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Q&A with U.S. Ambassador to Indonesia Robert Blake

October 22, 2014

robert Blake The Asia Foundation hosted four U.S. ambassadors to Asia at its headquarters in San Francisco on October 9 for “ASEAN Matters,” a panel discussion on why Asia is crucial to the United States’ economic growth. In Asia editor Alma Freeman sat down with U.S. Ambassador to Indonesia Robert Blake to discuss Indonesia’s priorities under Joko Widodo, controversy over direct elections, fuel subsidies, and U.S.-Indonesia relations.

After a lively and hotly contested election year, on October 20 Indonesia inaugurated former Jakarta governor, Joko “Jokowi” Widodo, as new president. What are your thoughts on the election?

I think that Jokowi is going to be a breath of fresh air for the country. He is the first elected president who does not come from the military or from one of the political factions. He comes from outside the system – much like Barack Obama. He’s also one of the first Indonesian candidates to successfully use social media, both as a campaign tool and to raise money. It will be interesting to watch his success at mobilizing the people around some of the difficult issues that Indonesia faces, particularly as he still has opposition in the Parliament. His ability to navigate that and go directly to the people will be very important to watch.

Some say that the upcoming transition of power will be a pivotal point for Indonesia’s future, signifying a new phase of Indonesian governance. Can you talk about some of Indonesia’s challenges, and how you see new leadership addressing these challenges?

Indonesia has made amazing progress since the dark days of 1998 when the economy contracted by 14 percent and there were so many problems on their periphery. Indonesia has become one of the fastest growing economies in the G20 over the last several years, and is a vibrant democracy with a tolerant society. This is very important as global leaders seek to confront ISIL and the challenges it poses around the world.

As we look ahead, Jokowi is challenged with consolidating that progress, particularly to get growth rates back up to 7 percent so the country can begin to make a dent in poverty. There are still 100 million people who live on less than $2 a day in Indonesia. Jokowi is squarely set on achieving not only growth but inclusive growth and to do that, his administration will need to address some of the longer term challenges, like bringing education up to world class standards at all levels. He has announced that he wants to raise mandatory schooling from the current 9th grade through to 12th grade. But even more importantly, they need to raise the quality of Indonesia’s universities and increase the number of polytechnic, or community colleges, out in the provinces that can closely tie in to the needs of the local economy. The country has set the goal to establish universal health care by 2020, but there is a great distance to travel to get there. If Indonesia can meet these challenges, it will be poised to be one of the leading countries of the 21st century.

Last month, Indonesia’s Parliament passed a bill that would end direct elections for over 500 local-level political offices. What is your reaction to this move?

I was struck by the immediate and vehement reaction by the Indonesian people to this decision. I think that then President Yudhoyono was himself shocked at the reaction and subsequently took steps to reverse his own decision. It’s not clear whether this bill is going to pass, and we’re also not clear on the constitutional aspects of this yet. Once Jokowi is in office and if these other measures haven’t passed, then I think he will try to reverse the bill once he can get majority support in Parliament. Most people I’ve talked to expect that he’ll be able to get at least a slim parliament majority – not right away, but sometime in the next several months as he announces his programs and his popularity becomes clearer.

Do you see this as an isolated political issue or some kind of a trend?

I think this is an isolated issue. The trend in Indonesia is very much in favor of democratization and we’ve all followed with admiration the growth of social media – my favorite statistic is that 2 percent of all the world’s tweets everyday come out of Jakarta alone, which shows just how wired Indonesians are. The reaction to this bill shows that democracy is alive and well in Indonesia.

President Jokowi has announced plans to overhaul his country’s fuel subsidy programs to free up budget funds for infrastructure, agriculture, healthcare, and education.

We support him 100 percent in his goal in removing the fuel subsidies, not only because it creates artificial pricing for alternative kinds of energy and discourages things like renewable energy but also because these subsidies consume 18 percent of the budget, whereas infrastructure only consumes 8 percent. Jokowi has tried to cast this as not removing energy subsidies, as much as redirecting them to these other needs. He is also very focused on creating a safety net so that the very poorest of the poor will not be affected by these subsidies.

Where do you see U.S.-Indonesia relations today?

We expect to see continuity in our bilateral relationship – we’ve had a tremendous growth in our relations over the last several years – headlined by the visit of President Obama in 2010 to Indonesia and the establishment of the Comprehensive Partnership. Indonesia is an increasingly important partner in many respects, from promoting democracy through the Bali Democracy Forum to its contribution to some of the toughest peacekeeping operations around the world. It also has an increasingly important role to play on strategic issues like the South China Sea. ASEAN is taking the lead in trying to negotiate a code of conduct with China, and Indonesia’s role has been paramount in this.

You’ve also served in Tunisia and Egypt in the 1980s and ’90s – hotspots for the Arab Spring unrest that began in 2010. How would you compare those environments to Indonesia today?

As I compare the Indonesia now to the Tunisia and Egypt that I knew then, the main difference is the level of responsive government. In both Tunisia and Egypt, you had elites living openly lavish lifestyles which obviously spoke to a great deal of corruption, and large numbers of unemployed people who were angry that they did not have an opportunity society, and who thought their government was unresponsive to their needs and welfare. By contrast, while Indonesia certainly has issues with corruption and poverty, what separates it is that Indonesia has a very open democracy, and the government is seeking to be responsive to its citizens. When problems emerge, people are out right away on social media talking about what they want to do about it. Indonesia is more and more an opportunity society – you don’t have that same kind of anger where no matter what you do you’re not going to get ahead because the system is stacked against you. In Indonesia there’s a sense of exciting entrepreneurial ventures taking place and we’re happy to try and nurture that.

Figures show that the percentage of people living in urban areas in Indonesia is almost 50 percent, or around 118 million out of 237 million people. What do you see as the biggest challenges in urban and rural development moving forward?

There’s a limit to what an urban area like Jakarta can absorb. Already the greater Jakarta area encompasses 27 million people – second only to greater Tokyo. Having been the governor of Jakarta, President Jokowi is very attuned to the challenges of urbanization, and that’s why he’s very focused on not only diversifying the economy, but also spreading the wealth beyond Java – particularly to the poorest areas of eastern Indonesia – through maritime development. He has talked about building a series of ports all over the archipelago to take advantage of the fact that two-thirds of this country is water. Indonesia has a strategic imperative to first bring down costs to create incentives so that people want to trade with each other – now it’s cheaper to import an orange from China than it is from Sumatra. That obviously has to change.

Secondly, it’s important to develop islands that are farther away from Java so you have stronger poles of economic activity. Once the infrastructure is developed in some of these areas, building up the manufacturing sector will be critical. This is one of the country’s longer term challenges – to move from a resource-based economy to a more manufactured-based economy because that is going to create long term sustainable jobs and will help raise growth rates to 7 or 8 percent and lift large numbers of people out of poverty. It’s also important to move away from a model where you’re deforesting most of your natural resources, releasing tremendous amounts of carbon into the atmosphere. One of our top priorities is to work with the private sector – mostly palm oil companies – to get them to stop clearing of primary forests and to only plant on previously degraded land, and to stop altogether the clearing of peat land. We were very happy to hear at the most recent UN General Assembly there was an important agreement on this, which is a big step forward. But these are the kinds of things that are going to have to be multiplied. Commodity prices go up and down so commodity exports alone will not provide a long-term basis for sustainable growth.

1 Comment

  1. It is good to hear that US and UN are encouraging replanting of Palm oil trees in already used areas. the clearing of land is a huge problem in surrounding countries as well. Tourism would become a larger industry because of more attractive scenery and abundance of wildlife. But then….the plastic water bottle problem would need to be solved. So many problems to be solved in this world that is getting smaller!

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