By: Karim Raslan
The decentralization of government has been a blessing to Indonesia. It has not only given people in far-flung parts a say in their affairs, but also talented individuals a chance to rise.
Five years ago, I remember asking the then-political analyst Bima Arya from Indonesia what he really wanted to be. At the time, we were sitting in his swish political consultancy office in Kebayoran Baru, surrounded by all the latest technology for monitoring, gauging and displaying political trends.
His answer surprised me: “I just want to be mayor of Bogor, my hometown.”
Well, a few weeks ago, Bima achieved his ambition, winning Bogor’s mayoral election – albeit by a narrow margin.
His city is a small if historic and charming community to the south of Jakarta, with a population of just under a million.
Along with Tangerang, Depok and Bekasi, it’s part of around 28 million strong urban sprawl that constitutes “Jabodetabek”.
Under Indonesia’s policy of decentralization, mayors like Bima have been given greater power and responsibility. They were once appointed directly by Jakarta (doesn’t that sound familiar?) – now they’re directly elected.
At the same time, control over regional revenues and lawmaking have been handed back to local government.
Just down the road from Bogor, in the province of Banten (with a population of nine million) there’s a major controversy raging over a governor whose family is alleged to have attempted to bribe a senior member of the judiciary as well as misappropriate enormous amounts of local development funds.
But overall, decentralization has been a blessing to Indonesia. It’s not only given people in its far-flung parts a say in their affairs, but also given talented individuals like Bima a chance to rise.
Bogor has a certain glamour, despite its current grime and crazy traffic-clogged streets.
Under the Dutch it was called Buitenzorg, serving as a summer retreat for the governor-general of the Dutch East Indies. Today, it’s still home to one of the presidential palaces as well as a world famous Botanical Garden.
However, for Bima, today’s Bogor is a travesty. For him, the city is a shadow of its former self compared to its glory days – the 1980s.
Back then, Bogor was the cleanest of Indonesia’s cities and a major tourism destination. In fact, the city even hosted international events such as Indonesia’s first APEC (Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation) summit in 1994.
Bima is a very smart man. Picking up very quickly on the key trends that have swept Indo-nesian public life post — “Jokowi” — and the emphasis on government services and congestion, he knows that addressing these challenges head-on will pay major dividends for him in his career.
Bima talks about re-branding Bogor. He wants to bring together experts, academics and non-government organisations to revise planning regulations and formulate a long-term development plan for the city. Should he succeed, the sky will be the limit for him.
In hindsight, Bima’s plans for Bogor have some relevance for us. Our key cities are also hotly contested politically. Whilst Pakatan holds the edge with urban Malaysia, Barisan shouldn’t give up hope.
To my mind, the key lies in serving urban Malaysians and thereby winning their hearts and minds. Publicity stunts alone won’t suffice.
As I’ve argued time and again, Malaysia needs to have a third tier of elected officials — mayors and district officers. The current practice of appointing officials means that they are often insufficiently rooted in the community.
Moreover, the introduction of the electoral process means you would be able to vote out corrupt and/or under-performing officials.
Despite not enjoying the glamour of state and national politics, municipal governance deals with real issues that affect the people and we need more leaders who are not afraid to start small.
Indeed, experience at the third level of government means that politicians would then understand their societies from ground up rather than top-down.
With a new energetic and ambitious mayor, Bogor is set for an exciting transformation ranging from better public transport, more adequate facilities for street vendors and efficient public services.
Of course, were Pak Bima to fail in terms of delivery, the residents of Bogor could just vote him out!
We ironically, need more politics in our lives, not less and an empowered, directly-elected local government is crucial to raising the government’s performance in terms of delivery.
Footnote: This opinion article has been displayed in an online newspaper, The Jakarta Post, in Jakarta, Indonesia, on Tuesday, 29th October 2013. Full and original article are also able to be searched at: http://www.thejakartapost.com/news/2013/10/29/indonesia-shows-way.html [accessed in Vijaya Kusuma, Cipadung, Bandung: 30th October 2013].
The author is a journalist at The Star inPetaling Jaya, Kula Lumpur, Malaysia.