January 25, 2024
JAKARTA – His name was mentioned in passing only twice during the fourth election debate on Sunday, but Thomas Lembong’s presence has reverberated long after the vice presidential candidates wrapped up.
Analysts have observed that the second and final vice presidential debate on Jan. 21 between Muhaimin Iskandar, Gibran Rakabuming Raka and Mahfud MD was filled with personal attacks rather arguments on the pros and cons of the candidates’ policies on energy, natural resources and agrarian reform.
On one occasion, Gibran put forth an aggressive defense against both his rivals in response to Muhaimin’s statement about him: “Maybe Gus [brother] Muhaimin also didn’t understand the question he asked me. Maybe he got a cheat sheet from Tom Lembong.”
Prabowo’s running mate, Surakarta mayor and President Joko “Jokowi” Widodo’s eldest son was referring to the famed economist and now cocaptain of the Anies Baswedan-Muhaimin campaign team.
Though he may have intended to make a dig at Muhaimin, Gibran’s name-dropping Thomas triggered criticisms against both him and his father, with many Anies-Muhaimin supporters pointing out that the economist served as the President’s speechwriter for several international events.
A former cabinet minister during the President’s first term, Thomas had been a close associate since Jokowi’s tenure as Jakarta governor in 2012-2014.
“Maybe someone is missing Tom,” Anies quipped on Monday during a campaign event in Bekasi regency, West Java, as quoted by kompas.com.
Thomas has not shied away from reporters’ questions about his behind-the-scenes role, telling reporters shortly after the debate on Sunday that he made “cheat sheets and wrote speeches for [Jokowi] for seven years”.
His charm and deep voice have made him a social media phenom, and his popularity has only risen since Sunday’s debate among users on TikTok and X, formerly Twitter.
Born in Jakarta on March 4, 1971, Thomas Trikasih Lembong spent his formative years in Germany, attending elementary school until he was 10 years old. He then returned to Jakarta, where he completed junior high school.
He spent his senior high school years in Boston, the United States, and graduated Harvard University in 1994 with a Bachelor of Arts in architecture and urban planning.
Thomas made his first foray into economics the following year in the equity division at Morgan Stanley’s Singapore branch. In 1999, he worked as an investment banker at Deutsche Securities Indonesia.
He made his public debut in 2000, when Thomas was appointed senior vice president of the Indonesian Bank Restructuring Agency (IBRA), which was set up in 1998 to rehabilitate the country’s banking industry following the 1997-1998 Asian Financial Crisis.
Read also: Anies Baswedan to wrap up campaign trail at JIS
Thomas returned to the private sector in 2002 and managed various companies for around a decade until his 2012 appointment as a commissioner of PT Graha Layar Prima, operator of movie theater chain BlitzMegaplex, now CGV Cinemas.
In 2013, he served as economic advisor to then-Jakarta governor Jokowi. In 2015, Thomas was appointed as trade minister during the first cabinet reshuffle since Jokowi won the presidential election the previous year.
He was then appointed in 2016 to take the helm of the Investment Coordinating Board (BKPM). There, he played a crucial role in facilitating business expansions and simplifying the bureaucratic red tape, which he often criticized as “inconsistent”, to woo foreign investors to the country.
By the time Thomas left the government in 2019, he was already well-known for writing some of Jokowi’s iconic speeches.
These included one on the state of the world economy inspired by Marvel’s Avengers: Infinity War, which the President delivered at the World Economic Forum on ASEAN in Hanoi in September, just a few months after the superhero blockbuster’s local release.
“Rest assured that I and my fellow Avengers stand ready to prevent Thanos from wiping out half the world’s population,” Jokowi said, calling on the international community to prevent a trade war between the world’s major powers from becoming an “infinity war.”
Another pop culture reference was used in the President’s address the following month at the 2018 World Bank Group and International Monetary Fund Annual Meetings in Bali.
“With the various world economic problems [we are facing], it’s safe to say that winter is coming,” Jokowi said in delivering the speech, which also referred to the predicted plight as “evil winter” in a nod to the popular TV series Game of Thrones.