The popular Buddhist pearl of wisdom “Contentment is the greatest wealth” sits well with Coordinating Minister for Political, Legal and Security Affairs Mr Luhut Binsar Panjaitan, he tells Indonesia Tatler during an exclusive interview at his residence. “At my age, what more should I ask for?” says the retired TNI Indonesian Army General. “Of course, I am very grateful: the merciful Lord has provided me with an abundance of goodness and prosperity, but my sole determination remains to do my best for this country.
“In fact, I owe the country,” Luhut continues. “Why? It’s quite simple. I am where I am because of this country. So if I can dedicate my whole life for the goodness of the country, I will be very happy.”
Luhut Panjaitan was born on September 28, 1947, in Simargala, a small hamlet in the Toba Samosir regency in North Sumatra. Luhut was the first of five children of Bonar Pandjaitan and Siti Farida Naiborhu. He later married Devi Simatupang, and they, in turn, have four children: Paulina, David, Paulus and Kerri Panjaitan. Indeed, he is blessed.
The spirit of a patriot is Luhut’s personal vision statement; it lit his way as he navigated his path through life and climbed the career ladder as a professional soldier and then as a government official. Luhut, the former Chief of Staff of the Executive Office of the President, believes that in work, being smart is not enough: one should carry out his or her work with a conscience, too. He also believes in total commitment to the interest of the country, not to the interest of a certain group or faction.
Luhut graduated from the Indonesian Armed Forces Academy in 1970 with flying colours and received the prestigious medal Adhi Makayasa as the valedictorian of his class. Unsurprisingly, his rise in the military was rapid as he landed many important positions and, importantly, saw active service in a number of military operations like Operasi Seroja in East Timor.
Previous positions held by this retired four-star general ranged from Commander of Group 3 Kopassus Special Forces, Commander of Infantry Weaponry Centre (Pussenif), and Commander of Military Education and Training Command (Kodiklat). In military circles, Luhut remains popular for his initiative to set up and become the first commandant of Detachment 81 (now Sat-81/Gultor), a special counter-terrorism unit of the Kopassus Special Forces. His achievements and outstanding services to the people and country earned Luhut no less than 14 awards and honours from the government.
Luhut’s bright career in the military and his commitment to the country then yielded a prime position in the government. In 1999, President BJ Habibie appointed him as Ambassador Plenipotentiary of the Republic of Indonesia to the Republic of Singapore. Luhut’s vast expertise in the international arena saw him mend declining diplomatic relations between the two countries in the post-Suharto era. In the first three months at his new post, Luhut was able to restore relations completely.
Luhut was then withdrawn from Singapore during the time of President Abdurrahman Wahid. Indonesia’s fourth president, popularly known as Gus Dur, entrusted him with a new position as Minister of Trade and Industry. In the two years, serving the country under Gus Dur, Luhut gave the position his all. And later on, when the next government offered him a post in the new cabinet, Luhut turned down the offer due to his moral obligation to Gus Dur.
But, of course, he wasn’t done. On December 31, 2014, President Joko Widodo appointed Luhut to lead the newly established Executive Office of the President of the Republic of Indonesia. After eight months serving as a close aide to the President, Luhut became the Coordinating Minister for Political, Legal, and Security Affairs.
His impressive track record of serving the country, together with his strong leadership, vast network of contacts and astuteness in diplomacy, are the main elements supporting Luhut in moulding and managing solid teamwork between the ministries under his coordination. The results are a sound political stability and national security: two elements highly prized by any country.
Now, as we enter 2016, Luhut says that the checks and balances between governmental institutions are relatively fine. Infrastructure development and the development of a food resilience programme continue as his main focus. “This is not something that we can reap instantly,” notes Luhut. “We can benefit from it in a few years to come.” Meanwhile, to cope with the global economic slowdown, the government has produced a series of economic policies to enhance investment and increase buying power. “In regard to the steps taken, economic growth in 2016 will be better than in 2015—around the figure of 5 per cent,” he tells us confidently.
But the government has other enemies, too, with terrorism and narcotics high among them. “The side effects of terrorism may cause economic instability,” Luhut cautions. “And drugs affect all segments of society. Whatever people’s religion, ethnicity, economic strata and so on, all are potential victims, especially now that Indonesia is considered as Asia’s largest narcotics market and a drug-producing country.” Luhut tells us that there are a number of actions being taken to counter these two threats. In dealing with terrorism, the actions range from military operations, law enforcement, rehabilitation and de-radicalisation programmes right up to boosting cooperation among security agencies.
As far as drugs are concerned, Luhut tells us that 75 per cent of the business is under the control of drug dealers actually serving time in prison. To deal with this, drug addicts will be dealt with by the ministry of health and social services and drug criminals will be separated from common criminals. “We will isolate them so they can no longer control the business,” he says.
Territorial disputes in the South China Sea involving Malaysia, Vietnam, Brunei, the Philippines, and the People’s Republic of China are another issue to be anticipated. “Indonesia is a non-claimant state,” says Luhut. “However, the Natuna islands share a common border with the disputed Spratly Islands.”
Indonesia’s stance in this territorial conflict is clear and firm. “Indonesia maintains its impartiality and further encourages efforts in order to uphold stability and peace in the world,” concludes Luhut. Wise words, fully fitting this amiable, diplomatic but strong-willed man, and words that will no doubt form actions befitting his office.