Thursday, March 21, 2013|| On courageous leadership

Country in transition, in search of courageous leader

Indonesian new governor inspires 

For a nation with aspirations to be a global player commensurate with its size as the fourth largest nation in the world, the current situation of Jakarta, Indonesia’s capital city, hardly support the quest. Flood waters have ravaged Jakarta in January 2013, leaving at least 27 people dead. This is not the first time heavy flood hits Jakarta. In 2007, total flood damage was estimated at nearly US$695 million with 57 casualties [1].

This Asian megacity is wracked not only by annual floods, but by corruption, worsening traffic congestion and a widening gap between rich and poor. 

Joko Widodo is the new Jakarta’s governor. Since taking office last October 2012, he has made several moves aimed at fixing the city’s problems and delivering support for the poor. Recently he was voted the third-best mayor in the world by the 2012 World Mayor Project for his previous success running a small city in East Java [2]

Widodo and his deputy Basuki Purnama, with their people-oriented programs in Jakarta, have been perceived different from other politicians that many of whom are seen arrogant, aloof, and corrupt [3]

Purnama has developed a reputation for being tough when dealing with inefficient and corrupt staff. One clip, uploaded by the deputy’s office to YouTube, shows him angrily ordering public works officials to cut their budget by 25 percent, suggesting they have been marking it up. The video has close to 1.5 million hits. 

“If you don’t agree with me, then argue with me. I know it can be done. We might be waging an open war, but we have no other option than to cut the corrupted public works budget,” says Purnama [4]

The deputy orders all meetings and discussions related to city’s plans are posted online to make the process more transparent to public. 

It may be too early to praise the new governor since there are still many things that need to be done to fix the city’s problem. Nonetheless, the new governor has been greatly appreciated for introducing a new genre of transformational leadership, with a lot of public participation never seen in the past decades of Indonesia’s administration. 

For me personally, it was a glimpse of hope in a leadership crisis that currently pertained in the country. 

From autocracy to democracy 

Widodo’s moves are the kind of populist moves people see from many of the world’s big-city mayors, but it is not typical for Indonesia. More than 14 years since dictator Suharto was overthrown, its politicians are still mostly drawn from the same stock: wealthy businessmen or former generals running more on connections and money than experience in government.

Getting closer to 2014 presidential election, it is commonly bemoaned among members of the public at large that the country is experiencing a crisis of leadership [5]. People in power, as well as people running for power, are claimed to not have enough knowledge of state governance, experiences and academic qualifications.

Corruption in Indonesia remains as big challenge. According to Berlin-based Transparency International, in 2012, Indonesia’s corruption perceptions index was ranked 118th out of 176 countries polled [6]

It has been more than 14 years since Suharto was overthrown, but in my view, the country is still very much in transition. Indonesia is still struggling in revealing its historical truth, as well as in achieving strong national consensus to define a development roadmap that is widely accepted. 

Other than Indonesia, we have also witnessed dramatic change in many parts of the world. We have witnessed government transformation in Middle East and North Africa, where autocratic leaders have been ousted or forced to resign. Myanmar has just recently joined the formation, embarking on a determined path towards democracy. 

Conditions of countries in transition are very different. People’s expectations in Indonesia, Myanmar, Libya and Egypt are also different. But one key common denominator that I argue to be relevant for all countries is: courageous leadership. The presence of courageous leaders is very critical during transitions. Why? 

While political change can come rather quickly, lasting societal change takes time. As we saw in Egypt’s Tahrir Square, political change can happen almost overnight. Social and economic change, however, do not automatically follow. Lasting change requires a long-term perspective, but under immediate pressures to ‘restart’. There are many dilemmatic difficult situations. Leaders in transition are required to be responsive and able to provide well-defined directions while keep eyeing on sustainable improvement. Leaders also need to resist and fight against remaining dictatorial stakeholders. These all in my belief take courage, in addition to integrity and competency. 

Countries in transition will also invariably go through phases of deliberation, progress and setbacks in their political and economic decision-making and development. Leaders need to gain trust so that people are willing to contribute in making the changes that need to be made. 

Without any pretension to produce a comprehensive analysis, I will try to offer my view on what constitutes courageous leadership in terms of transition. Transition has a broad meaning. In this essay, I take a definition of democratic transition, the condition where a country undergoes political change from an authoritarian regime to a more democratic regime. The presumption is that democracy creates better lives for people, compared to autocracy regime where power is often misused. The presence of leader in democracy regime is important on all levels, from national to local city level.

Courageous leadership 

“You should never let your fears prevent you from doing what you know is right” 
—Aung San Suu Kyi 

What is courage? Most definitions are variations of the one in Evans and White (1981) [7] , which states that it is mental or moral strength to venture, persevere, and withstand danger, fear, or difficulty. I believe there is no standard definition that says exactly what constitutes courageous leadership. 

Speaking of democratic transition, I propose a definition of courageous leader as one who goes beyond the incumbent leader – in creating transparent environment where people are legally empowered with equal rights to resources and access to justice. 

I also propose several traits of courageous leader which I believe important.

Firstly, to be a courageous leader, one is not required to have a muscular body, great fighting ability, or holding guns on their hands. Leaders in transition are often successful when people can relate to them. Aung San Suu Kyi, who defied military regime more boldly than anyone in Myanmar, does not look more than a humble woman. Through her quiet confidence, she inspires many Burmese to seek freedom from fear [8]. Humility leads to trust, the component that is often lacking in autocratic leadership. 

Secondly, one key success of democratic transition is public participation. Public participation should not be limited only through voting on Election Day, but also through broader involvement such as regular dialogue between public and government authorities. The leaders, therefore, are required to be open and accommodative. New governor of Jakarta may have shown this character. By holding public hearing on recent Jakarta’s transport project [8] – an activity that was seldom held by the incumbents – he has created a more transparent environment where people can see what currently is going on with the city, and people can also give suggestion on the matters. 

This, by all means, should not translate into ‘pleasing everyone’ approach. The leaders should understand that they cannot be everything to everyone, but to stand for what is right. Indonesia and many countries in Asia may perceive this as higher challenge than Western countries since harmony is a central theme in Eastern society in which ‘to go along is to get along’ is a standard attitude. However, leaders in transition are required to take bold decisions.

In search of courageous leader, what can we do? 

The presence of Widodo and Purnama in Jakarta may give hope in the midst of leadership crisis in Indonesia. Despite all of their efforts, people should bear in mind that no leader is perfect. Being human themselves, leaders are bound to make mistakes. We should understand the capacity of the government and not rely effortlessly. At the end, democracy is all about people power. 

I argue the first thing that we can do as young generation is to care. Only by caring will we understand the situation of our society. Based on  my own experience, it is very easy to lose ourselves in the mundane of daily lives, and things such as government policies reported on newspapers can seem very irrelevant. Only after I move to Japan then I truly feel my identity as Indonesian and start to care about social and political issues of my country. Now I understand government policies that I previously thought irrelevant are actually the basic foundation on how I conducted my life: my education fee, my family health care plan, the option of public transports I have, and so on. 

Once we care, it is easier to embrace critical thinking that is very important in the phase of democratic transition. We can begin to look critically at all past claims, as well as present and potential future conflicts. 

The ideal situation is for every educated young people to feel the need to understand his/her country system. Ignorance is definitely not bliss in this case. Government needs its people to help navigate democratic reform for lasting positive change in country. Without public watch, democracy can easily turn back into autocracy regime where governmental power is often exploited. 

In a midst of leadership crisis, what we can do is to prepare ourselves to be the next generation of courageous leaders, or at least to create environment that is supportive for friends/colleagues to be ones.

We often hope for a better leader, a better country to live in. We, young generation, should do more than just hoping as it is our future that is on the line. I again quote Aung San Suu Kyi, “I don’t believe in people just hoping. I always say that one has no right to hope without endeavor. We work for what we want.”

Esai non akademis saya yang pertama. Topik kepemimpinan ini sepertinya klise, namun saya percaya cukup esensial.

6:44 PM |