Dec 07, 2023 Last Updated 1:42 AM, Dec 7, 2023

Clash of interests

Published: Sep 30, 2007

Tension within Cabinet has once again become public. But while many see it as a religious clash, the more serious conflict, writes GERRY VAN KLINKEN, is over the protection of special business interests.

Gerry van Klinken

'The President has a clear direction. But communication between remaining members of Cabinet is strained. As a result there is a great deal of anxiety in society because of the behaviour of these national leaders.' Blunt language from Population and Environment Minister Sarwono Kusumaatmadja last November, that earned him a Presidential reprimand. 'In Cabinet', he went on, 'more and more people, I'm sorry to be so direct, are talking nonsense. I'm just anxious about this Cabinet. Because some of the problems occurring now were created by them.'

No one likes conflict at an elite level, yet it is normal. Some features of elite conflict in Indonesia have been well-known for decades. The Presidential Palace and Armed Forces Headquarters have been on a tense footing since the early years of independence. Economic nationalists who favour protectionism have been in conflict with US-educated free-trade technocrats since early in the New Order. Different ways of being Islamic have also long been an important source of conflict.

The question is, does high level conflict merely paralyse government, as Sarwono feared, or can it be creative? The answer depends on what kind it is. Mere jockeying for power and privilege, without reference to the wider society, surely has little meaning. But if each contestant represents some larger group, the outcome becomes more engrossing, because it opens up new possibilities.

Popular factions

Many observers in the past have seen nothing but jockeying at the top of Jakarta's elite. However, that period seems to be over. Today, factions within Cabinet are each building popular followings, at least among the professional middle classes. The politicisation of Cabinet became an accepted fact in mid-1994, when one faction used the printed media to press an attack on the other. This was the real reason for the banning of those media that had taken up the cudgel.

However, banning news magazines could not eliminate the conflict, and late last year it broke out again. Yet the substance of the argument remains clouded. The Minister for Research and Technology heads a powerful Islamic group. The Minister for Defence publicly supports a rival group of secular intellectuals. Neither group has any particular relation to Research or to Defence. Covering conflicts of interest with a veil of religious difference hardly makes the issue more transparent.


Since its birth in 1990 the Indonesian Muslim Intellectuals Association ICMI has become an important point of contact between sections of the government and somewhat estranged Muslim professionals. The government's key figure in this is Prof. B. J. Habibie, dynamic German-educated chief of Indonesia's state-owned high tech industrial complex. Though it lacks contact with Indonesia's rural Islamic masses, ICMI resembles a nascent political party. Its newspaper Republika is a quality daily. It has the support of respected opinion-makers, who enthuse about Habibie as possible Vice President.

ICMI's influence within Cabinet is considerable. Habibie's closest proteges are Transport Minister Haryanto Dhanutirto, Education Minister Wardiman Djojonegoro, and Trade Minister Satrio 'Billy' Joedono. On the same side of politics are Information Minister and Golkar Chairman Harmoko, Interior Minister Yogie S. Memet, and Religious Affairs Minister Armizi Taher. Within the Armed Forces (Abri), there are Army Chief of Staff Gen. R. Hartono, and Armed Forces Commander Gen. Feisal Tanjung. President Suharto sponsored ICMI to build support against disloyal sentiments within Abri. His wealthy daughter Siti Hardiyanti Rukmana ('Tutut') is its contact with the Palace.

The other side

In tension with this cluster is a less clearly defined group, in which Defence Minister Edi Sudradjat plays an important role. Resentment against 'interference' from the Palace has always run strong among soldiers, as has feeling against Islamic 'extremism'. This translates to a degree of anti-Suharto, anti-Habibie, and anti-ICMI feeling within the Armed Forces.

The President has done much to keep Abri off balance. A remarkable series of senior officer transfers last year and this aimed to prevent dissatisfaction from coalescing into open dissent. The hidden hand threw out the timing of Abri's own delicate promotions system, and left three generals without a job in March. Abri parliamentary spokesperson Theo Syafei quickly blamed this embarrassing incident on 'outside interference'. However, Edi Sudradjat is thought to remain responsive to the kind of sentiment Suharto distrusts.

Sudradjat turns up at meetings of people who do not want to identify with ICMI. Some groups were still-born. But the latest, YKPK, established in October, attracted a variety of prominent persons. It held a large public seminar in January despite local police opposition. The group includes retired military officers who can afford to be open about the wrongs in today's Indonesia, but also well-known intellectuals. Furthermore, Sudradjat is thought to support Abdurrahman Wahid, embattled chairman of the large rural Islamic group Nahdatul Ulama. Wahid has refused to join ICMI, and is close to the popular pro-democracy movement.

Often mentioned in one breath with Edi Sudradjat are Population and Environment Minister Sarwono Kusumaatmadja, and Transmigration Minister Siswono Yudohusodo. All three are relatively liberal in political outlook. Secretary of State Moerdiono, perhaps unfairly, is also sometimes linked with the same group. Moerdiono is Suharto's closest colleague in Cabinet, and has been described as the nearest thing Indonesia has to a Prime Minister.

ICMI and possibly YKPK are emerging as de facto political parties. Their access to executive power could make them more effective than the 'real' parties. They are building legitimacy with certain sectors of the middle class public. On the down-side, they also tend to resemble distributors of political largesse rather than ideological platforms. However, patronage has always been a feature of political parties in Indonesia.

The corruption weapon

An important weapon in elite conflict is the corruption allegation. In 1994 the targets were the top bureaucrats Sudomo and Sumarlin, former Cabinet Ministers and both non-ICMI. They were accused of involvement in the sordid Eddy Tansil banking scandal. Tansil was jailed for 20 years, but Sudomo and Sumarlin retained their jobs.

Late last year an allegation erupted against Haryanto Dhanutirto, Minister for Transport and a leader of ICMI. Some saw in this a political tit-for-tat. Back in October the powerful Inspector-General for Development, former Major-General Kentot Harseno, issued the first of three secret memos detailing financial misconduct in the office of the Transport Minister amounting to over A$5 million. Two memos followed in early November, with the result that President Suharto quietly told Haryanto to 'be introspective'. But in mid-December someone leaked the memos to parliament and the press, forcing Secretary of State Moerdiono to make a public statement. Some of the charges against Haryanto were wrong, he said, while others were correct.

The revelations triggered student demonstrations urging Haryanto to resign. But they also triggered a vigorous defence of Haryanto by ICMI's daily Republika. Haryanto was portrayed as the victim of a smear campaign. The real issue, Republika proclaimed, was not Haryanto but the unknown person who had leaked the damaging documents to the press. Evidently that person was either former Jakarta Military Area Commander Kentot Harseno himself or Moerdiono, both sharply at odds with Habibie. Public anger now flowed away from Haryanto and focussed on the possibly subversive leakage of state secrets. What ought to have been an issue of clean government, became one of loyalty to some faction within the government. President Suharto had in any case declared late in December that Haryanto's problem was cleared and the case closed.

Indeed the polemics contained in the official memos themselves carried hallmarks of a factional campaign. Anonymous Internet news service Pipa said an important link in the leak was Bambang Wiwoho, a journalist with many political connections, among them Abri's intelligence service Bakin. The amount in question was not large. Rumours of ill-gotten wealth afflict so many Cabinet Ministers that the press prefer to talk instead about the much shorter list of 'Mr. Cleans'. Some asked why Haryanto should have been singled out at all.


A few days before the memos about Haryanto became public, an even greater event shook the Cabinet. This also touched ICMI. Just the day before the commencement of ICMI's five-yearly congress, the President dismissed (honourably) a prominent ICMI member from his Cabinet. There had often been public pressure for Ministers to resign, invariably to no avail. This was the first time Suharto had ever sacked a Minister, and it happened without a hint of public pressure. Trade Minister Billy Joedono was one of Habibie's core of three ICMI colleagues in Cabinet.

The dismissal confused a lot of ICMI supporters, who wondered if their political fortunes were now once again in decline. Confused they may well have been, for the real conflict lay elsewhere. Cutting across attempts to build alliances with the public on religious matters was a much hotter issue. If ICMI and YKPK are (superficially) about religious differences, this was about state protection of special business interests. The real reason for Joedono's dismissal had nothing to do with ICMI.


When Joedono got his marching orders early December, his Trade Ministry was brought under the control of Industry Minister Tunky Ariwibowo, who thus markedly expanded his powers. The Trade Ministry is Indonesia's big salesman overseas, and under Joedono exports had languished. For that reason many accepted the official line that simplification and streamlining would benefit foreign trade. Like Japan's MITI, they hoped it might make Indonesian exports more competitive.

But there is another side to this story. Ariwibowo is known in Jakarta as a favourite of Indonesia's powerful conglomerates. The academically inclined Joedono, by contrast, was known as a Mr. Clean, a man who lacked 'flexibility' and resolutely returned fat cheques given to him as sweeteners.

Within three months of accepting the appointment, Ariwibowo shocked the Jakarta business establishment with two announcements. One gave special protection to a new car assembly plant to be built by President Suharto's son Tommy. The other gave special protection to a huge petrochemical plant called Chandra Asri partly owned by President Suharto's other son, Bambang Trihatmodjo. The Chandra Asri cave-in followed a year of repeated refusals by the government to consider its pleas for assistance.

Bourgeois dissatisfaction

Both announcements caused pained reactions in business circles. They suggested there was another line of cleavage within the Cabinet, namely between those who want to protect Indonesian industry and commerce from the harsh world outside, and those who want free trade. Protectionism always finds much nationalist support in Indonesia. There are valid arguments for it. However, it was now distressingly clear that protection had favoured First Family businesses at the expense of many others.

Nepotism of this kind has the potential to undo any bridge- building of recent years between the Palace and the professional community. However, it remains to be seen whether this source of bourgeois dissatisfaction, so explosive yet so potentially creative, will find a way of lining up with the better known splits: between the Palace and Abri Headquarters, or between ICMI and some version of the YKPK. The main Cabinet opponent of protectionism is Finance Minister Mar'ie Muhammad. Mar'ie, known to be above corruption, has not attempted to build a popular following, although many think he will leak sensitive economic information to the press to help tip a public argument.

Gerry van Klinken is the editor of Inside Indonesia.

Inside Indonesia 46: Mar 1996

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