Watching Indonesia's entrepreneurial, anomalous president

Almost one year after Mr Joko "Jokowi" Widodo was elected the seventh President of Indonesia, the feeling of unease that usually surrounds change still prevails.

Looking back at the period since his inauguration, things may seem chaotic, making it a challenge for businesses to understand and forecast policy trends.

Perhaps the main reason behind all this confusion is that Mr Joko is a "new thing".

A new President, yes, but more importantly, a new political phenomenon whose moves puzzle even the most seasoned observers.

Mr Joko has a lot to learn about politics at the national and international levels, but we also have a lot to understand about having a President like him.

Indonesian President Joko Widodo (in white) speaking to military chief Gatot Nurmantyo (right, in green) and police chief Badrodin Haiti
after inspecting a forest fire area in South Sumatra on Sept 6.  - PHOTO: AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE/PRESIDENTIAL PALACE

The context in which Mr Joko has to rule is arguably unprecedented in Indonesian politics. He rose so quickly, he barely had time to build a proper political power base.

Also, as an outsider, he is not the typical politician that people in Jakarta are used to dealing with. Yet it is his unusual way of learning the political game that may cause perplexity among both supporters and opponents.

Mr Joko is not what many would judge to be a "classroom" learner.

Being an entrepreneur, and a successful one at that, he is more of a doer characterised by action and hard work.

Entrepreneurs learn not from analysis and contemplation but from reflection on actions, something known as experiential learning. That he applies this mode of learning while consolidating his political rule is, I believe, both a matter of concern and a subject of curiosity.

Unlike his predecessors, who learnt from mentoring by trusted experts and strategists, Mr Joko seems to prefer a trial-and-error approach: trying to get things done first and then learning from mistakes as he goes along, and adapting.

He probably has no real grand strategy for his own political survival or for Indonesia. Instead, he finds "glitches" and fixes them one at a time.

For many of us, Mr Joko's approach is very worrying.

This might have worked when leading a business or even a city, but a country?

There is too much at stake to be playing on a trial-and-error basis like he did, for instance, when he initiated the largely avoidable Corruption Eradication Commission (KPK) versus National Police situation.

However, it seems that he has spent his first year experimenting with the strengths and limitations of his powers using this approach.

His recent Cabinet reshuffle can be understood as a result of his learning after experimenting with his room for manoeuvre vis-a-vis the political interests around him.

As he continues to consolidate his power base, we should expect more puzzling and risky "trial-and-error" political moves from Mr Joko.

Such moves may involve building questionable alliances or putting important campaign agendas on the back-burner to achieve results that, in his mind, are of greater priority.

Mr Joko's policymaking so far seems to rely on the capacity of his ministers or senior officials to translate his vision into laws and regulations. We know that he has limited influence over the legislative body. We should also add that the formulation of government policies highly depends on senior bureaucrats who draft and discuss laws with the House of Representatives, or give recommendations on policy details.

If policy directions from the top are vague, the room for interpretation among ministers or bureaucrats involved becomes greater, and they are more likely to favour their own views, beliefs and interests. Not to mention the infamous parochialism among Indonesia's government ministries often resulting in poor policy coordination.

Still, Mr Joko's entrepreneurial focus will be on how these policies and regulations translate in the real world anyway.

He deals with problems as they come and will use his constitutional powers as much as he possibly can, such as by issuing new by-laws or decrees to fix regulatory issues.

This means that policies may initially be poorly formulated before being fixed or reversed later on. Such a risk-taking and rule-breaking approach to politics does not help create order in the messy politics following last year's elections.

Mr Joko's popularity has been badly hurt by his goal-oriented pragmatism, as shown by his nose-diving approval ratings.

Meanwhile, his trial-and-error policymaking may be perceived as indecisiveness or clumsiness similar to, or perhaps worse than, his predecessor's.

Hence, politics and policymaking in Mr Joko's era will continue to look muddled, which does not bode well for business certainty in Indonesia.

Despite the situation, there are things that businesses can do to make sense of politics under him over the next four years.

In terms of policy forecasting, the focus should not be on Mr Joko alone. As President, he is an important actor, but he is only one player among many that shape policies.

Actors and interests should be mapped out in great detail to understand specific or sectoral policy dynamics.

Long-term forecasts are difficult to make, but continual monitoring of issues can help make sense of political and regulatory changes in the short to medium term.

Businesses should also be prepared for policy reversals, or even take advantage of Mr Joko's tendency to deal with problems as they appear by bringing issues to his attention through advocacy. He may well be able to fix regulatory glitches quite swiftly.

Being entrepreneurial was how Mr Joko made innovative solutions in Surakarta and Jakarta. Entrepreneurs are known for their capacity to think outside the box. So perhaps this is how, in the face of political complexities, he can in the end achieve significant results.

I have to admit that despite my concerns, a small part in me is curious to see what Mr Joko is capable of doing. He is an anomaly. And anomalies are always fun to watch.


•The writer is chief operating officer and principal consultant of Kiroyan Partners.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on September 29, 2015, with the headline 'Watching Indonesia's entrepreneurial, anomalous president'. Print Edition | Subscribe