Indonesian minister doesn’t mind making enemies
Susi Pudjiastuti was scooping up lunch with one hand, using her thumb and two fingers to extricate bones from a chunk of fish. With the other hand, she simulated grinding a stiletto heel into the ground.
“This is what I can do if the Chinese try to play tricks on me,” said the maritime affairs and fisheries minister of Indonesia. “I can smile very nicely and then I can use my high heel.”
“Very sharp,” she added, popping the piece of fish into her mouth.
Ms Susi is not a conventional Indonesian woman, much less a conventional cabinet minister. She chain-smokes, although Indonesia’s health minister — one of eight women in the cabinet of President Joko Widodo — has warned her that a public figure should not be seen lighting up.
She likes her coffee black and her alcohol only in the form of Champagne. “My family thinks I’m a little bit of a nut case,” she said.
Perhaps it takes a little bit of a nut case to challenge Beijing, going so far as to seize Chinese fishing boats poaching in Indonesian waters. Ms Susi has created a lot of enemies along the way, at home as well as abroad, but she says her success can be measured by the improved health of Indonesia’s fishing grounds, and she is not about to back down.
With more than 17,500 islands, Indonesia is the world’s largest archipelagic nation, yet its maritime sovereignty had long been neglected. When she was appointed in 2014, Ms Susi, a seafood and aviation magnate who never finished high school, inherited a ministry that was in danger of being eliminated.
But she has transformed the portfolio, declaring war on foreign fishing boats that had encroached on territorial waters and threatened some of the world’s most biodiverse seas.
Not all of the offenders have been from China. Boats from other Southeast Asian countries, notably Vietnam, stray into Indonesian waters as well, costing the country at least US$1 billion a year in lost resources, the United Nations has reported.
Ms Susi has not relied on subtlety: she has ordered hundreds of impounded foreign vessels to be blown up.
But it is her entanglements with the Chinese that have created the greatest uproar, while also making her an unlikely heroine for those calling for international defiance of Beijing’s muscular foreign policy.
Indonesia is not an official claimant to contested territory in the South China Sea, where Beijing is landing bombers on disputed islets. But the “nine-dash line” that Beijing uses on maps to demarcate the swath of the South China Sea it considers its own nevertheless extends into waters that lap up against Indonesian islands.
That is where the fish — and Ms Susi — come in.
“I’m not the military, I’m not the foreign minister,” she said. “The Chinese cannot really get angry at me because all I’m talking about is fish.”
Another smile, another bite of lunch, this time doused in an incendiary sauce Ms Susi made from part of a 30-kilogramme haul of chiles she bought during a recent trip to eastern Indonesia.
In June 2016, an Indonesian warship towed away a Chinese fishing boat that had been caught near the Natunas, Indonesian islands located in the southernmost reaches of the South China Sea.
An attempt earlier that year to bring in another Chinese boat had been foiled when the Chinese Coast Guard intervened, severing the towing line connecting the impounded vessel to an Indonesian patrol boat.
Both seizures took place in waters that are well within Indonesia’s exclusive economic zone, as defined by international maritime law. But the Chinese Foreign Ministry protested and referred to the seas as China’s “traditional fishing grounds”.
Ms Susi was not impressed. “The Indonesians sailed all the way to Madagascar in ancient times,” she said. “Should we claim the entire Indian Ocean as our ‘traditional fishing grounds’?”
Since she took over, most of the 10,000 foreign fishing boats that once poached in Indonesian waters have disappeared. Fishing stocks more than doubled from 2013 to 2017, according to government statistics.
But earlier this year, Vice President Jusuf Kalla, said that enough was enough. Blowing up boats may have made Ms Susi the most beloved Indonesian cabinet minister, but the shock tactics were scaring off foreign investors. The Indonesian Chamber of Commerce echoed his complaint.
Even Indonesia’s 2.4 million-strong fishing community was up in arms, protesting against the minister’s efforts to halt popular but environmentally destructive practices including deep trawling and dynamite fishing.
Ms Susi is unsympathetic. “When I started off in the seafood business, the fish were this big,” she said, widening her arms. “Then everything was small. The fish were gone, overfished, and the government didn’t care.”
The ultimate self-made woman, Ms Susi is not about to go down without a fight. She was born in a fishing town on the southern coast of Java and dropped out of high school. There was a first marriage and a child. There was a second marriage and a child. There was a third liaison and a child.
There was a night of drinking in which she got a phoenix tattooed on her right shin; the tattoo remains, even if the men who fathered her children do not.
Ms Susi survived by driving a truck transporting frogs and bird’s nests. Then she moved into the seafood business — lobster to Japan, king prawns to Hong Kong — which spawned an aviation company that started off transporting crustaceans and expanded to carrying people.
Today, Susi Air boasts a fleet of 50 light aircraft. When the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami devastated Aceh in western Indonesia, killing 170,000 people, Ms Susi dispatched planes filled with relief supplies.
In the political realm, she remains a polarising figure. Fahri Hamzah, the deputy speaker of Indonesia’s lower house of parliament, suggested that Ms Susi’s tattoo made her “a thug”.
Supporters have raised Ms Susi’s name as a possible vice-presidential running mate to President Widodo, who is up for re-election next year, despite a constitutional clause that limits the top two posts to candidates with at least a high-school diploma. Ms Susi demurred when asked to comment.
Whenever she can, she returns to the sea. Earlier this year, she and one of her housekeepers took a long-weekend break in Pangandaran, the mangrove-fronted town where she grew up. She decompressed by steering a paddleboard out to sea.
The current was strong but after 90 minutes of hard paddling Ms Susi relaxed on her board with a smoke and a hot drink. The setting sun glowed crimson over the Indian Ocean. “Screw Jakarta,” she said. “I’m happy when I’m out at sea.”