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Surabaya's Mrs. Mayor: Indonesia's Best-Kept Secret

Surabaya, Indonesia--Here, in Indonesia's second-largest city, legend tells of a titanic battle between Sura, the great white shark, and Baya, the crocodile. Meeting in a river one day, the two creatures fought ferociously for supremacy of the animal kingdom. The place where they clashed became known as "Surabaya," the city of the shark and the crocodile, emblematic of the repeated waves of colonial sharks and crocodiles that have controlled the city for centuries.

Settled in the late 1200's on the northern shore of East Java, Surabaya rose to become a major Southeast Asian port and trading center, frequently fought over and eventually controlled by the Dutch East Indies Company for over three centuries. The Dutch surrendered to Japanese troops in 1942, who occupied the country until their surrender to the Allies in 1945.

After the nationalist leader, Sukarno, declared Indonesia's independence on August 17, 1945, violence broke out between Indonesian freedom fighters and the Dutch and British, who returned to the country to take possession of Allied prisoners of war. A British brigadier-general was killed in the crossfire, and the enraged British attacked Surabaya. The bloody Battle of Surabaya is celebrated as a turning point in Indonesia's war of independence. Ever since, Indonesians have called it "the City of Heroes."

Today, Surabaya has a new hero in the form of its hands-on mayor, Tri Rismaharini, who is breathing new life into the city. Better known as "Ibu Risma"--"Mother Risma"--Surabaya's mayor is part of a rising generation of new leaders, empowered by the decentralization of authority across Indonesia and ready to seize the reins of national leadership.

Many mornings at 5:30am, "Mrs. Mayor" can be found picking up trash along the roadside. In the afternoons, she hands out balls to children in the parks while reminding them to study hard. At night, she patrols the parks, scolding underage youth for breaking curfew. If traffic gets snarled, she's been known to get out of her car and direct it herself. She also hosts a radio call-in show, fielding questions about evictions, clogged drains, and the occasional obscenity.

An architecture major, Risma rose to prominence in 2005 as head of the city parks department. Long known as an unlovely industrial port--one Dutch novelist called it "a dirty city full of pretensions and greed"--Surabaya under Risma has become "Sparkling Surabaya."

At her direction, brothels have been converted into kindergartens and old gas station lots into playgrounds. Banners bearing anti-littering slogans hang throughout the city, winning Surabaya a dozen environmental awards as a pioneering eco-city while inspiring the local populace: last year, Surabaya was named the city with the best public participation in Asia Pacific.

Though parks are her passion, Risma speaks proudly of her administration's program to provide free education and healthcare for the underprivileged--all the while streamlining the city's bureaucracy to eliminate inefficiency. The daughter of small business owners, Risma travels widely to other cities to study successful public innovations, adopting improved streetlights from Berlin and better teaching techniques from Seoul.

One of her main goals is to develop not just the city's infrastructure and economy, but also its people, through education and awareness programs--spending 35 percent of Surabaya's budget on education, far higher than the national standard.

"I don't really understand practical politics," Risma confesses--somewhat surprisingly given her achievements. And it's true that she was almost removed in her first year as mayor, after she angered entrenched interests with a proposal to raise tariffs on large billboards while lowering them for small business advertisements. When she was head of the city's building development, Risma and her family received death threats for implementing the country's first completely transparent, e-procurement system. Yet the system, in her words "saved anywhere from 20%-25%," while freeing up resources to build "better quality roads, new bridges and pedestrian areas."

Risma has forged important partnerships with the private sector, and is savvy navigating the country's bureaucracy. On just her second day in office, Risma visited Indonesia's vice president to discuss a critical port development project that had languished for decades. Despite repeated efforts to brush her off, Risma refused to leave the office until they agreed to begin construction.

The port groundbreaking took place a week later--and not a moment too soon. Surabaya's port has experienced a 200 percent increase in traffic in recent years. The improvements will boost efficiency and increase capacity as the port continues to serve as a gateway to other parts of the country.

Risma has also met with Belgian officials to discuss a potential "sister city agreement" between Surabaya and Antwerp, home to one of Europe's most important seaports. It would evolve the current system by allowing cargo to bypass Singapore, greatly reducing shipping fees between the two ports while making them more competitive.

It is creative ideas like these that have helped boost Surabaya's economic growth to over 7.5 percent since Risma took office in 2010--while earning her Globe Asia's prestigious 2012 Women Leader Award.

It has also led some to wonder if Risma's combination of understated competence and leadership are precisely the qualities that Indonesia most needs as it begins to emerge on the world stage. As Tempo magazine put it in a recent profile of Risma, the solution to Indonesia's problems may lie in the "inspirational" work of Indonesia's political outsiders, though "their names do not appear on the front pages of the national media and the regions they govern are far from the glitz of Jakarta."

"I don't have political ambitions," Risma insists. "To become a mayor, governor or even president is an extraordinary responsibility. It's not just about solving a flood problem or things like that. It's about helping the people to develop and be successful."

While she speaks, I note the seal of the city of Surabaya--a battling shark and crocodile. As mayor, Ibu Risma has learned to tame the clash of fiercely competing interests. What more might she do for all of Indonesia?

Stanley Weiss, a former global mining CEO and founder of Washington-based Business Executives for National Security, has been widely published on domestic and international issues for four decades.