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The Financial Times
By Ben Bland in Surabaya

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After praying and cooking breakfast for her family at the crack of dawn, Tri Risma Harini often stops on the way to work to pick up rubbish dumped in the street or ask children why they are not in school.

But she is not the neighbourhood busybody. She is the mayor of Surabaya, Indonesia’s fast-growing second city, and one of the most powerful female politicians in the world’s third-biggest democracy.

While Joko Widodo, the governor of Jakarta and a presidential frontrunner, has been grabbing all the headlines with his no-nonsense drive to revamp the ailing capital, Ms Risma has been pursuing a quieter but no less effective revolution in Surabaya, on the eastern side of the island of Java.

Since she was elected in 2010, the 52-year-old former head of parks has cleaned up public spaces, made education and health services free and simplified the city’s Byzantine budgeting and permitting systems.

“Previously civil servants were only interested in implementing projects because they could get something out of it,” she tells the Financial Times in her city hall office, lamenting the widespread corruption that bedevils Indonesian officialdom. “But I’ve never thought like that. I think our role is one to make the people more prosperous.”

In a thriving port city of 3m whose name means the “shark and the crocodile”, it is the motherly figure of Ms Risma, short, stocky and wearing a tightfitting hijab, who strikes fear into the hearts of loafing bureaucrats and errant residents.

“As government employees, we have to work hard to keep up with Ms Risma but we are proud because we have a mayor with integrity, many goals for the city and a plan to achieve them,” says Umi Kustyowati, who works in the city’s investment co-ordination office.

Like Mr Widodo in Jakarta, she takes a hands-on approach to governing, regularly carrying out spot inspections and focusing on efficiency and delivery rather than grandiloquent projects or rhetoric.

Indonesia’s decision to delegate many powers to local governments following the fall of the highly centralised Suharto dictatorship in 1998 has been criticised by many politicians for multiplying the opportunities for corruption and waste.

But Ms Risma is one of a handful of promising leaders who have emerged from Indonesia’s messy local politics and are being touted for higher office.

Their rise comes as ambitious politicians around the world from Mr Widodo to London’s Boris Johnson see big city mayoralties as a fast-track route to national leadership positions, following in the footsteps of Iran’s Mahmoud Ahmadi-Nejad, former mayor of Tehran and president, and South Korea’s Lee Myung-bak, former mayor of Seoul and president.

But Tim Bunnell, an expert on Asian cities at the National University of Singapore who has studied the records of Ms Risma and Mr Widodo, warns against overstating the importance of mayors.

“Mayors tend to be associated with high-profile projects but the improvements they actually make can be limited,” he says. “Cities are big entities with diverse communities and even in apparently successful cities there can be lots of discrepancies and people left behind.”

While Surabaya still suffers from large pockets of poverty, floods and traffic jams, many local residents say that Ms Risma is nudging the city in the right direction.

She has helped promote its attractions to investors, local and foreign, as they move away from greater Jakarta, where the cost of land and labour is rising fast and infrastructure is at breaking point.

“The local government is very strict under Ms Risma,” says Sinarto Dharmawan, a senior executive of Intiland, a large Indonesian property developer. “The staff are much more professional and you can see that our parks and rivers are much cleaner.”

His company has built offices, housing estates and a private hospital in an orderly outlying suburb dubbed “the Singapore of Surabaya”, which caters to the local business elite and the Japanese, Taiwanese and Korean expatriates who are moving to the city in ever greater numbers to set up factories.
Yakult, a Japanese maker of yoghurt drinks, Unicharm, Japan’s leading diaper manufacturer and Cargill, the US commodities group, are among the companies setting up new manufacturing centres in and around Surabaya, which sits on the eastern side of the island of Java.

They will join the likes of consumer goods group Unilever, which makes Dove soap in Surabaya, and Swing, a South Korean guitar producer.
“The impetus for us is the strategic location and the choice of decent container ports,” says Jean-Louis Guillou, the Indonesian general manager for Cargill, which is building a $100m cocoa processing plant just outside Surabaya. “There is no other area we could build it in, with so much congestion in West Java.”

NB :
a Tribute to my super idol, Bu Risma, blusukan time bu..😀