22 February, 2017

Can the President’s Chosen Man Rise to the Occasion?


Arcandra Tahar shares his views on Indonesia’s challenges in the energy and mineral resources sector.

Technological Needs

With some 20 years of experience in the oil and gas industry and various engineering patents under his name, it is no secret that Arcandra brings with him a wealth of technological experience. “Whoever has more advanced technology in the oil and gas industry will lead the competition. Whoever owns the technology will determine the market price.”

To Arcandra, all business actors in the oil and gas industry require technology and innovation to compete. For the Indonesian government, its role is to stay abreast of technological developments and ensure these technologies are brought into Indonesia. “We need to be a smart regulator. In fact, smarter, to be able to determine if the necessary technology can be imported at a good price,” he notes.

“The oil and gas industry is a game with rules. To work, technology must come first, followed by commercial enthusiasm, and political will. If we know the technology, we will get a head start, we will understand whether the price point is proper, and the profits, realisable or not,” he explains.

Manpower Constraints

One thing that holds back Indonesia’s technological needs is manpower constraints. “Indonesia needs more Indonesian experts — many of whom may be living overseas — to return home to participate in building the oil and gas sector”, he opines. He recalled that qualified Indonesian living abroad were called upon to return to build the country during Suharto’s presidency. Arcandra remembers that one of them was BJ Habibie, an expert in aircraft manufacturing, who later became Indonesia’s third President.

Post-Suharto, however, the choppy transition to a democratic system — and the frequent political bickering that comes with it — has made Indonesians living overseas think twice about returning. Political affiliations, social media reprisals, the ever-changing political landscape, and with it, flip-flopping government policies, have made it difficult to attract talented Indonesians to return.

Arcandra knows this all too well; he himself removed from office less than three weeks after being appointed. The challenges are more than personal. His team of expert staff who gave up their careers to assist him face the same predicament too.

The Need for Bureaucratic Revamp

A big challenge for Arcandra is bureaucratic inflexibility. He describes it as the big old trucks that he saw in Indonesia during his childhood which uses a manual starter and requires a long time to start.

Acknowledging the problem, Arcandra says, “We have many old machines, and not enough new innovations. If we must revamp, we must start from the inside.”

He waxes lyrical about the country’s lack of transparency and the time taken in business processes. “The most crucial thing for reforms is speed. It must be fast. It must also be transparent so that our business partners do not feel like they are walking in the dark,” he points out.

Arcandra recalls his experience of processing patents for his inventions in the US. “I was in Houston, the US Patent and Trademark Office is in Virgina. I’ve never met any of the officials during this application process — it was fully online! We need to build such a system for Indonesia. It’s hard, but it’s possible.”

In 2017, the ministry plans to accelerate energy projects, including the ambitious 35,000-megawatt electricity generation goal and distribution of electricity to 2,500 villages.

“We must speed up the time frame that is needed by investors to make decision without forgetting the quality. For that, we need to nurture a strong and efficient bureaucracy.”

The Chosen Man

The challenges are plenty, and the solutions, found wanting. Whether or not Jokowi’s ambitious economic growth plans can be realised, or the much vaunted energy sovereignty be achieved, it hinges heavily on the efforts of men like Arcandra. “The President wants everything to be fast; those things that have been started must be accelerated, and those that are already accelerated must be sped up more,” he quips. Every effort must be exhausted.”

Even with his reappointment, the controversy surrounding his first dismissal have not subsided. In a country where gossip is the national pastime, it remains a topic of considerable interest. Political watchers in Indonesia and abroad have greeted his reappointment with scepticism, adopting a wait-and-see attitude. For a government to have had two cabinet reshuffles in less than two years, his position is far from secured. The President has made it clear that underperforming ministers will not be spared. With a controversy on his mind and the axe hanging over his head, Arcandra’s position is an unenviable one.

Yet, it has done little to dampen Arcandra’s resolve. It was the same resolve to do something for their country that brought pioneers like BJ Habibie back to Indonesia. At this historical crossroads, when Indonesia faces huge headwinds, Arcandra has made his decision to join his predecessors in nation-building. He has chosen to give up a rewarding private sector career and a comfortable life in US to serve his country. “Only with time will we know if I would give up or not. At the very least, I returned and I tried, Arcandra says. “It’s a priceless experience that I can tell my grandchildren about.”

The President has chosen his man. As the man of the hour, it is up to Arcandra to prove his worth.