“What we need is a healthy balance of optimism and pessimism,” Burmese opposition figure Aung San Suu Kyi said at a recent press conference with US President Barack Obama. The statement was by way of a comment on the slower-than-expected pace of political reform in Myanmar. It is also a germane reminder for many Indonesians experiencing a state of euphoria about Joko Widodo’s presidency.
To say that great things are expected of Joko by his fellow countrymen and women is an understatement.
Suhardiman, one of the founders of the Golkar Party, even went as far as to say that Joko possessed all the qualities of the Satria Piningit, a dark horse leader spoken of in a prophecy of Jayabaya, an 11th century mythical king of Java.
Mysticism is still very much a part of everyday life in Indonesia, and as such, Suhardiman’s sentiment is probably shared by many. As the Satria Piningit, Joko is expected to deliver justice and prosperity for his people, ushering a golden age for the country as foretold in the prophecy.
The same mysticism also holds that no leader is born by coincidence. The Javanese concept of kewahyon, in which a leader receives divine sanction to govern, is still widely believed.
Hence, it should come as no surprise that Indonesians have always tended to treat their national leaders with reverence usually reserved for religious figures or mythic heroes.
There are definitely signs that Joko is being accorded the honor of hero — worship by his supporters. When a report emerged that the president had secured $17.8 billion worth of investment pledges from China during the recent APEC Summit, his supporters hailed it as a supreme triumph.
Any investment into Indonesia should indeed be welcomed. However, the militant supporters of the president have apparently forgotten Joko’s earlier pledges to restrict foreign investment as an affirmative act towards strengthening our sovereignty as a nation.
Naturally, this nationalist economic rhetoric is an anachronism in today’s world. Nor could it ever be tenable vis-a-vis the proposed infrastructure development envisaged by the new government. All the same, it was undeniably a part of the vision Joko outlined for the nation during the campaign.
The most probable explanation for the sudden turnabout is that the manifesto never went through costing and scrutiny, a common mistake in Indonesian politics. After all, the manifesto of Joko’s opponent, Prabowo Subianto, was even less impressive in policy clarity and consistency.
Then as he assumed office and discovered the true state of the national finances, Joko realized that to implement his ambitious development program, foreign investment was inevitable.
Considering his lack of national political experience, Joko’s earlier naiveté is understandable. What is troubling, however, is the way Joko’s supporters failed to take account of this sudden reversal.
Joko’s promise to champion the rights of Papuans early in his campaign also became a paradox when he personally appointed Andika Perkasa as chief of the presidential guard. The choice was surprising in light of the murder of Papuan separatist leader Theys Eluay in 2001.
According to a Jakarta Post article in 2002, the father of one of the murder suspects alleged that Perkasa had forced his son to confess to the crime. Although the nature of his link to the murder remains murky to this day, his appointment was bound to injure Papuan sensibilities.
The fact that Perkasa is also son-in-law to Hendropriyono, who acted as adviser to the president’s transition team, suggests that the old patronage system that is rife with nepotism is far from being its last legs.
Just before he departed for the APEC Summit in Beijing, Joko told an audience at Yogyakarta’s Gadjah Mada University that Russian President Vladimir Putin had expressed a great desire to meet with him, unmistakably stressing his role as the pursued. Then the president explained his newfound mass appeal on the world stage as the direct result of his cornerstone policy, becoming a maritime axis.
To quote Joko himself, the maritime axis has allegedly made other countries “grogi” which translates as “uneasy, awed or nervous.” In other words, cowed by the eventual rise of a mighty Indonesia, our international partners have suddenly developed new respect for us.
Has it occurred to anyone that Joko’s sought-after status is to be expected as he is the new leader of a middle power country that few foreign leaders have met? As Joko himself reiterated the maritime axis in his inauguration speech, wouldn’t it be common sense for other world leaders to make a mention of it as a way to establish a common ground?
On the other hand, it is unrealistic to claim that the maritime axis has made the Russian president “grogi.” Russia, having one of the world’s most potent navies, is in no position to be awed by the as yet unborn maritime axis. Realistically speaking, it will be decades before we can see it in any definite form.
“I always warn against over-optimism, because that could lead to complacency,” Aung San Suu Kyi also said at the press conference. Back in Indonesia, let us also hope that common sense prevails against the perennial trap of messianic fervor and hubris that is all too real.
Johannes Nugroho is a writer from Surabaya.