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Surabaya’s ‘Mayor with the Cangkul’

Tri Rismaharini helping to clear the sea-front as part of a ambitious tree-planting initiative - Photograph: beritajatim.com

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Love her or loathe her, Tri Rismaharini has brought changes to the city through her tough stance and hands-on approach, writes S Chandra.

Tri Rismaharini helping to clear the sea-front as part of a ambitious tree-planting initiative - Photograph: beritajatim.com
Tri Rismaharini helping to clear the sea-front as part of a ambitious tree-planting initiative – Photograph: beritajatim.com

Boots – check, tools – check, cangkul – check. These are the everyday items seen in the car boot of Surabaya’s mayor, Tri Rismaharini (popularly known as Ibu Risma). After seeing her children off in front of their school, Ibu Risma prepares for her day just like any other Surabayan.

Elected in 2010, the vibrant mayor is now approaching the end of her term this year, and it is perhaps timely to reflect on her achievements and the new leadership style she has brought to the city. As part of a new wave of mayors coming into the Indonesian political scene, Ibu Risma is one of those who has gained nationwide familiarity.

Like her compatriots President Joko Widodo (Jokowi) and Jakarta mayor Basuki Tjahaja Purnama (Ahok), Ibu Risma comes from a background that ordinary Indonesian can connect with. She graduated with a BA in Architecture and became a licensed architect. With expertise in urban planning and housing, she has tackled some of Surabaya’s major concerns.

The first female mayor of Surabaya soon earned the nickname Wagiman (short for Walikota Gila Tanam) – the mayor obsessed with planting. She has converted unused public spaces into green spaces and built parks that soon became tourist attractions among the locals.

While new tourist attractions pop up in Surabaya, we also saw one finally closing down: the infamous red-light district, Dolly. It was no easy feat for Ibu Risma but she persisted and earned herself a reputation for getting things done.

But the mayor is more than someone notoriously tough. She has become a familiar sight among Surabayans, who wake up to see her cleaning the ditches, directing the chaotic traffic or picking up litter from the streets.

Frank and direct, she is known for her straight-forward style which has led to arguments on the street and occasions when she has scolded her own staff for being incompetent. Perhaps this is what most Indonesians have wanted to see from their elected representatives.

Unlike ministers in Indonesia who earned themselves the nickname Nato (no action, talk only), the Surabaya mayor listens to problems and gets things down. Indonesians are tired of reading news of Minister X being involved in illegal activities or Minister Y misusing public funds for personal expenditure. Instead of a mayor that only sits in the office and enjoys the air-conditioning, Ibu Risma, along with a few staff, actual visits the local neighbourhood and listens to the residents’ problems.

As a mother herself, she has put the Surabaya children’s future as her priority. Having built green spaces for the public, she has turned her attention to education and health. Ensuring free education for children and health care has earned her more praise from the public. Instead of the children begging for money on the streets, they are now going to school and reaping the benefits of a new education scheme.

The question now is, what next for Surabaya? Love her or loathe her, Ibu Risma certainly has brought changes to the city. She has made what had seemed like an impossible task now look possible through her tough stance and hands-on approach.

Chandra is a second-year college student in Australia. Besides widening her horizons by reading up on political and economic issues, she is broadening her culinary vistas by tucking in on jawa mee and curry mee.

Chandra recently participated in Aliran’s Young Writers Workshop on Good Governance and Democracy, supported by the Canada Fund for Local Initiatives. “It was insightful to hear from veteran writers who are aware of the issues that young writers like us are facing,” she says.

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