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Green groups cautiously optimistic about Indonesia’s new maritime minister

  • Ramli has a long resume as a manager within the Indonesian government and private sector.
  • In the 1990s, he founded an economic think-tank critical of the Suharto administration and spent a year in prison for leading a rally opposing Suharto’s reelection.
  • He has also criticized the Jokowi administration, writing in a recent Wall Street Journal op-ed that the president’s ‘laundry-list approach to policy making makes for good public relations but not much else.’

On Thursday, Rizal Ramli replaced Indroyono Soesilo as Indonesia’s coordinating minister of maritime affairs.

The task of overseeing multiple ministries is not foreign to Ramli, who served as coordinating minister of economic affairs from 2000 to 2001, under former Indonesian president Abdurrahman Wahid. But environmental groups are cautiously optimistic as he takes the helm to Indonesian president Joko “Jokowi” Widodo’s ambitious plan to redefine the archipelago as a maritime axis.

“Ramli is good from the standpoint of economic issues,” said Taufiq Alimi of conservation outfit RARE. “However, I know nothing of his handle on sustainability and carrying capacity.” Abdul Halim from the National Coalition for Fisheries Justice (KIARA) echoed Alimi’s opinion, calling Ramli “brave, clean and a keen critic” whose “background in economics will strengthen maritime Indonesia” and hoping that the new minister’s goals for “economic growth be balanced with environmental sustainability.”

Ramli’s resume as a manager within the Indonesian government and private sector runs long. He has been finance minister, head of the National Logistics Board and president commissioner of the national cement company, Semen Gresik, now known as Semen Indonesia.

Most prominent in the mind of political observers is Ramli’s role as a founder of Econit Advisory Group, an economic think-tank critical of the Suharto administration in the 1990s. Ramli even landed in prison for a year during his student days when he led a rally opposing Suharto’s reelection.

A fishing boat off the coast of Java in Indonesia. Photo: Rhett Butler

His critical streak reemerged after Jokowi took office. Over the past few months, Ramli has criticized the administration’s management of the economy in various national news outlets. In a June 30th opinion piece in the Wall Street Journal, he warned that “despite what the president or his advisers may wish to believe, an economic storm is brewing…Jokowi’s] laundry-list approach to policy making makes for good public relations but not much else.”

Ramli’s editorial carries on into a prescription of how he thinks the government should boost the economy: increase infrastructure spending, revalue state-owned enterprises, increase credit options for exporters with state banks and control price inflation on imported foodstuffs.

Ramli’s ideas will have plenty of chance to be put to the test. As coordinating minister of maritime affairs, he will take charge of Jokowi’s $6 billion investment plan to construct a national “sea toll road.” The administration’s plans include expanding 24 ports across the archipelago in the next five years — 11 for passenger traffic, 13 for freight.

“Indroyono was also slow to carry out the development of marine transportation facilities,” concurred Alimi from RARE. A question many environmental advocates are asking, though, is whether Ramli can captain the construction of Jokowi’s marine toll road with enough consideration for Indonesia’s rich coastal and marine environment, which includes one of the longest coastlines in the world and a third of global fish and coral diversity.

Indonesia’s new coordinating minister of maritime affairs, Rizal Ramli (right), shakes hands with his predecessor, Indroyono Soesilo, at a press event on Thursday. Six ministers were replaced in a cabinet reshuffle. Photo: Maritime Affairs and Fisheries Ministry

Alimi pins his hopes on a “workable equilibrium” between Maritime Affairs and Fisheries Minister Susi Pudjiastuti and the new coordinating minister. “Susi is very dedicated to conservation and protecting the environment,” he said. “Rizal is an economist. He will probably push fishery production. Sometimes it may not be easy for the two to be in a room together but hopefully that will be a good tension.”

For his part, outgoing minister Soesilo left with a gracious tweet, saying, “Rizal Ramli’s goals will be realized. He is an ITB [Bandung Institute of Technology] alumni. He understands technical [matters].”