Jokowi's much hated and loved Covid-19 frontman – General Luhut: Jakarta Post columnist

JAKARTA (THE JAKARTA POST/ASIA NEWS NETWORK) – For many Indonesians, especially government critics, Minister Luhut Pandjaitan is regarded as a troublemaker, while for government supporters he is very much a troubleshooter in the war on Covid-19.

One thing that is for sure, however, is that he acts on behalf of his boss, President Joko “Jokowi” Widodo, who often chooses to play it safe when it comes to unpopular policies.

The 72-year-old former general, one of the few retired generals to have succeeded in building up a business empire, has always played the role of an all-out “crusader” for President Jokowi.

Mr Luhut dares to take the risks, and certainly we will gain from his bravery if he is successful. But what is really his main motive in serving the government? Financial reward? Power?

Jakarta Governor Anies Baswedan, West Java Governor Ridwan Kamil and Banten Governor Wahidin Halim were upset by Luhut’s blunt rejection of their demand for a complete halt to the commuter line (KCI) rail service as part of the implementation of the largescale social restrictions (PSBB) enforced in Greater Jakarta.

In his capacity as acting transportation minister, Mr Luhut, the coordinating maritime affairs and investment minister, insisted on allowing the commuter train service to operate as many still have to commute to make ends meet, regardless of the risk of contracting or transmitting the virus.

Previously, Mr Luhut vetoed the decision of Health Minister Terawan Agus Putranto, another retired Army general, to ban the operation of ojol (ride hailing app) drivers, to protect the interests of the millions of drivers.

Only after mounting public outcry did Mr Luhut back down by allowing regional governments to make their own decision.

The presidential election has long passed, but for die-hard supporters of President Jokowi’s erstwhile rival Prabowo Subianto, Mr Luhut remains public enemy number one.

They see Mr Luhut as a power-hungry Christian general who is accumulating wealth for himself by facilitating the Chinese government and investors.

They regard Mr Luhut as playing “prime minister”, or the minister of all affairs in Mr Joko’s Cabinet.

For Mr Joko’s zealous fans, however, Mr Luhut’s presence in the Cabinet is essential as the only person in President Jokowi’s team capable of counterbalancing Mr Prabowo, now President Jokowi’s defence minister.

Cynics even called Mr Luhut a “Chinese puppet” when he asked Beijing to provide medical kit and medicines urgently needed by Indonesia in battling Covid-19.

His advice that the government should prioritise economic relations with China when the two countries were at loggerheads over clashes in the North Natuna Sea was seen as evidence of a hidden agenda to benefit his businesses.

Nevertheless China is Indonesia’s most important and most readily available partner in terms of investment, trade and long-term loans. Like many people of Batak ethnicity, Mr Luhut is often just too frank in his statements.

Obviously Mr Luhut has received the full backing of President Jokowi, who has resisted a lockdown as a policy measure in response to the pandemic, citing the severe economic, social and security repercussions that may entail.

Mr Luhut accepts the abuse directed at him, especially on social media, because for him it is President Jokowi’s trust that matters.

Mr Joko relies on him because of his age, experience and perhaps because he is a member of a minority community in this country.

Mr Luhut spent much of his highflying career in the Army’s Special Forces (Kopassus), but never reached the top Army post during former president Suharto’s 32-year rule.

Only after Mr Suharto stepped down, did Mr Luhut stand a chance of taking on top civilian posts.

Mr Suharto’s successor, BJ Habibie, named Mr Luhut his envoy to Singapore to restore the relationship with the island state following the president’s anti-Singapore remarks.

Then the country’s fourth president Abdurrahman “Gus Dur” Wahid appointed Mr Luhut trade minister.

I remember how Mr Luhut phoned me in anger when I wrote in this newspaper that he had strongly urged then-president Megawati Soekarnoputri to keep him in the Cabinet after she replaced Gus Dur in 2001. Ms Megawati replaced Mr Luhut anyway.

Like Mr Luhut, I am a Christian and of Batak ethnicity. You may be a great admirer of Mr Luhut, an uncompromising hater of him, or something in between. But you all may agree that Mr Luhut built a powerful business empire before he joined President Jokowi’s Cabinet in 2014.

He founded the widely diversified Toba Sejahtra group. According to Bisnis Indonesia, the holding company’s businesses cover coal mining, oil and gas, power, plantations and forestry, industry, property and infrastructure.

I think all of his business activities began after the fall of Suharto in May 1998. The financial crisis forced many conglomerates to sell or entrust their assets to powerful people, including senior military officers like Mr Luhut.

I am neither a big fan nor a hater of Mr Luhut. In my view, his biggest motivation to serve the government is to demonstrate a “moment of truth”.

He could not fulfil his ambition in the military, but he could hope to enter the history books as an officer and a gentleman. He may also want to promote Christians and other minority groups in playing a more crucial role or holding key posts, given that the Constitution mandates a level playing field for all citizens.

I think he can focus on government affairs because his business empire is already solid and needs no protection from the state.

Am I right? Are the suspicions about him baseless? Let us wait until history has finished writing about Luhut Pandjaitan.

The writer is a columnist with the paper. The Jakarta Post is a member of The Straits Times media partner Asia News Network, an alliance of 24 news media organisations.

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