In the midst of massive criticism from inside and outside the country against how President Joko Widodo administration is trending towards suppressive and anti-democracy regime as he silences and detains critics, out of nowhere Professor Kishore Mahbubani, one of Southeast Asia’s most respected figures, came out with an advertorial-like article, praising the Indonesian president as an excellent example for the world to follow.
We don’t know the motive behind this rosy picture of Jokowi but the timing of its publication seems to indicate that it’s carefully calculated, aiming at countering Jokowi’s critics using a highly credible figure in a time where many people have lost their patience towards the president.
The article is not only laughable for its hyperbole – even his own supporters have no confidence to call him a genius, for instance, or at least such a word has never entered the conversation when describing him – but it’s also ridiculous for many of its baseless and inaccurate arguments.
The article is not only misleading many Indonesians into blindly believing in the status quo but also justifying a number of actions under Jokowi administration which can lead to the weakening of the nation as a whole, for example the amendment of the Corruption Eradication Commission law which will significantly weaken the antigraft agency and empower corruptors, as well as the suppression and detention of critics.
For a start, in an attempt to exaggerate the uniquely huge challenges faced by Jokowi when he came to the office, Mahbubani uses the year of 1998 and the threat of Indonesia to fall apart like former Yugoslavia as an illustration. Such a narrative is not only misleading but also stripping the works and services of four Indonesian presidents before Jokowi. Mahbubani has not done B.J. Habibie, Abdurrahman “Gus Dur” Wahid, Megawati Soekarnoputri and Soesilo Bambang Yudhoyono any justice.
By the time Jokowi came to office in 2014 Indonesia is far removed from facing such a threat.
On Indonesia as one of the world’s most difficult countries to govern because of its big territory and incredible ethnic diversity, Jokowi is not the first president to face these difficulties. How about Habibie who led Indonesia through the worst days of the financial crisis? How about Gus Dur and Megawati who both steered Indonesia out the worst ethnic conflicts and most dangerous terrorist attacks in the nation’s history, and paving way for stronger democratization? How about 10 years of political and security stability under SBY?
Indonesia was in a perfect position to take off by the time Jokowi took office in 2014 because everything seemed to have been laid out for him to govern. The challenges for Jokowi are never about Indonesia’s condition, it’s always about his political survival among the big boys.
This leads to Mahbubani’s claim that Jokowi has bridged Indonesia’s political divides, citing the fact that Prabowo Subianto and Sandiaga Uno, a running-mate he defeated for his second term in office, are now ministers in his cabinet.
But this is an act of survival just to guarantee that his second term would be smooth, and when he leaves office and is no longer in power, his legacy would be preserved and he and his family would not be touched or implicated in any cases.
This is a quid pro quo. As both Prabowo and Sandiaga have presidential ambition and are eyeing the 2024 presidential elections, they could use state facilities to enhance their popularity and influence, like touring a lot across Indonesia using the state budget, ahead of 2024.
Furthermore, this is an elite agreement for personal ambition and interests without including people in the equation. Does it make any difference for people at the grassroots? The expression of disappointment from Prabowo’s supporters and critics against Jokowi’s move from his own defenders conclude that the answer is not really.
Most voters are now either too tired or too hopeless to react, and they just wait for Jokowi regime to end and look forward to electing new leaders in 2024. Jokowi’s own ministers and officials as well as most of politicians already aim at 2024, and some even have launched open campaigns, making Jokowi a lame duck president just two years into the office.
Comparing Jokowi with US President Joe Biden, or Indonesia with the US is also an ill-conceived description of the situation with each nation having very different levels of democracy and culture. Donald Trump and Mike Pence would and could never be in Biden’s cabinet, would they?
Mahbubani’s praising “Jokowi has reversed the growing momentum of Indonesia’s most “Islamist” parties”, is premature and yet to be proven as conservatism in Indonesia is still growing, while conservative political movement is too divided and Islamist political parties are small, and a bigger one like the Prosperous Justice Party (PKS), already lost its momentum in 2009 elections.
Using the passage of the highly controversial Omnibus Law as an example of Jokowi’s skillful coalition building is just misleading because this bill was in the interests of all Indonesia’s big businesses. These big businesses had pushed it all along, and were all united to have it passed in the House of Representatives. They are the one who lobbied the lawmakers. Jokowi’s role was just to sign it. The Omnibus law is actually a victory of big businesses over the people in general.
Next is Mahbubani’s narrative about “Jokowi’s personal experience of poverty” is an exaggeration because while Jokowi comes from average family like millions others across Indonesia, it’s not an extreme case that can be cited as a factor in dictating his policies.
Most of his policies to help poor families, like cash transfer, have actually been done by SBY administration.
On Jokowi’s show of giving away land certificates, there has been endless criticism on this move, calling it a stunt. In reality, most farmers across Indonesia still have no land to work on, and farmers’ complaints continue to mount (see: Budaya Industrial dan Padamnya Kegairahan Petani and Petani Milenial Meringis di Negeri Agraris).
On inequality issue, citing Indonesia’s Gini coefficient can’t describe the country’s real problems of poverty and unequal income distribution because it is too inconsistent from year to year. It’s true that in 2020 Indonesia’s Gini coefficient was 38.2, but this was worse than in 2019. The country Gini coefficient has been up and down in the range of 37-40 under Jokowi, indicating that inequality is still very high.
The fact is that the four richest men in Indonesia have more wealth that the combined total of the poorest 100 million people. The number of people living below poverty line increased by 1.13 million to 27.55 million in September 2020 alone. Now, the number could be getting higher as the pandemic continues. Unfortunately, Mahmubani failed to mention these data in his article.
So, there is nothing to discuss about Jokowi’s success in narrowing wealth gap or alleviating poverty because he has not done little to nothing in this regard.
In fact, it should also be noted that earlier this year Indonesia was relegated by the World bank to lower-middle income country from previous status of higher-middle income country.
Mahbubani is also incorrect with his data and assessment of Indonesia public debt, which he said at less than 40% of GDP. As of August 2021, the Finance Ministry reported that the government debt stood at Rp6,625.43 trillion with the debt-to-GDP ratio at 40.85 percent, increased from the previous month’s figure at Rp6,570.17 trillion.
On infrastructure development, it should be acknowledged that Jokowi has been doing a lot here. However, we are yet to see their impacts for people in general because building highways benefits only those who own cars.
Mahbubani should have not mentioned the World Bank’s Doing Business index here because it has been full of scandals, and accordingly has been scrapped by the World Bank itself.
On international politics, many observers have agreed that Indonesia’s role in the region has been way diminished compared to the time when SBY led the country. The fact that US Vice President Kamala Harris snubbed Indonesia in her recent trip to Southeast Asia, and the establishment of AUKUS, have indicated that the US sidelined Indonesia in its strategy to rival China in the region. (see: Kamala Harris Snubs of Indonesia)
With all these considerations, calling Jokowi as the world’s most effective democratically elected leader today, is not only a joke for Indonesians in general but also an empty praise for Jokowi himself.
Thomas Power and Eve Warburton, editors of “Democracy in Indonesia: From Stagnation to Regression” have noted that by the start of his second term, in 2019, Indonesia’s democracy had sunk to its lowest point since the end of the New Order. And in a year when the highly respected Economist has accused Jokowi of assaulting Indonesian democracy in various ways, Mahbubani’s praise for Jokowi seems strange and deviant. (see: Indonesia’s Dying Common Sense Indonesias Decaying Democracy and The Real King of Lip Service Really Stands Up Now)
If what Mahbubani means as effective is a Machiavellianism way of survival where ends justify means, then he is probably right.
To quote the Economist: “Under Jokowi, the state has stepped up efforts to suppress views it dislikes. In 2017 the government gave itself the power to disband civil-society organizations on national-security grounds. It deals harshly with protesters. Ordinary citizens who criticize the government online are threatened with criminal charges or imprisoned. Jokowi has also eroded checks on executive privilege. He has appointed toadies to run the police, armed forces and the attorney-general’s office. He has tried to do away with political opposition by manipulating the boards of two rival parties to ensure loyalist factions are in control and by coercing opposition politicians, via threats of prosecution, into supporting his re-election. His enormous coalition encompasses three-quarters of parliamentarians.”
If this is what Mahbubani calls effective, then Indonesia is really in trouble.
And oh, he should have put warning at the beginning of his article such as “caution: this is an advertorial”.