In memory of Professors Subroto and Kuntoro Mangkusubroto

The convening power of meritocratic leaders

Over two millennia ago, Cicero wrote about characteristics required of good leaders. They must have virtues, sense of justice, dignity, self-restraint, and they must be generous as well as magnanimous. These principles remain relevant today–if not more so in the age of digital populism that makes it much easier for theatrics to trump facts.

The final weeks of 2023 have been a solemn reminder that Indonesia is losing great meritocratic leaders who embodied not only Cicero’s aspired qualities but also mastery of substance that spans across disciplines—and even generations. Professor Kuntoro Mangkusubroto, who sadly passed away on 17 December 2023 was one such rare leader. Another, whose one-year anniversary of his passing was recently commemorated by Bimasena, was Professor Subroto.

It may not be a coincidence that both were entrusted (among others) as Minister responsible for mining and energy, a large and complex ministry that intersects with numerous other sectors. Driving methodologically sound and fact-based policies through the labyrinths of stakeholders require strong leadership, sharp mind, and resilient character.

Every individual leader is of course unique, however both Professors Subroto and Kuntoro have demonstrated a common ability that is extremely rare in today’s polarized political discourse i.e. the ability to convene cross-sectoral thought leaders and actors in working towards a common goal (despite different interests). Many prominent individuals would heed towards them or their initiatives knowing that they were unlikely to pursue things for their own narrow self-interest.  Their convening power reached beyond their “natural” remits and tore down generational divide.

Even in his nineties, Subroto remained sharp as he regularly convened discussions and welcomed cordial debates at Bimasena on topics of energy, mining, and the broader economy. He truly believed that these sectors are pivotal in pursuit of “Indonesia Raya 2045”. In formal events, when the national anthem is played, he would have determinedly stood up from his wheelchair whenever he could. His deliberations and recommendations were always conveyed politely a la Javanese decorum, but those who understood would see the suite of constructive criticism in them. While doing so, Subroto humbly fostered relations with government officials, business leaders and academia that are by far his juniors.

In the meantime, Kuntoro’s appreciation of young talents is also no secret. He convinced Indonesian young professionals to join him as he was heading up the Presidential Delivery Unit, nurtured and trained them at the apex of the government whilst instilling them with grounded humility. This modus operandi is also seen in many other organizations and initiatives that Kuntoro led. Across sectors, he has an extraordinary ability to bring people of opposing views and interest together. One of the cases in point was his initiative to bring energy stakeholders together in a two-weekend scenario-building exercise in 2014, known as the Bandung Energy Scenarios 2030. That initiative brought together competing politicians, government officials, state-owned enterprise directors, private sector and NGO leaders to flush out how the country’s energy sector could evolve. It was never meant to make them agree on what it should be, but to share a common view on what it could be given certain conditions. Its outcome was then handed over to the incoming administration at the time.

Subroto’s and Kuntoro’s ability to convene lasted long after they have left powerful offices. How come? Despite their differences, there are common learnings that today’s aspiring leaders may want to learn from both “Pak Broto” and “Pak Kun”: (1) embrace hardships and foster camaraderie, (2) integrity as a long-term habit, (3) nationalism and internationalism, (4) deep substance and wide interests, and (5) proven delivery.

First, both leaders embraced hardships whenever the cause is worthwhile. Character building is said to be shaped during one’s formative youth years. Lieutenant Subroto fought in battles to defend Indonesia’s independence in the 1940s before he embarked on his studies in peace time. Whereas young Kuntoro joined the legendary mountaineering group, Wanadri, in the late 1960s. During his group’s inaugural long-march through the jungle, some members were severely injured. Instead of marching along to meet the deadline, the group instead opted to carry their mates to finish the march as a team. These principles seem to truly color both Pak Broto’s and Pak Kun’s journey in the decades that came. They both embraced hardships and took the right way instead of escaping through the easy way out.

Second, the integrity of both gentlemen was barely challenged. This is not a result of meticulous public relations campaign, but rather an outcome of a life-long habit. Their ministerial post was perhaps one of the most “lucrative” government offices, overseeing multi-billion dollars worth of production sharing contracts and mining licenses – not to mention numerous other discretional policy decisions and permits. None were basked in extravagant luxury nor sought rent for personal benefits. Kuntoro’s personal leadership was explicitly praised by Bill Clinton for building a transparent and corruption-free system in the aftermath of the post-Tsunami reconstruction.

Third, as true statesmen, both were grounded in their unwavering nationalism while flourished and deeply respected internationally. Pak Broto’s stint at the helm of Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) in the 1980s-1990s was a national pride. Fatih Birol, the current Executive Director of the International Energy Agency, paid tribute upon the passing of Pak Broto that the late professor was “a good man who distinguished facts from fiction”. Likewise, Pak Kuntoro’s exemplary work among others in leading post-tsunami reconstruction earned him various international recognition where his advice had been widely sought for disaster relief efforts globally.

Fourth, as curious academics, professors Subroto and Kuntoro always enjoyed going deep in substance and cast their net of interests wide across various topics and themes. They both were keen to see how different things interact, and never shy away from learning from anyone. They were never satisfied at superficial level of understanding.

And fifth, as capable practitioners, their track record of delivery speak for themselves. Equipped with deep knowledge and wide networks, they were capable in delivering outcomes through the limitations of bureaucracies with unrivalled diplomatic acumen. Professor Emil Salim attributed Pak Broto who played a critical role in ensuring that OPEC did not oppose the Earth Summit in 1992 that paved the way among others for United Nation’s efforts in addressing climate change.

Not only evident in their life’s works, as the news of their passing went public, hordes of government officials, business leaders, civil societies, academia, young and old paid their respect and tributes. Both late professors are now peacefully laid to rest only meters away and honored at the Kalibata Heroes Cemetery. They would likely be more honored if the next generations can carry on—and further improve—their leadership principles. They knew current and future generations face multi-faceted challenges that are ever more complex, requiring quality meetings of the minds and cross-sectoral actors to work together. None of these can be done if those who matter cannot convene without too much prejudice.

A slightly edited version of this piece was published by The Jakarta Post on its 2 January 2024 edition:

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  • Byline

    Michael is a professional leader in the fields of energy investments, complex commercial deals, and sustainability with extensive international experience. His personal interests span from socio-political issues, history, and culture.

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