Rizal Ramli: Economist Who Is “For The People”

LAST May, Mr Rizal Ramli did something highly unusual for a presidential candidate. He led a large demonstration outside Jakarta’s state palace on the centennial anniversary of National Awakening Day, celebrating the birth of Indonesia”s struggle for independence.

“Indonesia has had 100 years of national awakening, but it’s all been for the elite,” the former economic coordinating minister explains over lunch at his South Jakarta home.

The Straits Times (Singapore)
September 13, 2008
John McBeth, Senior Writer

“Less than 20 per cent of the population has what I would call political independence.”

That, in a nutshell, is why the once-jailed activist has announced his candidacy for the presidency, hoping to drum up enough support to win nomination from a party or parties that would see him into the first round of the presidential race next July.

There has been one bump in the road already. A month after the palace protest, the state-run cement company, Semen Gresik, sacked Mr Ramli as its president commissioner for allegedly engineering a violent student rally against a recent fuel price increase.

He denies having played any role in the rally. He says that three months ago, the State Enterprises Ministry sent him a letter expressing its unhappiness over his criticism of the Yudhoyono government and giving him the choice of either resigning or being fired.

Mr Ramli’s reputation as an economic nationalist, earned mostly from his criticism of World Bank policies and his opposition to the International Monetary Fund’s intervention during the 1997-98 financial crisis, makes foreign investors nervous.

But he has a ready explanation for his stand. Rather than listening to outsiders, he says, he wants Indonesia to confront its own problems and to expand the conversation on Indonesia’s economy beyond the business elite who now talk only among themselves.

“It is more about me wanting to give opportunities to the majority of Indonesians who haven’t benefited from 40 years of economic growth,” says Mr Ramli. “In the long run, that’s good for democracy and it’s good for business because it will create a more sustainable demand.”

The key to achieving both those goals, he argues, lies in shifting the focus from big business and state enterprises and putting more emphasis on small and medium enterprises, which are the “glue” of the economy.

A Muslim happily married to a Chinese-Christian from the island of Bangka, Mr Ramli believes Indonesia’s ethnic and religious diversity should be a strength, not a source of conflict and mutual suspicion as it has been in the last few years.

He himself is an ethnic hybrid. He was born in West Sumatra but grew up an orphan with his Sundanese-speaking grandparents in West Java.

“As a non-Javanese,” he says, “I always felt I was playing second fiddle. That’s why I haven’t entered politics up to now.”

He has been encouraged to do so by recent surveys showing that 73 per cent of Indonesians – many of them young and open to change – don’t consider ethnicity to be an issue in their choice of leaders.

Up to now, the Javanese, who hold a disproportionately numerical edge over the rest of the nationwide electorate, have been unwilling to look further afield – something that is expected to change as the country matures politically.

The US-educated economist feels there are advantages to being an independent. “If you associate with a party now, you narrow your potential and have to follow a set election schedule,” he notes.

“As an independent, you have more freedom.”

Mr Ramli has used that to attack the government for its failure to build new toll roads and to inject any sense of urgency into a so-called crash programme to head off a looming power crisis that threatens to put the brakes on economic growth.

He has also been critical of its response to soaring world oil prices. While the 1997-98 crisis hit mostly big business, he says, inflation is undermining President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono’s popularity among the lower middle class because of rising food prices.

“There’s a lot of disenchantment out there,” Mr Ramli notes.

“Women used to love Dr Yudhoyono, but they are now the most disappointed because they have control of the household budget and they feel really bitter.”

So what else has he learnt in the four days he spends each week on the road? “Indonesians know I’m for democracy and that my economics is pro-people,” he says. “But I have to learn to speak in a simple language, to break it down and make it understandable. I really sweat when I see a blank face.”

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