DUNCAN GRAHAM. Joko Widodo is no Lee Kuan Yew

Jul 26, 2019

Even read in English it’s a stirring speech with hints of John F Kennedy’s inaugural address: ‘Ask not what your country can do for you – ask what you can do for your country’.  By the standards of Indonesian President Joko ‘Jokowi’ Widodo, a normally awkward public performer, it was well delivered, calling on voters to move on from the hates of the 17 April election campaign and embrace Pancasila.

This is the nation’s founding philosophy – belief in one God, a just and civilized humanity, a unified nation, democracy and social justice.

It seems churlish to write that restating these five principles won’t start a cultural revolution.

There will be improvements – but lasting universal reform needs a powerful and charismatic leader. Widodo is not that person.

Widodo’s victory address came almost three months after he beat former general Prabowo Subianto by ten percentage points. The furious loser unsuccessfully appealed to the Constitutional Court claiming a stitch-up while his supporters fought police in a two-day central Jakarta demo that allegedly left nine dead and hundreds injured.

The mild-mannered former furniture salesman’s win rebuffs the theory that unfulfilled promises are turning voters to demagogues like Donald Trump in the US and Rodrigo Duterte in the Philippines.

Had the megalomaniac Subianto won it’s likely he’d have halted the two-decade growth of representative government. The world’s third largest democracy would have been rammed back to the dictatorial style of his former father-in-law Soeharto, the Republic’s second president who ruled for 32 years till 1998.

Widodo’s speech followed a bizarre meeting with Subianto in a MRT (Mass Rapid Transport) carriage. Hard to imagine a similar setting with Trump and Nancy Pelosi exchanging pleasantries in a New York subway, or Boris Johnson and Jeremy Corbyn chatting in the London tube.

Widodo assumes that the two rivals sharing a Jakarta public transport system bench in a staged gesture of reconciliation will bring social stability and encourage business confidence, the other message in his speech. For Subianto it represented weakness; his Gerindra Party is now demanding seats in Cabinet.

Words are one thing, will is another. Although Widodo will be stronger and wiser in his second and final five-year term, he still lacks wholehearted support of the nation’s two governing forces – the Jakarta oligarchy and the military.

The nation’s seventh president comes from neither camp but has so far maintained balance by keeping former generals who hate Subianto on side. He’s also been careful not to clash with his party’s autocratic chairwoman, Megawati Soekarnoputri, daughter of founding President Soekarno.

Widodo’s speech before a 30,000-strong crowd had some tough-guy warnings about combating corruption and bureaucratic inertia, factors which continue to frighten away overseas investors that the President wants to welcome.

‘The speed of service, the speed of providing permits, is the key to bureaucratic reform,’ he said. ‘I will check it myself, I will control it myself. The moment I see something that is inefficient or ineffective, I guarantee I will trim it. I will remove the official in charge. … If there is an institution that is not useful and problematic, I will dissolve it.
’No more old mindsets. No more linear work, no more routine work, no more monotone work, no more working in the comfort zone. We have to change.’

That’s unlikely to happen and not just because one man can’t handle a nation of 270 million alone. Comparisons with another regional reformer, the late Lee Kuan Yew, are handy but not always appropriate.

Both have been tagged ‘Mr Clean’, but the ethnic-Chinese Prime Minister’s ruthless style doesn’t suit the Javanese Widodo.

When the Cambridge-educated leader took Singapore out of the newly-formed alliance with Malaysia in 1965 the city-state was as rotten with corruption as Indonesia. But it had less than two-million people so easier to manage.

After race riots in 1969 Lee, a self-styled ‘nominal Buddhist’, clamped down on religious politics, breaking up faith-based communities and forcing integration. That can’t happen in Indonesia where almost 90 per cent are Muslims.

Lee was a fixated intellectual who stamped his standards on all. These included promoting ministers by merit. He claimed to be a democrat but crushed opposition and the press to get his way and make his country an economic marvel.

Although comment in Indonesia is crippled by harsh defamation laws, it has the freest press in Southeast Asia, far more robust than Singapore’s timid media.

Widodo faces opposition from agitators for a Caliphate who’ll never be placated by talk of Pancasila, and big business hostile to his war on graft. These capitalists promise reform but rarely deliver. It’s the same with the public service.

Indonesia’s Corruption Eradication Commission (KPK) has had many spectacular successes, but remains threatened by institutions like parliament and the police. After a year of investigation the cops have yet to find the acid-throwers who blinded one eye of a KPK officer investigating the police.

Also still to be solved is the case of human rights activist Munir Said Thalib. The 38-year old lawyer was assassinated in 2004 with an arsenic-laced drink while heading to Europe aboard the state-owned airline Garuda.

One senior bureaucrat who tried to clean up tertiary education rorts was Patdono Suwignjo, Director General for Science, Technology, and Higher Education

In a bid to boost teaching quality his section shut down 243 diploma mills in 2016, and then hit what he called the ‘practical reality of Indonesian culture.’Politicians or their friends owned many of the shonky institutions. ‘Pressure was applied to reverse the rulings’, Suwignjo told this writer. ‘We resisted, but now try to make them more professional.’ Compromise rather than confrontation has long been the Javanese way of resolving differences and effecting change. Such dealings take time; five years is not enough for the transformations Widodo seeks.

Australian journalist Duncan Graham lives in Indonesia.

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