I would have been glued to the TV if I had the opportunity, especially when it came to waiting for the important news: Mustafa Abubakar, the State Enterprises Minister was sick from heart disease, and the question lingered: Who would replace him? I had a gut feeling that my former journalist boss Dahlan Iskan would, and believed that a professional should be at the helm at the ministry.
By the time President Yudhoyono called the new minister candidates to the state palace for an audience, I noticed Dahlan walking to the palace sporting sneakers, wearing a white shirt and carrying a folder.
I believed that my expectations would come true (my friend, however, was betting on Gita Wiryawan to replace Mustafa). But at 8 p.m. on Oct. 18, the president announced the names of the new cabinet members, including Dahlan.
The next day in a cafe in Kuningan, I waited for the right moment to call my former boss after his inauguration. Gadzooks! I got him just the way I got him on Dec. 31, 2009, the very first day he stepped foot into his new office as chief executive of the state electricity company, PLN, at Jalan Trunojoyo in South Jakarta. His first order of business was to give me a special interview.
Dahlan spoke to me on the phone the first moment he was free — he knew that if I called, I would quote him in an English-language publication.
“What I want to do first is reduce ministerial intervention on state enterprises to give more freedom and authority to the CEOs to carry out corporate actions,” he said.
He also spoke on other issues, including his health, and had a very clever answer to the question of whether he would refuse a ministerial car, housing, special assistants and bodyguards, saying: “As a journalist, you’ve got to be down to earth and I don’t want to lose my sensitivity for others — especially the less represented and underprivileged.”
I knew Dahlan since the old Merdeka newspaper days. In the early 1990s, my senior boss and mentor, the late Burhanuddin Muhammad Diah, named Dahlan as his successor to struggle for press freedom, and the fighting spirit of journalists played a role in promoting democracy and social development. Diah also knew that Dahlan was among the few journalists who also had the entrepreneurship spirit.
And Dahlan was successful all the way. He built the Jawa Pos group to become the largest newspaper empire sprawling all over Indonesia. He also established the nation’s most influential political newspaper, Rakyat Merdeka, a successful local television station, JTV, two newsprint factories and electricity power plants.
But Dahlan’s successes have not been without hardship. When he was 56, Dahlan had cirrhosis, and his doctor told him he only had six months to live. He looked for options in the United States, Japan, Singapore and Australia, but finally made the decision to go to China where he got a liver transplant from a 21-year-old.
Dahlan said that after two years as chief executive of PLN, he learned how bureaucrats work, and he knows what needs to be done at state-enterprises — he hopes to reverse some trends, especially in terms of administration.
But his main concern is getting rid of outside intervention. The state-enterprises have been cash cows for the politicians. It is a public secret.
Dahlan said if the chief executives of state enterprises are comfortable and have the freedom to carry out good policies, the companies will perform. Then Dahlan would ask the chief executives to return a favor, and say no to any outside intervention, no matter where it comes from — including the ruling party.
It’s always good to know that a journalist has received the honor of becoming a minister, especially if that journalist happens to be a former boss. Dahlan is the second journalist ever to hold a ministerial position; the first person was Diah himself, who was ambassador to Britain and to Thailand before becoming an information minister. And Diah was also a businessman.
As long as we’re speaking of success in the industry, other senior journalists I know who were appointed as ambassadors include Sabam Siagian to Australia, Djaffar Assegaf to Vietnam and Susanto Pudjomartono to Russia.
Congratulations Pak Dahlan Iskan! Vive Le Journalisme!