Dahlan Iskan is not your typical bureaucrat. The state enterprises minister, who dropped out of university and went on to become a journalist, a media mogul and finally a government official, is known for some eccentricities.
Just look back to March 20, when he went ballistic while waiting more than 20 minutes during his morning commute in Semanggi, Central Jakarta, because only two of four tollgates were open. The 60-year-old minister, who drives his own car without the typical police escorts to clear traffic, felt responsible for the poor service of state-owned toll operator Jasa Marga, which falls under his department. His solution? He opened the gates and allowed the cars to pass for free.
The move was, in many ways, characteristic of Dahlan, a man who likes to be on the go. Unlike many of his peers, he eschews dark suits and immaculate formal shoes in favor of long white shirts rolled at the elbow and sneakers. He takes economy-class trains to the city outskirts and talks with commuters and peddlers, and if he’s running late for cabinet meetings he hops on an ojek, a motorcycle taxi.
His recent actions at the toll road have been lauded by the public, but they also sparked controversy in the government. In April, 38 members of a House of Representatives commission sought to question him on his attempts to delegate power within his agency.
The minister’s reputation is growing. Earlier this month, rumors spread on Twitter that he would soon resign, a claim that he and a presidential palace spokesman denied. Others have speculated that he might run for president in 2014, saying that his humble lifestyle and people-oriented approaches are pencitraan , or simply intended to build a favorable public image.
A senior reporter in the Jawa Pos News Network, a Surabaya-based publishing group that the minister owns, denied these claims.
“If you knew him for a long time, you wouldn’t label his actions as pencitraan,” said the reporter, who asked not to be named. “He’s always been like that from the beginning. He’s that kind of person.”
So, who’s right? Who is Dahlan Iskan?
Dahlan was born to a poor farming family in Magetan, East Java, in 1951. His parents did not record or remember his precise date of birth, so on official certificates he says that his birthday is Aug. 17, the anniversary of Indonesia’s independence.
After graduating from the equivalent of high school, Dahlan left his hometown to live with his elder sister in Tepian, a small town near Samarinda in East Kalimantan.
“It changed my life,” he said earlier this month at the Ernst & Young Entrepreneurs Forum in Jakarta. “Migrating is very important because you come out of your comfort zone. Everything becomes new and challenging.”
In Samarinda he studied at the State Institute for Islamic Studies and the Universitas 17 Agustus 1945, but he never finished his degree.
“I became too busy in student activities,” he said.
Young Dahlan joined friends in student rallies to protest against the government. “I don’t believe that Indonesia, as a country, can be managed by only one person in Jakarta,” he said, referring to former President Suharto.
To voice his opinions, Dahlan joined a local newspaper as an apprentice reporter. A major publication, Tempo magazine, noticed his sharp and analytical writing and recruited him as their correspondent in Samarinda.
In 1975, Dahlan married his sweetheart, Nafsiah Sabri.
“It was another important decision in my life,” he said. “And I never regret it. She’s a good woman. She always supports me.”
That year, Tempo asked him to become their bureau chief in Surabaya, so the newly married couple moved to the big city and his career took off. In 1982, the magazine’s publisher appointed him chief executive of the media group’s Jawa Pos newspaper.
When he accepted the job, the newspaper was on the decline with only 6,000 copies in distribution. Within five years, he helped distribution reach 300,000.
Today, the Jawa Pos News Network is one of the biggest in Indonesia, with more than 150 newspapers and magazines in circulation.
Despite the success, the minister is humble. “I’m not a clever person,” he said. “I’m not smart. But I’m always willing to work hard.”
But the long hours and stress took a toll on Dahlan’s health. In 2007, he was diagnosed with advanced liver cirrhosis.
“At that time, the doctor predicted I had only six months left to live,” he said.
Dahlan then went to Tianjin, China, for a heart transplant, leaving his blooming newspaper business with his eldest son, Azrul Ananda.
“I left the company for two years,” he said. “Nothing bad happened, circulation increased and profit increased. Everything ran well in Azrul’s hands.”
Because things were going well, when he came back to Surabaya in 2009 he told his son he would not return to the paper. Instead, he wanted to spend his final years teaching at his own Islamic school in his hometown .
“My dream is to become a teacher for young students,” he said.
But President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono had other plans for him.
“Maybe at that time, SBY heard that I was jobless and decided to hire me,” he said with a laugh.
Yudhoyono called and asked him to become the chief executive of state electricity company Perusahaan Listrik Negara. “I told him I had no background whatsoever in electricity,” he said. “But the president was adamant.”
PLN was mired in problems at that time, struggling to cope with blackouts and a power shortage, but Dahlan threw himself wholeheartedly into the position. He started an initiative in 2010 to eradicate blackouts, building five new solar power plants in Maluku, North Sulawesi, Southeast Sulawesi, East Kalimantan and West Nusa Tenggara.
His goal was to construct 100 solar power plants by the end of 2012, but again, the president had other plans. Dahlan was summoned to become a minister.
“I cried,” he said. “I told him that it’s better for me to stay where I was so I could finish what I started.”
The promotion, however, was not negotiable.
In his new role, Dahlan started reducing the bureaucracy by cutting the number of department meetings in half.
“I used to think government officials were lazy,” he said. “But now I know it’s not true. They work very hard, but there aren’t any results. They attend so many meetings with no conclusions.”
The minister also slashed the number of government reports, which are usually filed in archives and forgotten.
“A lot of time and effort goes into making these reports, but nobody has the time to read them,” he said.
In November 2011, he issued a new ministerial decree that delegated part of his authority to the directors of state enterprises under his department.
“With the delegation, state enterprises will be able to work faster and more efficiently,” he said. “They can take practical decisions, without first seeking my approval.”
He is also working to invigorate Indonesia’s trade.
“We plan to deepen the harbors in Medan [North Sumatra], Batam [Riau Islands], Surabaya and Makassar [South Sulawesi] to accommodate larger boats, as well as build a new port in Sorong [West Papua] within two years,” he said.
As part of another new project, Manufacturing Hope, he makes unannounced visits to state enterprises and talks with staff members or schedules discussions at schools to spread his confidence about the future.
“Pessimism is contagious; so is optimism,” he said. “If we see the news on TV, it seems as if Indonesia is breaking apart and will probably go bankrupt next week. But this is not true.”
Many people are unaware of the good news, he said.
“Last year, our GDP [gross domestic product] surpassed that of the Netherlands,” he said. “That’s a big achievement that can make us optimistic, but not many people know about it.”
And of his personal agenda and rumors of presidential aspirations? For the first time, the minister seemed lost for words.
“I have no plans for that,” he said. “I personally believe that men cannot make decisions for a position as important as the president. Only God can make such decisions.”