Mahfud MD: A simple man in a complicated job

Minister of Defense, designate, Muhammad Mahfud MD is known to be frank and forthright and, indeed, he recognizes the shortcomings he will bring to the new discipline the President has chosen for him.

Mahfud goes so far as to pledge his resignation if he fails to live up toexpectations.

The academician and constitutional law expert honestly admits that the field of defense is new to him, and somewhat alien.

"I was aware that I was not the most suitable to perform the job, even before there was public criticism of Gus Dur's decision to pick me as defense minister," Mahfud said referring to the barrage of criticism against his appointment including from People's Consultative Assembly Speaker Amien Rais and Gadjah Mada University observer Afan Gaffar.

Such was his surprise, that Mahfud recalled when he initially spoke to President Abdurrahman Wahid, he thought he had been offered the post of agrarian affairs minister.

"I thought Gus Dur was saying 'Menteri Pertanahan' (instead of Pertahanan)," Mahfud remarked during an interview with The Jakarta Post at his modest house in Maguwohardjo, Sleman, about three kilometers north of Yogyakarta city center.

"I even had to ask the President to repeat which ministry he meant."

"After Gus Dur repeated that it was the Ministry of Defense, I immediately told him I was not the right person to lead the ministry," he said.

However, during the conversation the President convinced Mahfud that he could handle the job and he was the person Abdurrahman was seeking.

Being a Madurese is probably one reason for his frankness.

Born in Sampang, Madura island, on May 13, 1957. His father, Mahmoddin, 74, is a retired civil servant who worked at a sub-district office, and hismother Siti Khatidjah, 65, is a housewife.

Mahfud married his university sweetheart, Zaizatun Nihayati, 41, in 1982.They were both studying at the Faculty of Law at the Indonesian Islamic University (UII) in Yogyakarta.

The couple have three children -- M. Ikhwan Zein, Vina Amalia and Royhan Akbar. The eldest is in senior high school, while the youngest two are in fourth and third grade.

Mahfud's alma mater remains an important focus of his career.

He entered UII in 1975, then continued with postgraduate studies at Gadjah Mada University, receiving his doctorate in 1993.

Since then he has returned to serve and teach at UII, reaching the post of deputy rector of the university and director of the postgraduate programwhile also teaching at several other institutions.

In January he was appointed as an expert staff member to the ministry of human rights affairs.


Recognizing his limitations in the defense field, Mahfud is not shy to declare that he will be ready to resign in three months if he is judged unable to perform his tasks.

"That is my personal political promise!," Mahfud asserted.

"It's not that I would refuse to assist President Abdurrahman Wahid and Ibu Megawati, but I am making this pledge because I do not wish to increasetheir burdens due to my incompetence".

Nevertheless, he remains optimistic that he will be able to carry out theresponsibility handed to him.

Mahfud revealed that a priority assignment from the President is to drafta legal framework for the military, that strategically positions the institution in a modern, democratic state structure.

In other words, Mahfud says, the military is no longer to be involved in politics.

Mahfud concedes this will be no easy feat, as the military has historicalclaims of its own which can justify its presence in politics.

He said this situation was compounded further during the New Order regimethat approbated the domination of the military over civilians in various sectors.

"Since then the ideal of a professional military has become exorbitant".

According to Mahfud one of the difficulties in repositioning the military has been due to their involvement in business activities that are a major source of non-budgetary income.

Mahfud pointed out another hurdle he will have to overcome: the differentcliques within the Indonesian Military (TNI) which have made it hard to sufficiently ""communicate"" the reform agenda as it applies to repositioningthe military's political role.

"Quite honestly, in my opinion, there are still many groups within TNI which do not accept the reform agenda," he remarked.

Mahfud claims not to have any special relationships with high-ranking TNIofficers who could possibly smooth his way.

"My hope is that my (neutral) relationship, which is neither near nor far (from TNI), will actually help me and make me closer to all sides".

"With the help of Pak Susilo (Bambang Yudhoyono) and Adm. Widodo I can hopefully forge a consensus within TNI," he said referring to the designated Coordinating Minister for Political, Social and Security Affairsand the TNI chief.


While Mahfud is not officially affiliated with any political party, he acknowledges that by nature he cannot be separated from either Nahdlatul Ulama (NU) or Muhammadiyah.

He said he was born and bred in an area that remains a strong NU base.

And since moving to Yogyakarta to study, he has become increasingly influenced by Muhammadiyah.

"My heart and blood is NU, but my thinking is Muhammadiyah," he remarked. It was due to his education in Yogyakarta that he became well acquainted with Amien Rais, who is also chairman of the National Mandate Party.

Mahfud is a member of the Center of Strategy and Policy Studies which Amien established.

It was through this connection that Mahfud was assigned to help draft PAN's platform as head of the legal and justice department in the party.

"But I resigned a few months after the party's declaration in February 1999, after a government ruling was issued banning civil servants from sitting as executives in political parties".

Mahfud stresses that his selection as a minister was not based on party politics, particularly PAN.

He further refutes suggestions that he was picked to represent the United Development Party (PPP) as he was proposed by party chairman Hamzah Haz.

"I was proposed by PPP in my capacity as a non-partisan professional," heasserted while adding that PPP also proposed three other persons who were affiliated with the party.

When asked to comment about the new Cabinet, Mahfud was sanguine, saying it could last till 2004.

"How long the Cabinet will last depends on how the President and Vice President can build unity between their ministers. On the other hand ministers should not be burdened by separate interests".

"I will pro-actively approach Ibu Mega. That is my job and I am confidentwe can communicate with each other even though she may have different political views," Mahfud said

Sumber: The Jakarta Post, Thu, 08/07/2008

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