Boediono served as Vice President of Indonesia from 2009 to October 20, 2014, when President Joko Widodo was elected and took office with Vice President Jusuf Kalla.

In the following piece, Jeffrey A. Sheehan of Sheehan Advisory LLC — and former associate dean for international relations at Wharton — writes about Boediono, who he has known for 22 years. The material, which draws on public and private discussions, is excerpted from the manuscript of Sheehan’s forthcoming book, tentatively titled, “There Are No Foreign Lands.”

I first met Boediono in 1992, when he was Deputy Chairman for Fiscal and Monetary Affairs of Badan Perencanaan Pembangunan Nasional, better known as “Bappenas,” the Indonesian State Ministry for National Development Planning. His talents as a technocrat of unimpeachable integrity were recognized, and he received promotions regularly. He served as Deputy Governor of Bank Indonesia from 1997 to 1998 and as State Minister of National Planning and Development from 1998 to October 1999. These were complicated times for Indonesia, and he earned the title of “financial rudder” for the country during the Asian Financial Crisis of the late 1990s. My travels took me to Indonesia regularly, and I met with Boediono whenever I was in Jakarta.

After President Suharto’s resignation in 1998, Abdurrahman Wahid was elected President. Wahid, colloquially known as Gus Dur, did not have a role for Boediono in his administration. His friend and college classmate, Abdillah Toha, who later had a dual career as a successful book publisher and member of the Indonesian Legislature, recalls his hiatus from government during the administration of President Gus Dur: “One of the remarkable things about Boediono is that he never got any of the jobs he had in the government by requesting them or applying for them. He has been a reluctant recruit every time. When he left the government for two years during the administration of Gus Dur, he had no backward glances. He has no enjoyment in power for the sake of power. He enjoys power only for the sake of helping Indonesia. When he was dismissed by Gus Dur, he returned to Gadjah Mada University and resumed a career teaching and researching.”

The next two presidents called him to service once again. He was appointed as Minister of Finance by President Megawati Sukarnoputri and served in this post from 2001 to 2004. In the first term of President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono (colloquially known as “SBY”) from 2005 to 2008, he served as Coordinating Minister for the Economy. He was elected Governor of Bank Indonesia and served in this post from 2008 to May 16, 2009, when he was asked by President SBY to serve as his running mate in the national election for the presidency.

The Political Career

On February 14, 2014, I asked Boediono about this inflection point, when he was thrust into elective politics for the first time in his career. His reply was typical of the man: “When I was asked to run for Vice President, I really hesitated because I had never sought this role. I discussed this with my family, and my daughter was actually opposed at first. But in the end, I decided that if I could contribute a bit more to help the country, I had the duty to accept. So here I am,” he concluded with a smile.

The election was held on July 8, 2009. SBY and Boediono won in a landslide, with 61% of the votes, amounting to 73,874,562, or 4,417,665 more votes than were cast for the team of Barack Obama and Joe Biden in 2008. As far as I can tell, more votes were cast for SBY and Boediono in 2009 than for any other team in the history of free, direct, presidential elections worldwide.

Yopie Hidayat, a former journalist who served the Vice President as a special adviser on communication and media relations, had told me that Boediono had established his “mission statement” using a traditional three-word Javanese proverb, namely “Sabar, Sareh, Seleh.” I asked the VP to explain this Javanese wisdom to me. He laughed and said that it was true he had chosen this proverb as his mission statement but he warned me that Suharto had chosen the same three words to guide his administration.

Sabar translates as ‘patience,’ but it is more complex than this single English word. It also tells us that we should not take action until the time is right. It connotes a respect for the rhythm of life outside yourself, or an understanding of your relationship to the external world. It advises us how we should deal with other people.

Sareh also translates as ‘patience,’ but again it is more complex than this single English word. This word is directed more towards your inner self and counsels you not to rush yourself. Make best efforts but conduct yourself properly. It advises us to be peaceful within ourselves.

Seleh does not have a single word in English to which it corresponds. If you are religious, it translates as ‘leave it to God after you have done your best.’ If you are more secular, it translates as ‘leave it to the process after you have done your best.’ In either case, you should not get too agitated if you fail, and you should not get too excited if you succeed. Work hard, but be at peace with yourself.”

“When I was asked to run for Vice President, I really hesitated because I had never sought this role…. In the end, I decided that if I could contribute a bit more to help the country, I had the duty to accept.”–Boediono

Indonesia and the World

When I met with Boediono in his office on June 20, 2012, I asked him some questions about his view of Indonesia and the world. I observed that he had recently given a speech to the opening of the 39th Al-Irsyad Al-Islamiyah Congress, a non-partisan organization established in 1914 to promote education, health and the welfare of the people. In his speech, he had commented on the difficulty of maintaining unity while also practicing tolerance toward other faiths. I asked him for his thoughts on this inherent contradiction between unity and tolerance. 

“How will the world evolve in the future? There are clearly some areas that our small planet will need to face that require more unity and less emphasis on sovereignty, such as global warming and the environment, public health and pandemics, global financial contagion, and others. But at the same time, the natural tendency of humans seems to be to look inward and to reinforce their core values and exclusivity when faced with threats, whether local or global.” 

“Will there be persistence in sovereignty and religious division, or will the world move to some form of unified approach to these challenges?” I asked.

Boediono responded, stating that “Nation-states, nationalism and religiosity will persist, regardless of globalization. But this does not preclude the balancing of national self-identity, with its focus on control; and global identity, with its attendant relinquishing of control. This applies to a variety of areas, ranging from the environment to finance.”

He continued. “Globalization is a funny thing. It makes possible growth and the broadening of both culture and prosperity, but it also has the unwanted side effect of creating bigger crises in its wake. During crises, which are inevitable, national self-identity is critical as an anchor. In this sense, national self-identity is and will be more important than religious self-identity.”

I noted that many of the world’s problems were global in nature, but that policy response is most often domestic in nature. I asked his views on the need for better synchronization among the world’s nations, and in particular on whether ASEAN had the potential to evolve into something closer to the EU.

“I believe the most critical need for global cooperation is in finance. As we have learned, the risk is so high that we cannot afford not to cooperate. We need better cooperation in the area of international trade, but this is not so pressing as finance. Security, also, is an area where we can cooperate more, to everyone’s benefit. But as for ASEAN moving towards the EU, I am afraid the European experiment has not given us much encouragement.”

I asked him how strong Indonesia’s national self-identity was, noting the relative youth of the nation and especially as a democracy.

“Indonesia is an ancient civilization. It is also a unique civilization, with over 17,000 islands, only about a third of which are inhabited by humans. This civilization has drawn many visitors with its attractive climate and vast resources. The Dutch were only the more modern influence in a series that included the Hindu and Islamic civilizations. Like China, Indonesia absorbed all foreign influences and yet retained its unique character. They were all part of Indonesia’s journey towards a better society in which its people can live better and happier lives.”

He said that there were probably more than 400 different languages or dialects spoken in the country. As noted above, his own first language is Javanese, which is spoken by a plurality of Indonesians as their mother tongue. Bahasa was his second language. English was third.

“Indonesia as a political entity was a new concept in the 20th century. The Dutch really united us,” he explained. “In 1928, a youth congress declared that Bahasa was the national language of unity. This was a tremendous boost to the independence movement, since it gave us coherence as a nation for the first time. Of course, the Dutch opposed this decision because it threatened their ability to rule a divided population. But there were precursors to this decision, and Bahasa did not suddenly appear in 1928. For example, the Roman alphabet replaced the Arabic alphabet in the early 20th century. A language similar to Bahasa was the lingua franca of trade in the archipelago for many years. But opposition to Dutch rule was an important factor in creating the idea of Indonesia.”

I wondered aloud about the pace of Indonesian modernization and the characteristics of a modern Indonesia. Would Indonesia become more Western as it modernized, or would its modernization take on more Indonesian characteristics?

“The end of Western influence is far away. Western culture and values will continue to influence Indonesia for many years to come.”

The Legacy

Toward the end of his term as Vice President, I met with Boediono, this time in the Vice President’s Official Residence, in downtown Jakarta. “Looking at your career in the Indonesian government, what would you say were the projects in which you were involved that did the most to help the people of Indonesia?” I asked.

“[Boediono’s] most important accomplishments have been in the establishment of Indonesia as a modern democracy. He has laid the infrastructure for long-term stability and equity.”–Yopie Hidayat

The VP squirmed a little at this question, and finally said that he had some difficulty answering because he had not thought much about the scorecard. His personal philosophy was to move on to the next challenge rather than to gloat over a success or stew over a failure. Sabar, Sareh, Seleh. I did not press him to answer, although in separate occasions, I asked others the same question. Yopie Hidayat was not so shy about describing his accomplishments as Vice President:

“His most important accomplishments have been in the establishment of Indonesia as a modern democracy,” stated Yopie. “He has laid the infrastructure for long-term stability and equity. For example, he chaired the Commission on National Poverty Eradication that created the first nation-wide Social Security system based on a well-organized and reliable database. I believe that one of the key characteristics of a durable democracy is true social security for those who cannot support themselves adequately. Boediono’s goal was to establish a system that would be supported by data and that would be outside political manipulation, and he has been successful. This system not only helps the poor, but it also fights corruption from within by eliminating some of its sources.

“Boediono also chaired another committee that focused on the reform of regional bureaucracies, which had grown bloated and ineffective over the years. In a dramatic gesture, he ordered that all hiring in the government would stop for 18 months. And Boediono is the kind of guy who is very firm when he makes a decision. He does not give in to political or media pressure. Any hiring during this moratorium, and of course there were certain exceptions that had to be made, were approved by the VP personally. Following the work of this commission, the entire structure of the regional bureaucracy changed. The VP was responsible for instituting a new philosophy of organizing the state apparatus. Now there are job descriptions, accountability for responsibilities, transparency, and a host of improvements designed to reduce corruption and enforce performance.

“But he is doing all this quietly, without causing ripples. You do not read about this in the press and he doesn’t get much credit for these major reforms. His approach is to do things patiently and not cause ripples. It takes patience to accomplish these fundamental reforms. I remember on the first day we met, he told me, ‘You don’t need to sell me. As long as the programs work, that is enough. I do not need to be in the newspapers. Let’s work together to make Indonesia secure for the next century.'”

The Challenges Ahead

I then asked the Vice President what the major challenges facing Indonesia would be in the next 20 years.

“We are at a critical stage in the evolution of our nation,” he started, “and the further development of democratic political institutions and systems is critical to our continued success. You know, we tried democracy once before, in the 1950s, but it did not deliver the benefits that it promised, and we reverted to authoritarianism for the next 32 years. Now we have a young democracy again and we cannot afford to fail the way we did in the 1950s. Our founding fathers in the 1950s were the ‘best and the brightest,’ but they were unable to convert the liberation from the Dutch into a convincing case for democracy. So the next 20 years or so will be both important and dangerous. We must make the political transition to institution building and political sustainability. And I do not mean the forms, which we have already. I mean the content and the conduct. We have the formal structures of democracy, but we have a lot of work to do.

“This is why we need to reform our educational system. Recently, my colleagues in the Ministry of Education rolled out a nationwide, unified curriculum for primary through high school education. It is all taught in Bahasa, which will contribute to national unity. But the challenge now is to deliver high-quality education to all the children of Indonesia. If we want unity as a nation, we must pay attention to all of our inhabited islands, not just the big ones.”

He waxed philosophical, “A country must settle on its collective moral compass. This is why we have embedded the transmission of values into the new nationwide school curriculum. We have to make these values palatable to kids, but they must be given the right start to finding their moral compass. This is the only way to build a real participatory democracy, and it will take many years.”

I later spoke with Farid Harianto, one of Boediono’s informal but influential advisors. I asked him to comment on these remarks.

“The Vice President is focused on the long-term, and is constantly frustrated by the attention that is focused by the media on short-term goals, such as quarterly growth rates. The Vice President wants to use his term in office to help reinforce the values and to build the institutions that will support equity, prosperity, sustainability and national unity for the next one hundred years.”

A Legacy

Toward the end of our conversation on February 14, 2014, I noted that the Founding Fathers of the United States, in particular George Washington, took great pains to base their actions and decisions on a strong belief that whatever they did would create precedents for tens and possibly hundreds of years to come. This is one of the reasons that Washington declined to be appointed king. I was thinking of a passage from Gary Wills’ book, Certain Trumpets:

Of course, the leader must not only be given his or her historical moment, but must be able to see that it is a critical time. For this, a sense of history is required. Washington grasped earlier than anyone … the fact that armed withdrawal from the British Empire would remake the colonies engaged in this secession. He recognized how many forces were opposed to national union, which alone (he believed) could make the former colonies masters of their own situation. With this in mind, he acted throughout the Revolution and after as if setting precedents for a national system of legal responsibilities to the American people as a whole.

I asked Boediono if his decisions and actions as VP during this youthful period of Indonesian democracy were inspired by the same motivation. His answer was notable because it was the only time in which he did not smile during our 90 minutes together. “The short answer,” he said with utter seriousness, “is that this motivation was present in every single thing I did as Vice President.”