Indonesia’s President Joko Widodo – or “Jokowi” as he is commonly known – led a high-powered ministerial delegation to Singapore in September 2017 for a bilateral retreat with Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong. It was the 50th anniversary of the establishment of relations between the two very different neighbors: Indonesia is the fourth-most populous country in the world and a potential economic giant, while Singapore is one of the smallest countries, yet also one of the most developed.
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Jokowi left for home with a clutch of memoranda of understanding designed to take bilateral ties forward over the next 50 years. Interestingly, at the top of the list was an agreement to collaborate on the digital economy – a growth strategy for several developed economies, including Singapore.
Jokowi did not choose the digital economy as his top priority for nothing. According to a 2016 joint report by Google and investment firm Temasek, Indonesia is the fastest-growing internet market in the world. Its online user base stood at 92 million in 2015 and is projected to grow to 215 million by 2020. Foreign investment in information technology and e-commerce has increased.
Jokowi’s focus on Indonesia’s digital economy shows that he has the potential to be a visionary leader – something the country needs badly as it strives to become a developed state in the Reformasi (Reform) era following the fall of President Suharto in 1998.
Jokowi first showed such signs when he surprisingly won the 2014 presidential election. An entrepreneur in the furniture business, he hailed neither from the military nor the traditional political elite. It was the first time since independence that an Indonesian president emerged from the private sector. He made an early impact on the country with an idea no previous leader had proposed: the “revival” of Indonesia as a maritime nation, playing the role of a “Global Maritime Fulcrum” in the Indo-Pacific region.
It was the first time since independence that an Indonesian president emerged from the private sector
Indonesia is strategically located between the Pacific and Indian Oceans. President Joko believes the region will emerge as the global economic engine of the 21st century, giving Indonesia a pivotal geopolitical role. If the country gets its act together, it is not hard to imagine it as a future maritime power, shaping growth and geopolitics between the Western Pacific and the Indian Ocean.
Getting there, however, will be a long, hard road. Indonesia sorely lacks good roads, railways, ports and airports. One of Jokowi’s top priorities, therefore, is to develop Indonesia’s infrastructure.
Since his election, he has hurried to modernize and expand the country’s transportation system. A 142-kilometer high-speed railway linking the western Java city of Bandung to the country’s capital, Jakarta, is being built, while a high-speed rail system between the eastern Java city of Surabaya to Jakarta is undergoing a feasibility study. He has pushed forward stalled monorail and light-rail transit projects in the capital, as well as ports and airports across the country.
However, infrastructure alone will not produce the economic growth Indonesia wants to achieve. The country must develop its human capital as well, through education and skills training to strengthen its digital economy. To do this, Jokowi wants to hitch a ride on Singapore’s strength – hence the memoranda of understanding.
Jokowi has had to fight his way through the jungle of Indonesian politics, made rowdier by democratic change following the end of Suharto’s 22-year authoritarian rule. Jokowi’s challenges have emerged on three fronts.
The first was an initially hostile parliament controlled by the opposition. By shrewd political bargaining, Jokowi won over Golkar, a major opposition party, transforming his ruling coalition from a minority government into a majority one. However, the head of Golkar is now under investigation for corruption. If he is replaced by a new, anti-Jokowi leader, it could hamstring the government.
The second front is the disconnect between Jokowi’s fast pace and Indonesia’s sluggish decision-making process, which is saddled by political lethargy, bureaucratic inertia and cumbersome coordination on the national level. When he spoke to a gathering of potential investors in Singapore, Jokowi acknowledged these pitfalls and even bluntly criticized his own convoluted bureaucracy.
A good example of the disconnect is Jokowi’s decision to go with the Jakarta-Bandung high-speed railway. After securing the involvement of investors from China, who upstaged a Japanese competitor, the project has been slowed by snags in land acquisition. The need to procure 600 hectares of land along the proposed route was simply overlooked. Meanwhile, the project’s budget soared past original estimates, adding pressure on the government. But despite the plan not being carefully executed, the railway could still be a catalyst for the modernization and expansion of Indonesia’s infrastructure, triggering positive knock-on effects and creating millions of jobs.
The third front is resistance to the Jokowi political culture, a result of Indonesia’s complex sectarian politics and identity issues. Nothing captures this better than the case of Basuki Tjahaja Purnama, better known as “Ahok.” An ethnic Chinese Christian, and therefore a double minority, Ahok was popular yet controversial as the governor of Jakarta. While he was admired for running the capital efficiently, he was too blunt and brusque to be liked. This made him many enemies.
His confrontational style eventually landed him in trouble when he was accused of blaspheming the Quran. Huge protests in Jakarta eventually led to his trial. He was jailed right in the middle of his 2017 reelection campaign.
The incident ushered in a tension-filled phase in Jokowi’s presidency. The Jakarta gubernatorial election was a proxy battle between pro- and anti-Jokowi forces. The fall of his ally, Ahok, clearly has implications for the president’s own political future.
Strengths and weaknesses
Ahok’s ouster was a setback for Jokowi, who himself was governor of Jakarta before becoming president in 2014. In that position, and with Ahok as his go-getting deputy, Jokowi displayed his potential to bring about broader change in Indonesia. His agenda to tackle the city’s perennial traffic, transport and flood woes became his agenda for the presidency. It was a popular campaign platform that lifted him to power.
Jokowi is widely expected to seek a second term in 2019. Ahok’s fall, however, is a sign that the incumbent president could face strong opposition. At this point, he projects two contrasting personas. The three years of his presidency have showcased increasing confidence, partially reflecting his growing political strength despite the initial handicap of having no real power base. His firmness in reshuffling his cabinet twice in his first two years to shed lackluster ministers also showed his resolve.
His two cabinet reshuffles laid bare his lack of judgment
But these developments also exposed his personal weaknesses. Two cabinet reshuffles in two years, so soon after taking power, laid bare his lack of judgment in recruitment. They also betrayed an impulsiveness and impatience, as the president hastily dismissed ministers without giving them enough time to settle into their jobs. The Jakarta-Bandung high-speed railway project showed the same dissonance between vision and execution: Jokowi was eager to get results, but unable to spur the bureaucracy to go any faster.
Another chink in the president’s armor is his tendency to swim against the tide. His decision to promote Ahok exposed him to accusations of favoring minorities, although he defended this decision as upholding the principle of diversity expounded in the Pancasila, the official foundational philosophy of the Indonesian state. Jokowi himself has been accused of not being a true “Pribumi” – an indigenous Indonesian – but rather of Chinese descent, something he flatly denies.
The latest signs of opposition have included two attempts to assassinate Jokowi in little more than a month. On August 15, 2017, police foiled a “chemical bomb” attack on the presidential palace in Jakarta, while on September 18, West Java police arrested a man carrying five petrol bombs and a bayonet who they said intended to attack Jokowi.
Jokowi will probably struggle as he pushes to get reelected in 2019. The task will not be easy, but neither should he be underestimated. Three recent opinion polls have shown his popularity rising to new highs, proving that his emphasis on economic growth and infrastructure development is resonating with the public.
If Jokowi’s plan succeeds, it will plant the seeds of growing national power in the years ahead
If Jokowi wins, and can continue to implement his program, he could be one of the most successful presidents in post-Suharto Indonesia. The impact will be felt throughout the wider Southeast Asian region as well.
Indonesia has always been an important regional actor. Its conduct, development and power projection – or lack thereof – has had an impact on its neighbors. The benign character of Indonesia’s foreign policy over the last five decades has been the key to Southeast Asia’s peace, stability and progress. If Jokowi’s plan succeeds, it will plant the seeds of growing national power in the years ahead. However, it is a race against time – Jokowi is limited to just one more term, while the challenges facing Indonesia need many more years, even decades, to overcome.