People - Sparking Indonesia's 'big bang'

Humble, pragmatic minister who bears similarities to Jokowi

Mr Lembong has been in office for just five months, but already, the measures that have been rolled out to stimulate the economy "certainly bore hints of (his) influence and his openness towards globalisation".
Mr Lembong has been in office for just five months, but already, the measures that have been rolled out to stimulate the economy "certainly bore hints of (his) influence and his openness towards globalisation".PHOTO: TATAN SYUFLANA

Indonesia last week announced what was touted as a "big bang" of reforms for the economy, opening up several sectors to foreign investors. The Straits Times takes a look at the two key economic ministers in President Joko Widodo's team.

Indonesian President Joko Widodo, famously a man of the people who goes by the moniker Jokowi, probably saw a bit of himself in investment banker Thomas Trikasih Lembong when he picked the latter last August to be his trade minister, in a Cabinet reshuffle aimed at reviving the country's sluggish economy.

As a sign of his humility, Mr Lembong, or simply "Tom" to his friends and associates, never waves goodbye to his visitors at the door. He walks every one of them to the lift before returning to his office, where he spends many late nights poring over work papers.

He nods at security guards and smiles at the office boys. He also insists on carrying his own bag - or two.

"He is modest and attentive. He doesn't judge a person by his social status, but by his contributions instead," Mr Iman Pambagyo, his special staff member for international trade policy, told The Straits Times.

The humility that Mr Lembong - a 44-year-old ethnic Chinese from a middle-class background - displays has earned him as much respect as his sterling curriculum vitae.

 

OPENING UP

More international investment will bring more capital, more world-class expertise, more technologies to Indonesia. Domestic players must seize those opportunities.

MR THOMAS TRIKASIH LEMBONG, Indonesian Trade Minister, on the country's relaxation of foreign investment rules.

While he has a bachelor's degree in architecture and urban design from Harvard University, he has excelled as an investment banker, with stints at Deutsche Bank and Morgan Stanley.

He was chief executive officer of Singapore-based private equity company Quvat Management - specialising in growth capital and buyouts - when he was inducted into the government.

Married to Ms Franciska Wihardja, daughter of King Koil mattress boss Andreas Wihardja, Mr Lembong, who has two school-going children, prefers to keep a low profile for himself and his family.

"In some ways, Tom is similar to Mr Joko. He doesn't behave differently as a minister... he is still the same Tom, no flashy cars, no branded labels," Mr Yunarto Wijaya, executive director of research outfit Charta Politika, told The Straits Times.

"They share a good chemistry. They have the same thought patterns and working style. Tom is a doer and is practical."

That pragmatism showed when Mr Lembong swiftly cut the red tape for businesses when he became trade minister.

He has been in office for just five months, but already, the raft of measures to stimulate the economy that the government has rolled out - including last week's relaxation of foreign investment rules - "certainly bore hints of his influence and his openness towards globalisation", said Mr Wijaya.

Touting the move as the nation's largest opening to international investment in a decade, Mr Lembong told Reuters last Thursday: "More international investment will bring more capital, more world-class expertise, more technologies to Indonesia. Domestic players must seize those opportunities."

This openness is extended to how he runs his ministry and interacts with colleagues.

"He appreciates differences in opinion and, in fact, he welcomes them. To him, a debate is not a confrontation. He puts people at ease," said Mr Pambagyo.

Mr Lembong was fond of reading and writing about social issues in his younger days, but work is now his focus. He often stays back after office hours, sometimes till 9pm.

He is also tech-savvy and, given his busy schedule and need to communicate quickly with his staff, it is no surprise that he has opted to communicate via the WhatsApp mobile messaging system.

He is in at least four work- related chat groups, where he discusses trade issues with his staff and assigns tasks in a clear, methodical manner.

Said Mr Pambagyo: "He sets a high standard when it comes to work, but he has never expressed his anger on WhatsApp. And offline, too, he has never raised his voice at anyone."

Mr Wijaya said: "He's smart and intellectual and he is the country's rising star."

Arlina Arshad

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on February 15, 2016, with the headline 'Humble, pragmatic minister who bears similarities to Jokowi'. Print Edition | Subscribe