Home TA Online Surabaya’s mayor for all seasons leads by example

Surabaya’s mayor for all seasons leads by example

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

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Malaysia’s mayors should visit Surabaya to learn from this self-motivated and energetic woman, writes Benedict Lopez.

Local folklore tells about a vicious battle between Sura, a white shark and Baya, a crocodile, fighting it out for the hegemony of the animal realm.

The expanse where the famed colossal clash took place became known as Surabaya – city of the shark and the crocodile.

If history is anything to go by, recurrent upsurges of sharks and crocodiles had gripped the city for periods of time.

For more than three centuries, Surabaya emerged as a pivotal port and an enclave for trade and commerce for the Dutch East Indies Company. Surabaya was surrendered by the Dutch to Japanese soldiers in 1942. The city was only liberated by the Allies at the end of World War Two in 1945.

In the aftermath of the war, a gory battle took place between Indonesian freedom fighters and the British and Dutch, known as the Battle of Surabaya. It was in recognition of these brave men that Indonesians refer to Surabaya as the “City of Heroes”.

Today, once again, Surabaya has another hero who is making waves: its down-to-earth mayor, Tri Rismaharini, better known to locals as Ibu Risma.

Mayor Risma, 56, adopts unconventional and unorthodox ways in tackling and solving the woes in this city of 3.5m people. In contrast to most of her peers all over the world, she takes a hands-on approach in discharging her day-to-day duties. No duty or calling for her city is too small or menial for Risma.

So, it is not surprising for Surabaya residents to see their mayor on the streets collecting rubbish at 6am. Very often in the mid-afternoon, this spirited lady is seen in the city’s parks handing out balls to children while reminding them about the importance of a good education.

Even the nights are not a time of relaxation for Risma. She can be seen on the streets reprimanding juveniles for loitering around aimlessly instead of doing anything productive.

If there is a traffic jam on the streets of Surabaya, it is not inconceivable for the city’s inhabitants to see a woman donning a hijab and in pants suit taking it upon herself to direct the traffic to ease the congestion.

This evergreen mayor also hosts talk shows over radio, listening to the myriad of problems faced by urbanites from eviction notices to blocked sewers. Is she deterred by these challenges? Definitely not, despite the sporadic vulgarities hurled at her. To Risma, these challenges are all in a day’s work.

Education and healthcare provided to the underprivileged are matters of concern to Risma. Since she assumed the office as mayor, Surabaya’s spending on education has been more than a third of its budget, much higher than the national average.

Risma also showed compassion and humanity for her people during dire situations such as in the aftermath of the Air Asia plane crash in 2014, when she was seen consoling bereaved families.

An architect by profession, Risma was elected mayor in 2010, scraping through the mayoral election by winning only 39% of the total votes cast in a five-corner fight. Under her stewardship, she ordered brothels to be converted into kindergartens and turned old petrol station lots into leisure areas.

Cleanliness and environmental concerns are close to Risma’s heart from her days as head of Surabaya’s Landscape and Cleanliness Department. Anti-littering catchphrases are displayed all over the city and in its parks. These efforts for a spick-and-span Surabaya have been recognised, and the city has won numerous awards such as the Asean Environmentally Sustainable City Award 2012.

Risma is a passionate learner and has travelled widely overseas to learn from other cities in embracing improvements for her city.

Being the daughter of a small business owner, Risma knows the importance of small and medium-scale enterprises as a boon to the city’s economy. During her early years as mayor, she infuriated some businesses in the city when she reduced tariffs for small business advertisements while raising them for larger billboards.

Surabaya’s mayor has also been responsible for the development of the city’s port. As a result of her indefatigable efforts, Surabaya’s port has experienced a sharp increase in the volume of cargo and services over the years. Increased efficiency has positioned Surabaya as a conduit to serve other parts of Indonesia.

Risma’s pragmatic policies have substantially benefited the people of Surabaya. The city’s economic growth has averaged more than 7% per annum over the past seven years. She was bestowed Globe Asia’s prestigious Women Leader Award in 2012.

The people of Surabaya have shown their gratitude to Risma. She was re-elected for a second term in 2015 with a landslide victory in a straight fight, winning a whopping 86% of the total votes cast. Perhaps it is time we too in Malaysia elect our mayors instead of appointing them.

It has not always been smooth sailing for Risma. When she was in charge of the city’s building department, she and her family members received death threats for implementing the country’s first transparent e-procurement system. Apparently, this decision adversely affected the interests of certain parties.

Mayors come and mayors go, but mayors like Tri Rismaharini and Curitiba’s (Brazil) former mayor, Jaime Lerner, are a rarity – exhibiting leadership qualities when it counts most.

Good mayors personify honesty, integrity, and excellent communication skills. They take tough decisions, buck the trend and rise to the occasion in order to fulfil the aspirations of the people.

The fable of the battle between the white shark and crocodile may now be ancient history, but Surabaya under the astute leadership of Ibu Risma is still winning battles on different fronts and uplifting the quality of life and living standards of the people.

Malaysia’s mayors should visit Surabaya to learn from this self-motivated and energetic woman. She can definitely impart some invaluable lessons on city administration.

The views expressed in Aliran's media statements and the NGO statements we have endorsed reflect Aliran's official stand. Views and opinions expressed in other pieces published here do not necessarily reflect Aliran's official position.

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Benedict Lopez was director of the Malaysian Investment Development Authority in Stockholm and economics counsellor at the Malaysian embassy there in 2010-2014. He covered all five Nordic countries in the course of his work. A pragmatic optimist and now an Aliran member, he believes Malaysia can provide its people with the same benefits found in the Nordic countries - not a far-fetched dream but one he hopes will be realised in his lifetime
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25 Feb 2018 8.04pm

Kudos to Risma. However, she should be careful to not end up as Jakarta Governor Ahok did at the hands of the Islamists, the big business business and military elite, as Andre Vltcheck describes in his investigative article.


Perhaps being a Muslim protects her somewhat but there can be no certainty about that if she steps on the toes of big business and the military elite.

Malaysian mayors visit and learn from Surabaya!!!

More likely they will enjoy the trip, do sightseeing, shopping, then come back and do nothing.

Jayna Valen
14 Feb 2018 9.58am

We could really learn from these people. Thanks for sharing Ben!

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