Newsmaker Interview: Gita Wirjawan

The former trade minister and aspiring political leader explains what his priorities would be if voters swept him to the Presidential Palace

By AmCham Correspondent
Wednesday, March 12, 2014

When Trade Minister Gita Wirjawan quit President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono’s cabinet in late January to concentrate on securing the Democratic Party’s nomination for president, it ended one of the worst kept secrets in Indonesian politics. 

There are those who question the political neophyte’s ambitions for the top office, saying he lacks grassroots support, and analysts point out that while he may once have seemed to be Yudhoyono’s hand-picked successor, he now seems to have fallen down the pecking order in favor of former army chief Pramono Edhie Wibowo, the president’s brother-in-law.

But while there are those who question his political currency, there’s no doubting his skills and popularity as a very successful businessman.

The avid golfer and jazz lover held high-ranking positions as an investment banker with JP Morgan and Goldman Sachs, before he established his own business, the successful private equity fund Ancora Capital.  He then moved to government, serving as Chairman of the Indonesia Investment Coordinating Board (BKPM) in Yudhoyono’s second government, from October 2009 until he moved to the trade post in June 2012. 

The 48-year-old Harvard graduate was a star as head of BKPM, with an aide from that time telling AmCham that Gita was overwhelmed with requests to appear at conferences, hold seminars and the like.

“Everyone wanted a piece of Pak Gita,” she said.

So why did the wealthy and popular businessman put his head above the parapet and become involved in politics, first as a minister, and now as a man who wants to be president?

“I do have two things that other politicians may not have. I don’t have political baggage and debts to anyone, because I was not previously a party member,” said Gita in an interview with AmCham in late February.

“I could have lived peacefully and enjoyed my life as a businessman, but I have the same interest as you do: to make sure we have a better future.”

Below are excerpts from the interview:

AmCham: It has been suggested that you resigned from your cabinet position to bolster your popularity and win the Democratic Party convention?

Gita Wirjawan:
Not at all. I proposed my intention to resign last year when I declared that I would join the convention. At that time, Mr. President [Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono] did not approve it. I could see the reason why. I had so much homework to complete. There was the World Trade Organization [Ministerial Conference] and the Trade Law had not yet been approved [by the House of Representatives]. Thank God both were completed well. 

[Editor’s note: As Trade Minister, Gita was the chair of the Ninth World Trade Organization Ministerial Conference that was held in Bali [Dec. 3-7, 2013]. At this conference, 159 members of the WTO agreed to a package to ease international trade barriers. His trade ministry also spearheaded the draft of the Trade Law, which was finally passed by the House of Representatives on Feb. 11, a new milestone for the country after 80 years of using the previous Dutch-era law.]

What do you think your successes were while you were trade minister?

Well, the Trade Law is a milestone. It also countered the accusations that I am a neo-liberalist, and pro foreigners. All my policies have been pro domestic industry.

For a while you were seen as President Yudhoyono’s chosen successor. Is that still the case?

The first time I was asked, I refused. After several requests, I was asked directly by Pak SBY, and I finally accepted, but only if my family, my wife and children, approved. It took some time before they all approved my decision.

So the president supports you?

Yes, at that time, I accepted his request with an open heart. At the same time, I told him that if I kept holding my position at that time [trade minister] it would create a perception of a conflict of interest. 

What kind of voters would you expect to choose you? You are relatively new in the political arena.

I can see that the number of non-voters is pretty big. Mostly they come from the youth. I feel like there is a need to provide them with alternative leaders from the younger generation. Secondly, he [Yudhoyono] also felt that in the future, a leader must understand about the economy. It has to be someone who understands how to bring food to the people’s table. Also, I felt that the leader figure must also be accepted in the international community, not only at home.

But you don’t have massive grassroots support, compared to, say, the popular Jokowi and other senior politicians.

Well, yes, it is lacking. I cannot deny that I am new to politics. But more [people] know me now. I have been politically active ever since [I resigned]. I meet the young people. Just this morning, I gave a general lecture on a campus. I always tell them don’t become a non-voter, otherwise you will regret it when you have leaders you don’t want. 
I have also been meeting farmers, small and medium entrepreneurs. I have been busy from dawn until nighttime. But most importantly, I try my best, I pray, whatever the outcome, I will take it whole-heartedly. 

But what about Pramono Edhie, he seems to have stronger support from the Yudhoyono family, especially from First Lady Ibu Ani?

If you have a brother-in-law, for example, wanting to work in your company, and he has the qualifications, would you say no to him? Well, in my opinion, the tougher the competition, the better the quality of the winner of the convention. 

So when will the outcome of the convention be announced?

The end of April, after the legislative elections.

Your party has been rocked by various graft scandals, such as Angelina Sondakh and Muhammad Nazaruddin. How would you convince people to keep faith in your party?

Well, yes, there were some shocking scandals. But look at the bigger picture. The Democratic Party is the only party that has been willing to let go of its cadres if they are implicated in corruption. As a matter of fact, the number of cadres caught in corruption is less compared to other parties. I have seen other parties so defensive in protecting their cadres. We don’t do that.

Your slogan… ‘Gita dares to be better.’ What does it mean?

It means, whatever our condition, we have to dare to be confident. We have to be able to show the world what we can do, tackling whatever challenges we have. 

Would you accept the No. 2 position as Vice President?

[Silent for a while] Again, whatever the outcome, I will accept it whole-heartedly, but let’s see the outcome of the legislative elections. 

Back to corruption, what will you do if you are president? What concrete efforts would you take to tackle it?

A leader must lead by example. He or she has to dare to be firm in pushing to increase the number of investigators in the KPK [the Corruption Eradication Commission]. I want KPK investigators to be boosted from around 100 to 4,500, so the ratio of investigators to civil servants becomes one against 1,000, not one against 45,000. In Hong Kong, the ratio is 1:200. That’s my promise, I will increase KPK investigators; I am the first candidate to come out with that notion.
I also plan to establish a KPK office in every province of Indonesia so the outreach can go deeper into the regions. 

What other priorities will you have if you are president?

If I am allowed to lead, I will initiate agrarian reform, because it is vital that a nation as big as Indonesia has food security. It is the baseline that we have never had all this time. There should be dedicated land that can be managed by farmers, their children and grandchildren, without one day being converted into shopping malls, a golf course or whatever. 
There should be a minimum allocation of land for farming, whether 20 million or 30 million hectares, so that we can ensure that in the next 100 years, we have enough food. We don’t need to import foodstuffs like we do now if we can provide for our own needs.

On economic development, what is your priority?

A leader must also dare to have an agenda to boost infrastructure spending to 3-4 percent of our gross domestic product (GDP). Nowadays, it hovers at around 0.6 percent. We must also be able to create a blueprint for our industrial development, so that we can be a producer nation. For agriculture, we have to be able to be self-sufficient. Why do we have to import garlic? That’s silly. We also need to be able to produce our own meat needs. 
But I want to highlight my definition of nationalism. People tend to get the meaning wrong. Nationalism should not mean nationalizing assets. It should mean that people are proud that the cost of basic needs is affordable in the country, the cost of education is affordable, the cost of public transportation is affordable.

You once mentioned in the local media about giving an amnesty to tax offenders? Can you explain that?

Well, the reality is this: entrepreneurs who can get away with not paying taxes have mastered how the system works. I believe deep inside their hearts, they care what will happen to their descendants, their children and grandchildren. I believe if we give a tax amnesty, many will turn up. 
I am sure they don’t want a future president to scrutinize their children. I must highlight, though, that the amnesty will be given only if there is no criminal act involved. 

If there is additional tax income from this policy, I can reduce income tax rates. The 30 percent individual income tax, I will reduce to 20 percent. Corporate income tax, now 25 percent, I will reduce to less than 20 percent. For listed companies, now 20 percent, I will reduce it to 15 percent. It has been shown that that the lower the tax rate tax is, the bigger the taxpayer will be. That means higher tax revenue. With this we can disburse more funds for education, corruption eradication, infrastructure, even for upgrading Alutsista [primary defense system]. 
Nowadays, there are about 20 million registered taxpayers, roughly 18 million individual taxpayers and around two million corporations. If we can boost that number to 40 million, that will be superb. 

You once talked of appointing technocrats as your ministers…

Yes, indeed. If I am the leader, I want to place more professionals, technocrats, as many as possible, in the cabinet, especially to handle the economy. 

Alutsista, the primary defense system, that’s interesting. Why do you care about Alutsista?

Our Alutsista is outdated. When you talk about the sovereignty of the Republic of Indonesia, in the end there must be equipment that can protect our borders, right? Our soldiers must be able to protect us from outside invaders, right? This all needs, not only the budget, but also affirmation from our leaders that we don’t play games with this kind of thing.

You care that much?

I assure you. I would not tolerate anything that creates worry. Things like religious intolerance, I’m strongly against it. I don’t want to see any more cases like the Yasmin church [the Protestant church in Bogor that has been denied the right to build a place of worship by the city since 2010]. We have to fully respect religious freedom. From what I can see, the Yasmin case is not about the fact that we don’t have proper laws to regulate that kind of thing. It is just a matter of enforcement and the supremacy of law. We have seen too many religious conflicts that are not good for our country’s development.

Sovereignty for me also means that the people feel secure and peaceful. When their kids go out for school, nobody will throw stones at them.

You have many plans. But how do you finance your campaign?

[laughing] Want to donate? I will give you my BCA account. But my answer is that it mostly comes from my personal pocket.

Your fellow businessmen and relatives give donations?

Very limited. I have always been transparent. I am the first [Democratic Party presidential candidate] that has reported my wealth to the KPK.

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