Hats off to Indonesia’s Jokowi

Jakarta’s governor Joko Widodo plays a bass guitar
Jakarta’s governor Joko Widodo plays a bass guitar gifted to him by the rock band Metallica. AFP

Hats off to Indonesia’s Jokowi

Sometimes you get lucky, as I did 20 years ago when a quartet of Malaysian politicians struck me as flagging the future.

It was an unexpected realisation, because most people, including my Asiaweek editors, had never heard of these young upstarts.

But they gave the go-ahead and my August 1994 story, headlined “Now, the Third Wave”, gave Hishammuddin Hussein, Khaled Nordin, Saifuddin Nasution and Shafie Apdal their first prominent coverage.

In their early 30s, they were then mere foot soldiers in the United Malays National Organisation and many readers within Malaysia, let alone among the international community, had yet to notice them.

But that quickly changed alongside the rise and rise of the talented foursome, one of whom will almost certainly become prime minister eventually.

Hisham is already the defence minister and UMNO’s top-ranking vice-president, while Shafie is a fellow VP and also a cabinet minister.

Khaled, after two stints in cabinet, was recently appointed chief minister of mighty Johor state, the birthplace of UMNO.

Saifuddin split from UMNO over the treatment of his mentor, Anwar Ibrahim, and is now secretary-general of the opposition People’s Justice Party, headed by Anwar.

It was hard to imagine another such prescient feature coming my way, yet luckily one did five years later when two relatively unknown politicians, this time from Thailand, set my antennae buzzing.

The resulting article, in May 1999, boldly claimed that one of the duo, Abhisit Vejjajiva and Chaturon Chaisang, would be prime minister before the age of 50.

A decade later, Abhisit was PM at age 44, and it is not impossible that Chaturon, who was reappointed minister of education last week, will follow in his footsteps.

Why this reiteration of prophetic predictions of the past? Well, because another beckons and if it does not prove equally accurate, then I promise to devour another steamed hat.

Early last year, a colleague in Indonesia urged me to keep an eye on a guy called Jokowi, whom I had never heard of, but quickly rectified that failing.

Joko Widodo, known locally as Jokowi, was then a relatively unknown mayor of the East Java town of Solo who had decided to launch an audacious bid to become the governor of Jakarta.

He was given no chance, especially since he was not even a Jakarta native and because incumbent Governor Fauzi Bowo was supported by Indonesia’s President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono.

But sensing the same buzz elicited in past years by those Malaysian and Thai pretenders, I travelled to East Java and quickly became convinced that Jokowi would be elected the boss of Indonesia’s sprawling capital.

And so he was in October.

Now, after being tagged as “Indonesia’s most promising politician” and even being compared to United States President Barack Obama, Jokowi is eyeing the nation’s highest office.

Already, there are moves within the Indonesian Democratic Party of Struggle to position him as its presidential candidate and not the party’s current leader, former president Megawati Sukarnoputri.

Indeed, recent surveys indicate that the fledgling Jakarta governor would wallop other presidential candidates like Prabowo Subianto, Aburizal Bakrie and retired army general Wiranto.

Let me say without a shred of conceit that it feels good to have enabled The Phnom Penh Post to spot him ahead of other regional publications.

If he does run, it is almost certain that the immensely popular Jokowi, 52, will be elected as Indonesia’s president next year.

In doing so, he will become the region’s most powerful politician, and given his innovative dynamism, he may, with luck, shake things up a bit.

More to the point, like those earlier Malaysian and Thai aspirants, his equivalent ascent marks an uplifting boost for democratic values and the rejuvenation of an open and pluralistic system.

Youthful new figures with fresh ideas must come through the system regularly. It is the hallmark of a true democracy, while the reverse, when incumbents retain power for decades, makes a mockery of it.

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