A Loose Cannon in the Indonesian Cabinet

By Kanupriya Kapoor & Randy Farbi 10 September 2015

JAKARTA — As Indonesian President Joko Widodo was preparing on Wednesday to present a grand package of measures aimed at restoring investors’ faith in the competence of his government, one of his ministers stepped in and spoilt it all.

Rizal Ramli, who told Reuters this week that perhaps he is too outspoken, suddenly announced in parliament that fuel pipeline and storage projects worth US$7.4 billion had been dropped because they were no longer a priority.

Within hours, the cabinet secretary had contradicted him, reinforcing an impression that Widodo’s ministers are out of tune with each other and unable to sound united on policy.

Ramli, 60, is no faint-heart: as a student, he was jailed for leading a rally against authoritarian leader Suharto.

“Wherever I go I change the system. I’m a transformer,” he said in an interview on Sunday at his house in South Jakarta, where a large bust of Albert Einstein sits at the entrance.

“But there are so many people who don’t like me because I’m too candid. I say what is on my mind,” he said.

Widodo brought Ramli in as one of six new cabinet ministers last month, hoping to streamline a muddled policymaking process after disappointing many who saw his election last year as a chance to break from a succession of feckless governments.

But Ramli has only caused more confusion since he took the portfolios of maritime affairs and resources.

First, he drew a rare rebuke from Widodo, who told him to voice his concerns privately after he had openly criticized Vice President Jusuf Kalla.

He also denounced plans by national airline PT Garuda Indonesia Tbk to buy 30 Airbus jets with $44.5 billion in loans: the state-owned enterprises minister told him to back off.

Then, this week, he threw into doubt the president’s signature $73 billion plan to give the country an additional 35,000 megawatts of power capacity within five years, saying that less than half of the target could be achieved by 2019.

The oil minister, who reports to Ramli, subsequently said there would be no change to the programme. Again, on this issue, he locked horns with the vice president.

Warfare Within

“Ramli likes making a racket,” vice presidential spokesman Husain Abdullah said. “Rather than helping the government, he makes things more complicated.”

Ramli, who holds a doctorate from Boston University and was twice a minister under a former president, is known for strident and often nationalistic views on the economy—though he insists that he is no enemy of the financial markets.

Seen as close to Luhut Pandjaitan, one of Widodo’s key advisers, he was handed one of the most powerful positions in the cabinet that bundled under him the ministries of energy, transport and tourism.

Explaining himself in parliament on Wednesday, Ramli said that his “noise” was not intended to unsettle investors, who in fact prefer openness to a pretence of harmony that disguises corruption, collusion and nepotism.

However, the Jakarta-based Concord Consulting Group said the outspoken minister had brought open warfare into the heart of Widodo’s administration that may be difficult to root out.

“Unless he is prepared to lose a great deal of face, the president is unlikely to dump a senior minister he appointed only a few weeks ago,” it said.