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Interview with Indonesian President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono

Aired June 15, 2011 - 06:00:00   ET



ANDREW STEVENS, CNN INTERNATIONAL ANCHOR: Indonesia is a country of contrasts. With its 17,000 islands, the sprawling archipelago is a melting pot of ethnicities, religions, languages, and cultures. Its people make up the world's fourth most populous nation. Its economy is the largest in Southeast Asia.

The man at the helm is President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono. Currently in his second five-year term, the former army general was elected in 2004 in the country's first direct presidential election. It was a further sign that the former Dutch colony was embracing democracy following the 1998 resignation of the former dictator Suharto and ending decades of autocratic rule.

Since President Yudhoyono's inauguration, the country has seen some major transformations including an expanding economy and the strengthening of international relations. But, with three years left, now, on his final presidential term, the 61-year-old still faces many challenges. Like his fight against corruption. Curbing environmental degradation. And addressing a lack of modern infrastructure.

This week on "Talk Asia", as Indonesia plays host to the world economic forum, we sit down for a rare interview with the country's president, Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono.


STEVENS: Mr. President, thank you so much for your time today. I'd like to start by talking about the economy, because it's quite a story at the moment. Foreign investment is pouring in, now. If you look at the investment grade, it's about to get investment grade rating probably within 12 months or so. A growth rate of 6 1/2 percent, perhaps stronger to come. Is this growth at this level now sustainable?

SUSILO BAMBANG YUDHOYONO, PRESIDENT OF INDONESIA (through translator): Yes, this is a great challenge for Indonesia. To maintain sustainability of our economic growth. This is why we're working hard to sustain that growth. But growth is not our only economic target. We have other targets as well, such as job creation, poverty reduction, and the protection of the environment.

One area we need to improve is Indonesia's investment climate so that we can attract more investors to our country. In this context, we are developing a master plan for the next 15 years on how to speed up and expand our economy. We are establishing six economic corridors or highways that will link various zones or areas of growth. We believe these measures will maximize our ability to sustain our present economic growth.

STEVENS: I've been talking to businesspeople inside and outside of Indonesia. And the one thing they virtually all tell me is that a lack of modern infrastructure is holding back growth in Indonesia. What is your government doing about that?

YUDHOYONO, (through translator): Yes, I realize that infrastructure is a particular challenge for our investment climate. Because of this, in the next five to 10 years, we have plans to prioritize infrastructure development. Be it ports, airports, transport, power plants, and other infrastructure that is needed.

However, the government budget for infrastructure development is limited, and that is why, to cover the gap, we need to engage in public-private partnership and give the private sector a greater role in our development. We have big targets, but I am confident that participation between the government and the private sector will help speed up the process by building more infrastructure and promoting more economic growth which, in turn, will attract more investors.

STEVENS: In 2008, the Western World experienced a global financial crisis. It was centered in the U.S. and in Europe. Indonesia was not badly hit and many emerging markets were not badly hit. But I wonder, what lessons did you draw from that in regards to your own plans for the development of the Indonesian economy?

YUDHOYONO, (through translator): Yes, Indonesia is pleased we were able to minimize the impact of the financial crisis in 2008-2009. Growth of 4.5 percent was respectable in view of the world economic situation at the time.

One lesson that I would like to point out is the importance of togetherness when facing a crisis like that one. Togetherness. Cooperation between government, private sector, and state enterprises. They need to work together so that growth does not drop and unemployment does not rise. And, in 2009, this is what we did. This is how we managed to minimize the impact of the global financial crisis.

STEVENS: 13 years ago, under President Suharto, big business was seen as virtually part of government. To describe Indonesia's economy and development, the words "crony capitalism" were used. Are you satisfied with how far Indonesia has come since then?

YUDHOYONO, (through translator): The truth is, change cannot happen as quickly as turning over your hand and it cannot happen overnight. Change or reformation is a process. Sometimes it has to be done gradually, but steadily.

Actually, the culture of "crony capitalism" has been corrected with transparency and accountability. The practice of collusion between government officials and business has been rectified. And it is not like what happened 10 or 20 years ago. I see that we are headed in the right direction. I admit, there are still cases of collusion, but I think the overall spirit or the agenda of embarking on fair, level business practices, from my perspective, is moving forward.

STEVENS: But, the corruption watchdog, Transparency International, still rates Indonesia quite poorly on their corruption index. You have another three years in office. What would you like to achieve on this issue by the time you leave? What do you think you can achieve?

YUDHOYONO, (through translator): Corruption is, indeed, our biggest challenge. My biggest challenge. I have to be frank on that. In fact, since I assumed office in 2004, Indonesia has launched the most aggressive anti-corruption campaign in our history. And the results speak for themselves. About 150 senior officials have faced the law and some of them have been convicted and sent to jail. And there is now a big movement in our society against corruption.

We actually have achieved certain targets. But, looking at other countries' experiences, Hong Kong eradicated corruption in about 13 years. I expect that Indonesia will need about 15-20 years to implement a system that will spur a stronger culture or a climate of fear of corruption. I think I still have enough time in the next three years, and I will continue to intensify efforts to combat corruption.


STEVENS: Coming up, lessons from the past. President Yudhoyono offers advice to pro-democracy leaders in North Africa and the Middle East.




STEVENS: I want to talk about Indonesian democracy. This is a young, but entrenched democracy in a predominantly Muslim country. Do you think Indonesia can be used as a model for the emerging democratic movements we see today in North Africa and the Middle East?

YUDHOYONO, (through translator): Yes, Indonesia can be a model where Islam and democracy exist hand and hand with no contradiction between the two. Despite the fact that we are still facing some challenges to becoming a role model, as the world's largest Muslim Nation that practices a true democracy. In general, I'm pleased to say that we can uphold democracy and, at the same time, respect Islamic values that exist in this country. If Indonesia can do something like that, then countries in the Middle East and North Africa can also achieve it.

Of course, they need to know that Indonesia's experience has not been easy. There have been some difficulties. Some ups and downs - setbacks. But we insist that democracy, Islam, and modernity can exist together. In that sense, I think our experience, perhaps, can be a model for other countries in developing their democracies.

STEVENS: Following up on that, Mr. President, what piece of advice would you offer to the democracy leaders in those areas?

YUDHOYONO, (through translator): Actually, there is no single model for democracy to be adopted by countries. There is a saying that "one size does not fit all". The experiences of other countries in developing democracy or achieving reform successfully can also be learned from. In the case of Egypt, for example, the military played a crucial role in its transition.

Indonesia, too, had a unique experience in that respect. Previously, the military was very strong, very powerful, and had an influential political role. During our reform process, I was also actively involved in implementing internal reforms in the military. Afterwards, the military relinquished its political role. The military started respecting democracy and human rights. And, therefore, it was able to become part of the reform process. Perhaps those are the lessons that can be learned by our friends in the Middle East and North Africa.

STEVENS: You were reelected in 2009 in a landslide victory. Your popularity rating around the time was about 90 percent. But, there are those who will say you have not spent your political capital enough. That you have not been bold enough in reforms, in tackling extremism. What would you say to those people? How would you respond to that?

YUDHOYONO, (through translator): During the elections in both 2004 and 2009, I got 60 percent of the vote. But Indonesia is a multi-party democracy and my party, Party Democrat, won only 26 percent of the seats in parliament. It's not even 30 percent - far from half. In order to ensure political stability, I need to engage in give-and-take, build consensus, and engage in negotiations without sacrificing principals. So sustainability and government stability can be preserved.

That is the difference between the 60 percent I got of the national vote and the real politics in parliament, which is the decision-maker of government policies. So, in terms of the fight against terrorism and radicalism, I think I've been very clear about this. I was a target of three assassination attempts, including a bomb aimed to be exploded at my home. This proves that I've never doubted or feared in fighting terrorism and radicalism.

What's important for me is to keep the rule of law, because I don't want to do this by resulting in authoritarian ways. There are people who want to solve the issue promptly, but we need to weigh up whether it's good for democracy, whether it's better for long-term objectives, or whether it's good for the balance in this country and its transformation. Therefore, I will use my political capitol correctly in accordance to the system and rules. But my priority is to keep the political stability in this country that enables me to do my job. It's impossible to conduct your duties amid political turbulence.

STEVENS: You, as you've just told us, have been a target of an assassination attempt. How worried are you that religious extremism is going to destabilize Indonesia's political system?

YUDHOYONO, (through translator): Religious extremism happens everywhere in the world. After 9-11, we've witnessed more extremism globally, including Indonesia. We continue to work harder and implement a program of de- radicalization in society. And how we promote this is through an education program and promoting moderation through moderate Islamic leaders. So, by doing all this, radicalism can be kept in check in Indonesia and, in fact, can be reversed.

Our hope is to directly combat terrorism and, secondly, facilitate and guide the public. I do hope that radicalism can be controlled and continue to be weakened in the future.

STEVENS: Is this de-radicalization program showing results yet, or is it too early?

YUDHOYONO, (through translator): Actually, there have been a lot of terrorists that we've apprehended and terrorist plots that we've preempted. We've arrested many terrorists and many have been processed through the courts. So, these are examples that radicalism in Indonesia remains in control and weakened.

From these examples, it seems not too alarming, but I do feel that it is a challenge and if we don't handle it properly, it could potentially be a problem in this country. Therefore, despite results that we've achieved so far, we continue to do more, but the fight isn't over yet.

STEVENS: In your opinion, Mr. President, how big is the radical movement?

YUDHOYONO, (through translator): I have to say that there are still a few cells within our society. Radicalism or extremism has existed for many years in Indonesia. Amid international developments, there have been influences from the Middle East in Indonesia or from other places. Radicalism is rising, but I can't say how big they are in terms of percentage.

But these cells do exist. And what worries us is that no matter how small they are, with the advances in the information era, openness era, democracy - in the human rights era - extremist teachings or radicalism could disturb the majority of moderate Muslims. That's why we need to handle it well.


STEVENS: Coming up, President Yudhoyono reveals his solutions to the rising tensions in the South China Sea.




STEVENS: It was a long-awaited homecoming for U.S. President Barak Obama when he arrived in Indonesia last year. The country where he spent four years of his childhood. Although this trip was brief, less than 24 hours, he used the visit to appeal for better relations between the U.S. and the Muslim world. And he also praised Indonesia for bridging religious and racial divides.

BARAK OBAMA, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES OF AMERICA: May our two nations, working together, with faith and determination, share these truths with all mankind.


STEVENS: The U.S. President, Barak Obama, will again visit Indonesia this year. How are relations between the U.S. and Indonesia?

YUDHOYONO, (through translator): Bilateral relations between the U.S. and Indonesia are in good condition. We have a comprehensive partnership, which was signed during President Barak Obama's visit here last year. This process was initiated in 2008. Overall, our relationship is moving on well and there's plenty of opportunities to strengthen our cooperation.

Of course, President Obama has a special emotional connection to Indonesia on account of his experiences here in his youth. And this is a good asset for us to develop and foster closer relations between our two nations.

STEVENS: Across Asia, we have seen rising tensions between China and some of its neighbors. A lot of it centers on the South China Sea. Are you concerned for Asia about China's growing assertiveness in this region?

YUDHOYONO, (through translator): We are embracing the Asian spirit and, along with our Asian dialogue partners such as China, Japan, South Korea, and India, we will work toward cooperation and the preservation of peace and stability in the Asia-Pacific region.

It must be done peacefully. And, therefore, we try to prevent the use of force, power politics, and military might as a way to resolve conflicts in this region. Regarding the South China Sea, we hope that tension or problems can be resolved diplomatically and a political solution is found in a peaceful way. That is our hope.

I know that there are overlapping claims in the South China Sea, which includes several Asian members and China. I really hope we can find a peaceful solution. China is an emerging power economically, politically, and in its military. I hope that the rise of China could be part of the solution for Asia and the world. If China could play this role, it wouldn't cause fresh tension and it could strengthen global cooperation.

STEVENS: This is a country with a population of about 250 million people. A young country. A vibrant democracy. Do you think there is a case that Indonesia should be another "I" in BRIC? Brazil, Russia, India, Indonesia, and China?

YUDHOYONO, (through translator): Yes, that is for history to decide. How we grow as an emerging economy. But, definitely, we are working hard to increase our potential growth and maintain our economic sustainability. If Indonesia's economy grows enough to be considered an emerging economy, we will be pleased.

Indonesia is part of the G20. Our economy is one of the 20 largest in the world. So, this is momentum we have to keep.

STEVENS: You will leave office in 2014. What then? Retirement? Another job? Diplomacy, perhaps?

YUDHOYONO, (through translator): I've discussed with my wife and family that, after 10 years leading this country, I will leave politics. It's better for me to do other things. Perhaps helping educate young leaders or maybe write a book sharing my experience as a leader of this country. That's probably my plan in the future. I will become an ordinary citizen who wishes to see Indonesia perform better. I will try to help future presidents do their job better than I've done.

STEVENS: This is a question you will probably get many times from now. And that is the question of your legacy. 10 years as president - what would you like your legacy to be?

YUDHOYONO, (through translator): For my legacy, I will leave it to history. For the people to judge me. But, perhaps, I would like to be remembered as a leader who worked hard and gave all his best in an era of transformation, an era full of challenges. And, with all the achievements and shortcomings, I want to be remembered as someone who tried to do his best. I'm happy with that, because transformation will continue after my presidency. I hope to be remembered as one of the leaders who brought significant change in this country. That's probably how I would like it to be, if we're talking about legacy.

STEVENS: Can I just ask you one more question, just about your music - your love of music? Do you mind?

YUDHOYONO: Go ahead.

STEVENS: Thank you, sir, thank you. You are, of course, famous for your singing voice. I wonder, what does music bring into your life? How important is it to you?

YUDHOYONO, (through translator): When I was a teenager, I joined a band and I played in that band for about seven years. I like music and songs. After joining politics and becoming president, I became aware of the pressure to make decisions for the public, who could sometimes be impatient.

Their problems are delicate and complex. The best way to escape from these pressures is to write songs to express my thoughts and feelings and communicate with the people.



YUDHOYONO, (through translator): And, other than that, it's my favorite pastime. I usually ask my staff to sing together as a way to relax. And this is quite important for me to relieve the pressure. This is what I wanted to relate to them through composing songs and releasing albums.

STEVENS: Mr. President, thank you so much for your time.

YUDHOYONO: You're welcome.

STEVENS: It's been a great honor. Thank you.

YUDHOYONO: Thank you, thank you.