When Susi Pudjiastuti was sworn in as Indonesia's Maritime and Fisheries Minister this time last year, the local tabloids didn't think she stood a chance. Of the eight women in President Jokowi's 'Working Cabinet', Susi was singled out for her failure to conform to conventional ideas of how a woman, or indeed a minister, should behave. She was labelled an eccentric for having a tattoo, being a divorcee, and for smoking a cigarette outside the State Palace. She was described by local media as a poor example of Jokowi's promised 'mental revolution'. But since then, Susi has not only survived a cabinet reshuffle and transformed into a media darling, but has become by far the best-known and most widely liked of Jokowi's ministers. So how did she do it?
The short answer is: by blowing things up.
Fed up with foreign fishing vessels entering Indonesia's waters, Susi decided to make an example of trespassers by seizing their boats and exploding them out at sea. She's admitted that most of it is just spectacle: the fuel, engine and oil are removed from the boats to avoid polluting the water, while a small amount of dynamite is added to the deck for visual effect. But the 'shock therapy' appears to be working, and the public is enjoying the show.
Susi has consistently topped opinion polls as the most popular minister with the Indonesian public. The Indonesian Survey Institute (LSI) found that she was the only minister perceived by a majority to be fulfilling expectations after the government's first 100 days. In July, Saiful Mujani Research and Consulting found her ministry to be the one most approved of by voters, with 27% saying the ministry was doing a good job. In second place was the Religious Affairs Ministry, with only 8% approval. Politicawave found Susi to be the most talked about in positive terms on social media, while Indo Barometer has revealed the three traits the public most respect her for: a firm attitude, initiative in taking action to sink the boats, and effective performance.
Susi herself says she has simply tried to approach the ministerial role the same way she would any position in business. A glance at Susi's LinkedIn profile gives some idea of her life experience: 30 years as CEO of a fisheries product export company, 10 years as CEO of an airline, and two years as CEO of a geosurveying company, all under her own business name of PT ASI Pudjiastuti. When she was asked by Jokowi to join his cabinet, Susi commented that one of the biggest adjustments for her would be working for someone else again.
Susi first went into business without even completing a high-school certificate. She came from a moderately well-off family, but knew she had to start out on her own when she dropped out of high school at age 17. Some friends say she was expelled for her involvement in the subversive golput movement against Soeharto's orchestrated elections, but Susi says she felt she wasn't suitable for the school system and simply 'resigned'. She started out in business selling clothes, spices and bed linen in her hometown of Pangandaran on the south coast of Java before becoming a small-time fish trader, sending locally caught produce out of town.
As her business expanded, Susi realised that transportation and infrastructure were slowing the movement of her produce, from the sea in Pangandaran, to the plate. in big cities in Indonesia and abroad. So she lobbied the banks for four years to lend her enough money to buy two small Cessna aircraft to move her 'Susi Brand' lobsters. When the aircraft finally arrived, the Aceh tsunami struck, and Susi sent them straight to help in the relief efforts. Her light aircraft quickly became an invaluable asset for aid organisations and government officials trying to reach remote communities, and she was struck with the idea of starting her own airline, Susi Air. According to its website, the airline now has 50 aircraft linking 23 operational bases across the Indonesian archipelago. The geosurveying business is the latest application of the fleet.
While the public is generally pleased with Susi's performance as minister, critics have warned that running a ministry is in fact not the same thing as running a business, and her aggressive policy of sinking boats may have repercussions for Indonesia's relationships in the region, adding to tensions in the South China Sea. But Susi says she is only applying Indonesian law (including rarely used regulations on the destruction of illegal fishing vessels), and that all countries in the region understand the need to stop crimes at sea. It's the same argument that Jokowi gave for pursuing the death penalty for drug smugglers this year, saying that strong action will act as a deterrent.
In this case at least, Australia is behind the policy. On a recent visit to Jakarta, Australia's Minister for Agriculture and Water Resources, Barnaby Joyce, signed an agreement with Susi to tackle illegal fishing, saying he backed efforts to 'find out who is sneaking into other people's places and stealing their fish'. As for the boats that Australia caught before Indonesia did, he said: 'All I can say is lucky that we caught them before Ibu Susi could bomb them'.
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