Nurdin Abdullah, 55, has every quality to be the leader most people want: smart, humble, hardworking, communicative, hands-on and innovative. And as the new governor of South Sulawesi, he now has the power to implement some of his innovative ideas to improve the lives of the province's people.
He enjoys the support of many who are longing for change. And he is introducing a new way of governing. Nurdin and his deputy Andi Sudirman Sulaiman – the younger brother of Agriculture Minister Andi Amran Sulaiman – received 43,6 percent of the vote in the gubernatorial election in July. The pair's surprise win over Golkar Party heavyweight Nurdin Halid marked the emergence of an outsider in South Sulawesi politics, long dominated by Indonesia's grand old party.
Nurdin succeeded former governor, Syahrul Yasin Limpo, another Golkar politician. Two families have dominated political and economic life in the province over the past 10 years. One is the family of Jusuf Kalla, known for its supremacy in both business and politics. Kalla is a former Golkar chairman who, as current Indonesian vice president, inevitably has significant influence on local politics.
The Limpo family meanwhile, also has a strong political grip on the region. Some members of the family are district heads, while others occupy seats in the provincial legislature. "The two families control a big chunk of business in the region and in eastern Indonesia in general, as a consequence of their political power," said a resident of Makassar, the provincial capital.
Kalla's brother-in-law, the tycoon H.M. Aksa Mahmud, has huge business interests in the region. But some political observers believe Nurdin's victory over his rival is part of a new trend and a sign that South Sulawesi's people demand change.
Andi Baso, another Makassar resident, believes Nurdin's election will alter the political and economic landscape in the region, as the newly elected governor always encourages locals to be more engaged in business and maximize the area's potential to boost the economy. Andi said Nurdin wants to let some fresh air into a political environment polluted by nepotism.
Now that the political race is over, Nurdin looks ahead to deliver on his campaign promises, among them to strengthen the region's status as an agricultural heartland with massive potential. South Sulawesi is, for example, the rice production center of eastern Indonesia, while it also supplies various other commodities to the rest of the country.
Nurdin, born in Pare Pare, a port town about 155 kilometers north of Makassar, believes each region has its own strengths and unique potential that must be optimized to benefit its people. Sulawesi for example, is widely known for its agricultural products.
"The idea is that we are going to set up a new movement in the agricultural sector, to revitalize the potential of cocoa products in the entire South Sulawesi. Cocoa has long been associated with South Sulawesi. Coffee is anther trademark of this region," said Nurdin, who obtained a doctorate in agricultural science from Kyushu University in Japan in 1994.
Nurdin believes in destiny. Former President B.J. Habibie predicted four years ago that Nurdin would one day attain high office, whether as governor or even president. When asked for his opinion about Nurdin during a television show, Habibie said that if a person has leadership skills, it should be used to benefit the people, and that such a person should be elevated to a position of power. The former president said Nurdin had all the qualities to become a leader.
However, Nurdin said he never believed he would become governor, having only headed Bantaeng, a small district with a population of about 190,000 people, on the southern tip of Sulawesi Island. But his leadership style and policy innovations made him widely popular. He introduced an open management system that allows residents to monitor all budget spending and public policies.
"He could transform the region from being poor to becoming popular and attracting more people to come in and boost economic activity," said Bantaeng resident Siti Musdalifah.
"As a leader, I never think about the next higher position I may achieve. Just do your work and people will provide the position for you. Just do the best. I never thought of becoming a governor in the past. People asked me to run for that position," Nurdin said.
Nurdin plans to overhaul the way the province is managed. Instead of waiting for reports from district heads, mayors or his staff, he would go out to meet with them and assist them in solving problems on the ground.
"So never schedule a meeting with me; instead, I will visit you; I have done this for long during my time in Bantaeng," he said.
He is planning to open offices in remote areas, such as Luwu, Toraja and Bantaeng. "I want to stay close to the people and I want to serve them," he added. Nurdin believes good communication skills are essential to synchronize the different interests of the people. As a leader, he opens his house from early in the morning to attend to any matters or complaints from residents.
Based on his experience, close cooperation with other entities and parties is key to running a successful local government. The former forestry science professor at Hasanuddin University in Makassar said Indonesia's academic institutions are centers of ideas that must contribute to local development practices.
He introduced his "triple-helix strategy," which involves the government, universities and the business community working closely together to advance the region. Nurdin said this strategy had served him well over the past decade.
Nurdin reiterated that he never had any political ambitions and that he already made a very good living, heading and owning a business in collaboration with a Japanese partner. But when the people of Bantaeng pushed him to stand for election as district head in 2008, he won 43 percent of the vote.
His down-to-earth approach saw him re-elected by 80 percent of the people five years later, despite minimal campaign spending.
"There are some lessons to be learned. Firstly, a leader must be a role model. In politics, you must be nice to everyone, even if they are your opponents and disagree with your ideas. I am not affiliated to any political party, but I have good relations with them," Nurdin said.