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Saturday Profile: A ‘Little Bit of a Nut Case’ Who’s Taking on China

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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. (John Kerry, when he was secretary of state, once jokingly promised to go to Indonesia if Ms. Pudjiastuti could arrange for him to get a similar tattoo.)

Ms. Pudjiastuti 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 around 170,000 people, Ms. Pudjiastuti dispatched planes filled with relief supplies.

These days, many Muslim women in Indonesia have abandoned the kebaya, the lacy, body-hugging blouse paired with a sarong that is Indonesia’s national dress for women, for looser-fitting garments. Not Ms. Pudjiastuti. Modeling during Indonesian Fashion Week earlier this year, she had her kebaya sewn so tightly that the stitches tore when she tried to sit down. The dress was hemmed up again but had to be undone when Ms. Pudjiastuti realized she needed to go to the bathroom. Then the tailor went to work a third time.

In the political realm, she remains a polarizing figure. Fahri Hamzah, the deputy speaker of Indonesia’s lower house of Parliament, suggested that Ms. Pudjiastuti’s tattoo made her “a thug.”

Supporters have raised Ms. Pudjiastuti’s name as a possible vice-presidential running mate to Mr. Widodo, who is up for re-election next year, despite a constitutional clause that limits the nation’s top two posts to candidates with a high-school degree. Ms. Pudjiastuti demurred when asked to comment on the vice-presidential rumors.


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