Pedaling Bandung mayor peddles change
Ridwan "Emil" Kamil - one of Indonesia's new can-do regional leaders
18 April 2016
By: Duncan Graham

Indonesia has long been ranked CCC by international investors and visitors for Corruption, Crowds and Chaos – particularly in civic administration.

Until recently Bandung rightly deserved the triple C rating plus a minus mark. Once known as Parijs von Java’s because it represented the archipelagic version of the French capital, the place had lost its charm.

Tourists and escapees from sweaty and sultry Jakarta still made the 180-kilometer pilgrimage to the mountainside retreat, but progressively found their journey less than refreshing.

Textiles might be cheaper, the Sundanese cuisine more diverse, the art déco heritage quaint and the climate cooler at 770 meters elevation, but the downsides were becoming more off-putting.

Flooding from the Cikapundung River and its tributaries, and waste disposal from factories and residents were serious spoilers. Traffic got throttled in choke points and road discipline was an alien notion.

And that wasn’t all. Mayor Dada Rosada, who’d held the top job for a decade, had been exposed as a crook. Likewise secretary Edi Siswadi. Both men are now in jail after convictions for bribing judges to acquit officials charged with stealing social aid funds. 

To the astonishment of no one, national audits ranked the West Java capital a basket case for performance and service delivery. The place had become an Urban Planning 101 classic example of how not to run a city.

Time for a clean skin.  Enter Ridwan “Emil” Kamil, at first glance hardly the ideal candidate. At the time he was 42, a California-educated local lad with academic parents. He had no background in bureaucracy or local government.

His wife and two children weren’t keen on Dad entering government but Kamil claims they’ve adjusted, although he works 11 hours a day.

Instead of being appointed from the military (a favored labor pool during Soeharto’s New Order presidency) he was elected for a five-year term despite having a history in the soft science of building design, not bare-knuckle politics.

He’d formed a ginger group called the Creative City Forum after returning to Bandung in 2004, arguing that the nation’s major problems concern mismanagement and the failure to liberate and nurture imaginations, not a lack of creativity.

In Indonesian public life image frequently trumps merit. Kamil wasn’t known as a pompous person, and like former Jakarta governor turned President Joko “Jokowi” Widodo, made a virtue of being approachable. It’s an approach he says he’s maintained in office.

“I seldom use police motorcycle outriders to get me to meetings unless they are really urgent and I’ve run out of time,” he said during a visit to Wellington.  The compact capital of New Zealand has just one-fifth the population of Bandung.

“Otherwise I cycle or walk. I get to talk to people and hear their concerns. It also gives me time to think about ways to improve.”

There’s a space shortage in Indonesia’s third largest city (behind Jakarta and Surabaya), with 2.5 million citizens and a population density of more than 15,000 per square kilometer – a third higher than in the squashed Big Durian. 

However, there’s no dearth of ideas fermenting from the former lecturer and businessman, and the creative people his 2013 election attracted to move inland. He wants Bandung to become a “technopolis” – Indonesia’s Silicon Valley, drawing investors who demand a safe environment and well-run government.

Unsurprisingly voter confidence in local administration was in the pits when Kamil took over. So was morale among the 20,000 bureaucrats. The mayor gave a speech:

“Look guys, let’s forgive the past. Now you’ve got to go with a new leader. You’ll be like water – having to follow the shape of the container you get poured into. I’m demanding transparency – you must be open and accountable.

“I can’t be fooled. I know my way around. My credibility depends on my ability to introduce reform and that needs your support. Everything can be learned.  But this first year is going to be tough.”

And it was. Mindsets needed to shift gear and for many that was discomforting; few public servants thought like their boss or understood his outlook.

Not all wanted to be swept along by the new broom, and in his second year the exit doors opened. More will pass through when he returns from New Zealand, where he’s been a guest of Prime Minister John Key’s Asean Fellowship program.

In previous lives he’d taught at the prestigious Bandung Institute of Technology. In 2006 he was named as the British Council’s Young Creative Entrepreneur.

He’d also been a businessman and architect working on international commissions through his award-winning company Urbane Indonesia. These jobs led him to visit scores of overseas centers (he claims 155) – which helped frame views of an ideal place to live.

“I like Prague for its picture-postcard look and Kyoto because it has found the right balance between identity and modernity,” he said. “But for livability I prefer Melbourne.

“Safety for citizens must come first. Last year we started employing 1,500 neighborhood watchers who do things like helping control traffic and handle beggars.

“We defied an attempt this year by the Islamic Defenders’ Front to close down a theatre performance on the life of Tan Malaka. (The communist leader and nationalist was killed in 1949).

“Public transport is critical so people can move around easily. We are buying a fleet of electric busses and renting bikes to poor families to help children get to school.  Only 20 per cent use public transport – that has to increase.

“My vision is for light rail linking with other systems, like the high speed train connection with Jakarta. I don’t see the capital as a competitor, but the other end of an economic corridor

“To get more money for these and other initiatives we’ve formed partnerships with commerce and community. The town square has been developed with a business; a church paid for street work, a mosque helped clean buildings.

“When the public gets involved they own the place where they live. Volunteer trash pick-ups have been successful. The river is now much cleaner. Gotong royong (community self help) has long been part of village culture. We need to get that spirit back into the city.”

Problems remain. A cable car project announced four years ago has still to be completed. Rapid transit links with Jakarta remain problematic. The gulfs between idea and implementation remain unbridged. Old regulations remain as roadblocks.  “There are some things a mayor can’t do,” said Kamil.

This implies the man favors authoritarianism, a suggestion he’s quick to refute: “A mayor needs to lead by example. But at the same time he or she should be in the middle, to know what’s happening.

“I’ve set out to make Bandung a place of happiness, where people enjoy their community.” British behavioral scientist Paul Doolan’s book “Happiness by Design: Change what you do not how you think” has been an influence.

Kamil’s pre-election ideas are on a You Tube video Creativity and Design for Social Change in Cities. In the TEDx Jakarta speech he cites the famous Mahatma Gandhi quote: “Be the change that you want to see in the world.”

“Change is difficult. People can be apathetic and avoid doing something not because they are bad but because there are no alternatives,” he said. “We can’t always rely on rules.”

The mayor is a prolific tweeter with around 400,000 followers. Although a slight figure he’s easy to spot in Bandung with trademark geeky glasses and pork-pie hats, though he favors a blue Sundanese ikat (headscarf) for cultural events. 

He’s also a terabyte user of social media to sow and glean ideas. GAMPIL (Gadget Mobile Application for Licence) is an app used to accelerate business registration by small traders who can get access to microcredit programs.

Kamil loves lists, marshaling ideas and adding acronyms. Samples:

“You know of Pancasila (the nation’s five philosophical principles)?  We have Panca trottoir (sidewalk): Places to sit, good lighting, protective walls, flower pots and signage.”

Then there are the aphorisms: “Negative space equals negative experiences.” “We want a livable and loveable Bandung.” “Restore joy to city living.”

One-liners are easily dismissed as trite solutions to complex problems. Even the most creative and enthusiastic change makers can fail without the skills to wade through the cesspit of factional politics.

Along with Jakarta governor Basuki “Ahok” Tjahaja Purnama and Surabaya mayor Tri Rismaharini, Kamil is being billed by the media as one of Indonesia’s new can-do regional leaders elected through their competence, not connections.

The proof of reform comes with real facilities being used by contented electors over the long term, not as a platform for an individual’s higher ambitions. In the 2013 campaign he stood as an independent. Since then he’s been courted by the major parties.

Though he briefly toyed with the idea of higher office Kamil now says he’s not interested in a pitch for the Jakarta governorship.  Or beyond. Well, not yet.


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