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Subroto: Man of His Country

Hari ini bursa saham Indonesia merosot 7%, menyusul mata uang rupiah yang telah jatuh sejak awal minggu ini. Saatnya bernostalgia dengan para ekonom yang membangun Indonesia sejak awal Orde Baru, menyusun Repelita yang berhasil membawa Indonesia swasembada beras pada tahun 1985. Sayangnya, perubahan arah pembangunan ekonomi dan KKN yang menghabiskan anggaran setelah 1989, memporak-porandakan keseluruhan Repelita pembangunan nasional.

As a central member of Suharto's economic team, Subroto played a key role in liberalizing the country's economy during the New Order regime.
 As a central member of Suharto's economic team, Subroto played a key role in liberalizing the country's economy during the New Order regime.
At the age of 88, economist Subroto has not only witnessed the birth and growth of the Indonesian nation, he has also played a key role in shaping it.

Subroto was considered one of the most powerful technocratic brains behind the economic reforms of President Suharto's New Order regime. And he was one of the figures who helped dismantle it.

With age, the professor has begun to think philosophically about the part he played in building the nation. He likens his position to the character of Bisma, the warrior-teacher from the Mahabharata, the famous Hindu epic, who lived so long that he knew everyone from five generations.

"I was raised in the Javanese tradition," Subroto said. "In my youth, wayang stories [from the Mahabharata] were used to teach children about good and evil, about right and wrong, proper and improper."

Bisma is essentially a peaceful character and a reluctant warrior. But when he does choose sides, he is formidable in battle. Like Bisma, Subroto chose sides at different points in his life and fought, he says, for what he believed was right.

In his early years as a military cadet, he was a freedom fighter for Indonesian independence who believed the nation belonged to its people. But after graduating with flying colors from the military academy, Subroto chose to serve his country by studying law and economics at the University of Indonesia.

At that time, the dean of the economics department was Sumitro Djojohadikusumo, who would later become a minister in the New Order regime. It was thanks to Sumitro's efforts that Subroto was granted a scholarship to McGill University in Montreal, Canada, where he earned his master's degree. From there, Subroto studied at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Stanford University and Harvard.

In the late 1950s, Sumitro initiated a scholarship program between the University of Indonesia and the University of California, Berkeley, sponsored by the Ford Foundation. New Order figures like Emil Salim, Mohammad Sadli and Ali Wardhana all took part in the program.

These three Berkeley graduates, along with Subroto and Sumitro, later banded together to become the core of Suharto's cabinet. The young economists impressed the president through their involvement in a series of seminars run through the Seskoad military academy.

"It was during one of these seminars that the first five-year economic plan, or pelita, was presented," Subroto said. "After the seminar, Pak Suharto asked us to become members of his economic team, his advisers."

The US-educated economists became the driving force behind the liberal economic reforms of the New Order.

"We were called the 'Gang of Five,' " Subroto said. "Never before had a team of five economists been able to reduce three-digit inflation to one digit in only a couple of years. The international community praised us. It was a real achievement."

But not everyone was impressed. In a piece written in 1970, American leftist writer and activist David Ransom dubbed them the "Berkeley Mafia" for their role in assisting Suharto's consolidation of power over Indonesian politics.

Ransom criticized the way the academic background of the economists helped legitimize the transition to the New Order in the eyes of international observers, despite the bloodshed that accompanied it, which Ransom called "the largest massacre in modern history."

They were further criticized for their unchecked push toward privatization and for a perceived overemphasis on macroeconomic policies.

As if in response to such criticism, Subroto said his team's five-year plan did not forget about the impoverished.

"Our plan was to develop agriculture, with food self-sufficiency as the main concern," he said.

The team has since been praised for its success in bringing Indonesia back from the brink of famine in the mid-1960s and for sparking three decades of strong economic growth.

"I think the best of our achievements were attaining food self-sufficiency and monetary control," Subroto said.

And Subroto defends the military approach of the New Order during those early years as necessary. "A country needs a strong vision. A strong vision needs strong leadership," he said. "Yes, we sacrificed some things during those years. But other countries, like Korea and China, did the same."

But Subroto didn't agree with everything the New Order did. In 1988, he said, having become disillusioned with the direction the government was taking, Subroto left the cabinet to work for the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries in Vienna.

"Until the fourth pelita, everything was going well. We were progressing," Subroto said. "But things changed after that."

In the fifth five-year economic plan, he said, the government put much more money into developing high-tech industries. It wasn't a good move, he said.

"If we had continued to develop agriculture as planned, instead of high-tech aircraft engineering, I believe our situation would have been different," he said.

Subroto said he had also come to disapprove of the regime's blatant nepotism.

"After about five terms in power, Pak Suharto gradually changed from a man of his country into a man of his family," he said.

In Subroto's opinion, the shift occurred because the old team of ministers had been replaced in the inner circle by new officials who did not dare give Suharto any advice about the business of his children or close friends.

After his years at OPEC, Subroto developed Bimasena, a mining and energy society intended to facilitate communication between the government, academics and the private sector. The name was taken from a hero of the Mahabharata, known popularly as Bima, who is depicted as honest and brave.

Now independent from the government, Subroto took on social activism projects. His position on some issues put him in opposition to his former boss, Suharto.

In May 1998, Subroto and a group of academics, artists and community leaders established the National Reform Movement. Their goal was to "rescue the nation" from the social and economic impacts of the Asian financial crisis. The group rallied in support of the student protests that eventually led to the resignation of Suharto after 32 years in power.

Subroto has remained active in the national life. The day before our interview, he attended four meetings from morning until 11 p.m. He swims regularly, walks daily and thinks about money and politics.

"My two favorite wayang characters are both teachers," Subroto said. "The first is Abiyasa, who spent his life as a wandering hermit. Abiyasa would never go to war. The second is Bisma, the warrior. Pak Widjojo [Nitisastro, former head of the National Development Planning Agency], I would say is Abiyasa."

And Subroto himself? He raised his fist and answered: "Bisma!"

"I still have energy to work for our country," he said. "There are still big dreams in this country. And as Nelson Mandela once said, 'Winners are dreamers who never give up.' "

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