Berni K. Moestafa, The Jakarta Post, Jakarta, September 24, 2002.
On Faisal Basri, modesty stands out like his trademark khaki trousers, his light-colored shirt and his leather sandals among other men in suits.
“Help yourself please,” he said, pointing to a selection of tea and coffee, in the corner of his office while he prepared himself a bowl of instant noodles, “I don’t like how people here pamper someone just because he’s the dean.”
Faisal actually deserves some pampering. It’s well over half past three in the afternoon and the dean of the Perbanas Business School had not had his lunch yet.
Earlier in the day, he joined a brainstorming session for new reporters at television station TV 7, gave a lecture on the Indonesian economy at Perbanas, then agreed to a quick interview which, he was not to know, turned out to last for over an hour.
Faisal is an economist. Outstanding economists exist, few however launch political attacks, and of those very few find power unattractive.
Last year, for instance, he called for an act of civil disobedience by ignoring regulations of politicians whom he blamed for neglecting the public, with their power games.
In 1997 before a crowd of rallying students, Faisal demanded Soeharto’s resignation when even political activists refrained to singling out the former strongman as hampering economic recovery.
Believing the struggle must go on after the Soeharto era, he helped found the National Mandate Party (PAN) and became its first secretary-general — a position so unlike him, as are the shoes he said he kept in his car for formal occasions.
“I never wanted to become a politician, that has never been my dream,” he said. But when close friends asked him to join PAN, he did so. That was in 1998.
In January 2001, Faisal resigned over discontent with moves to change PAN’s open political platform into an Islamic one, not, he asserted, after someone challenged him at a public seminar to quit PAN.
“What I really like is teaching and doing research,” he said.
Faisal hails from the same school as brilliant economists like Sri Mulyani Indrawati, M. Ihksan and Chatib Basri.
A graduate of the University of Indonesia, he has never really left his alma mater since he first enrolled there in 1978. He still teaches economics at the university.
“After graduating I just stayed on as a lecturer and a researcher. I didn’t even think about working somewhere else,” Faisal said, adding he did once apply for a staff position with the United Nations but was turned down when he missed an interview.
He then held a research post at the University of Indonesia’s Institute for Economic and Social Research (LPEM) for 17 years.
From inside LPEM, he launched his criticism of the government’s economic policies that often hit the political establishment behind them as well.
He had no qualms about blasting the businesses of the Soeharto clan and his cronies, knowing well their empire was build on power rather than entrepreneurship.
Soeharto’s downfall in 1998 opened the way to uproot excessive state control over the market under the auspices of the International Monetary Fund (IMF).
Today Faisal airs his grief over unfair business competition, over the media and the country’s first antimonopoly watchdog, one of several IMF-backed products.
The Business Competition Supervisory Commission (KPPU) has become the referee in today’s ever tighter market, penalizing shady dealings of big corporations.
“The market is no saint, without regulations the big ones bury the small ones, the smart cheat the dumb, two big ones almost certainly means collusion,” said Faisal, now also a KPPU member.
But between the Soeharto-style market control and the risk of free trade, Faisal goes for the middle ground. “It’s like a pendulum, swinging from one extreme to another, it isn’t good.”
His down-to-earth insights are not merely pragmatism nurtured by years of toiling with economic figures at LPEM.
“What are the values I try to adhere to?” Faisal asked as he pondered a question on the meaning of life. “Quite simple, they are (the values from) the people nearest to me,” he said, citing his parents first.
His family, he said, was rather poor but not without dignity, which strikes one as especially hard, since his relatives belonged to the upper crust of society during the late sixties.
After all, his grandmother’s elder brother was Adam Malik, the venerable foreign minister and vice president during that time.
But while Adam might have set the mark of his family’s social status, he also taught them to be humble.
Faisal recalled how the former vice president gave attention to family members who were not as well-off as their well-to-do relatives.
“I look at Adam Malik’s modesty, how he taught our family the true meanings of family values, being non-discriminative,” he said.
Adam’s teachings, in the most obvious form, have resurfaced in Faisal’s unpretentious dressing style. It is from within him though that these values serve the country best.