Ruangguru’s CEO Belva Devara is also one of the expert staff members appointed by the president’s office, and this link made him a welcome target for critics. He eventually stepped down from this position.
“Why was there no transparent tender? Why were only several platforms included by direct appointment?” asks Bhima Yudhistira Adhinegara, a researcher from the Institute for Development of Economics and Finance (Indef), one of the most vocal critics of the Pre-Employment Card.
“I think it’s a conflict of interest. The skills problem the programme was intended to solve is different from the current situation with layoffs. The government should be focusing on direct transfers and securing basic incomes, not [channelling aid] through private companies like Ruangguru,” he comments.
Criticism also rained down on Andi Taufan Garuda Putra, the CEO of micro-financing platform Amartha. He’s another one of Jokowi’s expert staff members.
He had used an official letterhead to promote his company to subdistrict heads around the country, promising Amartha’s support in a variety of Covid-19 relief efforts.
It’s safe to say that it was not well-received. Andi Taufan also stepped down from his expert staff position after the incident. Adhinegara, however, sees this new face of PPPs as a relationship of mutual dependency.
New rules or no rules?
The Indonesian government needed the tech sector to fulfil Jokowi’s campaign promise of an innovative, forward-looking Indonesia that is open to foreign investments. Startups, many of them chasing scale and profitability, welcomed access to public funds and infrastructure, and the legitimacy government contracts gave their unproven business models.
“Some startups previously burned money profusely; they received money from abroad. [Now] some may struggle to achieve sustainability,” Adhinegara tells us. “They become interested in bureaucracy and government projects. It’s one strategy for startups to survive—get government backup.”
Adhinegara’s position is provocative. He coined the term “millennial oligarchs” to refer to the tech CEOs whose closeness to the people in government he finds concerning. Adhinegara even challenged Devara to an online debate, which the Ruangguru CEO did not respond to.
Indonesia has seen its share of oligarchic power structures, especially during the 31-year reign of President Suharto, who was known for doling out licenses and government contracts to family members and cronies. Today, startup CEOs have been given advisory roles in President Jokowi’s office, and they’ve become close collaborators with authorities during the crisis. It’s a far cry from Suharto days, but critics warn of the potential rise of “millennial oligarchy” if checks and balances aren’t in place.
Others, including Ishak, whose developer community was involved in creating the Pre-Employment Card website, remain optimistic about the programme.
Upskilling young people remains a challenge that can only be solved with government-private sector tie-ups, Ishak believes, and the Card is on the right track. “The problem we see now is in the quality of the content. They are trying to fix this,” he says.
Lack of transparency is still a concern though, notes Nadia Fairuza Azzahra, an analyst at the Center for Indonesian Policy Studies.