The shape of the world a generation from now will be influenced far more by how we communicate the values of our society to others than by military or diplomatic superiority. William Fulbright, 1964

Wednesday, October 29, 2014


Oligarchs with a country     

Has Indonesia’s new president Joko (Jokowi) Widodo read the ancient works of Chinese general Sun Tzu, author of The Art of War?
In personal interviews with local media questions have focussed on his breakfasts and wife Iriana’s dress.  Like her husband she is no fashionista, preferring plain and simple, which will infuriate the establishment’s elaborately coiffed ice matrons shouldering Gucci bags of sharpened hatpins.
There has been no interest in what books are on the couple’s bedside table, probably because the reporters – like many Indonesians – are not great readers of anything longer than a 140 character tweet.
Nonetheless Indonesia’s seventh president seems to understand the value of a quote attributed to the warrior who lived five centuries before Christ:  Keep your friends close, but your enemies closer.
How else to explain Jokowi singling out his ‘friend’ Prabowo Subianto for applause during the 20 October Presidential inauguration ceremony? The former general with a black human-rights record was Jokowi’s bitter opponent in the 9 July direct election.  Prabowo still runs a ruthless campaign to unseat the man who beat him for the top job by eight million votes.
Another answer is that Jokowi is Javanese, an ethnic group that believes in harmony and prefers to say ‘yes’ instead of ‘no’ to avoid embarrassment, even when the negative is meant – a trait that can drive naïve Westerners nuts. Perhaps the gesture went some way to placating a man with boiling anger and cash enough to create havoc and destroy the people’s choice.  It certainly put Jokowi on the high moral ground, if such a position exists in politics.
If Jokowi truly considers his rival a friend, what constitutes an enemy?  Prabowo’s campaign trawled pits of slime in bids to destroy Jokowi, claiming he was a Christian planning to eradicate Islam, a communist Chinese born in Singapore and had fathered an illegitimate son.  By comparison, the Liberal’s campaign against PM Julia Gillard was sweet and civilised.
Prabowo, who is not a parliamentarian, has assembled a coalition of parties that outnumber Jokowi’s supporters in the national legislature.  This group has already passed an anti-democracy law cancelling regional elections in favour of Jakarta selecting district governors, regents and mayors.
This was the system used by the authoritarian General Suharto who led the nation for 32 years; he was also Prabowo’s former father-in-law.
Jokowi was a furniture trader from a small town in Central Java before being elected as local mayor, then governor of Jakarta by popular vote – an impossible political journey in the future should the new law stand.
He has no known family connections with Jakarta’s military, business, high-born or religious elite, qualities that make him attractive to ordinary Indonesians, but poison to the corrupt and powerful bent on retrieving their authority.
Commented Driyarkara School of Philosophy academic B Herry-Priyono in The Jakarta Post: ‘Most countries have oligarchs, but in Indonesia the oligarchs have a country. They have been lording it over us for so long, arresting the nation from its march toward the common good.
Six days after his inauguration, and numerous false starts, Jokowi unwrapped his 34-member ‘Working Cabinet’, after the Corruption Eradication Commission had recommended the exclusion of eight candidates.
The ceremony on the Presidential Palace lawn had the ministry in identical white shirts. It was less than dignified; many ministers dashed across the grass to get in line, though such behaviour was clearly beneath human development and culture minister Puan Maharani; the ambitious but unpopular granddaughter of first president Sukarno just strode.
 She could afford to take her time: Her mum is Megawati Sukarnoputri, the proud and stubborn leader of the PDIP-Party that sponsored Jokowi after advisors persuaded her not to stand for president, having been rejected by the electorate in the 2004 and 2009 elections.  She and Puan gave him little support, reportedly saying he was only a ‘party official’.  There’s much talk that she’s the puppet master.
Foreign minister Retno Marsudi is a career diplomat and former Ambassador to the Netherlands, the first woman to hold the top job. Nine ministers have business backgrounds and nine are academics, including Adelaide University PhD graduate Pratikno, rector of Yogyakarta’s University Gadjah Mada.  He’s the new State Secretary. Jokowi is a UGM science graduate, and so is Retno.
A major concern is the selection of former general Ryamizard Ryacudu, a noted hardliner and minister when Megawati was the fifth president.  Human rights groups have condemned his promotion, alleging a bad record in Aceh where unsuccessful attempts were made to destroy local rebels through overwhelming brute force.
Unlike the Westminster system, ministers can be drawn from anywhere and are not always politicians or active members of parties.  The response from the Jakarta commentariat to the Cabinet has been lukewarm, tinted with concern, largely because 14 politicians have been included, apparently for supporting the PDI-P rather than for their expertise and achievements, as promised in earlier Jokowi statements.
Jokowi and his Cabinet will need to ride the bureaucracy hard or the planned reforms to the nation’s economy and infrastructure will never take root. Indonesia’s 4.5 million khaki-uniformed bureaucrats are skilled in obfuscation, doing what they want, not what the politicians direct.  Yes, Minister could have been written for Indonesia.
The President will also need to nip at the heels of some ministers, reminding them they’re there to serve, not be served.
This month Indonesia scaled the peak of inflated expectations in the hype cycle; from now on our northern neighbour will be heading to the trough of disillusionment before the government rises to the plateau of productivity.
Along the way beware the oligarchs. They never forget and seldom forgive. 

(First published in On Line Opinion, 29 October 2014.  For comments:

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