Military commander with a mission at home and abroad

Soon after he topped his graduating cohort at the military academy in 1981, then First-Lieutenant Moeldoko put pen to paper and charted out a career timeline, setting targets by which he hoped to hit various ranks. At the end, he wrote: commander-in-chief.

Recounting this anecdote before his swearing in as commander of the Indonesian Armed Forces (TNI) last August, General Moeldoko, 56, told Tempo magazine: "All soldiers always dream of becoming a commander."

He may now be setting his sights higher. In recent months, he has been mentioned as a possible vice-presidential running mate to Jakarta Governor Joko Widodo for the July 9 presidential polls.

While that possibility remains uncertain, the four-star general was last week thrust into the spotlight for a reported apology during an interview with Singapore broadcaster Channel NewsAsia, aired last Tuesday, over Indonesia's naming of a new frigate, the KRI Usman Harun, after two Indonesian marines behind a 1965 bombing in Singapore at the height of Konfrontasi.

Indonesia's decision to name a ship after marines Osman Mohamed Ali and Harun Said, who were executed in Singapore in 1968 and declared national heroes by Indonesia, strained bilateral military ties when the news was reported in February.

Amid a backlash from some MPs and observers over the apology, Gen Moeldoko told reporters last Thursday his comments were misunderstood, saying: "There was no apology. What I meant was: 'Sorry, the naming of the Usman Harun is our final decision'."

Nevertheless, Gen Moeldoko has also indicated he is keen to get bilateral military ties back on track as he strives to navigate the occasionally conflicting demands of domestic pressures and regional responsibilities.

Going by his comments over the eight months he has been in the job, the commander of 476,000 men and women in uniform spread out across the 5,300km-wide archipelago has also had to balance the TNI's political neutrality with a keen eye on the wider political situation as well.

In an interview with The Straits Times last month, he said he had proposed to ASEAN defence chiefs at their annual meeting in Myanmar in early March that they should include their counterparts from key players such as the United States and China in talks, to better manage regional tensions.

"My friends in the region see Indonesia as a big country, concerned about its neighbourhood, and I feel that is something positive we should develop," he said.

He also travelled to the US before being sworn in, and made a high-profile visit to China to boost defence ties in February.

Gen Moeldoko was born in 1957 to a poor family in Kediri regency, East Java, the youngest of 12 children of a small-scale food crops trader and a housewife.

He would earn some money carrying sand and rocks to construction trucks after school. He attended an agricultural vocational high school in Jombang and enlisted because he could not afford to go to university.

He led combat airborne infantry units early in his career, was in East Timor in 1984 and participated in a United Nations peacekeeping mission in Iraq and Kuwait after the 1991 Gulf War.

He later served as an assistant to General Wiranto, who later became armed forces chief, and who described Gen Moeldoko last year as "energetic, intelligent, and with a vision". "He has not changed his aggressiveness, his fighting spirit," Mr Wiranto, who now heads the Hanura Party, told reporters then.

After a series of rapid high-level rotations in key posts since 2010 - including two regional military commands in West Kalimantan and West Java - Gen Moeldoko was made deputy army chief in February last year and quickly elevated to army chief in May, before being made armed forces commander in August.

Gen Moeldoko, who has two children, says his area of focus as commander is to improve the professionalism and quality of human resources in the TNI, and he has sought to increase the welfare and pay of soldiers.

He also believes the TNI has a role to play in safeguarding democracy while maintaining stability. "It is very important for the TNI to operate in this narrow corridor," he told The Straits Times.

But he also notes that society and technology have meant that information flow is no longer top-down, and soldiers have to change the way they communicate with citizens.

He recently took to social media, and regularly replies to comments on Facebook and Twitter.

"We have to respect the people if we want to be respected," he said. "There is a change in the way we think in the TNI now."

This article was published on April 21 in The Straits Times.

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