Indonesia’s President Widodo finally takes a firm stand, but will it matter?

Indonesia’s founding president Soekarno was a dazzling demagogue, feared and loathed by the West and admired by the East. Apart from Abdurrahman Wahid (Gus Dur), his successors’ performances at the podium have been pedestrian, but suddenly Joko Widodo, the epitome of a mild-mannered Javanese, has let loose.

In a dressing down of his ministers the President was blunt: Covid-19 is real and they have responsibilities. But will anything change? Widodo’s reading of the riot act would have suited a coach’s locker-room broadside with his team floundering, ready to kick off their boots rather than kick on the game.

The tirade was delivered on 18 June, but such is the laziness of Jakarta journalists that it didn’t leak. After ten days of silence, frustrated palace officials released a video of an almost ten-minute spray.

Almost two million have watched so far, not a bad tune-in to a political lecture delivered by a poli best known for his shuffling style. Instead, he took a splash of the Soekarno spirit and the effect was intoxicating – a mix of anger, frustration and emotion stirred with verve.

How powerful? Here’s proof: No one could be seen checking smartphones. Briefly breaking into English an animated Widodo told his colleagues they were ignoring the “sense of crisis” gripping the Republic.

In Indonesian, he said he’d risk his political reputation to handle fallout from voters upset by his policies: “I will take any extraordinary steps for our 267 million citizens. These could be disbanding institutions, or it could be a reshuffle, I have thought of many options.

“We have budgeted Rp 75 trillion (AUD 7.5 billion) but only 1.5 per cent has been disbursed. All the money that’s supposed to be for the people is stuck there. The much-anticipated social aid program should be disbursed quickly.”

His COS Moeldoko later explained to the media the President had been telling ministers for some time they weren’t coping with the health and economic disasters thrashing the archipelago, damaging the lives of millions.

“The President is concerned his aides think this is a normal situation,” he said. “They need to be reminded, and the last warning was the latest among many.” Parents of teens know this repetitious scene well: ‘I’m telling you to clean your room again – this is final.’

Back in February before a group of alleged celebrities, Widodo revealed he was considering firing slackers. Last month in the East Java capital Surabaya the President gave officials a fortnight to get their act together. Nothing happened.

The seat-polishers have yawned away the threats reckoning they’re untouchable. Many hold their jobs not through merit but inter-faction deals which keep the six-party governing coalition intact.

There have been critics aplenty alleging inaction during the past three months, but Widodo kept calm. His temper was well tested. Transportation Minister Budi Sumadi stuffed up a ban on travel during the Islamic fasting month by handing out dispensations for Mudik the traditional Islamic fasting-month exodus from big cities to villages. Multiple thousands packed trains and busses.

The AUD 7.5 billion highlighted by Widodo has been allocated for healthcare, social protection and economic stimulus programs to try and keep the country breathing.

Tiny when put against Australia’s AUD 259 billion rescue package, but that’s not all. The Internet seethes with allegations of funds evaporating before reaching the needy. So far no impartial investigation.

Last month Planning Minister Suharso Monoarfa told a parliamentary hearing an extra 5.5 million could soon be jobless. If he’s right, Southeast Asia’s biggest economy is heading downstream fast, drowning workers in its wake.

Monoarfa estimated those under the poverty line could exceed 27 million, ten per cent of the total population. Before the Covid-19 outbreak, the line was Rp 440,538 (AUD 45) a month.

Finance Minister Sri Mulyani Indrawati is a non-party economist, formerly with the World Bank Group. She told the same hearing the GDP will shrink further in the second quarter.

Confused citizens have put up with more than two months of Pembatasan Sosial Berskala Besar (large scale social restrictions). These are supposed to end on 16 July. They’ve been poorly policed, often ignored and largely ineffective as the official death toll rises.

The Republic’s testing rates are abysmal – 3,185 per million, one of the lowest in the world, so who knows how bad things are? To date 60,695 cases have been confirmed and 3,036 deaths. As reported earlier NGOs and scientists have been shouting the real figures are probably three to four times higher.

Voters are mightily fed up with the administration, so at one level Widodo’s rant appears to be a political tactic to shift blame. However, there’s no doubt his emotion was genuine. Australian traders who’ve wallowed through the blancmange of Indonesian bureaucracy (World Bank ease of doing business ranking: 73) will relate to his exasperation.

Here’s the dilemma. By abandoning Javanese reserve and showing the wong cilik (ordinary people) he needs their support, Widodo is admitting his impotence at the top end of town. He’s also made enemies by shaming ministers in public. Maintaining status is critical in Indonesian culture, particularly for the majority Javanese.

It’s said the authoritarian second president General Soeharto never had to raise his voice to get things done. Wags claimed his ministers followed a 4D code – datang, duduk, diam, dapat duit (come, sit down, be quiet, get paid)

The current mess is partly Widodo’s fault as he held off telling the situation was serious for fear of causing fright. Then he urged the sick to drink jamu, the traditional herb medicine while Health Minister Terawan Agus Putranto prescribed prayer.

Overall the commentariat has been unsympathetic, saying Widodo’s speech is two months too late. Some have dismissed it as a publicity stunt because the video was offered to the media on a Sunday ready for Monday’s papers.

The Jakarta Post’s editorial writers, maybe miffed because they missed a scoop, turned up the cynicism: ‘Perhaps all he (Widodo) wants is just a change of perspective. We hope that, whether he does reshuffle his Cabinet or not, people will feel the heat and work harder.’

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Duncan Graham has been a journalist for more than 40 years in print, radio and TV. He is the author of People Next Door (UWA Press) and winner of the Walkley Award and Human Rights awards. He is now writing for the English language media in Indonesia from within Indonesia.

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