G-20 role for 27-year-old Indonesia singer sparks criticism

Critics say the decision to name singer Maudy Ayunda as spokesman is a vanity appointment. PHOTO: JOHARI RAHMAT

JAKARTA (BLOOMBERG) - Indonesia’s decision to name a pop star as its Group of 20 (G-20) spokesperson is the latest move in what some analysts say is a series of vanity appointments the government is making as part of a bid to connect with a young population. 

Ms Ayunda Faza Maudya - a 27-year-old singer and actress better known as Maudy Ayunda - had been named as spokesman for the country's G-20 presidency.

Ms Ayunda takes on the role as Indonesia faces the delicate balance of hosting several leaders of the world's 20 largest economies against the backdrop of Russia's invasion of Ukraine.

Russian delegates are invited to a G-20 meeting in Washington this week, despite other nations threatening boycotts.

The appointment is the latest in what critics say is a string of celebrities, start-up founders and children of tycoons named to political roles as President Joko Widodo's administration attempts to woo a young population that is battling high unemployment.

More than half of the country's 273 million people are younger than 35 and the unemployment rate for those aged 16 to 30 was hovering at 14 per cent last year.

"These symbolic appointments are part of efforts to temper criticism from the youth on critical issues, like jobs and public services," said Mr Wasisto Raharjo Jati, a political researcher at Indonesian Institute of Sciences. "The government's outreach leans towards the privileged urban youth - the kind of millennials who fit the idea they want to promote - while leaving out the majority who are middle- to lower-income and live in rural areas."

Young Indonesians are more likely to be jobless at double the national rate of 6.5 per cent.

Despite state-run employment training programmes and scholarships for higher education, about one in five of them is neither working nor studying, figures that bode poorly for Indonesia's aim to become a higher-income economy by 2045.

Ms Ayunda, who lacks any diplomatic or economic experience, took on the role on March 31. At her first briefing, she appeared to ignore questions about Mr Putin's attendance. Organisers told journalists to ask about her personality instead.

As part of a team of spokesmen, her role is to report the G-20 meeting results that are relevant to Indonesia, while sensitive issues will be handled by other representatives, Ms Ayunda said in response to Bloomberg questions.

She was picked as someone who can reach the broader public, especially the millennial and Gen Z generation, said Mr Dedy Permadi, the Communications Ministry's spokesman.

When Bloomberg sent in questions about the G-20 to the Foreign Ministry and the Communications Ministry, the query was routed to her as the spokesman.

Ms Ayunda's appointment makes sense due to her overseas education and the government's push to create role models for young people, said Dr Irfan Wahyudi, deputy dean at Airlangga University's social and political science faculty.

But for the G-20, the country needs a representative who can speak on global issues on its behalf, he said. "In this case, the use of young people will be seen as a gimmick, not as a strategic function."

In 2019, Mr Widodo, popularly known as Jokowi, named seven millennial special staff to advise him, including Ms Putri Tanjung, 25, daughter of tycoon Chairul Tanjung of CT Corp, as well as start-up founders Adamas Belva Devara, 31, and Andi Taufan Garuda Putra, 35.

Presidential special staff have the right to receive monthly compensation of 51 million rupiah (S$4,800), in a country where the average youth income is two million rupiah.

Months later, Mr Putra resigned after misusing official letterheads to seek support for his company's activities, while Mr Devara stepped down after public backlash due to his company being among those chosen to handle a US$1.4 billion (S$1.9 billion) state contract for employment training.

There is also some doubt about whether the appointments do garner support from Indonesia's millennials.

Young Indonesians are mainly concerned about economic issues, including access to education, jobs and a supportive environment to start businesses, said Mr Hasanuddin Ali, chief executive officer at research firm Alvara Strategic. Last week, thousands of university students took to the streets to protest issues, including the rising cost of food and fuel.

"These appointments to the President's circle are more cosmetic, giving no significant power to them to influence policymaking," he added.

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