise. “They can’t control the Internet,” he says, adding: “They have imposed a lot of regulation that makes them very stupid. If they ask online media to pay $50,000 and they don’t want to pay, what would they do?”

Mr. Xi thinks the government is “afraid” and scared that independent bloggers can now affect the outcome of elections. He thinks the Internet provides a useful outlet for people to express their feelings on social and political issues.

Prof. George thinks the government needs to realize that loosening its grip on mainstream media will actually lead to an improvement in public and political life in Singapore. Instead of trying to suppress the online expression of political opinion, the aim of Internet regulation should be to protect citizens from unethical online behavior such as intrusion of privacy and cyber bullying, he says. “The government is more concerned about themselves instead of the ordinary people. Internet regulation should be about making the Internet safe for ordinary citizen.”

Challenges for independent online media

 

Even as they try to evade government control, bloggers and independent online news websites have to prepare themselves to become credible alternative media voices.

While bloggers and social media cannot replace mainstream media, they can play a valuable supplementary role, says Prof. George. Surveys he has conducted show that while people consider mainstream media to be biased in its coverage of the government, they have to depend on mainstream media for information because there is no choice available.

He sees the establishment of the online news blog Independent Singapore as a positive development but adds that it will not be easy for it to sustain itself as it lacks adequate resources in terms of funding and staff. After the National Day Rally, which was the biggest political event of the year, the website could publish only two commentaries, one of them authored by Prof. George.

Singapore still does not have independent online news sites that can guarantee comprehensive and reliable coverage of current issue. Even TOC, the best so far, can barely manage to pay its editors and interns.

Mr. Xi of TOC says the website was started to make up for the “very unbalanced” coverage of mainstream news media and its “lack of objectivity”.  In the past two to three years since its establishment, the website readership has grown from “a few hundred” to “thousands”.  During the 2011 election, TOC organized a political forum to which all political parties were invited though only the main opposition party took part.

Initially the government was not affected by TOC’s reporting “because we are very small” but TOC news stories are now forcing the government to act. “Many times, the government is responding to our articles,” says Mr. Xi.

The TOC story on homelessness in Singapore led to a debate in parliament. Although the government claimed the report was exaggerated, it launched an investigation into the issue. Mr. Xi says that mainstream media coverage tends to ignore issues like poverty, homelessness and foreign workers in Singapore. Unlike most other blogs which only carry opinion, TOC also provides reliable news to the public. “We are considered pioneers. We do reporting, cover news events and (carry) opinion (articles).”  Its readers include retirees, professionals and students.

However, he does not think bloggers and alternative online news groups can lead in shaping public opinion. “Only the mainstream media can do that. He is, nonetheless, optimistic about the future and expects TOC to become stronger over the next five to ten years. “Recently we’ve seen, former journalists, who have retired or were kicked out by their media organization, feeling frustrated and joining online media.”

The website has a core team of five staff and also between 10 to 15 volunteers, many of them students. “’We have to nurture them, lead them, make them feel their work is worth something.”

TOC is not finding it easy it obtain financial support as potential business backers are nervous about supporting a political news and opinion website that they see as being critical of the government, says Mr. Xi. The website runs on reader donations which add up to about S$1,000 per month. “It is enough.”

A significant addition to Singapore’s alternative media landscape was the launch of the Independent Singapore on 15 June this year. Its Managing Editor, Mr. Pillai, a former TOC editor, thinks alternative online media organizations have to professionalize themselves, moving beyond reliance on volunteers to paid staff.

Independent Singapore Director and Legal Advisor, Alfred Dodwell says the website aims to be independent of any political party. “I suppose the mainstream media is a PAP mouthpiece (and) TOC and TRE (Temasek Review Emeritus) are more like the opposition.”

The website writes about issues not covered by mainstream media and tries to be professional unlike a blog, he says. “We have an editorial team. Like a real newspaper.”

Hopes for the future

 

Prof. George thinks more and more of his fellow citizens are now beginning to realize that they need the freedom to criticize the government. Till recently, the number of “Singaporeans that want to fight for freedom of expression for its own sake was very small”. Yet, in recent years, “more and more Singaporeans” are feeling “the government isn’t noticing our problems seriously enough (and that) they need freedom of expression to voice their unhappiness”.

Mr. Dodwell hopes the Singapore Independent will give rise to a better informed younger generation. “The reason why we started Independent Singapore was because we are all parents, we have children. We want to do this for the future of Singapore (so that) children do not grow up with the Strait Times as the only one newspaper.”

This article was produced for the 2013 Southeast Asian Press Alliance (Seapa) fellowship program. Ulisari Eslita, a senior writer for the Jakarta-based Forbes Indonesia, is one of the 2013 fellows. This year’s theme is Freedom of Expression Challenges to Internet Governance in Southeast Asia. The article was originally published for the Southeast Asian Press Alliance in September 2013.

Published articles

Does freedom of expression matter?

By Ulisari Eslita

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In his National Day Rally speech on August 18 this year, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong spelt out major plans to make Singaporeans contented and happy. During his two-hour speech at the Ang Mo Kio campus of ITE College Central, the prime minister announced major reforms in housing, education and healthcare and more state support for the poorest citizens.

Healthcare was a focus of his speech. The head of government announced an increase in state contribution to health insurance which, moreover, will now be extended beyond 90 years of age to life. Healthcare costs have become a major concern for Singaporeans with the working age population having to bear the double burden of healthcare for children and elderly parents. This is one of the reasons why a growing number of elder citizens, neglected by their offspring who are finding it hard to bring up their own children, can be seen working at the service counters of fast food outlets like McDonalds or as waiters at shopping mall food courts in Singapore.

The prime minister also promised that every Singaporean would now be able to afford a home. Households with a monthly income of S$1,000 would be able to buy a two-room Housing and Development Board (HDB) flat, while those with total monthly earnings of S$2,000 and S$4,000 would find it easy to own a three-room and four-room HDB flat, respectively. The government would also provide additional subsidies, including a housing grant of up to S$20,000. The grant was till now only given to low-income households, but would now also be extended to middle-income families.

Unlike other Asian countries, Singapore is very generous when it comes to taking care of its people. An Indonesian citizen needs a US$1,300-monthly income to qualify for a bank loan in order to buy a US$40,000 house, while a Singapore citizen with same monthly income is eligible to buy a US$80,000 HDB flat. In Malaysia or the Philippines, citizens have to pay themselves for their health insurance, while the Singapore government’s Medishield covers a citizen for life with the government subsidizing up to 80% of the costs for the lowest income groups.

Such comprehensive state support is hardly surprising in one of the world’s richest nations. The former British colonial outpost and now a hi-tech city of glittering skyscrapers with 5.3 million people and a GDP of over US$270 billion in 2012, is often referred to as one of Asia’s economic ‘tigers’.

The country is also known for the conservatism of its leaders and its strict social controls with a system of punishments for acts considered anti-social. The government controls almost every aspect of the people’s life, including even daily conversation, hosting an online dialogue with the people through www.oursgconversation.sg.

Critics say government support in helping meet people’s basic needs has been an effective tool in winning acceptance for the state’s control of the citizen’s life. “Singapore is a very materialistic nation. If you listen to PM Lee’s speech at the National Day Rally, all that he said is about material things, like healthcare and housing, he didn’t mention anything about the freedom of expression,” says Choo Zheng Xi, Co-founder of The Online Citizen, prominent socio-political blog in Singapore.

“Singaporeans don’t think about politics. They are more interested in material belongings… they are just too greedy. The only time they talk about politics is only when it concerns their bottom line,” he adds.

Mr. Xi may be right. During her stay in the country and spending time in public places – food courts, coffee shops and restaurants – the writer rarely hear anyone talking of politics or government policies, unlike in her home city of Jakarta.

Unlike in most other countries, the majority of Singaporeans are not interested in freedom of expression for themselves, says well-known media freedom advocate, Professor Cherian George. “Most material needs of the people are taken care of by the government. We almost don’t have (a) corrupt government, (the) jobless level is very low. So what is the need of freedom of expression?”

Champions of free speech in Singapore feel encouraged by gradually changing public attitudes on the issue. In February 2013, after many years, Singaporeans staged a public protest demanding a tightening of the immigration policy. Some 3,000 people gathered at Singapore’s Hong Lim Park to join the protest triggered by growing public perception that middle-aged Singaporeans were losing out to foreigners in the jobs market.

“Now it is slowly changing. More and more Singaporean who are not so happy because they feel housing is become un-affordable, the transportation system which is not going to be better, and the living cost that is getting too high recently,” says Prof. George.

“It is easier to persuade Singaporeans now that they need this freedom. Because they realize there is a direct relation between freedom of expression and social-economic welfare, which they didn’t see 10-20 years back,” he says.

However, it will be a struggle to spread awareness among people in Singapore that freedom of expression is a human right, he says.

This article was produced for the 2013 Southeast Asian Press Alliance (Seapa) fellowship program. Ulisari Eslita, a senior writer for the Jakarta-based Forbes Indonesia, is one of the 2013 fellows. This year’s theme is Freedom of Expression Challenges to Internet Government in Southeast Asia. The article was originally published for the Southeast Asian Press Alliance in September 2013.

Published articles

Rising the Bar

State Owned Enterprises Minister Dahlan Iskan is moving fast to improve the performance of the state firms.

By Ulisari Eslita

 I guarantee that what happened during the Garuda listing will not happen again.

Dahlan Iskan has been the minister for state-owned enterprises only since October of last year, yet in that time he has already moved fast to implement reform. According to Dahlan, 61, the number of SOEs, 141 in all, is too many and he wants to reduce them. He also has been moving authority out of the ministry and into the SOEs, to allow their directors to have more power—and more responsibility—in managing their firms. His style and his decision-making process are deeply influenced by his background as an entrepreneur and businessman. Starting with one newspaper, he built his Jawa Pos group into a media concern with 80 newspapers and magazines, 40 printing companies, and six local TV stations spread all over Indonesia. Dahlan also owns two power plants in East Java and East Kalimantan. Dahlan was from December 2009 until his appointment as minister the chief executive officer of the state power firm PT PLN. In trademark multitasking style, Dahlan conducted the interview with Forbes Indonesia while driving his own car (he doesn’t use a driver) in and around Bogor to appointments.

 

Forbes Indonesia (FI): What is your plan for the SOEs?

Dahlan Iskan (DI): We have 141 SOEs now. We need to resize them all, so I don’t have to attend all the shareholders meeting every two days.

 

FI:  Could you elaborate on the plan?

DI: We can’t apply one recipe in the SOEs’ resizing plan, because it will not necessarily fit all SOEs. We’ve prepared some actions under the plan, such as forming holding companies, and doing mergers and acquisitions. For instance, we are going to establish a plantation holding company for the state-owned plantation companies. We also plan to merge PT Barata Indonesia and PT Boma Bisma Indra [two engineering companies].

 

FI: How will you design the holding company for the plantation firms?

DI: We have already picked PTPN III [PT Perkebunan] as the champion to lead the plantation holding firm. The company will have 13 subsidiaries, PTPN I to XIV. Besides taking care of itself, PTPN III should take care of the subsidiaries.

 

FI: How is the resizing project going so far?

DI: We are now working on the government draft regulations for SOEs resizing. We are hoping by the end of this month to get it finished. After that, we will try our best to get approval on the draft, as we will pass the draft to the Finance Minister, the parliament and to the president.

 

FI: The resizing project will take time. Meanwhile, elections are two years away. Are you sure this project will be accomplished by 2014?

DI: The resizing project is not only the state-owned ministry’s work, but also involves institutions such as the Finance Ministry, parliament and the president. The important thing is I do my part as the SOE minister. In turn, I am also doing an intensive consultation with the finance minister so the plan can be realized as soon as possible. By text message or phone, we talk about resizing all the time, so we don’t have to wait until a meeting is scheduled.

 

FI: How initial public offerings? Which SOEs will be listed in the stock exchange this year? How will you manage it so it will not turn out badly as it did with Garuda Indonesia and Krakatau Steel?

DI: Yes, a few companies are going for IPO this year. They are Semen Baturaja, PTPN VII, Pertamina Geothermal Energy and Pertamina Drilling Services. We hope to have domestic investors be the biggest buyers of these SOEs shares in IPOs. The government, however, must hold no less than 51% shares in each listed SOE. I guarantee the IPO process will run very well since we let the process be managed entirely by the companies. It will turn out badly only if there is outside intervention during the process—such as politics, other business interests or both. I will not be involved in the process. I guarantee that what happened during the Garuda listing will not happen again.

 

FI: How do you see SOEs changing role in the country?

DI: I used to think the state shouldn’t run a business. In the contrary, it should be people whom run businesses. If they compete with each other, I’m sure people will lose. One can look at the U.S. and Germany, which don’t rely on SOEs and they are developed countries. But years ago, when we experienced the 1998 economy crisis, I changed my mind. I realized that my concern was misplaced. On the contrary, free trade is precisely what can hurt people. I think it is better for the state to do some businesses, as long as it is restricted to particular fields, such as finance, food and strategic industries. On the contrary, in the transportation sector, we do not necessarily need to have a state-owned transportation companies such as PT PPD or PT Damri.

 

FI: Can you give us an example?

DI: For instance, the banking sector. If we had a European-style crisis and all the banking institutions were private, the rupiah would be shaken and the economy would be getting worst and worst. In the contrary, we can stabilize the rupiah if we have some state-owned banks.

 

FI: After almost two years serving as the head of state-owned power firm PLN and half a year as the SOE Minister, what do you think about the state-owned companies?

DI: Generally, the state-owned companies move very slow, including the state-owned ministry itself. That’s why on the first week serving as a minister I bestowed 18 minister’s authority to the board of directors and commissioners in each SOE to make the bureaucracy more efficient and simple. Now each SOE company can make its own decisions very quickly since they don’t have to wait for my decision.

 

FI: Some people think SOEs here can’t be run efficiently and effectively because the board of directors doesn’t run the company as they should be. Any comments?

DI: The main thing I want to know is why do they can’t work well? If it is because of the working climate, then we have to fix it. If it is because of the directors, we will motivate them to do well or else we replace them.

 

FI: You made many breakthroughs while serving as the PLN CEO and now as the minister. Some people say that these were done to bolster your image. Is that true?

DI: That kind of issue really annoys me because if I didn’t perform, people would be mad at me. But what can I say? I’m a professional, I don’t engage in political debates. I just do the best I can do.

 

FI: Your background is a journalist and a businessman. Is it difficult for you to get used to your current position?

DI: To prepare for the job of SOE minister, President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono already gave me “on-the-job” training for almost two years at PLN. So, more or less, I do understand. I just have to make so many reports, as well as meetings. I was a bit shocked at the beginning. I used to be the number one person in my company. I have no boss, I didn’t take any commands, and I have no one to obey. At PLN, I had so many bosses: the board of commissioners, the former SOE minister, the president and the parliament. As a minister, I still have bosses: the president, the coordinating minister and the parliament. Then I came to the conclusion that above the sky, there is another sky. For me serving either as a minister or as the CEO at PLN are life lessons.