ST team takes a ride with the 'people's president'

Members of the public swarming around President Joko Widodo's buggy during a ride around the Bogor Palace compound with The Straits Times team yesterday. Mr Joko uses Bogor Palace as his principal office, rather than the Merdeka Palace in Jakarta.
Members of the public swarming around President Joko Widodo's buggy during a ride around the Bogor Palace compound with The Straits Times team yesterday. Mr Joko uses Bogor Palace as his principal office, rather than the Merdeka Palace in Jakarta.

"Merdeka, merdeka, merdeka" was the rallying cry of Indonesia's independence hero and first President, Sukarno, perhaps the greatest demagogue of his time.

For its seventh leader, the understated but equally popular Mr Joko Widodo, it is all about "stability, stability, stability".

The former furniture exporter and town mayor of Solo returned to the theme more than once as he gave The Straits Times team a tour of the sprawling 28ha grounds of the historic Bogor Palace, in Bogor city, 60km from Jakarta.

Rather than Jakarta's Merdeka Palace, he uses Bogor Palace - built by the Dutch in 1744 and used by Sir Stamford Raffles between 1811 and 1816 - as his main office, much in the tradition of Mr Sukarno, whose daughter, Ms Megawati Soekarnoputri, is Mr Joko's party chief.

The 54-year-old Indonesian President has good reason to cherish stability. The nation's US$900-billion (S$1.2 trillion) economy, Asean's largest, has been buffeted by slowing exports and a weakening currency. A recalcitrant bureaucracy threatens to stymie his growth initiatives, sorely needed to create employment for a nation of 250 million people that has one of the most youthful populations in Asia.

Meanwhile, the wider region in which Indonesia sits - indeed, Mr Joko describes his sprawling nation as a "fulcrum" between the Indian and Pacific oceans - has become the focus of Big Power play as the United States, Japan and India counter an assertive China.

Nine months into his term, Mr Joko has plenty to keep him busy, although you would not guess it from his serene exterior.

"Jokowi", as he is known across this archipelago of over 17,000 islands, is not a flamboyant leader. Instead, his is a cleverly hidden force that spins its appeal not through designer clothes or rousing rhetoric, but an earthy simplicity.

Yesterday, for an hour-long formal interview in his office followed by a 50-minute golf buggy ride, he wore a white shirt with folded sleeves, over dark slacks. His black, laced shoes were just a trifle worn.

But there is no denying his powerful effect on people.

As our buggy and its security escort rolled to the fringes of the palace grounds, which were open to the public, crowds surged towards him, shouting "Bapak, Bapak!" ("Father, Father!" in Bahasa Indonesia).

And he responded with equal warmth, sometimes with a gentle command of "Sini, sini" ("Over here, over here"). "I am one of them," he explained. "I am from the grassroots, not from the elite."

Does he feel more at home now among the Jakarta upper crust, having been Governor of Jakarta and now President? "I feel at home all over Indonesia," he said.

There was an Indonesian family, all in Superman T-shirts, along with older women wearing the tudung or headscarves, all thronging to kiss his hand or have a photo taken.

There were tourists who shouted out to him that they were from Holland, Indonesia's former colonial master. Others jumped from the grass and loped to the road to catch a glimpse of the President.

The 175cm-tall Mr Joko, who weighs less than 60kg, draws his strength from the people. He told us that the other secrets of his good health are herbal medicine, and jogging or cycling twice a week.

Does he worry that the rising defence budget will affect his ability to provide healthcare for the poor?

He doesn't think so; the cuts in fuel subsidy he made early in his term, he said, helped him spend more on health and education.

For all his down-home persona, Mr Joko's political antennae never desert him. He picked the questions he wanted to respond to.

When asked to name his favourite world leader, he looked away. Asked a second time, he showed no sign that the question registered.

Likewise, he ignored a question on whether Myanmar democracy figure Aung San Suu Kyi should have spoken up for the Muslim Rohingya in her predominantly Buddhist nation, given the high moral ground she occupies.

Yet, on the Rohingya issue itself he had no hesitation in expressing relief that the thousands of refugees that were expected to arrive on his shores by boat had been limited to fewer than a thousand.

As our buggy rounded a turn in the gardens of the palace, a middle-aged man, his teeth browned by the nicotine habit so common among Indonesians, rushed up and turned around to display a stylised campaign picture of Ahok, Mr Joko's former deputy in Jakarta and now its governor, emblazoned on the back of his T-shirt.

Ahok, which is the popular nickname of Mr Basuki Tjahaja Purnama, has offices on the opposite side of Jakarta's Merdeka Palace from the President's offices.

They made a great pair, immensely popular with the roughly 10 million people in the metropolis.

Did he miss having his political partner around, especially since it appears that not all of his Cabinet move in lock-step with him?

"I speak to Ahok every day, usually at night," said Mr Joko.

When asked if he gave Mr Basuki advice, Indonesia's President had a dig at himself. He laughed and said: "No, he gives me advice."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on July 27, 2015, with the headline 'ST team takes a ride with the 'people's president''. Print Edition | Subscribe