Abdullah Azwar Anas has made a name for himself as the youngest politician in Indonesia as he entered the parliament at the age of 23.
Now, the 45-year-old man serves as the regent of his hometown, Banyuwangi, East Java. Under his leadership over the past nine years, the regency has gained worldwide attention and bestowed with numerous awards from international institutions—for the city’s famous local fruit policy, various happening festivals; and no less important, Tour de Ijen, dubbed one of the world’s biggest cycling tours. Indonesia Design recently talked about this illustrious figure. The following is an excerpt of the interview:
What made you embark on a political career?
I would say it is a blessing. During my academic years at the University of Indonesia, I was appointed as one of the members of People’s Consultative Assembly (MPR) to represent university students.
It was the first time I entered the world of politics. Later, I met a number of renowned figures from smaller towns who advised me to return to my hometown in Banyuwangi to further pursue my political career. Back then I had been living in Jakarta for quite some time since 1992. When I went back to Banyuwangi to conduct my electability survey, I realised that Banyuwangi was not included in the A-list cities in the country. In spite of this, I saw the condition as a challenge that could shape my leadership. On the other hand, my colleagues in the House of Representatives (DPR) questioned my intention to become a Regent in Banyuwangi. Their questioning me is reasonable, considering that the city’s poverty and bad condition of infrastructure like the roads, just to name a few. I once thought “It might be better if I run as a Mayor”. Yet, it turned out the people elected me as the Regent.
What is your vision as a Regent?
My vision is to improve the public welfare and provide more opportunity of their participation in creating a comfortable and safe environment. To improve their quality of life, I have been prioritising the following sectors: education, infrastructure and tourism; all of which have led to the betterment of the local economy.
When I first commenced my role as the regent, my focus was to build a university in Banyuwangi as a means of improving the quality of education in the city. Fast forward to now the city is home to three renowned state universities: Airlangga University, Banyuwangi State Polytechnic, and Flight Training and Education Center of Banyuwangi.
In terms of infrastructure, my 100-day stint was marked with the construction of the airport. This was deemed as very vital construction. Without a fast connectivity, we would not be able to get a direct transportation link to and from any destination, and this will also impact the acceleration of investment in the city.
Speaking of infrastructure, this sector is inseparable from the world of architecture. We are learning from the former president of France, Francois Mitterand who said that in many cities and countries, if the governments keep architects close at hand, their buildings would be timeless. In Indonesia, we’ve heard stories about our first president, Soekarno, who once pushed back a cabinet meeting in order to listen to a presentation by an architect. Indeed, many buildings constructed in his era are timeless, iconic even to these days.
In order to develop Banyuwangi, we have commissioned many renowned names in the country to become our consultants, such as Adi Purnomo, Budi Pradono, Andra Matin, Yori Antar, among others. The first works we had them do were in central government buildings without changing the main structures. We started with the landscapes and then main parks, halls and other
We have also spurred the development of the local economy. In order to boost the income of the people, we are facilitating micro credit for local businesses here. To encourage small businesses in the local community, we are currently putting a hold on the development of modern markets such as mini markets chains and malls.
We have been working hard in the tourism sector. This sector has a great impact on providing the economic opportunity for the people. Not only does tourism attract travellers and generate income, but it also serves as a way of promoting Banyuwangi as a city that has successfully improved its infrastructure and economy; not to mention our rich local culture and the change of the local people towards becoming tourism-minded individuals.
The aforementioned points have truly made a great impact on reducing poverty levels in our city to 7.5 per cent as compared to 20.4 per cent in the previous year. Our open unemployment level currently stands at 3 per cent, compared to the previous 6 per cent. Correspondingly, our income per capita is up from Rp15 million to Rp45 million and the Gross Regional Domestic Product is documented at Rp75 trillion, a significant increase indeed compared to Rp24 trillion recorded in the previous year.
Speaking of tourism, what does Banyuwangi have to offer to travellers?
I always believe that culture and local riches are among the greatest assets in the tourism sector. For that reason, we are currently developing an eco-tourism concept. Banyuwangi is flanked by three beautiful national parks. You can reach the beach in only 30 minutes from the city and 20 minutes to visit Ijen Mountain.
Since 2010-2011, we have been hailed as the golden triangle: Ijen, Meru Betiri and Jilen; and we are now developing these three areas to be more appealing. So, we are focusing on eco-tourism. In the beginning. there were a lot of pessimistic voices but the fact is we have boosted up the number of tourists from 600,000 people annually to 4.9 million people annually. In line with this achievement, we have also maintained the layout policy and we have completed the majority of the layout details across the regency, including preserving the natural area with paddy fields around the airport. We prohibit any construction in this area so that when tourists touch down at the airport, they would be immediately greeted by our eco-tourism scene. Accordingly, UNESCO has declared Banyuwangi as one of the World Biosphere Reserves.
Can you tell us more about the internationally-acclaimed recognitions that Banyuwangi has been bestowed upon?
In 2016 in Madrid, as witnessed with representatives from 172 countries, we received the United Nations World Tourism Organization (UNWTO) Award for Innovation in Public Policy and Governance for Local Government Innovation for the Tourism Sector. This world-class honour has rewarded us with advertisements placed around the world, as displayed in New York, Paris, London, and Amsterdam Schipol Airport.
We were also recognised as an ASEAN Clean Tourist City in 2018 during the ASEAN Tourism Standard Award that was held in Chiang Mai, Thailand. It was a great motivation for us to keep doing what we were doing.
Currently, we are developing a destination program to welcome tens of thousands of people who come to this city each year to do comparative studies. Our goal is to emulate Azerbaijan, which was declared by the UN as the country with the best service in the world. In the country, we are the first regency in Indonesia to have a public service mall. In late 2018, Banyuwangi was also recognised as the most innovative regency in Indonesia with a total of 314 innovations in many sectors.
What challenges are you currently facing in your role as the regent?
The first challenge is to maintain and enhance the capabilities of our human resources. Their presence is crucial, as each element or group of people has their own contribution to the development of the city.
The second is to create trust. In one of his books, Francis Fukuyama, Japanese American author of political economist, wrote that trust is something vital; for us personally, our subordinates, the society and the public. During my first-year tenure as regent, I encountered 42 dissents because I had to sort out street hawkers. But in the following years, when I started to gain the people’s trust, the dissent began to cease.
In addition, I have been striving to measure the priorities. In determining priorities, the challenge is to pick five out of a hundred, and make the five inspire the other 95.
Are there other places in the world that you look up to?
Yes, in Dalhousie, Alberta, Canada. They only have 66 employees to serve one area. I admire their efficiency. We tried the system for the Smart Kampung feature in Banyuwangi, which was later selected as one of 26 pilot cities by ASEAN Smart Cities Network in Singapore. I didn’t expect this recognition, indeed. But, it turned out we were selected, along with Jakarta, because they acknowledged that we have successfully developed the IT infrastructure in a village scale.
What have you prepared to further develop Banyuwangi in the future?
First, as I have mentioned before is maintaining and enhancing the quality of our Human Resources. Second, creating jobs for the people which I believe is also the challenge for all areas in the country. With the application of Revolution 4.0, it is predicted that there would be 230 million unemployed people by 2030. Cities that do not do anything to respond to this condition will certainly create more unemployment problems. We are now working together with various start-up businesses to hold training sessions to hone people’s skills especially in the IT sector. With this, we really hope that they will not just search for jobs, but also create jobs in the future. Last but not the least is maintaining public participation. What has improved us, even with the city’s limited funding, is owing to the high level of public participation.