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As Indonesia’s tech leaders opt for public service, can they truly bring about change?

Written by Khamila Mulia Published on     3 mins read

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After Nadiem Makarim, more tech executives have switched over to the public sector, with the latest being Bukalapak’s Rachmat Kaimuddin.

Bukalapak president director Rachmat Kaimuddin submitted a resignation request on December 28 to transition to the public sector, according to an information disclosure filing with the Indonesia Stock Exchange. Director Willix Halim was named as acting president director until a permanent replacement is chosen at the company’s next general meeting of shareholders.

At the moment, there is no information about Kaimuddin’s trajectory in public service after his time at Bukalapak. But he is following the footsteps of other tech company leaders. Last year, the firm’s co-founder Fajrin Rasyid stepped down from his position as Bukalapak’s president to serve as director of state telco Telkom Indonesia.

And, in October 2019, Gojek co-founder Nadiem Makarim was sworn in as Indonesia’s minister of education, culture, research, and technology. One month later, two CEOs, Ruangguru’s Belva Devara and Amartha’s Andi Taufan Garuda Putra, were appointed as special staffers to the president.

It’s fair to say that tech sector leaders have developed skill sets that the public sector deems useful.

The Indonesian government has been supportive of the development of the country’s startup ecosystem, and has thrown its weight behind many incubation and collaboration programs, such as the IT ministry’s Startup Studio program and IDX Incubator initiated by the Indonesia Stock Exchange. Also, the government recently launched the USD 300 million Merah Putih Fund, which invests in companies that are expected to become unicorns imminently.

Now, startup CEOs who are appointed as government officials are expected to bring about new innovations in conventional sectors that have complicated bureaucracies, according to Bhima Yudhistira Adhinegara, director of the Center of Economic and Law Studies (Celios).

“There are a lot of positive work cultures in tech startups that can be adopted by government institutions. Examples are a dynamic and efficient work environment, and the openness between departments or between superiors and subordinates, so that everyone can voice their ideas and initiatives. Startups also have a strong collaborative spirit that accelerates innovation,” Adhinegara added.

Makarim has made bold policy choices in the education sector during his two-year tenure. In January 2020, he introduced a program called Kampus Merdeka (“independent campus”) that provides opportunities to students to hone their skills based on their interests. They can conduct research, join internships, take part in student exchanges, and teach off-campus for up to two semesters to gain practical experience.

In August, Makarim signed into effect a ministerial regulation to prevent and mitigate sexual violence in universities, although it has drawn criticism from conservative religious groups over concerns that it could imply the legalization of extramarital sex. Earlier, in February, Makarim issued a joint ministerial decree banning public schools from making hijabs mandatory for non-Muslim students.

New programs like Makarim’s are meant to disrupt the status quo, but former tech leaders who occupy other governmental positions may need to figure out the right balance if their objective is to serve the public. “As a minister, Nadiem’s ​​performance can be evaluated directly by the public. However, this does not apply to officials in state-owned companies or the president’s special staffers,” said Adhinegara. He added that tech figures who serve in the government may encounter conflicts of interest, especially since these entrepreneurs usually still own shares even if they are not actively working for their companies.

This was the case with Ruangguru’s Devara and Amartha’s Putra when they were special staffers to the president. Both men were publicly criticized for allegedly taking advantage of their close relationship with the government to facilitate projects for their respective companies. The two founders rejected the allegations, but resigned from their positions and rejoined the private sector.

Even so, Adhinegara predicts that more tech executives will be offered strategic positions in public service in the future. In many cases, these figures’ past roles as leaders of startups have imbued them with experience in managing risks to bring about bold innovations. Even if they provoke resistance and criticism from certain communities, some appointments may be necessary for Indonesia to create real change.

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