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Indonesia – a country of disappointments

Screen time in Palu, Central Sulawesi Province, Indonesia (Basri Marzuki/NurPhoto via Getty Images)
Screen time in Palu, Central Sulawesi Province, Indonesia (Basri Marzuki/NurPhoto via Getty Images)
Published 11 Sep 2020 06:00    0 Comments

Ben Bland paints an insightful and intriguing portrait of Indonesia's leader in his new book, Man of Contradictions: Joko Widodo and the struggle to remake Indonesia. Jokowi, as the president is known, is a fascinating personality – a man who leapt from being a furniture maker to city mayor (of Solo and Jakarta) and then on to lead Indonesia.

But behind this picture of Jokowi is also a troubling image of Indonesia, the world’s fourth most populous country, with the world’s largest Muslim population. Bland quotes former Indonesian Finance Minister Chatib Basri, who once told him: “Indonesia always disappoints. It disappoints the optimists and it disappoints the pessimists too.”

But to my mind, the clear message from Bland’s text is that optimists will be far more disappointed than the pessimists.

As Bland argues, the rise of Jokowi to the presidency of Indonesia is a testimony to the country’s democracy, and its free and fair elections. And yet, under Jokowi’s watch, there has been a troubling deterioration in Indonesia’s democratic governance.

Indeed, Indonesia’s new experiment with democracy has, in many respects, “been hijacked by the dark forces that held the country back before”. And by his second term, this “outsider had become firmly embedded in elite politics”.

Bland highlights many of Jokowi’s actions which have undermined Indonesia’s already flawed democracy – notably, diluting the nation’s anti-corruption agency, creating his own family political dynasty, and his appeasement of conservative Islam and intolerance and of violence towards religious minorities and the LGBT community. Despite strong electoral support from Papua, Jokowi continues with the ineffective efforts to use security forces to crush separatist rebels.

As Bland quite rightly points out, “Jokowi has no time for great power politics”. He is more interested in attracting financial assistance, and China has not disappointed.

Overall, Jokowi, a one-time man of the people, is said to run “the palace more as an imperial court than a chief executive’s office”, and sees the military as a balancing force against his various political opponents.

Indonesia’s notorious weakness in handling natural disasters and other crises has been evident through the Covid-19 pandemic. Indeed, “rather than rising to the challenge … Jokowi has struggled under the immense pressure”. He withheld information about the pandemic, and vacillated between taking the necessary mitigation measures and suggesting there was little to worry about.

The pandemic has highlighted the woeful state of the country’s health system. It lags way behind countries such as South Korea, China, Singapore and Malaysia in terms of hospital places, critical care beds, doctors and money spent on health. And a study by the London-based Centre for Mathematical Modelling of Infectious Diseases from March estimated that as few as 2% of Indonesia’s coronavirus infections have been reported. It is ironic that Jokowi, a leader who prides himself in being responsive to the concerns of the public, has not done more to improve the country’s health system.

Many analysts had expected great things from the Indonesian economy. For example, a few years ago, PWC predicted that Indonesia could be the world’s fourth biggest economy by the year 2050. And Jokowi himself has declared his ambition for Indonesia to become a developed nation by 2045.

But while this “king of infrastructure” has made progress in reducing Indonesia's massive infrastructure deficit, Bland argues that Indonesia is still riddled with heterodox economic thinking which defies the laws of economic competitiveness. “With a deep-seated aversion to liberal economics, Indonesia will not wholeheartedly embrace free markets and free trade any time soon,” Bland writes.

Construction near Jalan Sudirman, Jakarta (Asian Development Bank/Flickr)


Jokowi has been nationalising some of the country’s biggest energy projects, and prioritising the development of state-owned enterprises, many of which are badly managed and riddled with corruption. And while foreign investment has helped power ahead economies such as Singapore, Malaysia and Thailand, Indonesia still sees it as a tool of colonial oppression, according to Bland. My impression is the immense power of Indonesia’s oligarchs and military is the main factor blocking foreign investment.

It is hardly surprising that the GDP per capita of a country such as Thailand, which has suffered from much greater political instability, is some 55% higher than that of Indonesia, according to World Bank data. Indeed, the Indonesian economy has been trundling along with a growth rate of 5–6%, about half that of countries such as China and Japan in their high-growth periods. And while a demographic youth bulge can create a “demographic dividend”, Indonesia is wasting its opportunity by not creating enough jobs.

Jokowi has also been feted by many Western politicians and pundits who have been seduced by his charms. Former Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull called him “one of the most important leaders in the world” and “a cool cat in every respect” in his recently published memoir.

Indeed, countries such as Australia and Japan have been pinning their hopes on Indonesia being part of a middle-power alliance that could balance the increasingly assertive China. But as Bland quite rightly points out, “Jokowi has no time for great power politics”. He is more interested in attracting financial assistance and China has not disappointed as it is now financing many infrastructure projects.

An interesting insight Bland provides into Indonesia’s foreign relations occurred when Moeldoko, Jokowi’s chief of staff, met with the Chinese ambassador to Indonesia in late 2019. While the West was lambasting Beijing’s suppression of the Uighur people in Xinjiang, Moeldoko expressed sympathy for the Chinese government, rather than his fellow Muslims. He was obviously more worried about Indonesia’s own separatist movements, notably in Papua.

Bland’s book makes a major contribution to our understanding of Indonesia, as well as Jokowi, the main subject. But as I reached the end, I was yearning for more of his views on what could happen next in the Indonesia story. As he concludes briefly, there are indeed limits on what is possible in Indonesia. Australia needs to have a much better understanding of these limits, and learn to cooperate more effectively and realistically with its important neighbour.

The (un)making of Joko Widodo

Once dubbed “a new hope” for democracy, Joko Widodo has instead presided over a period of democratic stagnation and regression, according to many (Anton Raharjo/NurPhoto via Getty Images)
Once dubbed “a new hope” for democracy, Joko Widodo has instead presided over a period of democratic stagnation and regression, according to many (Anton Raharjo/NurPhoto via Getty Images)
Published 2 Sep 2020 06:00    0 Comments

Book Review: Ben Bland, Man of Contradictions: Joko Widodo and the struggle to remake Indonesia (Penguin, Lowy Institute, 2020)

Indonesian President Joko Widodo, a man once dubbed “a new hope” for democracy, has instead presided over a period of democratic stagnation and regression, according to many scholars of Indonesia. Ben Bland’s new Lowy Institute Paper Man of Contradictions attempts to unpack how the affable everyman persona of “Jokowi” has given way to a more calculating, transactional leader, by bringing together contemporary academic debates and the author’s own insights into Jokowi’s Indonesia. The result is a compact, compelling narrative that serves as an accessible entry-point for policy makers and observers to understand Jokowi’s rise from small town mayor to president of the world’s largest Muslim country.

Bland’s account of Jokowi’s authoritarian turn is simple but not necessarily simplistic. It goes beyond looking just at Jokowi’s leadership style by also considering underlying structural causes, such as what he calls “the original sin of reformasi”.

“The price of a mostly smooth and peaceful transition”, Bland writes, “has been to leave Suharto-era figures and institutions with a seat at the table”.

Indeed, as Edward Aspinall argued back in 2010, the irony of Indonesia’s successful democratic transition was that it rested upon buy-in from authoritarian spoilers, and built anti-democratic potential into the new system. Bland’s knack for engaging storytelling and memorable turns of phrase helps summarise these complex themes.

The key to understanding Jokowi’s inconsistencies, Bland argues, “lies in a heavy dose of realism about the nature of both Indonesia and the man”. Jokowi turned out not to be “the democratic reformer … but neither is he some sort of authoritarian wolf in sheep’s clothing. Rather, he has been shaped by the winds that swirl around him”. The massive Islamist mobilisation that brought down his close ally, Basuki Tjahaja Purnama (known as Ahok), in 2016 is particularly identified as a determining factor that “blew him off course”. Bland rightly notes that the anti-Ahok mobilisation prompted Jokowi’s “reaching for the guide ropes of authoritarian rule” by bolstering the contingent of Suharto-era military figures in his cabinet.

Demonstrations brought down former Jakarta governor Basuki Tjahaja Purnama, better known as Ahok (Agoes Rudianto/NurPhoto via Getty Images)


But Bland pulls up short of a deeper examination of how rising Islamism also directly led to Jokowi taking an Islamic turn. Rather than being flung helplessly left and right by the growing tide of sectarian polarisation, Jokowi managed to harness and turn it on his opponents.

As his rival presidential candidate (now Defence Minister) Prabowo Subianto courted hardcore Islamist groups in the run-up to last year’s election, Jokowi recast his image from simple everyman to pious vanguard of Islamic moderatism. Key to this shift in strategy was his close alliance with Nahdlatul Ulama (NU), the country’s largest Islamic organisation, which not only delivered important Muslim votes during the election constituencies but is now also supporting his efforts to further suppress Islamist opposition in his second term.

Jokowi continues to walk a tightrope between his desire for voluminous, “no-strings-attached” investment from Beijing and relatively high domestic suspicion of Chinese economic dominance.

As a political biography, Bland’s book could have further unpacked the president’s religious and ideological background to understand how it might be informing his engagement with political Islam. If Jokowi co-opted aspects of political Islam to mitigate the Islamist threat to his position, as Bland suggests, why didn’t he opt for the all-inclusive accommodation of his predecessor, Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono? Instead Jokowi selectively extended patronage to conservative figures from the mainstream NU, most notably Ma’ruf Amin, while repressing more hardcore Islamist groups such as Hizbut Tahrir.

Bland holds that Jokowi is part of the abangan (nominal Muslim) class who strategically projects himself to foreign leaders as champion of moderate Islam. However, he does not give more insights into Jokowi’s personal religious and ideological inclinations. It thus remains unclear whether Jokowi’s heavy-handed policy in combating radical Islam was motivated solely by political calculations or if his personal convictions also played a part.

The chapter on foreign policy is thinner than perhaps many had anticipated. Devoting significant space to Indonesia’s faltered maritime diplomacy and multilateral engagements, Bland misses opportunities to delve deeper into Indonesia’s most complex yet important bilateral relationships, that with China. Jokowi continues to walk a tightrope between his desire for voluminous, “no-strings-attached” investment from Beijing and relatively high domestic suspicion of Chinese economic dominance – driven in large part by Islamist opponents but also shared by others within the Muslim community.

The key to understanding this trade-off may lie in Jokowi’s more visible “Islamic diplomacy” in recent years. Though some have argued this Islamic diplomacy is driven by purely domestic concerns, there are still curious contradictions that are worth unpacking. The book unfortunately skips over discussion of the stark contrast between Indonesia’s silence on the Uighur issue and its increasingly vocal stance on Palestine, its surprisingly deep engagement in the Afghan peace process, or its expressed concerns over anti-Muslim violence in India.

Also missing is the Jokowi administration’s active role in the global campaign for “Archipelago Islam (Islam Nusantara)”, which is often feted by Western diplomats eager to hold the country up as a beacon of moderate Islam. A better understanding of when and why Jokowi has sought to employ moderate Muslim diplomacy and engage on the plight of Muslims elsewhere in the world could shed further light on his foreign policy calculus.

Overall, the book provides a concise summary of Jokowi’s political ascendancy and Indonesia’s second experiment with democracy. A deeper investigation into the uneven influence of religion on Jokowi’s governing decisions, including on foreign policy would help bring Indonesia’s “man of contradictions” into greater focus.