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"I couldn't accept it," Ahok said of his first days in prison after being convicted of blasphemy charges. "I wanted to run away but I was afraid the prison guards would shoot me."   © Reuters
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Rage fuels Pertamina's Ahok, Indonesia's most talked about Christian

Basuki Tjahaja Purnama embraces life after prison atop state oil giant

ERWIDA MAULIA, Nikkei staff writer | Indonesia

JAKARTA -- As Jakarta's first Christian governor of Chinese descent, Basuki Tjahaja Purnama became a powerful symbol of tolerance in the world's most populous majority-Muslim country.

A protege of president Joko Widodo, Purnama -- known by his nickname Ahok -- was on track for another term when accusations that he had insulted Islam blew apart the 2017 gubernatorial race, then saw him convicted of blasphemy and jailed for nearly two years.

Languishing in prison, his marriage collapsing, was he hurt by the vicious injustice of the campaign that destroyed his political career? He felt it. Was he upset about it? He was enraged by it.

"The beginning of the imprisonment is the hardest time I've ever experienced," Ahok said in "Panggil Saya BTP" ("Call Me BTP"), a memoir written during his time in prison and published in January. "Extraordinary. Angry from feeling betrayed by people and feeling abandoned."

"I couldn't accept it," Ahok added. "I wanted to run away but I was afraid the prison guards would shoot me. I woke up in the middle of the night very often, couldn't sleep. My chest felt constricted and the back of my head felt hot."

As hard as he fell, despite his anger, Ahok, a devout Christian, kept faith with Indonesia's political elite.

If a week is a long time in politics, then a year seems like a lifetime. Released from jail in January last year, Ahok, 53, has remarried, is the father of a newborn son, and is now chairman of Pertamina, the Southeast Asian oil and gas giant.

Indonesia's largest company and its single most important state-owned enterprise, Pertamina booked $57.93 billion in revenue and $2.53 billion in net income in 2018.

Justifying Ahok's appointment, State Enterprise Minister Erick Thohi said Pertamina needed a "man who makes breakthroughs" to push through major changes in the company tasked with building Indonesia's energy security amid its reliance on oil imports and depleting oil reserves.

In March President Widodo, known as Jokowi, also named Ahok as a candidate to oversee the construction of Indonesia's new capital city, a feat that -- if it can be accomplished -- will not only define Jokowi's place in Indonesia's history but could also secure Ahok's legacy as well.

Looking relaxed and happy, Ahok sat for a rare interview with star Indonesian actress Luna Maya in April in the midst of a coronavirus lockdown that was broadcast on YouTube.

"Never thought I would be detained again," Ahok said, laughing at being unable to leave his home. "People asked how I work being imprisoned like this. I said, this is more enjoyable than in the [police] prison."

Basuki Tjahaja Purnama talks to star Indonesian actress Luna Maya on her YouTube channel in April. (Screenshot from Luna Maya YouTube page)

Never forgetting to wear his white Pertamina shirt while attending round-the-clock virtual company meetings, Ahok said he was spending much of his free time playing with his baby son and occasionally making calls and keeping up with friends.

Yet for all of his efforts to lie low and stay out of the spotlight, every little thing Ahok does seems to stir controversy -- he was even criticized recently for simply tweeting about Pertamina's fuel purchase cashback program for online motorbike taxis.

Whatever happens to Jokowi's $33 billion proposal to build a new capital for Indonesia, Ahok has work cut out in his role at Pertamina, and not just because of the coronavirus crisis crashing oil prices and wreaking havoc on the world economy.

Frustrated with Indonesia's chronic current account deficits, President Jokowi wants Ahok to take on Indonesia's deeply-rooted "oil and gas mafia" to reduce Pertamina's reliance on imports, and to accelerate its much-delayed six mega refinery projects.

"How come we can't build a refinery for the last 34 years?" Widodo asked when he announced Ahok's appointment. "That's outrageous," he said.

Before the pandemic, Pertamina had been expected to gradually pump up its dwindling production volume over the next five years with investments in new fields, as well as its takeover of some existing fields from a handful of international oil companies after the expiration of their production sharing contracts to help cut back Indonesia's reliance on imports.

Scrupulous about maintaining his no-nonsense image as well as his reputation for honesty -- a reputation forged during his time as Jakarta governor where he introduced tough online transparency requirements for budgets and procurement spending -- Ahok is not wasting time.

In February he announced that a similar online transparency is now available for procurements of crude oil, liquefied petroleum gas, fuel and oil tanker chartering at Pertamina -- whose documents are now accessible on the company's website.

"We believe the root of every problem in our national oil company is corruption; [resulting in] too many high costs like for shipping, exploration, or gas [production]," Ahok spoke during the Global Energy Forum in Abu Dhabi in January. "We want to make procurement [...] more efficient... How to do it? Transparency."

Announcing that Pertamina has engaged consultants including EY, BCG and McKinsey to identify corrupt practices in the sprawling company and help clean up its procurement processes, Ahok said he would recruit a team of auditors this year from Indonesia's Corruption Eradication Commission.

Ahok also revealed some of Pertamina's other major plans during the Abu Dhabi forum -- including initial public offerings for some of the 140 company's subsidiaries, setting an ambitious target of creating $100 billion in market capitalizations.

Fully owned by the government, Pertamina is also a major target of consolidation moves by SOE Minister Thohir, who has publicly backed the idea of the company realising value by offloading non-performing assets.

Only six months on the job, it might be too early to tell if Ahok has achieved anything significant at Pertamina, especially now with the coronavirus pandemic sending oil prices to their lowest levels in a generation and no doubt upending the company's financial forecasts and business plans.

Pertamina director Nicke Widyawati told lawmakers in April that the company will reduce its capital expenditure by 23% this year, and operating expenditure by 30%.

"Pertamina is in a difficult situation because of the sharp fall in global oil prices, as 70% of Pertamina's activities are in the upstream sector," said Toto Pranoto, managing director of the University of Indonesia's Management Institute. "Financial distress is unavoidable."

While noting Ahok's online transparency reforms, Pranoto added that he is yet to see "anything outstanding from Ahok's performance" at Pertamina.

In a May 15 research note, Fitch Solutions said the bulk of Pertamina's $1.8 billion capital expenditure cuts would be made from its upstream operations, where the company had been expecting to allocate nearly half of its 2020 capex.

Fitch added that Pertamina intends "to persist with several higher-cost domestic upstream operations as planned".

Given that many of Pertamina's operations "lie at the higher end of the cost curve", with its cash breakeven estimated at around $40-55 per barrel, much of its existing output would prove "uneconomic" if oil prices persisted at their current lows.

"The impact of [the cut] on near-term oil and gas production in Indonesia will be severe given that Pertamina and its subsidiaries account for about 24.0% and 30.0% of total oil and gas production, respectively," said Fitch.

Still, before Ahok has actually been able to prove his worth Pertamina, Widodo is already considering him for another high-profile position, naming him as one of four candidates to lead the authority that will manage the relocation of Indonesia's administrative capital from Jakarta to East Kalimantan Province.

A low moment. Ahok sits through the blasphemy trial in a North Jakarta court in April, 2017.   © AFP/Jiji

Given that Ahok's appointment to head Pertamina already drew strong resistance, including from the company's labor union, the University of Indonesia's Pranoto expects more hullabaloo if Ahok is named to lead the capital relocation.

"[Ahok's] style of leadership has created many controversies," Pranoto said, referring to Ahok's sometimes brazen outspokenness that has won him both supporters and enemies. "Ahok as a public official is a controversial figure."

Whether or not Ahok courts controversy, the last four years have not diminished his political aspirations, cementing a relationship with former President Megawati Soekarnoputri, the chairwoman of Widodo's Indonesian Democratic Party of Struggle who says she visited him four times during his 20-month imprisonment.

Wildly popular among his supporters, often dubbed "Ahokers", his 8.8 million strong army of Twitter followers far exceeds the 3.6 million followers of his successor as governor Anies Baswedan.

So could Ahok make a return to active politics?

According to political analyst Tobias Basuki, Indonesians remain sharply divided -- between Ahokers and the anti-fans -- and nothing Ahok does could change their already hardened minds.

"Even if Ahok is appointed the head of the new capital authority . . . I don't think it is that prestigious of a position," said Basuki, who remains skeptical that any job could boost Ahok's popularity.

"Especially now with the Covid situation, I'm not sure if [the new capital development] will be able to progress quickly. So it really is a wild card, how Ahok's position will be in the future."

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