Dr Rizal Ramli, 61, is currently the Coordinating Minister for Maritime and Resources, and he is no stranger to government posts. He has served in many prominent government roles over the past 18 years and was president commissioner of Bank Negara Indonesia (BNI) until accepting his current post last August. A physics graduate of the Institute of Technology Bandung, he spent a period in jail in 1978-79 for being a vocal pro-democracy activist, which was later considered a badge of honor. In this wide-ranging interview held at his home, he provides insights on his long career and present portfolio.
How do you see your current role as Coordinating Minister for Maritime and Resources?
Indonesians must go back to the sea, something that was a considerable strength in its history. During the Sriwijaya period [600 to 1000 AD] the sea was important to the kingdoms of the archipelago, and their influence spread over much of the South China Sea. Then in the Majapahit era [1300 to 1500 AD], the influence went further, up to the Malacca Strait, but since those days, our interest in maritime affairs continually declined. This government is rightly making a supreme effort to turn the situation around, especially as we have a rich harvest in the seas, as others know. Indonesia has the second longest coastline in the world.
One effort being made is through spreading the idea every year by taking 1,000 high school and university students to travel about the archipelago by ship to learn the disciplines of shipping and leadership skills. Early signs are encouraging, and next year we could well double the numbers.
We need to take better control of our marine resources. There has been so much illegal fishing in Indonesian waters for a long time, with no benefit, only a loss to the country, which is why Minister Susi [Minister of Marine Affairs and Fisheries Susi Pudjiastuti] has been tasked to stop this. The only way has been to take a tough stance, including sinking vessels of illegal offenders. This tactic has been controversial but there is already a marked improvement with local fishermen increasing their catches. Sibolga, an important fishing port in North Sumatra, was only catching 200 tonnes a day but they have now doubled that. Similarly in East Indonesia, a side effect that has to be addressed is a consequent reduction in price, and this can be remedied through export, which means significantly increasing the number of cold storage facilities at fishing ports and improved logistics.
The government has made cold storage attractive to international investors by allowing 100% foreign ownership, and this will also benefit our neighbors who are underserved with fish. Ironically, Indonesia has been importing much fish meal but, with better catches, we can start using the bones and heads for this purpose and thus eliminating the need for importing meal.
There is also a need to improve our regional interconnectivity, which means acclerating development of the islands off Java, and we go from Java-centric to Indonesia-centric. This move requires a greater budget allocation outside of Java, with East Indonesia particularly important for maritime affairs. Apart from its concern over ports for the maritime connection, the government has built 15 new small airports in East Indonesia in Flores and Papua.