Keith B. Richburg, The Washington Post March 2, 1999 — His title sounds innocuous enough: minister of small businesses and cooperatives. And in person, the slightly built and soft-spoken Adi Sasono, an engineer by training, cuts an unassuming profile.
So why is he referred to by some critics as “Indonesia’s most dangerous man?” Sasono chuckled softly at the label. “I’ve tried to convince them that I’m not dangerous at all,” he said in a recent interview.
What prompts fear about Sasono in some circles is his aggressive advocacy of what is being called the “People’s Economy.” Essentially, that means breaking the economic stranglehold of the country’s traditionally powerful commercial conglomerates and redistributing the wealth to small businesses and the 50,000 or so mostly state-run cooperatives.
Sasono called that “justice” in a country where 99 percent of businesses are identified as “small” — meaning that they turn over 1 billion Indonesian rupiah ($113,000) each year or less. “Large businesses,” with an annual turnover of 50 billion rupiah or more, make up just two-tenths of 1 percent of all commercial firms here, but in what Sasono and others call a perverse distortion of market principles, they control 61 percent of Indonesia’s gross domestic product.
“This policy is not against the big ones,” Sasono said, explaining his concept. “We are against crony capitalism” — the practice that took root in the 32-year dictatorship of President Suharto, under which Suharto relatives and political insiders profited at the expense of would-be entrepreneurs. “If I’m dangerous,” Sasono noted, “I’m dangerous to them.”
To many here, that kind of talk makes Sasono a kind of Robin Hood — taking from the handful of rich to give to the multitudes of poor. But in Indonesia, “rich” usually equates with ethnic Chinese, and for that reason his crusade has taken on ethnic, racial and religious overtones at a volatile time — the campaign season leading to June elections for a new national parliament.
Sasono’s popularity has soared among many indigenous Indonesians, called pribumis, who see Sasono, a longtime Islamic activist, as a hero; he has been mentioned as a kingmaker whose support could be crucial in the election of the next president. But others, particularly the country’s Chinese minority, view him with suspicion, even fear.
To Sasono, his wealth-redistribution crusade smacks only of common sense, and he cites not Marx or Lenin, but precedents from the United States, such as the Sherman Antitrust Act and the U.S. Justice Department’s monopoly case against Microsoft now in recess in Washington.
During the Suharto years, “the market mechanism didn’t work,” Sasono said. “My task is to move from the crony economy to create competitive market mechanisms.
“Let’s move to a more managed capitalism — protections for minorities, protection for small business, an antitrust law. If we target a certain group — say, the Chinese — it has nothing to do with [being] pro- or anti-Chinese. It has to do with justice.”
In his frequent travels around the countryside, Sasono said, he has taken time to meet with ethnic Chinese to explain his policies, and he insists that most of them will benefit from his crusade. Most Chinese businesses are small, he said, and so they too are victims of the power of the conglomerates.
“I met them all already. I told them the party is over; it’s time for clean government. . . . If you do good, you pay your tax, you employ people, that’s fine; we need your skill,” he said. “The idea is to address the inequality. It has to do with justice. It has nothing to do with race.”
He also has tried to counter suggestions that his proposals are inimical to all business people, particularly foreign investors unaccustomed to blunt talk from a man who directly addresses the sensitive race issue. Instead, he said, his ideas are business-friendly, because they would increase the domestic purchasing power of the masses.
“If I increase their purchasing power, then I also increase the domestic market,” he said. “So I cannot understand why people think that I am dangerous.”
At the moment, Sasono can count on high-level backing for his plans; he is a longtime friend and associate of President B.J. Habibie from their days together in the Indonesian Association of Muslim Intellectuals, a group once headed by Habibie and of which Sasono is now secretary general.
In a transition cabinet carefully balanced among the military, old Suharto loyalists, young reformists and technocrats, Sasono is seen as Habibie’s link to urban Islamic activists who are not shy about promoting the interests of the country’s Muslim majority.
But Sasono’s friendship with Habibie did not stop him from offering a candid assessment of the president’s troubled tenure since he assumed office on Suharto’s resignation last May.
Habibie is “a unique personality,” Sasono said. “People look at him as a weak president. In my view, he’s not weak. Sukarno [Indonesia’s first president] and Suharto were the old style of the charismatic president. In my opinion, Habibie is more of a scientist than a politician. I feel not having a strong president is a precondition for democracy.
“Some people say he is too weak. I don’t think so. He is just trying to establish a new system. . . . He has laid in this transition period a very good foundation for democracy and human rights, for regional autonomy. . . . His problem is legitimacy — that is his problem.”
Habibie is trying to gain legitimacy through the June ballot, in which he hopes his ruling Golkar bloc will be able to shed its Suharto associations and win enough seats in the parliament for the lawmakers to elect him to a full five-year term as president. Analysts said the task will be difficult but not impossible, since the country is primarily rural and Golkar still has the best political infrastructure in the provinces.
Sasono has said he does not intend to campaign for any party or candidate. He is too busy, he said, with the campaign for his “people’s economy” agenda. But others say that by staying on the sidelines, Sasono is playing smart politics — and putting himself in position to join a new government if another old friend from the Muslim intellectuals’ group, scholar Amien Rais, does well enough with his National Mandate Party to win the presidency.
Sasono offered no predictions on the June vote. He just smiled, and said coyly, “This election will hold a lot of surprises.”