By Ronna Nirmala
Indonesia’s president replaced six ministers in a cabinet shakeup on Tuesday, including the health minister who was heavily criticized for his handling of the coronavirus pandemic, which dragged Southeast Asia’s biggest economy into its worst recession in 22 years.
President Joko “Jokowi” Widodo sacked Minister of Health Terawan Agus Putranto and replaced him with Budi Gunadi Sadikin, a banker and the deputy minister of state enterprises, to help deal with the pandemic.
With nearly 700,000 coronavirus cases and more than 20,000 COVID-19-related deaths, Indonesia is the country in East Asia that is hardest hit by the pandemic.
Jokowi also replaced two ministers who had been arrested on corruption-related charges.
The new ministers of health, trade, social affairs, religious affairs, maritime affairs and fisheries, and tourism and creative economy, are to be sworn into office on Wednesday.
“This happy afternoon, I would like to announce the new ministers who will be members of the Advanced Indonesia Cabinet,” Jokowi said in a brief announcement as he introduced the half-dozen new cabinet members at the presidential palace, accompanied by Vice President Ma’ruf Amin.
The cabinet shakeup was Jokowi’s first since he was elected to a second term last year. He reshuffled his cabinet twice during his previous five-year term.
In June, Jokowi had hinted about a possible reshuffle. He warned his ministers that he would take “extraordinary steps” if they failed to take the COVID-19 crisis seriously. At the time, Jokowi lamented that his cabinet lacked a “sense of crisis.”
Terawan, for one, was accused of making light of the coronavirus after he said in February – before the first coronavirus cases were detected in Southeast Asia’s most populous country – that Indonesia had been spared of the disease because of the power of prayers.
During the same month, Terawan had brushed off as “insulting” a report by researchers at Harvard University who said Indonesia was underreporting COVID-19 cases.
Observers, however, are divided over Jokowi’s pick of Budi as the new health minister.
Budi has no medical or public health credentials. He is a nuclear scientist by training, who once served as director of the state-owned Bank Mandiri.
“We regret that the health minister is not from the health discipline. Because managing health is not the same as managing a state-owned company,” Hermawan Saputra, a member of the Indonesian Public Health Expert Association’s board of experts, told BenarNews.
“What needs be strengthened is the directorate general of public health services, which is at the forefront of dealing with pandemics. A health minister should understand these issues,” he said.
On Tuesday, Indonesia reported 6,347 new coronavirus cases, taking the nationwide total to 687,125, according to the Ministry of Health. In addition, 172 deaths overnight brought the virus-related death toll to 20,257.
An Indonesian epidemiologist at Griffith University in Australia, Dicky Budiman, expressed the hope that Budi would follow science in dealing with the pandemic.
“When it comes to pandemics, I think my message is: Comply with WHO recommendations. Vaccine is not everything and is not a silver bullet. I’m aware he is involved in the vaccine process,” Budiman told BenarNews, referring to the World Health Organization.
Rissalwan Habdy Lubis, a public policy expert at the University of Indonesia, called on people to give Budi a chance to do the job in his new post.
“We need a health minister who has managerial and planning skills because without bureaucratic reform, it will be useless. This is the right time,” Rissalwan told BenarNews.
“Let the doctors take care of technical matters for the ministry. Let’s give Mr Budi Gunadi the opportunity to show his abilities,” he said.
Among the other new ministerial appointments:
• Tri Rismaharini, the mayor of Surabaya – Indonesia’s second largest city – replaced Juliari Batubara, who resigned as social affairs minister after being arrested on charges of embezzling pandemic aid funds.
• Sakti Wahyu Trenggono, the deputy defense minister, replaced Edhy Prabowo as minister of maritime affairs and fisheries. Indonesian anti-corruption authorities arrested Prabowo on charges tied to a decision by him to award companies permits to export baby lobsters.
• Muhammad Lutfi, a businessman and the current ambassador to the United States, replaced Agus Suparmanto as trade minister.
• Sandiaga Uno, the former deputy governor of Jakarta and a businessman, replaced Wishnutama Kusubandio as minister of tourism and creative economy.
• And Yaqut Cholil Qoumas, head of the youth wing of Indonesia’s largest Islamic organization, Nahdlatul Ulama, replaced Fachrul Razi as religious affairs minister.
The chairman of the Indonesian Chamber of Commerce and Industry, Rosan Roeslani, praised Jokowi for the appointments of Budi, Lutfi and Sandiago, saying the picks sent a positive signal to the business community.
“With this shake-up, economic acceleration will occur more rapidly. The new ministers, especially those dealing with the business world, really understand business and governance,” Rosan told BenarNews.
Last month, the economy fell into a recession for the first time since the Asian financial crisis in 1998. Gross domestic product shrank by 5.32 percent year-on-year in the second quarter, but contracted less in the third quarter, which suggested that the country was on a path to recovery, officials said.
Sandiaga, for his part, said Jokowi asked him to revamp the tourism sector, which has been badly hit by the pandemic.
“The tourism sector contributes to jobs which are now under threat because so many tourism operators have been forced to lay off workers or reduce working hours,” Sandiaga told reporters.
New religion minister is a critic of hardline groups
Meanwhile, the appointment of Yaqut – a vocal critic of Islamic extremism – as religious affairs minister comes when tensions between the government and the anti-vice Islamic Defenders Front (FPI) are rising after the group’s founder, firebrand cleric Muhammad Rizieq Shihab, returned home last month from three years of self-exile in Saudi Arabia, said a political observer at the Jakarta State Islamic University.
“His first acts as minister will be highly anticipated, especially in dealing with FPI,” Adi Prayitno told BenarNews.
“This will be the religious affairs minister versus FPI head-to-head,” he said.
On Dec. 7, police killed six FPI members who were traveling with Rizieq, in a shooting that officers described as self-defense.
Police said the group attacked officers who were following Rizieq’s motorcade after they received information that the cleric’s supporters were planning a demonstration at police headquarters to protest the preacher being called in for questioning on allegations that he violated COVID-19 restrictions during events in November.
But FPI said the six were victims of extrajudicial killings and called for an independent investigation.
Rizieq was arrested on Dec. 13 for allegedly flouting coronavirus restrictions by organizing large gatherings after his homecoming last month. He could face up to six years in prison if convicted on charges of breaking the quarantine order and inciting others.