Joko Widodo: New face of Indonesian politics

ON THE blisteringly hot afternoon of Indonesia’s 69th independence day, Mr Joko Widodo’s quick changes of attire included a white long-sleeved shirt, black-and-yellow football kit and a gunny sack.

He had joined a sack race and then a soccer match as part of the traditional August 17 festivities in the gritty working-class district of Pluit in northern Jakarta.

Midway through the game, and after scoring a goal, he left the field and plopped himself flat on a concrete bench, feigning lack of fitness but not so tired as to resist hamming it up for television cameras. The swooning crowd roared with laughter, extending camera phones and bare hands.

The attraction is mutual, Mr Joko would confess later, ensconced in his governor's office in Jakarta, where he will work until sometime next month before he moves across town to the Presidential Palace in late October.

“Energy,” he said. “I get energy from the people.”

Ask him how he got to be where he is, catapulted in less than a decade from being a mayor of a city of barely half a million to president-elect of the world's third largest democracy, and he replies: “It is the people.”

Mr Joko is the product not only of Indonesia’s post-Suharto democratisation, but also of its aggressive decentralisation. To quell potential separatist sentiments in this vast archipelago, Jakarta astutely devolved authority to local governments from 2000 in a process popularly called pemekaran or “blossoming”.

Those who were not happy with the way their districts or cities were being run could now take up the challenge instead of taking it out on the national government. That was how a small businessman from central Java first appeared on the political scene. “I felt that my city, Solo was not developing as it should be, not like this, but like this," he says, his slender fingers slashing the air downwards.

“People such as myself had the chance to serve the community and I wanted to try and turn the city around. So I tried and I did.”

Winning the mayoral election with 37 per cent of the votes, he cleaned up the streets of Solo of illegal hawkers, shepherded them into proper markets, and streamlined the bureaucracy. In 2010, when he ran for re-election, he won 91 per cent of the votes. He was still an unknown outside of his region, until his successful bid for the governorship of Jakarta in 2012.

In the teeming capital, he was ambitious. Instead of small projects, he wrestled with the key causes of notorious floods and traffic congestion: squatters living on the fringes of a major dam that needed to be dredged to contain rain and floodwater were rehoused in new flats, and street hawkers were moved into covered markets.

He also kickstarted a long-stalled MRT project and put more public buses on the roads. And he introduced cards entitling poorest families to education assistance and free healthcare.

Now, less than a decade after becoming a mayor, he will be sworn in as Indonesia's seventh president. “You think it's too fast or very fast?” he quips.

Indeed, his work pace is becoming legendary. On the campaign trail, some around him collapsed in exhaustion trying to keep up.

One gets the sense that he is seized by the mission of getting Indonesia going, after decades of being held back by stultifying bureaucracy and endemic corruption. He knows from personal experience that progress is possible.

He grew up in a riverbank slum. “We had one well for 10, 15 families,” he says. “I was brought up on small town values, hard work, thrift and then also honouring your word. This has remained with me today.”

Graduating with a forestry degree from one of the country's top universities, Gadjah Mada, he set up a business supplying wood flooring, before settling into manufacturing furniture. “My first exports were to Singapore,” he says.

He was a regular visitor to Singapore not just because of his dealings with furniture companies here, but also because two of his three children studied here. The eldest, Gibran, studied at Orchid Park Secondary and went on to MDIS. Now 25, he runs his own catering business. His daughter Kahiyang Ayu, 23, stayed in Solo. His youngest, Kaesang, 19, is studying for his international baccalaureate at Anglo-Chinese International.

He mentions that Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong was the first foreign leader to call him once the election results were announced. "We had a good discussion and I'm looking forward to meeting him in person."

He adds: "I think your leaders have good vision, work very hard with your people."

That theme, of government and people working hard together, is at the core of his basic political philosophy. Hence his trademark walkabouts - or blusukan. "Every day, I stay in the office maybe only one or maximum two hours. After that, I go to the people; I ask the people what they need," he says. "And sometimes also, they give new ideas. When they have problems, sometimes also they give the solution."

Mr Joko, 53, is the first Indonesian president to emerge from outside elite circles. Unfailingly polite, the only interview question that seems to make him bristle is whether that elite accepts him. He looks at you with narrowed eyes and there is an edge in his voice when he replies: "I don't know. No, I think better you ask the people, ask the people. You ask the people."

The fact that his main contender was Mr Prabowo Subianto, a throwback to Mr Suharto's autocratic era, made his own novelty all the more obvious. Most Indonesians were not complaining. A volunteer movement sprung up around his campaign, astounding even the most hardnosed watchers of Indonesian society. It climaxed in a mega concert during the seventh day in the month of Ramadan, at which hundreds of famous musicians and singers came together in a show of unadulterated support for Mr Joko.

Veteran journalist and poet Goenawan Mohamad, writing in Tempo earlier this month, reflected: "That afternoon in the Gelora Bung Karno stadium, in the enthusiasm of those thousands of people, the universal dropped by momentarily. Not from the sky, but from the dust on the streets that stuck to the sweat of the people with hope. An 'us' was born."

That was the moment when politics became not about "them", the people in power, but about "us, all of us", he wrote.

Throughout the interview, Mr Joko is affable, polite and insists on speaking English even when questions are posed to him in Bahasa Indonesia because, as his aide says, it is for an English newspaper. He does not flinch from it, even though one senses he is more comfortable in Bahasa.

Yesterday, the last constitutional spanner Mr Prabowo tried to throw into the works was parried by the Constitutional Court, leaving Mr Joko focused on the future.

Among his priorities are to educate every child in every household and introduce a basic health- care card for Indonesians. "These are the basic human needs," he says. He also wants to limit the opportunities for corruption by building a system that makes it easier to trace the flow of money.

He must also choose his Cabinet, which will reveal much about his priorities, and how much sway vested interests have. He brushes aside with grace suggestions that his party leader and former president Megawati Sukarnoputri might exercise undue influence on his choices. He says he has a lot of respect for Ibu Megawati and other senior party leaders, but adds: "All the decisions will be made by me. Because you know we have in Indonesia, the presidential system. I am the chief executive. The sole chief executive."

In Joko Widodo, Indonesia seems to have found a president energised by the challenge of uplifting 250 million fellow citizens and convinced he is the everyman who can do it.

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