Kuntoro Mangkusubroto: Integrity, simplicity and asceticism

Kuntoro Mangkusubroto - JP/ R. Berto Werdhatama
Kuntoro Mangkusubroto – JP/ R. Berto Werdhatama

Kuntoro Mangkusubroto is not a minister, but he makes sure that ministries and government institutions work effectively under the presidential guidelines that he helped draw up.

At the first Cabinet meeting in November last year, President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono said that Kuntoro, the former Aceh-Nias Reconstruction and Rehabilitation Agency (BRR) head, would, “if necessary, be my eyes, my ears and my hands”.

Two months after completing his five-year task of managing the reconstruction and rehabilitation of tsunami-devastated Aceh in April last year, Kuntoro was back to work, drawing up a five-year development plan for Yudhoyono, summarizing it in a 100-day and one-year program that would be the foundation for the country’s development toward 2014.

He told the President that the task to monitor the implementation of the plan should not be attached to a ministry but should instead be carried out by a special unit to give it more focus. As a result, Kuntoro now heads a strategic unit called the Presidential Work Unit for Development Monitoring and Control (UKP4).

When the 100th day of Yudhoyono’s second term fell on Feb. 1, Kuntoro, whose unit was to make sure all 34 ministries and governmental institution achieved their targets, red marked two ministries for failing to attain their goals.

The Agriculture Ministry failed to complete a large-scale commercial farming and food estate project in Merauke, Papua, while the Education Ministry fell agonizingly short of its target of upgrading the skills 30,000 school principals and supervisors by Feb. 1. Only around 27,000 had received the training.
Despite the Education Ministry updating its report two days after the deadline, highlighting an extra 2,700 teachers’ skills had been upgraded, Kuntoro still gave the ministry a red mark.

“I’m only following the President’s orders. There no goal that’s a half goal. It’s either goal or not, one or nil,” he said recently about the red marks. He said that even if the ministry had fallen short by one, he would still have given it a red mark.

Analysts have said that Kuntoro’s new unit, the first ever in Indonesia’s history, is similar to that of former British prime minister Tony Blair’s delivery unit or the White House’s West Wing. Kuntoro said the comparison was valid, but there are differences.

“Tony Blair’s delivery unit had the right to intervene. We don’t intervene. We only back up [the ministries] and remind them, ask them how they are progressing,” he said.

“We respect their authority. We just remind them by saying ‘Hey, watch out, you might miss your targets’,” he said.

Sitting in his office at the presidential secretariat complex, Kuntoro dressed casually in a short sleeved blue shirt. A graduate from the Bandung Institute of Technology and Stanford University in Industrial Engineering, Kuntoro said he’d had a zigzagging career path. He started out as a lecturer in 1972, worked as expert staff for the government, became director of state-owned mining companies, energy minister under Soeharto’s administration, director of state-owned electricity company (PLN), and head of the BRR.

While at the BRR, he headed a giant agency of 1,500 staff. He now employs 16 staff, most of whom have PhDs. With four deputies and 12 assistants, he said his team worked in a matrix system of management. Each person in his team could be involved in several projects as a team member or team leader. A deputy might be the team leader in one project and be a team member under an assistant in another project.

“No one is without work,” he said.

Overseeing the reconstruction of Aceh, Kuntoro said he had to start from scratch without any guidance. He learned from many mistakes on the job but kept his cool despite the frustrating conditions.

There was no blueprint for Banda Aceh’s master plan. To draw one, it would have to be approved by the City Council, which had collapsed. So we started building without a master plan. When we found that we had built houses on what was supposed to be a street, we had to demolish them. We learned from mistakes,” he said.

In the Presidential Work Unit, however, the work is so strategic that there is no room for errors, he said. “It’s very complex here, because we’re talking sectors such as agriculture, health, transportation,” he said.

“This is the top of government’s programs. We cannot make mistakes, because if we do, the impacts will be huge,” he said.

His staff work in one room and sit facing each other at a large oval table with laptops. He casually introduced his team members to The Jakarta Post: “That’s Tara. This is Aichida, an anthropologist,” he said. He pointed the other members of the team: “These two on the corner are from the Central Bank”.

Newspapers and several notebooks were strewn across the table. “They’re usually tidier than this,” he joked. The team works and holds meetings in the one room. “So that everyone knows what’s happening with each other,” he said.

Kuntoro said his team’s background has a very healthy mix. His members include a doctor in economics, a doctor in engineering, a doctor in urban spatial planning and a doctor in remote sensing.

His egalitarian approach to work seems to echo Kuntoro’s way of life. He said he was not too caught up with hierarchy or position. Kuntoro has always kept a clean image. For him integrity, simplicity and asceticism, are central to his set of values.

“We should live according to what we need,” he said. Kuntoro said he currently rides in his minister’s car, a Toyota Crown. “But after this position ends, I’ll go back to my [Toyota] Kijang,” he said.

“We should not see cars as a symbol of achievement. A car is for getting around.”

Given his busy schedule, Kuntoro said he liked to skip lunch and go for a swim. He spends his free time reading biographies of great men of science and with his family. He has five sons. “Four are married and have given me grandchildren,” he said.

He said he never preached the values he holds to his family. If a father was lazy, he added, no matter how much he preached about hard work, it would never work.

“In a family, there’s never an effective way to preach. They can see you, there’s not one second when they can be fooled.”

Prodita Sabarini, The Jakarta Post, Jakarta | Life | Mon, February 15 2010

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