Is Indonesia’s ‘dreamy idealist’ losing the plot?

Akhirnya! At last! Just in time for the 75th anniversary of the declaration of Indonesia’s independence next week (17 August) we’re starting to examine our big neighbour with some honesty.

With a free trade agreement in the bag maybe some feel more relaxed about speaking bluntly – and that’s happening with businesspeople warning of hazards.

Or perhaps we’re fed up with tip-toeing around chauvinists. Whatever – it’s welcome and comes in a useful and easily digested package – Ben Bland’s Man of Contradictions, subtitled Joko Widodo and the Struggle to Remake Indonesia. (To be released next month, pre-sales now.)

Bland is with the Lowy Institute which published his 146-page book / paper as a Penguin Special. He was once the Financial Review’s man in Jakarta. The posting pleased: ‘Indonesia is the best country in the world in which to be a foreign correspondent… There is no other place you can see, learn, and do so much as a journalist while feeling so secure, at least most of the time.’

He arrived in 2012 when a small-town mayor was bidding for the big time as Governor of Jakarta.

Bland met or interviewed Widodo (better known as Jokowi) more than a dozen times – though it seems never intimately – watching ‘the Jokowi phenomenon grow exponentially before crumbling under the burden of expectations.’

Widodo attracted for what he was, and what he wasn’t. Greed and brazen ambition seemed absent. His philosophy was ojo kagetan – don’t get excited. He didn’t strut or triumph, rather ‘winning without humiliating’.

He’d never been in the military, like the kleptocrat and authoritarian second president Soeharto (1921-2008), but has now surrounded himself with uniforms. Of course they ‘seek ‘security-led responses to everything from religious tensions to Covid-19’, unnerving those wanting the army in barracks, not government.

When Widodo won the Presidency in 2014 the world’s media went ga-ga claiming the slim, mild-mannered heavy-metal fan was the new face of the maturing democracy determined on change. Blusukan (market walkabouts) became his trademark.

Farewell KKN (Korupsi, Kolusi, Nepotism) and the ‘octopus of the oligarchy’, even though it’s made a post-revolution comeback like the Bourbons in 19th century France.

Human rights would prevail. The poor would find work, foreign investors form queues, the economy boom. Seven per cent GDP was promised. Before the plague it was five – now crashed to one.

This is serious stuff. If inflation results and a demagogue appears, riots could follow.

Bland looked past the eulogies, noticing the desired qualities were not being displayed. Widodo’s fans were projecting their expectations on a man free of ideology, a narrow thinker and poor defender of democracy. He lacked the will to stamp out the endemic graft corroding the economy and voters’ trust.

Instead he’s wed to concrete issues – roads, ports and rail lines, a can-do guy, differing from his can-talk predecessors. He’s been spectacularly successful, thanks to Chinese funds and technology. Before Covid-19 the plan was to use his second five-year term on developing human resources.

His strong work ethic is rooted in his struggles as a small furniture manufacturer for 15 years. Like his US counterpart, he isn’t into reading and taking advice, running the palace ‘more as an imperial court than a chief executive’s office’.

With local-lad-makes-good yarns, myths become reality. Indonesians were told Widodo grew up on the riverbank, offering images of slums and mud. Bland writes the family was ‘certainly not destitute’. Uncle Miyono was in business and employed his nephew.

As a Westerner Bland puts much of his subject’s success to timing and luck; the President reasons this is fate, which makes sense to an electorate where spiritualism throbs. Born Mulyono and a sickly child, his parents renamed him to get well. When Covid-19 erupted he promoted jamu, a traditional herbal cure-all.

Locals will choke on Bland’s paper because much is about their hero’s failings. It’s a page-turner written with clarity pitched to a knowledgeable readership.

Details of Widodo’s personal life would draw a wider audience, necessary to boost our knowledge of the people next door. What sort of believer is the leader of a nation where 88 per cent claim to follow Islam? He’s more abangan blending traditional Javanese mysticism than the orthodox santri, so often accused of not being a ‘proper’ Muslim.

How did he get into the prestigious Gadjah Mada Uni and his family find the money? How was he as a forestry student? How did he meet his wife Iriana (named after the province), reportedly his one and only girlfriend? She’s often with him in public and seldom wears a headscarf – suggesting she’s her own woman. Does she advise?

What are his relationships with his kids, particularly his Singapore-educated surly son Gibran, 32, who now has political ambitions despite earlier distancing himself from Dad? Hints here of work eclipsing parenting. Such details would compose a more substantial figure.

Also absent is more information on Javanese culture and the sharing codes which bind society, and where Widodo is an exemplar. None of this can be understood using the Western templates of Judaeo-Christian values and left-right politics.

Bland knows this: ‘Unhelpfully for outsiders looking for straight-forward analytical frameworks, there are no easy dividing lines over ideology or policy.’ He tries to explain but needs more space.

In his early days as President the peanut didn’t forget his shell, as the Javanese proverb tells. Widodo continued relating to the wong cilik (wee folk) who helped him into the palace defeating the blustering, aggressive former general Prabowo Subianto. In the hierarchical culture of Java, this was an extraordinary feat, but the word-shy Widodo is no charismatic spell-binder like the nation’s proclamator Soekarno who’ll be remembered next Monday.

As Jakarta Governor Widodo stared down radicals demanding he replace a Christian community leader with a Muslim, saying he prioritised merit. But when his ethnic Chinese Christian friend Basuki Tjahaja (Ahok) Purnama efficient successor was jailed on a devious charge of blasphemy, Widodo as President backed away, choosing political expediency above moral leadership.

Bland thinks Widodo isn’t corrupt and genuinely wants to lift living conditions, health and education. But he’s become neo-authoritarian, ‘Soeharto lite’ – a label he might like. He rants about red tape clogging progress and scaring foreign investors – yet he’s also a socialist, pandering to nationalists by boosting the nation’s 100-plus state-owned enterprises. Bland ranks these as ‘more pervasive in Indonesia than in any other major economy apart from China’.

The first biography of Widodo in English is a good primer. The cyclopaedia is Australian Dr Greg Barton’s Gus Dur, a close examination of fourth president Abdurrahman Wahid, the near-blind idiosyncratic Muslim scholar and human rights champion who died in 2009.

Barton had almost full-time access to the liberal democrat and his family. It’s now difficult to get near Widodo. He’s indifferent to foreign media and unwilling to intellectualise his ideas. The best he gave Bland was ‘democracy is about improving the lives of the people.’

Bland’s conclusion isn’t sanguine: ‘Jokowi (now 59) still has four years to go, and it seems he will do little more than muddle through his final term as president. He may once more demonstrate that being underestimated is his greatest strength. I hope so. But I fear that while Jokowi’s story shows what is possible in Indonesia, it also shows the limits.’

Duncan Graham is an Australian journalist writing from Indonesia.

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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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