Why is Indonesia fixated on Fisheries Minister Susi?

Jet Damazo-Santos
Indonesia’s most popular cabinet minister is a straight-talking high school dropout and self-made millionaire. Can she get the job done?

JAKARTA, Indonesia – “Am I a celebrity or a minister?” Susi Pudjiastuti asks the small group of reporters crowded in her office early on a Friday morning.

It’s a fair question. Indonesia’s Ministry of Maritime Affairs and Fisheries is not one of the popular or sexy ministries, so it doesn’t usually receive much media interest. Not until the 49-year-old self-made fisheries businesswoman behind Susi Air,  one of the largest charter airlines in the world, was appointed to lead it on October 27.

In the first couple of weeks after Susi’s appointment, headlines and online chatter were generated by her smoking habit, her tattoo, the fact that she didn’t finish high school, her foreign ex-husbands, her being a single mom, and all the other things about her that Indonesians found odd in a cabinet minister.

She may be a millionaire who calls a hotel suite in Jakarta home, but she’s the polar opposite of the stereotype of a rich Indonesian woman – the type who wouldn’t get out of the house without perfectly coiffed hair and a designer handbag on her arm. Journalist Uni Lubis, who knows Susi personally, says she would usually find Susi dressed in a duster even when working.  

That was during her pre-ministerial life. Now, she has to dress up – preferably in something long enough to cover the tattoo snaking up her right leg – and look after her public image. She bemoans her lost privacy, and says she has to be careful about everything she says. She can’t even smoke freely like any other Indonesian.

“I never feel I’m eccentric. I just want to be the way I am,” she says. “I will try to be like what people expect, but I don’t think I can.”

Local media – both political and celebrity news sites – seem to have dug up everything they can find out about her. When the Internet discovered that her daughter from her Swiss ex-husband is a gorgeous young lady, they tried to pair her with President Joko “Jokowi” Widodo’s teenage son. (That’s her daughter Nadine Kaiser in the tweet on the left from Jokowi’s son Kaesang Pangarep, who said he wouldn’t dare approach her.)

It’s a kind of interest never before seen for a minister – especially not the maritime affairs minister.

One reporter asks why she thinks there’s so much interest in her. She shrugs and says she doesn’t really know.

“Maybe because of my educational background, it is not appropriate for the position,” she answers in English, which many journalists were surprised to learn she was fluent in.

“But it can also be the way I put facts on the table, because I’m a straightforward person. The country is not used to it yet.”

Or maybe it’s just because she is indeed a little bit on the crazy side.

‘Crazy’ lady

There was the time she sank an old truck into the sea to turn it into an artificial reef, an employee said, because it was bought using proceeds from fisheries anyway.  

To grow her West Java-based fisheries business, she figured she needed to get the seafood to the market as soon as possible. So she spent 4 years convincing banks that “lower seafood mortality rate” can pay for a $2-million loan for a light aircraft. And they apparently agreed, allowing her to buy the first plane of what would eventually be Susi Air.

When the devastating tsunami struck Aceh in 2004, she was the first to fly in officials and journalists into Banda Aceh using her new plane, spending tens of thousands of dollars in the process. 

The President himself has said she’s “crazy.” In a post on Jokowi’s official Facebook account a few days after the cabinet was formally inaugurated, he said Susi told her she was surprised to be named minister, since she’s been called “crazy” for her ideas and cricitisms of former fisheries ministers. His response was: “Yes, I do need a crazy person in order to make a breakthrough.”




So far, she seems to be living up to it.

First, she immediately announced a moratorium on issuing licenses to large foreign fishing vessels in order to give her time to sort out the industry’s issues and address the serious problem of illegal fishing.

Then, as the President was about to make his debut at the G20 Summit, she said Indonesia should quit the prestigious club. Being a member meant Indonesia’s fishery exports were imposed a 14% tariff, she said.

In one of her latest controversial statements, she upped the ante on Jokowi’s threat to sink ships caught illegally fishing in Indonesian waters. “If President Jokowi gives me a go, I will bomb them using Susi Air. [I have] a fleet of 50 planes ready to bomb each and every one of them,” she said, according to Tempo.co.

IN CHARGE. Fisheries Minister Susi Pudjiastuti leading a press briefing with the ministry's director generals. Photo by Jet Damazo-Santos/Rappler

She means business 

But she is serious about getting the job done, which is to eradicate illegal fishing, make sure Indonesia earns more than what it spends on the sector, and leave behind a sustainable fishing industry. 

“I fear that in the future our children and grandchildren won’t have these natural resources anymore,” she says.

“I’m not trying to create disincentives for the investment climate in Indonesia, but I want our country to become an active partner in the growth of the seafood market, not just an audience. Our country is 5 times bigger than other countries; our export should also be 5 times bigger.”

She knows from experience that you can generate a sustainable income from fisheries, and that a dogged business-minded approach is what she’s bringing into the management of the sector.

“I mean in the end a country is an enterprise,” she says. “If what we spend is not equal with what we earn…we’ll be bankrupt.”

So she says she doesn’t think she’s eccentric, she’s just being who she is – genuine and sincere.

“That’s what makes me probably different. And in marketing being different, I heard, is a good point.” – Rappler.com

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