John Mcbeth Senior Writer

The coming of the Fish Lady

You have to love her. Sprawled out on a hotel lobby couch, sheathed in a black jumpsuit with a plunging neckline, her trademark tousled hair neatly arranged this time, Ms Susi Pudjiastuti tells me in that distinctive husky voice: "I hope Jokowi (President Joko Widodo) knows what he's doing. You know I don't work that well with other people."

Two days later, the owner of the world's largest under-35-seat airline and a friend of Indonesian Democratic Party-Struggle leader Megawati Sukarnoputri was named Maritime Affairs and Fisheries Minister and one of the more surprising choices among the eight women in Mr Joko's 34-strong Cabinet.

Ms Susi, 49, is one of a kind, as at home jousting with fishermen on the beach near her home on Java's south coast as she is engaging in chit-chat at a Jakarta cocktail party. The elite grumble that she is a high school dropout and no doubt look with distaste at the ever-present cigarette and the tattoo that snakes its way from her right knee to her ankle.

The lady couldn't care less. She is separated from her husband, German pilot and aerospace engineer Christian von Strombeck, and calls herself "homeless". In fact, she lives in a suite in the luxury Grand Hyatt Hotel, gliding around town with two young suited aides in a large black SUV that serves as a mobile office.

She laughingly says she will now have to take a pay cut - perhaps 20 times below the monthly US$100,000 (S$127,100) she pulled in as chief executive of SusiAir. Starting out with a single aircraft flying fresh fish to market, the airline now has 50 planes and helicopters serving 200 routes from Aceh to the central highlands of Papua.

Ms Susi had met Mr Joko only once or twice before he called her to the palace for an interview just days before he announced the Cabinet. But SusiAir did provide his campaign with transport - as befits an operation that links 168 small towns and settlements and lands on some of the world's remotest airstrips.

For all of her unconventional lifestyle, Ms Susi knows she will be at the centre of realising the President's dream of turning the vast archipelago into a maritime power, upgrading seaports and domestic connectivity and improving the livelihoods of the country's 2.4 million fishermen.

"The oceans, the seas, the straits and the bays are the future of our civilisation," Mr Joko declared in his inauguration speech. "It is time for us to realise Jalesveva Jayamahe (In the Ocean we Triumph), a motto upheld by our ancestors in the past."

Mr Joko has created a new coordinating office for maritime affairs, headed by former Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) official Indroyono Soesilo, which has the ministries of transport, fisheries, tourism and, strangely, mines and energy under its umbrella.

The President still has to translate his vision into policies, but for all her concerns at dealing with an intransigent bureaucracy, the hard-charging entrepreneur I have come to know as the Fish Lady will not be shying away from the challenge.

Back in late 2003, I drove 10 hours to the coastal town of Pangandaran to meet the little- known woman who had once roped down into Sumatran caves in search of swallow nests and was now buying a Cessna Caravan to fly fresh fish and live lobsters to Jakarta and onward to Japan.

She had worked hard to get there. Her modern, newly established processing facility was being supplied by Pangandaran's 200 small-boat fishermen. No trawlers here. Ms Susi, I soon discovered, was as passionate about helping small fishermen as she was about growing her business.

Then, when the Aceh tsunami struck in December 2004, Ms Susi and her husband Christian flew their new aircraft to northern Sumatra to help out with relief operations, initially at their own considerable expense. With international aid agencies pouring in, the rest, as they say, is history.

Today, SusiAir's 50 light aircraft, including 32 Cessna Caravans and nine Pilatus Porters, operate out of 23 bases, more than half of them strung across Sumatra and Papua. They are flown by 180 pilots from two dozen countries, supported by a 720-strong ground staff.

Still, Ms Susi's heart belongs to the sea and it is there she will have to focus for the next five years, working with colleagues like Transport Minister Ignasius Jonan, 51, who transformed the state-owned Kereta Api railway and now will have to turn much of his attention to ports and shipping.

A graduate of the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy, Mr Jonan may have received a far better formal education than Ms

Susi, but he has the same urge to get things done and make a difference. He might also benefit greatly from her knowledge of the aviation industry.

Mines and Energy Minister Sudirman Said, 51, an anti-corruption campaigner and director of the state-owned PT Pindad arms factory, is a former Pertamina oil company corporate secretary.

He was also deputy to the widely respected Kuntoro Mangkusubroto when he led the Nias-Aceh Reconstruction Agency (BRR). They spent US$7 billion without a hint of graft and Mr Said has already made it clear he expects the same at the ministry.

Coming together in the same Cabinet and under the same organisational roof has now brought Ms Susi and Mr Said full circle.

"I'm not an expert and I'm not an academic," she told her staff on her first day in office. "I just want to work fast, finish fast and get a good result."