Desi Anwar: A Question of Merit

By webadmin on 10:25 pm Oct 23, 2009
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Desi Anwar

Looking at President Yudhoyono’s cabinet lineup, where 20 out of the 37 ministers were chosen because of their political parties (some unheard of, or having no known track records), I cannot help but wonder what sort of government we will have, especially without a mercurial vice president like Jusuf Kalla at the president’s side to liven things up.

Perhaps the whole idea was for the president to keep his helpers on a tight leash by making sure they were his trusted friends and aides to begin with, thus lessening the chance for dissent in the legislature and resulting in fewer obstacles to getting things done. However, having an unqualified minister might present problems, both for the minister and the bureaucratic team itself.

Not only that, the minister might be unable to give professional advice to the president about what needs to be done, leading to policies that might not be in the interest of the country as a whole, but based instead on narrow political interests or, equally bad, plain ignorance. In which case, the onus is on the president to generate the best policies and decisions on a lot of things, though knowing his penchant for dithering, it’s difficult to imagine the new government as gung-ho, with the vim and vigor to get things done fast.

One would think that a landslide victory in a one-round election would afford the president enough confidence to exert his power in a much more decisive way, especially when it comes to really important things like choosing his ministers.

Of course, it is too early to cast judgment on the quality of this second United Indonesia Cabinet. We can only hope that SBY is a wise enough statesman not to abuse his power or renege on his campaign promises, and that his selection of professionals will more than make up for the mainly anodyne team of ministers. So the proper thing for now is to wish him and his government the best of luck in steering this nation toward justice, prosperity and democracy over the next five years, and ensure that we check on his progress in a hundred days.

What I find a cause for concern, however, is what happens to power, especially when that power is thrust upon those who are not only ill-prepared but undeserving and incompetent.

To begin with, no doubt those who were given positions of power — as opposed to meriting the position through career, expertise and a proven track record — will be unlikely to view themselves as either undeserving or unprepared. But they will be faced with the burden of responsibility and expectations to use that power, and how that power is wielded depends very much on their level of confidence and their level of competence.

What makes Sri Mulyani such an effective minister, for example, is precisely due to her confidence in her own ability to find solutions and make the right decisions — a confidence that is based on real capability and a proven track record of good judgment. In other words, she knows what she’s doing and she uses her power to get the job done. And for this, she gets our respect and our confidence.

But what about power given to those who have neither the confidence nor the competence, or worse still, the confidence but not the capability? Our world, unfortunately, is rife with examples of power wielded by those less than competent, whether in government or in companies. Which is fine as long as they are smart enough to put their trust in their more competent subordinates and allow them to get the job done. The problem comes when they actually want to use that power for power’s sake and end up abusing it.

A recent article in Newsweek cites an interesting academic study in the United States on why it is that power corrupts some people, and why some people in power are abusive and aggressive. The answer, according to research psychologists, is not in the power itself, but in the interaction of power with feelings of inadequacy. In other words, power mixed with incompetence is toxic.

This is because, to quote the article, people who gain power “pressure themselves to perform at a higher level, and thus are more apt at to feel inadequate in their powerful role. This threatens their ego and they become defensive.”

In the case of the president, perhaps that power is shadowed by its nemesis, namely insecurity about his position so that decisions are made based more on fear rather than the clarity of confidence. We can only hope that his ministers have the competence and confidence not to become mere flatterers of their boss’s ego or abusive of their positions due to their own incompetence.

Desi Anwar is a senior anchor based in Jakarta. She can be contacted at and