As the sun rose above the horizon, seen from a café in Pantai Mutiara, North Jakarta, three-star police general Syafruddin, stripped of all his official regalia, sat down with GlobeAsia's Adi Prasetya to discuss a wide range of issues, primarily his role as chef de mission of the Indonesian contingent during upcoming Asian Games.
"Each month, I go to the Thousand Islands. I am a beach bum and can't be separated from the sea. My home in South Sulawesi is only 50 meters from the beach," said Syafruddin, who was born in Makassar on April 12, 1961.
He then jumped on a jet ski before throttling away along with 29 other jet skiers, among them top athletes Aero Sutan Aswar and his brother Aqsa, who will both participate in the Asian Games.
Jet skiing is Syafruddin's other hobby aside from swimming. "Wow, our athletes are great! I had to catch my breath to keep up with them," he exclaimed after jet skiing for about 90 minutes near Ponco Island.
For three days every week, Syafruddin calls on one sporting discipline or another, in his capacity as chef de mission. Since the government appointed him last December, he has lead the Indonesian contingent, consisting of around 1,000 athletes and 500 officials, in its preparation for the Asian Games, which will take place in Jakarta and Palembang, South Sumatra, between Aug. 18 and Sept. 2. The athletes will compete for medals in 40 sporting disciplines.
"It's a good momentum. After half a century, Indonesia is hosting the Asian Games once again. It's a huge bet for the nation. We should at least be in the top 10," said the general, popularly known as Pak Syaf.
Syafruddin, who is deputy chairman of the Indonesian Mosque Council under Vice President Jusuf Kalla, allocates his time to boost the morale of athletes and coaches amid his busy schedule as deputy chief of the National Police. He spared time for this exclusive interview.
Why did you decide to locate the office of the chef de mission at the Police Academy?
Just for practical reasons. If it was going to be at the Gelora Bung Karno Sports Complex, we would have had to start from zero. It would have taken long to get the necessary funding. [At the Police Academy], we already have internet access, CCTV connected to all the sports venues, and personnel we can deploy. Time is short and we have to move fast.
Why did you agree to lead the athletes? Are you not too busy in your post as deputy National Police chief?
It's a long story. During the 2017 Southeast Asian Games in Kuala Lumpur, Erick Thohir called and asked me to join as a member of the observer team. But to make the story short, upon a recommendation by Tono Suratman, who was chief of KONI [National Sports Committee] at the time, I was assigned because I was already familiar with sports committees. I was head of KONI's committees department. During the Asian Games preparation meetings, they unanimously appointed me. I did not immediately accept. I thought I would be too busy during the election year assisting the National Police chief. I recommended other names that could be summitted to the president and vice president. But then I received a call. It was a call to duty by the national leadership. I couldn't refuse. I then informed my superior about the appointment.
What was the very first thing you did?
I immediately consolidated KONI, because it is an institution that represents athletes. I then called on all stakeholders to revive the spirit of struggle. At that time, there was hardly any encouragement. Why was the nation lacking interest in the Asian Games? Our athletes seemed to be lacking motivation because of poor performances in the past. Was it because they did not receive adequate recognition or reward? These were the questions. Rewarding is enough, but no significant achievements. Our organization has always been seen by the public as poor and lacking performance. This time, we are hosting the Asian Games. We have to move fast. I had to go here and there to resolve issues. I prefer to be a facilitator to move forward.
Did you apply pressure to get the sports venues completed on time?
Hahaha. Yes, because as chef de mission it is in my interest that the venues be completed on time, so the athletes can try it out and get the feel. As the host, we regard that as our privilege. If we are late [in completing the venues], we would not have that advantage over athletes from other countries coming to compete in the Games.
You pushed them hard, did they not complain?
No. They enjoyed the fact that I was pushing hard. The ministers were happy. I also chased the youth and sports minister to make sure that funds are guaranteed. Then all of us became one compact team – all the stakeholders, ministers, KONI and organizers. Until now, with a united spirit we move forward and never retreat. Our main aim is to perform and provide the best service during Asian Games 2018.
You are known for your 'embracing but consistent' leadership style in the police. What kind of leadership style do you employ as leader of the national sports contingent?
I am not foreign to the present contingent. I trained in this field when I was at KONI. Some of the present coaches are my former athletes. Some are still senior athletes. That enables me to interact and communicate with them. I admit though, that I am using a little of the police leadership style. Consistency and swift action. How to motivate, decide, or make friends. There are times when we need to be really tough and times we must be soft. I always tell the athletes and coaches that there should be no distance between them. Although a coach may never have been a champion, he is a senior and has more experience than even the best athlete. His advice should never be ignored; the same goes for the athletes. A coach should never belittle a junior athlete. All must become one, united in the same goal to win. I hope with this approach, 75 percent of all the problems will be solved and victory will be in our hands.
You have been an athlete since you were 7 years old?
Since I was little, I was raised to be tough. There were three activities I liked: swimming, horse riding and sepak takraw. Because our home was near the sea, I swam every day. My parents had many horses and a horseracing track. So I was trained to become a jockey when I was 7 years old. This is why I sometimes use the horse philosophy – to lead, one has to be in front of the competitors. Then, when I was in junior and senior high schools, I was a sepak takraw athlete. In 1979, I became a national athlete. My team won the championship at the Southeast Asian Games. Coincidently, all the athletes in the sepak takraw team were from South Sulawesi and we won a gold medal.
We lacked world champions, but all of a sudden, we have sprinter Lalu Muhammad Zohri. What do you make of that?
On Zohri, I happen to know the history. Bob Hasan, former chairman of the track and field association [PASI], told me. I was much involved in athletics. I was the one evaluating him during an Asian Games test event in February. I am happy with Zohri; he is a source of inspiration for other athletes.
Do you think Zohri will be a star at the Asian Games?
Thank God, the public appreciation of Zohri is high. But that is worrying too. Excessive expectations [from our athletes] during the Games, where all the best athletes will be competing. We all hope Zohri will give his best shot.
This is a classic question: Why don't our athletes become world champions?
Two factors. Human resources and logistics. If these two are enough, or perhaps more than enough, this problem will be solved. We are a nation of 260 million people. From that number, we have potential in all sporting disciplines. Some say it is because we don't have technology. But technology is also dependent on adequate logistics and funding. We need more funding. If we want to rise, we first need to solve the funding problem.
Your name appeared in a survey of potential vice-presidential candidates. Many say you are a Jusuf Kalla stalwart?
I am a representation of Pak Jusuf Kalla. I admit Pak Jusuf Kalla groomed me but not for politics. For two things: peace and solving conflict in the Islamic world. Nothing to do with politics at all.
If you are asked to become a candidate, would you accept?
I will refuse. I am a general and I can't be there. I can't be in practical politics.
But you can resign from your post.
Still, I will refuse. I will only be concentrating on peace and solving conflict in the Islamic world as I said earlier.
As an Islamic figure and deputy chairman of the Mosque Council, what are your views on Islam in Indonesia at present?
Islam in Indonesia is recognized by the world as moderate. Islam as preached by Grand Sheikh Al Azhar of Egypt. Islam that teaches tolerance. If we Indonesians are pessimistic about that, we are in danger.
But many are worried about the level of intolerance.
We should not exaggerate something that is actually small. I am more optimistic about Islam in Indonesia than about what is happening in the Middle East. All of our territories are controlled by the state. We live in peaceful co-existence with others. If there are hardline views, we engage in dialogue. If there is research that concludes that 40 mosques are radical, I strongly deny that. That's politics using religion.