Joko, the everyday hero

Indonesia’s next president will also be its first to have had a long run as a successful businessman, hence it is little wonder that many in the business community are quite enthused about the prospect of Southeast Asia’s largest economy making greater strides under his administration.

His task will not be easy: political parties backing him are still in the minority in Parliament, though this may soon change should several parties cross over in the coming months to support his government.

And significant vested interests remain wary of his meteoric rise to the top - against the odds - in a system where connections and pedigree still play a key role.

But Mr Joko’s track record shows he means business, and all indications are that his administration will see an emphasis on being pro-business and combating graft that will be good for the country and its neighbours.

He has also won considerable support from ordinary Indonesians, giving him considerable political capital to make key decisions and win people over, whether it is slashing fuel subsidies or whipping bureaucrats into shape.

One key thing that stuck when he gave The Straits Times an interview this week was that this was a man who was not just pro-business and pro-market for its own sake, he genuinely believes that competition is inevitable and that as the largest member of Asean, Indonesians have to embrace competition.

But they also need to be prepared to face a more competitive environment, hence his emphasis on education and healthcare.

As he puts it in the interview: “I was brought up on small town values, hard work, thrift and honouring your word. This has remained with me today.”

“I started from zero. It is my belief that anyone who works hard can become successful and serve the people,” he adds.

It is clear Mr Joko is a man who relishes a challenge.

He ran for mayor of his hometown, Solo, because he wanted to try and turn the city around.

Likewise, he sent both his sons to secondary schools in Singapore because he wanted them to be independent.

Indonesia has international schools, he said, but he wanted his boys to get international exposure and to be more independent.

“When they studied in Solo, every morning I must send them to school. It's not good,” he says earnestly.

And he is convinced Asean economic integration will benefit Indonesia, provided its citizens are braced for competition.

One of the biggest challenges before him is rooting out corruption, which many outsiders fear is endemic.

Mr Joko does not buy this.

Graft, he believes, is rampant because there is no good system to manage the bureaucracy, no effective checks and controls, and he believes given political will, it can be rooted out.

It will not be easy, given the resistance from some officials to his attempts to clean up the bureaucracy in Jakarta over the past two years. The pushback at national level could well be harder.

But those around him say Mr Joko is a man of conviction.

I was reminded of his frank words at a dialogue with clerics and senior leaders of Muslim organisation Nahdlatul Ulama in the capital in March, when he did not mince words.

He lamented how their faith placed great emphasis on honesty and integrity, but such qualities were lacking today.

“Our founding kyai were not political brokers, but farmers,” he said, using a term for religious leaders and at the same time chiding the habit many have of keeping a foot in politics for personal gain. “Today’s politics seems to be about a race to control state resources, rather than do good for the people.”

But is it not difficult to stay upright in a liberal, capitalist environment, a member of the audience asked, echoing a sentiment commonly held on the ground.

“It’s about the system,” Mr Joko said then. “Look at Singapore, many of our people are there. They are also good, they behave,” he added.