‘Billy’ Joedono inspires trust

Fri, Oct. 03, 2003

Evi Mariani, The Jakarta Post, Jakarta

Satrio “Billy” Joedono is proud to be an honest man, and nobody, not even his enemies — if he has any — would dare to argue with him on this.

But the important point is that he is an honest and humble man who enjoys life; he listens to music, he hangs out with his friends and he is rather partial to the odd glass of alcohol.

When he was a Cabinet minister, he lived in a modest apartment which he bought during his stint as a lecturer at the University of Indonesia (UI). It did not have a garage to house the classy Volvo car the government provided, so a driver had to park the car and wait for him in an alley every morning. He was often seen carrying an old brown leather bag during that time.

“I felt a certain pride coming out from the alley in the B 20,” he said, referring to the police registration number that was reserved for Cabinet ministers. Billy chuckled at the memory as he talked to The Jakarta Post in his spacious office in the Supreme Audit Agency (BPK) building on Jl. Gatot Subroto No. 31, Central Jakarta.

It was in 1993, that the Soeharto administration appointed him the highest position in the Ministry of Trade, which at that time was separate from the Ministry of Industry.

Even though he and his wife Ani Chaerani, whom he married in 1970, now live in a bigger house in the affluent Patra Kuningan neighborhood, he has not changed much. He still wears a dull brown uniform to the office and rarely uses his mobile phone.

Billy bought the house at a discounted price in a dilapidated condition shortly before he left for Paris in 1996. He borrowed money from a friend to help pay for the house. Later, when he became an ambassador and was paid in foreign currency, he reaped a windfall profit from the fast weakening rupiah and “we could repay our debt to our friend in full.”

Billy was sent to Paris as an ambassador after he was dismissed in 1995, after only two years of service with the Ministry of Trade. His dismissal drew attention from the press, prompting many questions as Cabinet ministers usually hold their position for at least five years.

Many people nicknamed him “Mr. Clean” for his courage in fighting corruption, collusion and nepotism in his ministry during Soeharto’s administration. Not many government officials, then or now, can boast of such a respectable nickname, given the fact that the power which they hold gives them ample opportunity to be corrupt.

“Billy is a friend with whom we enjoy fun times. But as a koneksi (a friend who has power), he is useless,” said Nono Anwar Makarim, laughing. Nono, an international law expert and a founder of the Aksara Foundation (which promotes reading but is no relation to the bookstore of the same name), has known Billy for about 40 years.

He remembers asking Billy, who was then Assistant to the Coordinating Minister for Economic and Financial Affairs, Radius Prawiro, to talk to the minister about making an accessible registry on company data.

“He said that he did not feel comfortable about using his position to help his friends, even for good,” Nono told the Post. “I didn’t even ask the ministry to fund the project. I promised to find the funds from donors if the government approved, yet he refused.”

He recalled the time when he was visiting Paris and met up with Billy. As one of Billy’s drinking buddies he expected to partake in an expensive wine. Instead, Billy served him cheap wine called pastisse, saying “this is what poor intellectuals drink.” He mixed the wine with iced water.

“Billy is no snob. People see him as a collection of extinct norms… integrity… a strict boundary between what belongs to him and what belongs to the public,” said Nono.

Born on Dec. 1, 1940 in Pangkalpinang, Bangka Belitung province, Billy was raised in an educated Javanese family. His father was a doctor who was often moved from province to province on tours of duty. He was first formally educated in an elementary school — Pangkalpinang — with a Dutch headmaster.

“When he filled out the registration form, my father wrote my full name as Satrio Budihardjo Joedono, and my nickname as Gembili. That was what he called me at home,” he said. “Gembili in the Javanese language are small, round and black-skinned potatoes. And I was indeed round and black at that time.” Because the Dutch headmaster had difficulty in pronouncing “Gembili” the nickname became “Billy.”

From Pangkalpinang his family moved to other provinces and Billy spent his high school and university years in Jakarta. In 1963 he graduated from the Faculty of Economics at UI and the following year received a scholarship for a post graduate degree at the United States’ University of Pittsburgh. After completing the post graduate degree he commenced a doctorate in 1966 from New York State University in Albany, majoring in state administration. It was around the time when the flower-power generation was blooming and Billy, of course, did not miss out on the fun.

“I listened to The Doors, Janis Joplin, Bob Dylan,” he said grinning. “When I went back to Indonesia I was famous as the lecturer who wore jeans and had long hair, but still held a doctorate degree.”

From being an academic, he shifted to a career in the government, starting in 1970 as an assistant to the trade minister. Later, from 1986 to 1988, he was assistant to B.J. Habibie, then the research and technology minister.

His close relationship to Habibie gave rise to doubts when in 1998 he was appointed the head of the National Audit Agency (BPK), right after Habibie replaced Soeharto as president. But doubts were erased when he proved his independence in dealing with the Bank Bali case, in which Habibie was allegedly involved.

Up to this day, people still respect him as an authority in the fight against corruption in the country. As the only head of BPK to hold the position during the leadership of three presidents — namely Habibie, Abdurrahman Wahid and Megawati Soekarnoputri — he concludes that all three lack the willpower to curb corruption.

“Many of the country’s leaders think that governing gives them the right to impose taxes. They act like pre-modern era kings,” he said.

However, he still believes that corruption can be curbed by setting up a clean system and strict rules. He has not given up yet. “I see my position in BPK as a trust that the people have bestowed on me,” he said. “When I was newly elected as head of BPK, I visited the BPK representative office in Makassar and said my Friday prayers at the mosque in that city.”

“After praying, when I put on my shoes, somebody behind me touched my shoulder, saying ‘Pak, please safeguard the people’s money. Until now I haven’t got the faintest idea who the person was…. He was a face in the crowd, but I took his words as the people’s will.”

“I’ve been keeping that in mind during my five years here. And if I’m appointed again as the head of BPK after this five year term, I will still keep that in mind.”

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