It’s a busy weekday morning and Ridwan Kamil, the recently inaugurated mayor of Bandung, has just arrived for his first day on the new job the same way he has always gotten around the traffic-choked West Java capital — by bicycle.
It’s a five-kilometer ride, but Ridwan hasn’t even broken a sweat. A few hours later, he’s busy holding a meeting with the heads of the various municipal agencies when he gets word of a small protest taking place outside.
What surprises is not what he does next, but the fact that he even decides to do it: the mayor adjourns the meeting — his first in office — and goes outside to talk to the protesters.
“We’ve never had the mayor come out before to speak with demonstrators,” an awe-struck protest organizer says later.
Ushering in change
Ridwan, an internationally acclaimed architect with no prior political experience, is part of a generation of new local leaders taking office one region at a time, determined to sweep out all vestiges of their predecessors’ stagnant and often corruption-riddled bureaucratic systems.
Joko Widodo, a furniture salesman who electrified a previously apathetic electorate to win the Jakarta gubernatorial ballot in emphatic style last year, has been credited as leading this charge, but the mounting speculation over his possible presidential bid has drawn much of the focus away from the changes being ushered in at city halls and district offices nationwide.
Change, however, is inevitable, says Gun Gun Heryanto, and is now being led by the likes of Ridwan, Bogor mayor-elect Bima Arya Sugiarto and Ganjar Pranowo, the Central Java governor.
He says voters are increasingly turning away from the typical career bureaucrats and choosing leaders with an activist or political academic background.
“The advent of figures like these inspires new hope in the voters and brings in a breath of fresh air,” Gun Gun says.
“In addition to being smart and of high integrity, these are also leaders who offer a better promise, particularly with respect to the anti-corruption campaign and engaging more closely with the constituents.”
Siti Zuhro, a political analyst from the Indonesian Institute of Sciences (LIPI), also welcomes the generational change at the executive and legislative levels.
“They inspire more hope than the older generation of leaders,” she says.
“The idea being, if there’s someone offering something new, why stick with the old one? The new leaders are more promising,” she adds.
Bima, who won the Bogor election last week, is a polling analyst who later joined the National Mandate Party (PAN).
While Islamic parties like the PAN have in recent years taken a shellacking at the polls, Bima’s popularity stems largely from his more modern viewpoint and preference for inviting voter involvement in governance rather than treating the public patronizingly, says Komaruddin Hidayat, the rector of Jakarta’s Syarif Hidayatullah State Islamic University (UIN).
“Parties that are in a position to nominate leaders, be it at the national or local level, for the executive or legislative branches, should ideally nominate more of these intellectual activists, these political academics,” he says.
“It would have a positive and significant impact on policy making.”
Already Bima is setting out to distinguish himself from Bogor’s outgoing mayor, Diani Budiarto.
Just hours after he was officially declared the election winner last Friday, Bima said one of his first orders of business would be to review the case of the GKI Yasmin church, which remains sealed off despite two Supreme Court rulings for Diani to allow the congregation back in.
Critics have attributed Diani’s defiance of the highest court in the land to his reluctance to anger the hard-line Islamic groups opposed to the presence of the church in their community. Bima, by contrast, has won plaudits for promising to tackle an issue that is sensitive to his own party’s core support base.
He has also vowed to address the long-running hostility by conservatives against Ahmadiyah and Shiite groups in the city.
“I think that Bima is someone who understands the law, and what we need right now is concrete action from the city’s leader to enforce the letter of the law,” says Bona Singgalinging, a spokesman for the Yasmin congregation.
“I hope Bima can be like Joko and stand firm against all intolerant groups.”
Over in Surabaya, meanwhile, Mayor Tri Rismaharini has also drawn many parallels with Joko, despite being, at 51, of the same generation now being shooed out of public office nationwide.
Previously written off as the puppet of the previous mayor, Bambang Dwi Hartono, who she made her deputy when she took office in 2010, Tri has since gone on to silence the naysayers with programs to clean up the East Java capital, revive dilapidated urban areas and regreen the notoriously dusty city.
The mayor, says LIPI’s Siti, is among just 15 percent of regional leaders across Indonesia who area actually making progress in overhauling and streamlining the local bureaucracy.
“Tri is doing an extraordinary job in Surabaya, but you don’t hear much about it in the media,” she says.
“She’s a very unassuming, simple and honest person doing her job, but she’s not getting the media coverage.”
Siti notes that it was under Tri’s leadership that Surabaya won its first ever Adipura award from the government for its environmental achievements. The mayor also joined Joko, then the mayor of the Central Java city of Solo, as nominees for the 2012 World Mayor Prize.
It’s a business
Like Tri, other regional leaders are making their mark around the country with little fanfare. Amran Nur, the mayor of the small town of Sawahlunto in West Sumatra, has managed to slash unemployment there from 17 percent in 2005 to 2.4 percent in 2009 — the lowest in the country after Denpasar, the Bali capital.
Amran has borrowed heavily from the Bali model to drive the change, primarily by boosting Sawahlunto’s profile as a tourism destination.
“We have to see this as a business, not a government program. At the end of the day, Sawahlunto has to profit,” he says.
In Kubu Raya, West Kalimantan, district chief Muda Mahendrawan turned down Rp 1 billion ($88,000) from Jakarta to buy cars for himself and his deputy, and Rp 11 billion to build an official residence.
He also slashed the budget for a new Rp 36 billion district office by Rp 21 billion. The money, he reasoned, would be better spent on other programs of greater urgency and importance to the people.
“It doesn’t feel right if most of our budget is spent on the officials,” he says.
In Wonosobo, Central Java, district chief Abdul Kholiq Arif has cut the crime rate and nurtured a climate of religious tolerance since taking office in 2010, largely by putting the region’s unemployed young men to work as community watchmen.
Get the job done
Back in Bandung, Ridwan is busy dragging a sleepy bureaucracy kicking and screaming into the modern age. All municipal agencies must set up a Twitter account to make them more accessible to the public, he has decreed.
“And because you look a little confused,” he tells the agency chiefs in the meeting, “I’ll give you two days to do it.”
He has also ordered the mayor’s office to be reorganized for greater efficiency.
“This room’s too big, so we’re going to have to change things around. I don’t need that much space,” he says.
Ridwan is aware that change comes from within, and is putting his architecture experience to use in revamping City Hall.
“In a matter of weeks, I want City Hall to be an eco office,” he says.
“For one thing, we should have motion-sensor-powered lights in the toilets so that the lights aren’t on all the time.”
And his orders for a more efficient City Hall staff?
“Work hard, work smart, get the job done and do it like you mean it.”