The View From Asia

Leaders defying convention

Commentators examine bold moves by Indonesian President Joko Widodo and Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi to show troublemakers they mean business. Here are excerpts:

Jokowi's game of chess

Rendi Witular
The Jakarta Post, Indonesia

President Joko "Jokowi" Widodo is taking his opponents into a game of political chess. A decision by the police to name incumbent Jakarta Governor Basuki "Ahok" Tjahaja Purnama a suspect for alleged blasphemy may have been a calculated risk - a necessary evil to secure bigger political gains.

After all, Mr Joko will never allow Mr Basuki, his friend, to drown.

Since a dozen conservative Muslim groups reported Mr Basuki to the police last month, accusing him of blasphemy, calls to have him prosecuted got louder, culminating in the violent Nov 4 rally in front of the State Palace. Pressure remains to have Mr Basuki prosecuted or even jailed because of the case, with many groups, including labour unions, planning a larger rally for Nov 25, if their demands are not heeded.

The movement has attracted naive conservative Muslims into the fray, thus creating a snowball effect that if not immediately contained, has the potential to ignite sectarian conflicts that may undermine the presidency.

Realising the sheer scale of the movement, Mr Joko has since consolidated his power by visiting the headquarters of the army, the special forces and the police, as well as by meeting leaders of the top Muslim organisations and the Islamic parties in his coalition.

Protesters burning an effigy of Mr Modi. His recent action to stamp out hoarded "black money" has hit, and thus infuriated, tax evaders, real estate mafias and corrupt officials who are now stuck with sacks of worthless money. PHOTO: REUTERS

Perhaps his roadshows are not only aimed at forging "better communications", but also at signalling that the President means business; unconstitutional attempts to destabilise a legitimate government and devastate the nation's unity will not be tolerated.

As calls for Mr Basuki's prosecution continue unabated, Mr Joko may have had no other option but to allow the police to name the governor a suspect and then tell him to hang on while the President takes out his enemies one by one before coming back to rescue him... Mr Basuki's prosecution will be a complicated one, and it could take years for the case to be final and legally binding.

Even after the police have wrapped up their investigation, the case should be processed by the Attorney-General's Office, which is helmed by a senior politician from the National Democratic (NasDem) Party, a member of Mr Joko's coalition and the first party to endorse Mr Basuki as a gubernatorial candidate.

The people who hate Modi

Sunil Gupta
The Statesman, India

Prime Minister Narendra Modi, even after the so-called honeymoon period, continues to be very popular in India as well as abroad. According to a recent survey by Pew Research Centre and published by Forbes, Mr Modi's popularity, even more than two years after he swept to power in 2014, is pretty high at 81 per cent.

He has extremely powerful and very vocal enemies too. Here, we are not referring to legitimate political parties.

The Prime Minister has antagonised certain segments such as tax evaders, real estate mafias, those who fund terror activities within India and abroad, as well as those who have hoarded huge sums of unaccounted money (referred to as "black money" in India), including the hawala operators.

Hawala refers to a traditional yet illegal system of transferring money through unofficial channels. An agent collects money from the sender in the source country and his contacts in the other country pay to the recipient in local currency.

The government's surprise move on Nov 8 to demonetise banknotes of Rs 500 (S$10.50)and Rs 1,000 has shocked these anti-social elements. Though it looked like a swift surgical strike, in hindsight, we realise that the government had been doing the relevant groundwork for several months.

However, as usual, some sections of the people ignored all such advice and directives issued by the government because they had become accustomed to finding a way out of any problem by clandestine tactics. They thought they could manipulate the system and get out of any spot as they used to do in the past. But this time, they overlooked the fact that Mr Modi means business.

Since these unscrupulous elements have now realised that they can no longer manipulate the system to their advantage, they hate Mr Modi vehemently. For instance, a large section of the real estate mafia, who used to collect insane amounts of black money without having to issue any official receipts, now finds that sacks full of high-denomination currency notes they have accumulated unofficially have lost their worth overnight.

Furthermore, they fear that if they try to officially exchange the demonetised currency notes at banks or other authorised centres, they may come under government scrutiny and the Income Tax department may initiate punitive action against them for evading taxes in the previous years. Real estate developers also realise that they won't be in a position to collect black or unaccounted money from any of their customers in future.

The hawala trade has also suffered an unprecedented blow, and it has come to a grinding halt because of the currency purge.

Similarly, anti-national elements based overseas have been financing terrorist groups for launching terror attacks and suicide bombings in India. Such terror funding is tough to catch.

The Prime Minister's bold action has also rendered the majority of the money launderers jobless - at least for the time being. All these elements have climbed onto the hate-Modi bandwagon.

Likewise, immoral politicians, corrupt officials and shady business persons who have hoarded black money through deceitful means are also finding themselves in a similar predicament.

  • The View From Asia is a weekly compilation of articles from The Straits Times' media partner Asia News Network, a grouping of 21 newspapers. For more, see
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on November 19, 2016, with the headline 'Leaders defying convention'. Subscribe