Inside the Chrysalis State

“It was spun for protection from without and nurture within, was translucent enough to permit awareness of what surrounded, opaque enough to shield from observers some of the detail of what went on inside.”

-Martin E. Marty, The Irony of It All


Without a need for another name in the controversial personality pool emerging in Southeast Asia—particularly leaders in Philippines & Myanmar—there is one from Indonesia that’s been unfortunately ignored, despite his questionable approach on several issues and viewpoints concurrent with those of leaders like of Rodrigo Duterte (who, next to President-Elect Donald Trump, is littering the media channels with his aberrant behavior).

Indonesia’s Joko “Jokowi” Widodo, while certainly deviled with a level of controversy, is an emerging leader, who possess a fair form of interesting qualities that distinguishes him on the world stage and makes him an aberration in Indonesia’s history known—in the wake of the brutal reign of Muhammad Suharto—to be controlled by the “country’s narrow political and military elite” like Jokowi’s opponent in the 2014 election who he defeated becoming only the third president in the country’s history to have done so by direct election (began in 2004). Three years prior to the election, posters of Osama bin Laden littered the central bazaar as memory of the countries reputation for Islamist radicalism. It was in Jokowi that people saw change, a shift towards a moderate democracy, as Foreign Affairs wrote:

“Jokowi was seen as ushering in a bold new era of politics untainted by the corruption, nepotism, and mismanagement of the past. He would be the nation’s first leader without close ties to the old order[.]”

Here, in Jokowi, is a story of a man who grew up in the grasps of poverty (working in the family furniture business) and rose to a state of kingship over Indonesia’s vast empire of 250 million citizens. A self-professed “metalhead,” Jokowi did not abandon his humble inheritance. In an interview with Jonathan Tepperman, he recounts a practice he began early of taking daily trips (blusukans) along the markets, riverbanks, and slums to listen and concern himself with the needs of the common people and instill his values of democracy as a tool that serves to “deliver a better life for . . . people.”

Jonah Blank writes:

“His approach relied on blusukans, which can be loosely translated as ‘exploration’ and involved walking around the city without a large retinue and having informal conversations with ordinary constituents. That may seem like Politics-101, but in the stultifying atmosphere of Indonesian officialdom, it was revolutionary.”

As a secular Javanese Muslim and as a leader of the largest Muslim country in the world, Jokowi attempted to restore his religious credentials by taking a hajj to Saudi Arabia prior to the 2014 election and continues to engage with Saudi-style Islamic groups, like the Islamic Defenders Front, who recently staged a mass protest after the Chinese-Christian governor (“Ahok”) of Jakarta allegedly broke the law on blasphemy.

The Sydney Morning Herald (writing on November 8, 2016) had this to say:

“This city’s embattled governor was interrogated by police over alleged blasphemy . . . amid fears that opponents of the government are deliberately fomenting unrest to destabilise Indonesian President Joko Widodo. Up to 200,000 Muslims [other reports put this at “half a million”] took to the streets . . . demanding that [the governor] . . . be jailed for allegedly insulting Islam.”

In a show of strength and solidarity, Jokowi, despite being advised against it due to fears of an attack, walked among the protestors and “prayed with Habib Rizieq Shihab, the head of the shadowy Islamic Defenders Front[.]”

Despite being marked by his “humility, incorruptibility, and get-it-done outlook,” Jokowi is not without his faults and controversies. While espousing a faithfulness to a moderate form of Islam, his positions on certain issues have raised concerns. Among those being his use of firing squads to rectify Indonesia’s drug problem, his use of chemical castration for pedophiles, and his justification for outlawing homosexuality as inconsistent with Indonesia’s “culture and social norms” as an Islamic country. During the 2014 election, he faced a number of allegations for his pluralistic tendencies:

“Because Jokowi reached out to members of all religions — even as mayor of Islamist-leaning Solo—he has been labeled a closet Christian. Because he sought to assuage the fears of Jakarta’s significant and often-oppressed community of ethnic Chinese, he has been derided as the descendant of Chinese migrants. Because he has focused on providing government services to the poorest members of society, he has been branded a Communist.”

Further, after being elected as President, he remained strapped to the influences of high-ranking members, appointed military leaders into high offices, and “[r]einstituted the military as a key force in carrying out national-building agenda.” By providing room for the military to contract with various civilian agencies, concerns did emerge that Indonesia may be heading back to the old Suharto “New Order” where a “repressive system injected the military into all aspects of civilian life.” In this vein, Jokowi has also been accused of allowing the military to use the pretense of “empowering the locals” as a front for gathering information and boosting nationalism. One example was using free “civic education” as a form of ideological indoctrination to garner support for wide ranging initiatives. During recent protests (for more, see here and here) against Ahok for alleged blasphemy, many accused Jokowi of protecting the governor and demanded he renounce any allegiance [NOTE: the two men had run on the same ticket back in 2012 helping Jokowi become the governor of Jakarta].

Through it all, Jokowi remains poised for re-election in 2019—enjoying popularity not seen in decades. With controversies emerging with Taiwan, South China Sea, Philippines, and Myanmar, Jokowi’s Indonesia may be a longstanding pillar of stability in the region.

Writing for The Straits Times, Derwin Pereira notes:

“[Jokowi] is reverting to a leadership style that is in remarkable consonance with the Javanese statecraft that had underpinned Mr Suharto’s longevity in office. In Javanese political cosmology, a stable center, once it is established in its legitimate power and deferential solemnity, draws the periphery into a durable order of things.”

Time will tell.


Further Reading:

The Jokowi Phenomenon (Jan. 16, 2014)

Joko Widodo National Leaderships on Indonesia World Maritime Policy (Oct. 2014)

New Nationalism in Indonesia (Nov. 2015)

Interview with BBC (Oct. 2016)

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