Breaking through Indonesia’s administrative glass ceiling has proven difficult for ex-trade minister Mari Pangestu, but a chance to lead the World Trade Organisation may push her to new heights
By Sacha Passi
When Mari Pangestu presents to an international forum about economic affairs and trade negotiations, her peers take note. “When she makes a suggestion, leaders stop to listen… she has huge intellectual capacity and the ability to get on with all whom she meets,” says Rod Morehouse, the national president of the Australia-Indonesia Business Council and former minister with the Australian Trade Commission based in Jakarta. “Couple this with the fact that she comes from one of the rising economic powers of the future, her ability to shape the world is not one that many would question.”
As the former trade minister of Indonesia, Pangestu is credited as the woman behind President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono’s stellar performance in steering Indonesia towards a position alongside the world’s ‘big four’ developing economic powerhouses – Brazil, Russia, India and China.
Not one to shy away from ruffling a few feathers in the name of good economics, in 2011 the pragmatic technocrat was eventually shifted from her seven-year post as trade minister for performing, some say, ‘too well’. “Change is difficult and her colleagues in Industry and Agriculture in particular found her too ‘free’ and eventually managed to have her removed from her portfolio,” says Morehouse. “Interestingly, others still have support for her and hence her side move to the ministry of tourism and creative economy as they obviously did not want to miss her intellectual input from cabinet discussions.”
Michael Buehler, a political scientist with the Asia Society, agrees that Yudhoyono’s move to shift Pangestu to the newly created ministerial position was evidence of political meddling not uncommon in a government seemingly failing to win a battle with graft. “Her removal from the [trade] ministry to become minister of tourism was clearly a demotion,” he says. “The 2011 reshuffle was determined by party and personal loyalties and not driven by an assessment of the performance of ministers.”
While her successor Gita Wirjawan was busy implementing protectionist measures in Indonesia’s trade industry – effectively backtracking from Pangestu’s longstanding push for free trade and delivering a blow to Indonesia’s reputation in 2012 as one of the world’s most enticing emerging markets – Pangestu set her sights on developing better standards for infrastructure, hygiene and security as the minister of tourism and creative economy.
In December, however, support for Pangestu as an undeniable asset to the international trade scene was affirmed when Indonesia entered the race to take the top post with the World Trade Organisation (WTO), naming the 56-year-old as its pick for the role of director general.
With nine contenders to replace outgoing director general Pascal Lamy when his second term wraps up in August, Pangestu is one of three women nominated for the position that would see her tasked with managing a body that plays an essential role in maintaining open markets and trade peace among its 157 members. She could also become the first woman to head the organisation.
The race for the post is no doubt competitive, but there are strong indications that the job will go to a developing country candidate. However, Pangestu may lose out, given that Thailand’s Supachai Panitchpakdi represented Southeast Asia in the post from 2002 to 2005.
“There is growing recognition in international circles that the developing world should be better represented at the top level of international agencies,” says Peter McCawley, the former dean of the Asian Development Bank Institute in Tokyo. “Doubtless, however, some will point to regional considerations and will argue that it is time that the director general was appointed from Africa or Latin America.”
The final decision will not come for a few months yet, with the WTO general council due to select Lamy’s successor by May 31. While it remains to be seen if Pangestu can secure the post, her future role in Indonesia’s trade and economic sector is inviting as much speculation as her potential contribution to a world forum.
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