Sunday 13 March 2022

Jokowi and the New Indonesia: How the world sees an Indonesian President Guest post from Tim Hannigan

UK-based Tim Hannigan writes mainly about Asia, especially Indonesia. He is the author of three history books: Murder in the Hindu Kush; Raffles and the British Invasion of Java; and A Brief History of Indonesia. He also edited and expanded A Brief History of Bali and wrote A Geek in Indonesia. He has written travel features for newspapers and magazines in Asia, the Middle East, North America and the UK, and has contributed to various radio and television documentaries on Asian history. He has also worked on guidebooks to destinations including Bali, Nepal, Myanmar, and India, and written and edited Indonesian phrasebooks. He works on travel writing as an academic. His research has been published in various journals and edited collections, including Studies in Travel Writing, Journeys and The Journal of Commonwealth Literature. 

Now, with Darmawan Prasodjo, a political insider with unparalleled access to the president and an intimate first-hand knowledge of his decision-making processes, Tim has co-written Jokowi and the New Indonesia: A Political Biography.

In 2014, Joko Widodo, popularly known as Jokowi, was elected the seventh president of the Republic of Indonesia, going on to win a second five-year term in 2019. Raised amid poverty in a riverside slum and with a background in the furniture export trade, Jokowi broke the mould for political leaders in the world's third-largest democracy. His meteoric rise came without the benefit of personal connections to the traditional elites who have dominated Indonesian politics for three-quarters of a century, making this a true rags to riches story.

This new official biography tells the story of how the boy from the riverbank made it to the presidential palace in record time. It explains how Jokowi's background and heritage have created a distinctive style of politics and informed his ambitious development goals, including massive infrastructure projects, universal healthcare and a reimagining of Indonesia's educational system. It also looks at how a man raised with a traditionally Javanese worldview negotiates the tensions, contradictions and conflicts of this vast archipelagic nation.

Here, Tim discusses Jokowi’s international image...

Indonesia is the world’s fourth largest country by population, its third largest democracy, Southeast Asia’s largest economy. And yet beyond its own shores - particularly in Europe and North America and especially amongst English-speaking nations, but even amongst some of its near neighbours - it has a curious opacity. There are plenty of people who would struggle to place Indonesia on the map, let alone to name any of its senior politicians. 

There are historical reasons for this, reasons of geography, and reasons of language. Unlike India, Pakistan, Malaysia and Singapore, until very recently Indonesia has not had a large Anglophone middle class and has not used English as its primary language of business, academia and politics. Indonesia as seen by the outside world tends to be Indonesia translated, Indonesia mediated. For this reason, the Indonesian president, as one of the few Indonesians with a degree of international name recognition, often ends up serving as symbolic manifestation of the country for Australians, Americans, Europeans, even Singaporeans. 

Clearly, some past Indonesian presidents have self-consciously leant into this role. Sukarno, the first leader of the country after it gained independence from the Netherlands, was as great an orator in Dutch and English as he was in Indonesian, and a commandingly charismatic presence in any international context. More recently, and in very different style, Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono (often known as SBY) had the slick English, the cerebral qualities and the ready affinity for the international conference circuit that allowed him successfully to project Indonesia’s image abroad, regardless of what might have been going on politically at home. 

Other presidents, less so. Suharto was no great international performer, and also the current president, Joko Widodo, popularly known as Jokowi. This is by no means simply because he doesn’t speak English as fluently as SBY (there are world leaders - Angela Merkel and Vladimir Putin most famously - who choose virtually never to speak English in public, despite being well able to, and who are nonetheless successful in the projection of an international image). The main point for Jokowi is that his focus is not with the perceptions of international journalists or foreign audiences, but in the domestic sphere, amongst the 270 million people he leads and who have twice given him his mandate. Jokowi isn’t particularly concerned about projecting his own image internationally. He has more important things to worry about. 

But this does leave his image, and with it Indonesia’s, with that international opacity - a blank onto which foreign journalists and commentators can project whatever they want. A case in point is the speech that Jokowi gave at the recent COP26 meeting. It was an important speech, with an important and pressing call to more developed nations - what are they going to do to assist Indonesia and countries like it in the fight against climate change? But it was, quite naturally, delivered in Bahasa Indonesia. It was reported internationally. But it wasn’t liked and shared around the world, as was the speech of Mia Mottley, prime minister of Barbados, a nation with a population one thousand times smaller than that of Indonesia.

What this has tended to result in, in the years since Jokowi’s election in 2014, is a series of reductive and even patronising portrayals in the international media. International profiles of Jokowi, for want of something more concrete, tend to repeat the same handful of tropes and clich├ęs about the president, some of which are misleading or downright inaccurate:  Jokowi was “born in a shack”; Jokowi was “raised in poverty”; Jokowi is a “former carpenter” or a “furniture salesman”; Jokowi is “heavy metal fan”; Jokowi “loves infrastructure”.

The first is wholly untrue: he was born in the Brayat Minulyo hospital in Surakarta in 1961. And he didn’t grow up in a shack. His childhood homes were certainly modest by modern middle-class standards, but they weren’t shacks. And rather than growing up in poverty, he grew up close to poverty - an important distinction. As for being a carpenter or a salesman, well, only in the same sense that Bill Gates is a computer repair guy. He was a skilled graduate and entrepreneur who founded a successful manufacturing and export business, and was a very wealthy man by the time he first ran for public office.

Jokowi really does love heavy metal music and has done since high school, but that fact does not necessarily best convey his character. As for “loves infrastructure”, this is sometimes mentioned in a patronising manner, with the image of Jokowi inaugurating a toll road or opening a bridge in mind, as if it were a foible, as if it were the same thing as erecting self-glorying statues at a city intersection, rather than a key developmental policy. And yet, these are the points that get repeated over and over in international articles and profiles about modern Indonesian politics and its central personality.

None of this particularly helps to frame Jokowi, his government or its policies in their proper domestic perspective for an international audience, and that was the impetus behind the new biography, Jokowi and the New Indonesia, on which I collaborated with Darmawan Prasodjo. What we hope it will do is provide a clear glimpse for an international audience, in English, of Jokowi in his proper context, the context of the nation he leads, and perhaps to allow a better sense of Jokowi as he appears to 270 million Indonesians. 

The process of putting the book together began with the observations I’ve just made - about the lack of a proper perspective in international portrayals, and the tendency for the same limited view to be repeated over and over. Its material origins lie with Darmawan’s 2020 Bahasa Indonesia account, Jokowi Mewujudkan Mimpi Indonesia (Jokowi, Realising Indonesia’s Dream), which is a detailed account of each key area of Jokowi’s developmental policies. We wanted to retain that thematic focus, and much of the factual detail. But we also needed to provide an accessible narrative of Jokowi’s long and fascinating road to the presidency, with the necessary historical and cultural context to make it all comprehensible to an international audience (and also, hopefully, to offer a few new insights for English-speaking Indonesian readers too).

There will be other biographies to come - and perhaps a new and updated version of this one after the end of Jokowi’s final term in 2024, when we can look back and take in the whole picture. But for now we hope that this one will provide a valuable insight into Jokowi, the political figure and the human being, and the new Indonesia - one which might, sometime soon, be better recognised and better understood by the rest of the world.

Details: Jokowi and the New Indonesia: A Political Biography, is published in hardback by Tuttle Books (USA), priced in local currencies.