Headlines

Insight: Sawahlunto: A
model of hope for Indonesia’s
future

Despite positive macroeconomic figures released by the government and the upgrading of Indonesia’s investment rating by Standard&Poor’s, we who live in Indonesia know that our glass might be more empty than full — especially considering that the global economy, not to mention East Asia’s economy, has been in decline and will continue to be weak in the years ahead.

Further, an ample supply of other factors may limit or hamper Indonesia’s economic growth, such as corruption, inefficient bureaucracy, inflexible labor relations (paired with labor militancy) and inadequate implementation of the rule of law.

Meanwhile, political uncertainties prevail and violations of human rights are rampant. Due to a weak presidency, those problems have not been tackled well.

However, there is always hope for a better future. There are many regional leaders who are capable and effective, although many of those regions are also weak and have been sometimes chaotic in their development.

Joko “Jokowi” Widodo, the governor-elect of Jakarta, is one of those capable local leaders, as evidenced by his tenure as mayor of Surakarta, Central Java. In West Sumatra, we have another leader in the person of Sawahlunto Mayor Amran Nur. I was born in Sawahlunto and spent the first eight years of my life there. A few weeks ago, my mother asked me and my siblings to return to our hometown for her 93rd birthday. Five of her seven children, along with their spouses, accompanied her home.

All of us were pleasantly surprised by the face-lift that Sawahlunto had received. We knew the history of the town’s rise and demise due to structural economic problems. Sawahlunto’s main economic resource had been coal, until local supplies were almost exhausted 10 or so years ago. When the mayor came into office in 2003, he saw eight families leave the town in his first few weeks on the job due to job scarcity as coal production dwindled.

Amran’s first act was to change the economy, first by donating cocoa, rubber seeds and fertilizer to the people to prevent them from making a mess of coal residue as their last resort for survival. Now every family earns around Rp 10 million (US$1,042.26) a month and land degradation has been prevented.

Second, Amran restructured the economy through local and regional tourism development and can now boast of 800,000 visitors in 2011, while Sawahlunto itself has only 64,000 in population. He established new tourist spots, such as a water boom for family recreation, a zoo, a car-and-motorbike race circuit, a few small but exotic museums, such as a Train museum; a coal museum, displaying the relics of the Ombilin Mines (complete with a miniature replica of a deserted coal mine; a national standard horse-racing complex; and the renovation of a well-known hospital built by the Dutch for medical tourism. There’s even a cable car service in the making. The mayor has also built a tourism training center and focused on developing the performing arts.

Amran has sent local cultural troupes to perform in Beijing and other places abroad and has held an international festival every December for the last five years. He was awarded for lowering the poverty rate in Sawahlunto to 2.4 percent, the lowest in the nation after Denpasar, whose rate stands at 2.2 percent. Amran was reelected by a large majority, much like Jokowi was in Surakarta.

These leaders are part of our future. They are the new heroes of the country who can make Indonesia grow again — not only in terms of GDP, but also in reality, as we have witnessed ourselves. My mother marveled how much the city has changed for the better. She remembered the old Sawahlunto as having more forests in the 1930s and 1940s; now it is a thriving town with many new buildings.

We could also see the enthusiasm in mayor’s staff: young people as energetic as the mayor himself. They, too, have open hearts for the people’s welfare and interests. We are proud of them, and proud to be from Sawahlunto, our hometown.

The writer is vice chair of the Board of Trustees of the CSIS Foundation.

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