Is President Joko [Jokowi] Widodo a ‘Yes Man’?
Skilled users of English know the phrase doesn’t mean what learners of the international language often assume, a mistake frequently leading to confusion and embarrassment.
A ‘Yes Man’ isn’t someone who accepts a reasonable request [that’s a man who says ‘yes’], but a weak person who agrees with everything proposed by his friends and superiors to ingratiate himself.
Central Java businessman Michel Romagnan (right), who says he’s responsible for dubbing the President as a ‘Yes Man’ though with a Gallic twist, claims long term friendship with Jokowi from late last century when both were furniture traders.
“In my dealings Jokowi was positive,” he said. “That’s the fine quality that gave him his nickname. I want the world to know this and why his name is spelt incorrectly.”
Romagnan lives in the President’s hometown and by Indonesian standards Surakarta, also known as Solo, is a small city.
Till now the reserved trader has been worried about speaking out lest the next time he samples a bakso [meatball soup] he might find one of Jokowi’s many relatives sitting alongside on the warung [roadside stall] bench who’ll say:
‘Hey, you foreign fiend! Why have you been tittle-tattling to these hacks from the Big Durian about our President? What’s said in Solo stays in Solo’.
Romagnan, 71, now wants what he says is the true story of how the President got his name before other versions are set in concrete.
So far it has been widely accepted that Jokowi is a truncated marriage of the President’s two names. A second explanation was published in The Jakarta Post last October when a French furniture dealer who only wanted to be known as Bernard claimed naming rights for the Republic’s seventh president.
He said he created the label ‘Jokowi’ adding the first two letters of his second name to separate him from other suppliers also called Joko – a common name in Indonesia.
However Romagnan, another French-born businessman who lives the life of a recluse on the slopes of Mount Lawu on the outskirts of Solo, says Bernard’s account is wrong.
Adjacent to Romagnan’s villa and organic vegetable farm is the Mangkunagoro 1 Forest Park, about 1,200 meters up the northwest flank of the 2,550 meter volcano that straddles Central and East Java and accessed via some of the steepest roads on the island. The President’s family owns the land next door, according to Romagnan.
Alongside is the curious 15th century Sukuh Hindu temple, widely known for its erotic statues and strange provenance. It’s believed to be the last temple built before the arrival of Islam. Its style – a pyramid of uncarved stones on the highest of three terraces - is quite unlike other monuments of the period, more like a Mexican Maya temple than a Javanese place of worship.
In this setting of history, mystery and wild beauty Romagnan explained that like Bernard he also used to be involved trading tables, exporting wardrobes and selling bureaux. This was the business followed by Joko Widodo before he entered politics, first as the local mayor in 2005, later as Governor of Jakarta prior to winning the Republic’s top job last year.
The two men knew each other through business and Asmindo, the Indonesian Furniture Entrepreneurs’ Association, which the future president chaired in 2002. His company was called PT Rakabu.
Romagnan now suffers from a debilitating condition that affects his speech and movements. So he communicated through his friend Michael Micklem (below, right), also a local furniture exporter originally from South Australia, to help tell the tale.
“The real story is a lot more interesting,” said Romagnan. “In December 1989 when I was 45 I came to Solo as a furniture consultant to a large factory called Roda Jati.
“This was owned by Pak Miyono, who was Joko Widodo’s uncle. Pak Joko had just left his position as Roda Jati’s general manager to set up his own business. But he still maintained good relationships with his relative and visited often. Pak Joko and I soon became good friends.
“When my contract with Roda Jati finished I decided to stay on in Solo and start my own company.
“The furniture trade was booming and Pak Joko became one of my suppliers. I pushed him to follow a furniture exhibition in Jakarta. It was the first time ever at Kemayoran and we were very successful.
“There were several Jokos trading with me at the time so I decided to simplify the situation by giving them all nicknames.
“Joko Widodo stood out from the others because he was always very positive. I’d ask him: ‘Can you make this?’ and he’d reply, ‘Yes, sure.’
‘So Joko Widodo was nicknamed the ‘Yes Joko’. But being French I used the equivalent ‘Oui’. Our president’s name should be spelt Joko-oui.”
Romagnan has grainy photos from the 1990s showing a nattily dressed Joko Widodo doing deals and checking products, but these are too poor to reproduce. Pictures may be worth a thousand words, but in this case they are silent witnesses in the verification of the versions.
Whatever the truth – and maybe all are correct - the president should be glad that in his earlier years he wasn’t dealing with furniture traders from New Zealand.
They might have added the suffix ‘wee’. This is derived from 15th century English but still persists, particularly in the South Island, and also Scotland. It means ‘small’ or ‘of no importance’ as in a ‘wee issue’, though more commonly employed as a term of endearment.
Jokowee would be neither a good fit for the tall Javanese, nor an accurate description of the problems he’s facing.
(First published in The Jakarta Post 10 August 2015)