Retno and Sri Mulyani, President Jokowi’s ‘Charlie’s Angels’ in G-20

While President Joko “Jokowi” Widodo reaped international plaudits for the success, the historic achievement has underlined the pivotal role of two female Cabinet ministers.

Kornelius Purba

Kornelius Purba

The Jakarta Post


President Joko “Jokowi“ Widodo speaks during the G20 Summit in Bali, November 16.(G20 Secretariat/-)

November 21, 2022

JAKARTA – Indonesia could pride itself for carving a piece of history after hosting the Group of 20 Leaders’ Summit in Bali that saw members of the world’s 20 largest economies, against all odds, accept a declaration last week.

While President Joko “Jokowi” Widodo reaped international plaudits for the success, the historic achievement has underlined the pivotal role of two female Cabinet ministers. Some of the male ministers involved in the summit tried to steal the show by issuing press statements, but they simply aimed to tell the public they had worked hard too.

Certainly, those male ministers deserve credit, but many would agree the role Foreign Minister Retno Marsudi and Finance Minister Sri Mulyani Indrawati played was pivotal in helping President Jokowi accomplish his mission. The two lady ministers remind me of the tough, skillful and charming “Charlie’s Angels”, who always get things done. While in the TV series and movie sequels Charlie has three angels, Jokowi only needs two.

“It’s Charlie, Angels. Time to go to work,” is the famous line when the angels receive an order to solve a case.

In preparing the Bali summit, Retno closely worked with her friend of 43 years Sri Muyani almost throughout the year. The plan nearly collapsed after Russia, one of the G20 members, invaded Ukraine in February. Another scare came in the last minutes of the Bali meeting when the leaders of the world’s seven richest nations demanded the G20 issue a harsher condemnation against Russia.

But eventually, everybody could accept Indonesia’s compromised draft declaration. United States President Joe Biden, Chinese President Xi Jinping and Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov, who came to Bali on behalf of President Vladimir Putin, did not raise any objection.

“We did it. A mission impossible accomplished,” Retno texted in a WhatsApp message to me after President Jokowi closed the two-day summit on Wednesday.

When President Jokowi handed over the gavel of the G20 presidency to Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi in the closing ceremony, Sri Mulyani was seen hugging Retno and leaning her head on her friend.

According to Sri Mulyani, the G20 Summit was an extraordinary historic achievement for Indonesia. “As what has been conveyed by President Jokowi, although there were very difficult debates, in the end, the G20 leaders agreed that war [in Ukraine] should be stopped because it caused huge global losses for life and global economy,” she said after the summit concluded.

Perhaps it was the chemistry that had brewed long before they joined the Cabinet that helped them form a well-knit team. While the G20 summit was in Sri Mulyani’s economics and finance domain, it owed its success to Indonesia’s astute diplomacy, which is Retno’s turf.

Retno, who has served as Jokowi’s chief diplomat since 2014, was responsible for the Sherpa track. As stated in the G20 official website, “the G20 Sherpa is a direct extension of the Head of State/Head of Government who will discuss various non-financial issues and discuss financial issues to be input in the preparation of the Leaders’ Declaration”.

Retno and her team led lengthy discussions, moving paragraph by paragraph, word by word, to accommodate everyone’s wishes and get others to agree on the declaration text. They worked on the text for months, with the article on Ukraine being the toughest.  

During the G20 Finance Ministers Meeting in Bali in July, Sri Mulyani warned that failure to reach a consensus “could be catastrophic for low-income countries amid soaring food and energy prices exacerbated by the war in Ukraine”.

She promised that Indonesia would be an honest broker and find creative solutions to overcome the “triple threat of surging commodities prices, global inflation and war”.

Her track record as a World Bank managing director for six years, and her non-compromising stance against political and business interests in the country were perhaps key to convincing the G20 leaders to finally reach a consensus.

The friendship between Retno and Sri Mulyani dates back to their teenage years when they went to the same state senior high school in Semarang, Central Java. After graduating, Retno studied international relations at Gadjah Mada University in Yogyakarta, while Sri Mulyani chose economics at the University of Indonesia in Jakarta.

Jokowi reunited them when in 2016 he appointed Sri Mulyani as his finance minister, a post she gave up during the tumultuous year in 2010. After winning his second term in 2019, Jokowi maintained both Retno and Sri Mulyani as his chief diplomat and treasurer respectively.

Some of Retno’s seniors and former bosses were often heard to criticize her for “a lack of vision”. But Jokowi from the very beginning has told his ministers that only the President has the vision and mission, while ministers are responsible to implement his platform.

The just-concluded G20 Summit clearly showed how Retno and Sri Mulyani, as well as other ministers, were stretched to the limit to execute what the President wanted and they just made it.  

The challenge, however, did not end as the summit’s curtain was lowered. Former foreign minister Hassan Wirajuda warned there was an absolute need to realize what has been agreed in Bali. “If what was discussed and agreed upon is not followed up, then people might say, ‘Oh, the G20 is dysfunctional,” The Jakarta Post quoted the veteran diplomat as saying.

Both Retno and Sri Mulyani proved their mettle during the G20 Summit, which will be remembered as an event held to restore the world’s peace and growth.

Indonesia hosted the G20 Summit on a predominantly Hindu island. Next year the summit will be hosted by India, a predominantly Hindu nation. Hopefully more concrete and substantial progress will be achieved there.

Between now and the next G20 Summit is another phase of “Time to go to work” for the angels Retno and Sri Mulyani.


The writer is a senior editor at The Jakarta Post.

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