Yudhoyono's son: NTU award winner who wins hearts and minds

NTU president Bertil Andersson (left) presenting Major Agus Harimurti Yudhoyono with Nanyang Outstanding Young Alumni award in Singapore last week.

THREE months after he graduated with a master's degree in strategic studies from Nanyang Technological University in 2006, then lieutenant Agus Harimurti Yudhoyono was deployed as a United Nations peacekeeper in southern Lebanon.

The ceasefire brokered by the UN after 34 days of hostilities between Hizbollah and Israel was still fragile, and civilians, especially children, were afraid of men in uniform - even though they wore the UN's blue berets.

Taking a leaf from his classes on strategy, the operations officer for the 850-strong Indonesian mechanised battalion there started preparing "smart cars" - vans equipped with books, computers and educational games - to try and win them over.

The strategy proved a hit and his role in winning hearts and minds won him medals from the local UN HQ, Lebanon and the Indonesian government.

Major Agus, now 35 and chief of operations at the Army Strategic Reserve Command's (Kostrad) 17th Airborne Brigade, went on to help start the Indonesian Defence University. Last week, on Saturday, he was awarded the Nanyang Outstanding Young Alumni award for his achievements.

The elder son of President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono is also the first graduate of the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies to be given the award.

Indonesian Armed Forces spokesman Rear-Admiral Iskandar Sitompul said in a press statement that the award was in recognition of the young soldier's leadership and academic prowess, and that Major Agus continues to instruct soldiers who are about to be deployed on peacekeeping missions.

"We had difficulty making them understand we were there to help them, not create more problems," Major Agus told The Straits Times of his stint in Lebanon. Today, Indonesia contributes more troops to the UN interim force in Lebanon than any other country in the world, with 1,288 of its soldiers serving as peacekeepers there.

"That's genuine goodwill translated into real action," he added.

But there were challenges. Not long after he arrived, several Lebanese civilians asked whether the Indonesians would, as fellow Muslims, help them if Israel attacked. Major Agus recalled telling his soldiers to reply: "We'll be professional, neutral, impartial to resolve things on the ground."

One single mistake could destroy the peace process, and ruin Indonesia's reputation, he said.

President Yudhoyono was himself a reformist former general who was asked to serve in the Cabinet from 1999 and contested the presidency in 2004 and again in 2009. Dr Yudhoyono's term ends in October next year, and he cannot stand again by law.

Major Agus said his stints in NTU and Lebanon taught him the value of higher education focusing on military studies and defence, and on his return, he discussed the idea of a school with his father, who had a similar vision.

The President directed the Defence Ministry to study the concept of a defence university - officials roped in officers and experts - and in 2009, the Indonesian Defence University was launched.

Its students come from the military as well as outside, and the university hopes to boost the credentials and professionalism of the armed forces, as well as equip them to continue preserving the country's stability at a time of rapid domestic and regional change.

"We cannot afford to lose or to have military or armed conflict again," Major Agus said.

He also received an Edward S. Mason fellowship to attend Harvard University's master's in public administration programme in 2009, and went on to attend the Maneuver Captain's Career Course with the US Army in Fort Benning, Georgia, where he received three awards given to top graduates.

And when US Defence Secretary Chuck Hagel visited Jakarta in August, Major Agus made a pitch for greater opportunities for Indonesian officers to study in the US.

"It is critical to produce our very own soldier-scholars, because we want to develop our institution into a more professional, world-class military," he said.

This year, he also started a group of runners, called the Garuda Finishers, to bring together young military officers and civilians and carry out charitable projects.

A strong bond between soldiers and the people is key to Indonesia's stability, he said.

His rising public profile has, inevitably, sparked speculation about a future role in politics. His younger brother, Edhie Baskoro, is secretary-general of the Democratic Party, and their uncle, former army chief Pramono Edhie Wibowo, is participating in the party's presidential convention.

When asked whether there has been pressure on him to follow suit, Major Agus smiled and said: "We cannot predict our own future."

But he said his parents have always stressed the importance of being prepared, and added: "What I need to do... is make myself ready for anything that could happen in the future. I'll focus my career in the military for the moment, but you never know."

zakirh@sph.com.sg


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

VIDEOS TO WATCH

SERVICES