On a road in the middle of Surabaya, still deserted at dawn before daybreak, Adi Sasono, a sanitation worker, was diligently sweeping the area around Bungkul Park.
“In a moment, this place will be crowded with people exercising. Bu Risma always wants it to be clean before they arrive,” he said, referring to Mayor Tri Rismaharini.
According to him, she had been checking pedestrian zones since she was head of the city’s Sanitation and Parks Office and Planning Agency, a post she held until 2010.
Bungkul, a neglected park 10 years ago, has now become one of Surabaya’s 10 recreation centers. The 10,000-square-meter park received the 2013 Asian Townscape Sector Award from the United Nations in Fukuoka, Japan, in
Surabaya today is a lush green and clean sanctuary for its citizens, and for that they largely credit their mayor, whose bold moves have changed the face of the city over the past three years.
An architect and city planner by training, she has transformed 22 percent of the city’s 171 hectares into open green spaces, far above the rate of 14 percent achieved by Jakarta. Keputih, an area known as dump, is on its way to becoming a park of colorful flowers.
But the story of how she transformed the country’s second-largest city and trade hub of East Java is no fairy tale involving overnight magic. As a native of the city who shares the straight-talking trait of Surabayans, Risma solves problems on the spot with her own hands, which oftentimes involves quarreling with people.
She rolls up her sleeves to clean gutters, to follow clogged drainages and remove obstructions to prevent flooding. She sweeps the streets and crosses pedestrian bridges in the middle of a toll road to get things done.
The 52-year-old woman is loved and loathed for her heavy-handed approach, considered effective in managing the rough nature of Surabaya’s denizens.
Her latest test is to save Surabaya Zoo, where poor management has caused the death of scores of animals over the past two years. Businesspeople have proposed converting the zoo’s land into a hotel and restaurant, but she has rejected the plan, arguing that the zoo is the icon and pride of the city.
“I want to see the public enjoy the city’s tourist spots at low coast or even free of charge. I have the same aspiration for the Surabaya Zoo,” said Risma.
Admitting, however, that she had run out of ideas on how to deal with the deaths of the zoo’s animals and suspecting corruption, Risma has reported the zoo to the Corruption Eradication Commission (KPK).
Born in Kediri, East Java, as the third of five children to Mochammad Chuzaini and Siti Mudjiatun, she suffered from asthma as a child, which limited her activity. But her father, a tax official who owns a grocery business, didn’t treat her differently. He encouraged her to help him with his business and paid her for her work.
Chuzaini, who also cofounded an orphanage, taught his children compassion and sharing with the less fortunate.
Risma studied architecture at the 10 November Institute of Technology, Surabaya. It was during this time she met Djoko Saptoadji, another student, who later she married. After graduation, she worked as a civil servant in Bojonegoro, East Java.
As the head of the city’s parks office before being elected mayor, Risma showed results. Apart from creating green open spaces, she also reduced flooding. In 2010, Surabaya’s rainy season inundated area was clipped to 2,486 hectares from 3,016 hectares in 2005.
Risma is the first woman mayor of Surabaya, taking office on Sept. 28, 2010, in place of Bambang Dwi Hartono, who later became her deputy until his official resignation in June. Risma and Bambang ran under the banner of the Indonesian Democratic Party of Struggle (PDI-P) and won the city mayoral election with 358,187 votes, or 38.53 percent.
“As a government executive, I can’t only provide aid for poor people, I’m also trying to maintain luxury housing zones’ conditions so that their roads are smooth, their drainage systems run well and their water catchement areas function properly in order to prevent floods,” she said.
She also has shut down brothels and prostitution hubs in the city, arguing their negative influences on children. The famous Dolly area is scheduled to be closed down this year.
The Economist magazine has described Surabaya as competitive among 120 world cities in environmental preservation, scoring higher than Los Angeles. Surabaya also surpassed Dubai in terms of waste management.
“I want no traffic jams and floods in my city,” affirmed Risma, who was elected Mayor of the Month this month by the City Mayors Foundation, an international association based in London.
“I’m focusing on turning Surabaya into a city of trade and services. I’m more inclined to place industries outside Surabaya like Gresik and its vicinity,” said Risma, who has imposed a five-year ban on the entry of industries to Surabaya.
Amid her busy schedule, Risma was once noticed at a Surabaya shopping center with her two children, Fuad Nenardi and Tantri Gunarni. Claiming to dislike wearing makeup and high-heeled shoes, although she was brought up in a well-to-do family, Risma was educated by her father to live modestly.
“I never imagined I could reach the present office of mayor in my career. My father asked me to study architecture for the simple reason of enabling me to get a job soon after graduation,” she said.
A survey by researchers from University of Indonesia in 2013 positioned her as a rising political star capable of matching the popularity of Jakarta Governor Joko “Jokowi” Widodo.
Jokowi and Risma are not far different in their style of leadership. They are both known as leaders who don’t hesitate to conduct field inspections (blusukan). The two PDI-P figures are also considered clean and care about the interests of ordinary people.
Daily confrontations and the city’s problems, nevertheless, have almost brought her to her knees. Receiving threats from many vested groups, Risma hinted that she would tender her resignation last month, especially after the installment of her new deputy, Wisnu Sakti Buana, another PDI-P politician, whose appointment process she claimed to be done illegally by the local city council.
In a recent interview on Metro TV’s Mata Najwa talk show, Risma refused to promise that she would not resign despite her popularity among Surabaya residents.
“I have given everything I have to Surabaya citizens, I have nothing more. I apologize if it’s not enough,” she said.
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