The Straits Times' award of the Asian of the Year 2019 title to Indonesian President Joko Widodo recognises an extraordinary leader and the potential of his country. Now in its eighth year, the award honours a person, a group or an institution judged to have made a significant impact on society, nation or the wider Asian continent in the past year. Mr Joko was the unanimous choice of the selection panel. He stood out as a leader who unites citizens and nations in a world riven by divisions. There are leaders who rise to power by fomenting populist forces of nativism against real or imagined enemies at home or abroad; others divide citizens themselves along ethnic or other lines to shore up their support base.
Mr Joko reveals how someone can be a trusted and popular leader by seeking to unite the domestic polity while integrating the nation into the region and beyond. He has succeeded domestically by being an establishment outsider who, paradoxically, defines what it means to be a political insider in Indonesia today. He does not represent the traditional constituencies of power, being a scion neither of the military nor bureaucracy, nor of a business empire or a political clan. Instead, his political ascendancy exemplifies the appeal of an honest and effective leader who rose through a competitive process among rivals at the lower rungs of electoral politics. Yet, he has reached out to technocrats and even former rivals to build an administration that seeks to represent the Indonesian mainstream. Not everyone agrees with him, but he has been able to get citizens to agree to disagree, thus strengthening the democratic fabric.