WHEN the passenger ship Tampomas sank in the Java Sea in January 1981, reporter Dahlan Iskan spent days talking to survivors and rescuers and wrote a gripping piece that cast a spotlight on safety lapses that stamped his reputation for hard work.
It was his lucky break. Soon after, he was tasked with turning around the flailing Surabaya-based Jawa Pos newspaper, circulation 6,000. Within five years, it was selling 150,000 copies a day, setting the stage for a nationwide media empire.
Today, the 62-year-old minister for state-owned enterprises is seen by many as the best hope of shoring up the Democratic Party many seem to have written off as a sinking ship, as discontent rises over graft cases involving several key members, should he contest the presidential election in July.
Mr Dahlan tops the 11 contenders in the party's ongoing presidential convention, going by opinion polls. Recently, he said that he was considering formally joining the party sooner rather than later, given the rousing reception he received on recent visits across the country - but would not step down as minister yet.
"Previously, a lot of people felt malu (ashamed)," to be linked to the party, he told The Straits Times in an interview recently. "Now they say, we have to make this party big again".
Mr Dahlan also feels he has an obligation to the party, saying his joining could help boost its performance at elections for Parliament in April.
He argues that the Democratic Party plays a key role in its attempt to seek the middle ground on issues, saying: "In a country as big and as diverse as Indonesia, we need a middle party.
"I don't want to be candidate of Partai Demokrat alone, but of all Indonesians."
People across the country are familiar with his life story. It has been the subject of several books and an upcoming movie.
He was born to impoverished farmers in Magetan, East Java, who did not even know the exact date in 1951. So he picked Aug17 - Independence Day - as his birthday. He later moved to Samarinda in Kalimantan to attend a state Islamic college, but dropped out to join a local newspaper there before moving to Jakarta in 1976.
Even as a media mogul with some 200 local dailies and TV stations, Mr Dahlan did not become well-known until he was tapped by President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, whom he had long admired, to head the state electricity company, PLN, in 2009.
Mr Dahlan had, in 2007, suffered liver cancer and got a liver transplant in Tianjin, China, and while recovering, learnt Mandarin and wrote a book about his medical experience.
At first, he rejected the offer, but changed his mind when he was told that problems in electricity supply would affect economic growth. He was aware of the dire condition of power plants, having had to build several of his own to make sure that his group's newspapers were printed on time.
Two years on, in 2011, he was tasked to head the state-owned enterprises ministry and overhaul the notoriously mismanaged, graft-ridden sector that includes the food logistics agency, major transport operators and state-owned banks.
Months into the job, Mr Dahlan made headlines when he encountered long queues at an airport-bound toll road. He stepped out of his car, scolded the staff and even hurled a chair out of a booth, before opening the barriers to wave other vehicles through to speed things up.
On another occasion, he was so alarmed at the state of an airport toilet that he grabbed some toilet paper, squatted down and started cleaning the floor by himself.
This iconoclastic streak has won him both fans as well as ardent critics, but Mr Dahlan, who is almost always seen in a white shirt, dark trousers and sneakers, says he is not bothered how others see him, only that the job gets done. Thus, he has installed young, new chiefs at major enterprises, who have revamped the way airports, seaports and trains operate.
One of them is Mr R.J. Lino, director of port operator Indonesia Port Corporation (IPC), who said: "When we talk about out of the box thinking, for Mr Dahlan, there's no box at all."
Mr Dahlan has, however, made enemies in the Cabinet and Parliament for his direct style, which he explains as putting professional management over political considerations.
For instance, he has insisted that CEOs of state-owned companies refuse to cave in to pressure from MPs for "Hari Raya bonuses" or other gifts in return for agreeing to meet and approve projects.
"Our relationship with Parliament is not so good, but I have to do that," he says. "A lot of people do not like me."
Both his stints in public service have given him an insight into what needs fixing in Indonesia, a regular theme in the columns he continues to write for the Jawa Pos Group's papers at least once a week.
Yet he has also reminded its editors - his son Azrul Ananda is president director - to be objective in their political reporting.
"I tell them not to sacrifice long-term survival for short-term gain," he says. "I'm quite happy they've been fair and neutral. Of course it's never 100 per cent, but I think it's 90 per cent fair."
His 30-plus years in journalism, he says, taught him the value of deadlines and setting priorities, as well as how to make decisions fast and work quickly.
"Deadlines, quick decisions, are in our blood," he says. "It is very different with the government bureaucracy."
That's one thing he hopes to fix if he makes it to the presidential contest, and beyond.
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