Commentary |
25 March 2021

Jokowi’s contradictions and the struggle to remake Indonesia

Originally published in The Jakarta Post.

Ben Bland
Ben Bland

I had always enjoyed the creativity and wit of Indonesian internet memes. Until, that is, my new book became the basis for one. It did not take long after Man of Contradictions: Joko Widodo and the Struggle to Remake Indonesia was published in Australia in September before critics of the President seized upon it as a political cudgel to attack him. The response was so quick, in fact, that it was unlikely that many of them had read the book – the first English-language political biography of Jokowi – or digested its measured insights.

Not having read the book also did not seem to stop various online media outlets from framing it as a hatchet job, which only added to the allure for several high-profile opponents of Jokowi. As clickbait stories and outspoken influencers fed off each other, Indonesian netizens started posting the cover of my book on social to express their manifold frustrations with their President.

As an author trying to promote my book, perhaps I should live by the dictum that “there’s no such thing as bad publicity”. But, if I am honest, it is frustrating that a carefully researched and argued 180-page book has been reduced to a heavily politicised meme – a kind of Captain Jean-Luc Picard facepalm for Jokowi haters. I feel the need to set the record straight for those who have not read the book, which is being published in Southeast Asia this month by Penguin Random House.

What, then, do I mean by Man of Contradictions? I came up with the title after a clarifying conversation with one of the President’s ministers. Although I had tracked Jokowi’s rise from mayor of Solo to President, interviewed him on numerous occasions and got to know many of his officials and advisers, I was struggling to make sense of his leadership. Over the years, analysts and journalists have thrown many labels at him, including: reformer, saviour of democracy, technocrat, pragmatist, developmentalist, populist, nationalist and, most recently, authoritarian. Each contains a ring of truth but also a certain dissonance. And many of these words grate against each other.

So, I asked the minister, how can I understand what makes the President tick. He is a “bundle of contradictions” was the response. At first glance, it is not a very satisfying answer. But it grew on me, as I reflected on Jokowi’s remarkable career, and the way our world often defies the simple, over-arching narratives that we create to bring imagined order to the chaos around us. 

Beloved by human rights activists before the 2014 election, Jokowi was initially hailed as a “new hope” for democracy on the cover of Time magazine. Today, he is blamed for Indonesia’s “authoritarian turn”, after his administration cracked down on critics and he expressed his own frustrations with liberal democracy. Lauded as an outsider who would shake up the corrupt, nepotistic system, he has become the consummate transactional politician, with his once-shy family even following him into politics.

On the economy, his primary focus, the President has simultaneously promised big bang reforms to reinvigorate foreign investment, while promoting self-sufficiency, calling for imports to be curbed and even urging Indonesians to “hate foreign products”.

On the sensitive question of religion, Jokowi has been accused of both caving into Islamist hardliners and persecuting them. He went to pray with firebrand preacher Rizieq Shihab at the massive anti-Ahok rally in 2016 but then banned his Islam Defenders Front (FPI) in December last year.

 

And, when it comes to foreign policy, Jokowi talked up his ambitions for Indonesia to become a “global maritime fulcrum” while showing a reluctance to engage in formal diplomatic fora and pushing his foreign ministry to focus on trade and investment promotion instead of broader objectives.

These contradictions reflect deeper tensions in Indonesian history that pre-date Jokowi. In fact, these debates about the suitability of liberal democracy, the need for protectionist economic policies, the role of Islam in the state and Indonesia’s position on the global stage have been raging since the nation’s founding in 1945.

Previous president Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono also struggled to offer consistent answers to these long-running existential questions. But he was a much more cautious leader and was able to paper over some of the cracks with his talent for speechifying.

Jokowi, by contrast, governs from the gut. His instinctive approach to politics propelled him from obscurity to the top of politics. But the President’s impulsive side can lead to jarring public statements that confound his supporters, as well as trigger his critics.

Jokowi’s overt contradictions seem to fit with political scientist Benedict Anderson’s description of how power is demonstrated in traditional Javanese culture. He argued that “the most obvious sign of the man of Power is, quite consistently, his ability… to absorb Power from the outside, and to concentrate within himself apparently antagonistic opposites”.

It is a great quotation but I am wary of cultural determinism. Fittingly for the author of a book about contradictions, I am more sympathetic to the argument of some of my critics. They have suggested that Jokowi is no different from many leaders, or human beings more generally, because we are all contradictory. That is exactly my point. But it is not something we like to admit too often.

Jokowi rose so rapidly in politics because of his Everyman appeal and his ability to reflect voters hopes. His contradictions, likewise, reflect the nation’s deeper contradictions. The Man of Contradictions can only be understood by placing him in the context of the broader struggle to remake Indonesia. But that is not very easy to depict in a meme.

Instead, I would point netizens to the epigraph in my book, where, in addition to Benedict Anderson, I quote Walt Whitman’s poem Song of Myself:

Do I contradict myself?

Very well then I contradict myself,

(I am large, I contain multitudes.)

Ben Bland is the Director of the Southeast Asia Program at the Lowy Institute and the author of Man of Contradictions: Joko Widodo and the Struggle to Remake Indonesia