From The Straits Times archives

Ahok set to be Jakarta's first Chinese governor

Vice-Governor Basuki Tjahaja Purnama, or Ahok, a Chinese and a Christian, wants to downplay the role of ethnicity, and instead wants leaders who are clean and capable.
Vice-Governor Basuki Tjahaja Purnama, or Ahok, a Chinese and a Christian, wants to downplay the role of ethnicity, and instead wants leaders who are clean and capable.ST PHOTO: ZAKIR HUSSAIN

He downplays role of ethnicity, says he wants clean, capable leaders

This article was first published on Aug 11, 2014

During the recent month-long presidential election campaign, a striking banner appeared across the capital with a silhouette of candidate Prabowo Subianto in a songkok.

It read: "Jokowi remains governor", a reference to now President-elect Joko Widodo.

But many felt uncomfortable with its latent communal insinuation, for the banner was really about a third person - Vice-Governor Basuki Tjahaja Purnama, or Ahok, who is Chinese.

As veteran journalist Bambang Harymurti points out, what it did not say, but which many residents understood, was that electing Mr Joko as president would also mean endorsing a Chinese politician to take charge of the capital city.

But that message did not sell, and Ahok, 48, will make history when he officially takes over as the capital's governor ahead of Mr Joko's inauguration on Oct 20, after 53.1 per cent of voters in the capital - similar to the nationwide figure - elected Jokowi.

Though observers herald Ahok's imminent appointment as a milestone in a country that only 16 years ago saw an outbreak of violence against ethnic Chinese, many among Jakarta's 10 million residents still say they feel uncomfortable with a governor who is Chinese and Christian.

Just last Friday, a demonstrator outside the Constitutional Court, where Mr Prabowo is challenging the results of the election, used the Suharto-era term for indigenous Indonesians and said that as a pribumi, he rejected Ahok as governor.

"The majority of people are not racist," says Mr Anton Medan, chairman of the Indonesian Chinese Muslim Association or PITI, and a staunch Ahok supporter. "But those who are against him have vested interests and manipulate the issue for their own benefit."

University of Indonesia lecturer Aimee Dawis believes a far greater number of Indonesians are more enthused about Ahok's moving up more because he is a political outsider, just as they were about Mr Joko's election.

"Both men reflect the rise of meritocracy in Indonesia," she tells The Straits Times. "Ahok is someone who serves Indonesia and Jakarta first and foremost, not his ethnic group."

Ahok himself has said he would rather downplay the role of ethnicity, and wants leaders who are clean and capable.

"I can't deny I'm of Chinese descent," he told The Straits Times in a previous interview, but said he entered politics to help poorer Indonesians defend their rights against rogue officials.

The geology graduate from the capital's Trisakti University started his career as a mining contractor but soon moved to East Belitung, where his family started a silica sand plant.

Having to deal with a corrupt bureaucracy prompted him to want to emigrate, but his father held him back. In 2004, Ahok was elected to the regency assembly and a year later, was elected regent of East Belitung with 37 per cent of the vote in a district that was over 90 per cent Muslim.

In 2006, he made a bid for governor of Bangka Belitung province, but lost. Undeterred, he won a seat in the national Parliament on a Golkar ticket in 2009. He made a run in 2012 for Jakarta vice-governor as Mr Joko's running mate.

Much of Mr Joko's success in managing Jakarta's complex problems - relocating squatters and street hawkers to new flats and markets, and getting transport and flood mitigation improvements off the ground - has been due to his partnership with Ahok.

Jokowi's consultative approach of going down to the ground to fix problems rapidly has been complemented by Ahok's no-nonsense style in running the bureaucracy.

Ahok has uploaded onto YouTube most of his meetings with city public servants, and several videos have become a hit for the brutally direct style in which he deals with errant officials. He has chided note-takers for using pen and paper instead of issued laptops and asked public works officials unhappy with budget cuts to resign.

Some have criticised his anger at his own officials in a culture where public reprimands are frowned upon, but Ahok responded in an interview on his website: "People can see for themselves why I'm angry… If you were in my position, you might be more enraged. How can you mess with people's money?"

Said Dr Dawis: "His tough words shake things up. Years from now, everybody who is sceptical about his style will probably say that's what's needed for Jakarta to clean up."

Even before he is sworn in as governor, Ahok is already being talked about as a future vice-president, or even president.

But as he himself quipped in jest on several occasions: "It's easier to be president than to solve Jakarta's problems".