Bakrie keen to bring back the good times

Sixteen years ago, the Asian financial crisis sent the fortunes of Mr Aburizal Bakrie's family business empire tumbling, just as it dealt a devastating setback to the ruling Golkar Party of which he was an MP.

Today, business is back on track, and Mr Bakrie, 67, wants to repeat the turnaround with the party of former president Suharto which he now heads.

Ever pragmatic, he believes Golkar will be able to draw votes among people who remember the price stability that marked much of Suharto's New Order administration from 1966 to 1998.

"They feel their living conditions were better off under the New Order," he tells The Straits Times in an interview in his 46th-storey Bakrie Tower office, citing his conversations with farmers, fishermen, traders and students in trips across the country.

He also claims to be unfazed by opinion polls which show him running behind Jakarta governor Joko Widodo of the Indonesian Democratic Party - Struggle and Gerindra's former general Prabowo Subianto in the presidential race.

"Jokowi is my good friend and my younger brother. I know him well," he said on the campaign trail in Lampung on Monday.

Everything is possible during an election, he added in East Jakarta on Tuesday. "Jokowi can become my vice-presidential candidate," he said.

Mr Bakrie is counting on his early head start - he was the first to launch his presidential bid, way back in July 2012 - and his media outlets. Advertisements featuring him - using his initials ARB - have run again and again on the TV channels his group controls.

Asked about the progress of his campaign, Mr Bakrie says he has never campaigned. Those numerous cross-country visits and roadshows to meet students do not count in his eyes; they are more in the nature of motivational sessions.

"I don't ask them to vote for Golkar or ARB for president," he quips. "Always, to keep the motivation, that the future is rosy, not bleak, (to) fire up their spirit. Same for farmers and fishermen."

"I tell them that Indonesia has six presidents, whose legacies differed, but who all contributed," he adds.

As for his Sumatran origins - often cited as an obstacle in a country whose presidents have traditionally been drawn from the dominant Javanese ethnic group - he insists it is not an issue.

As early as 1928, he points out, nationalists agreed on having a minority language - Malay - as the national language of an independent Indonesia.

A multimillionaire and an electrical engineer by training, Mr Bakrie has had Cabinet experience - as coordinating economics czar and then welfare minister in President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono's first Cabinet.

His spell in office, however, was controversially marked by concerns over conflicts of interest, which he dismisses.

Mr Bakrie prefers to focus on his blueprint for his country's development. Its goal, he says, is that by the time Indonesia turns 100 in 2045, "it would be an Indonesia that is modern, progressive, prosperous", with gross domestic product per capita rising from US$4,000 (S$5,055) a year today to US$40,000 by then.

To achieve this, he wants to loosen fiscal and monetary policies to free up more money for education and health subsidies, revitalise manufacturing, and boost spending on infrastructure.

He says he will make it easier for small businesses to borrow money, and create jobs.

But he also wants Indonesia to be tougher in defending its national interests.

This includes curbing gas exports to its neighbours when supply contracts end.

"We need energy now," he says. "Hence we need to renegotiate."

He draws a distinction between nationalism and nationalisation, saying the sanctity of signed contracts must be upheld. "I'm a businessman," he says.

Foreign capital and banks are welcome in Indonesia, but he wants Indonesian banks to have the same rights that banks from Singapore, Malaysia and China have when operating in the archipelago.

"In Indonesia, it's too free," he remarks. "It can't be that you like to do business here, but we can't do business there."

Some observers say Mr Bakrie has not only mastered the business of politics but also the politics of doing business.

At the interview, he brushes off negative perceptions of big business-politicians.

"When I travel around Indonesia, I ask students 'who wants to be government officials?' Five per cent. 'Who wants to be businessmen?' 90 per cent.

"Business is a respected profession," he argues, pointing to the Bush and Kennedy families in the United States.

"If a businessman has to be president, it must be because he is respected."

Get a copy of The Straits Times or go to for more stories.