Joko Widodo represents a new way for Indonesia, with a focus on youth and small-time problem solving. But can he really help fix Asia’s greatest failure?
Down the road that runs alongside the rails to Jakarta Kota station, the city’s main rail hub, the shacks tumble across one another, layer upon layer, tile-roofed and then iron-roofed, new shacks built in the space of old. They’re jammed within the space of a new line of buildings — in one place someone’s cemented a support beam for a new roof into the sharp corner of two new offices. There are a couple of dozen people out on the street of what is really a small linear village in the middle of the city, mostly mums and kids, incongruous as the poor are these days — possessing nothing, they are nevertheless in Adidas T-shirts. Someone’s stripping down hundreds of water bottles, cutting and shredding, scree-scree-scree, for the plastic value, others cooking on a pot. Three of four small girls are staring through the dividing fence at Kota station, the hundreds of commuters waiting for the afternoon trains. They don’t look envious, they don’t look bewildered. It’s watching another world. Above them, across the de facto entrance to the town, there’s a banner strung, line picture of a thin man in a check shirt. Jokowi! The banner’s white, but in a couple of days it’ll be brown from the smog. Everything is. The slums reach to the heart of the city, the trains are always late, and Indonesia is heading towards a presidential election that everyone seems to think will define its path into the future, a runoff between two candidates who represent the past and the future — but neither appears to have the answers for a country in the very worst of trouble.
Joko Widodo, or Jokowi, whose banners appear to hang over every one of the thousand thousand slumlets that reach through the cities, represents youth — a solutions-oriented mayor of a mid-sized city, trying to look as much like Obama as any Asian can be rendered. Prabowo Subianto, his opponent, is featured in huge billboards along every major road. I saw them on the way in from the airport, two men — he and his VP candidate — in fezzes (pictured above), and idly thought to myself, this local Penn-and-Teller knockoff sure has a big publicity budget. Then the terrible thought loomed: I would have to do some work.
Look, the few days in Indonesia were just a cheap flight stopover, and I’m not even going to pretend to anything more than a passing knowledge of a federated semi-democratic state with 90 cultures and 700 languages, which has endured 70 years of violent history, full of promise, reversal, freedom and horror. But the Indonesians had made it easier — they’d changed the rules of the presidential elections in order to create a two-candidate runoff, with the myriad parties represented in the Parliament having to choose one candidate or the other. The parliamentary elections were held in April, and the presidential election is not until July 9, so the country has been pushed into four months of continuous campaigning — partly to allow for the horse trading between parties as they lined up behind the two candidates, and to allow for campaigning across the vast and difficult-to-access country.
The slow burn may be something that Jokowi will have cause to regret. For 18 months he has been leading in the polls on the strength of his position as an outsider to the Indonesian elite, and as someone who had made real improvements to the city of Solo (Surakarta), of which he was mayor. He could not have wished for a greater contrast in his opponent — Prabowo is a son-in-law of Suharto, and a former Kopassus commander, implicated in an attempted internal army coup in the 1980s and a massacre of ethnic Chinese protesters in the 1990s. He went into exile in Jordan for three years following Suharto’s deposition in 1998, and is still barred from entering the United States.
By the time the elections came around this year, it seemed as if anyone with Prabawo’s establishment credentials would have no chance against an outsider. Though Indonesia looks good on paper, with 5% growth rates per year across a decade or so, it is obvious — from more specific stats and simply from using your eyes — that this is not reaching the ground in the way it is elsewhere. Corruption at every level, and in a bewildering variety of manifestations, dogs the lives of Indonesians, and in any poll taken it is the main concern across social classes. From street-level “preman” who run protection on stretches of street stalls to public service and education systems negotiated through strategic bribes to the disappearance of vast amounts of public money and the continuing kleptocracy of the army taking its cut, the country is dying the death of a thousand taken cuts.
The figures are all there, but you can see it in the streets, the cities and the countryside — the places where, half a kilometre from a main road, the tarmacking disappears, then even the basic patterning of streets. Traffic stalls through chaos, the buildings are frayed and half-built, and then there is the poverty in layer upon layer, the jerrybuilt homes, then the lean-tos, then people sleeping round the railings of Merdeka Square, using banners as awnings (I did not take a photo of this, you will be glad to know. Other photos I did not take: girls in colourful headscarves texting on iPhones, old men in batik shirts playing unknown board game outside teahouse, street hawkers smiling despite their poverty, masted ships in harbour, with tanker in distance, with caption “a country ancient and modern”, some German bird with a backpack. Don’t thank me).
There are skyscrapers in Jakarta, but not as many as you’d want. There are malls and industry parks, and gated apartment blocks — but they exist within rotting cities, surrounded by countryside that has seen very little improvement at all. Jakarta Kota, the main rail station for a city of tens of millions people, is the station the Dutch built in 1910 for its colonial elite. The tired trains, half-a-century old, that serve its limited rail network, have been retrofitted with clanking a/c. Whatever sort of development is going on here doesn’t earn the name “national” — and much of it is really funded by stripping of raw materials, mining and above all a deforestation more rapid than that of the Amazon.
For these and a hundred other reasons, large sections of the country got behind Jokowi, who appears to have cultivated a deliberately neutral image, appealing neither to the business/growth message of the last two decades nor to the nationalist imagery of the Sukarno era. He’s thin, unfussy, and makes a point of eschewing the batik shirt, favouring a generic check shirt you can pick up from any market stall for a $1.40 equivalent or so. As mayor of Solo, and more recently as governor of Jakarta, he adopted a multi-level approach to developing the city, freeing up green space, reorganising markets, introducing double-decker buses as a simple effective public transport improvement, and holding impromptu public meetings for people to ask questions and make criticisms. Solo was rebranded “the spirit of Java” to boost its tourist and local products’ potential.For people used to grandiose projects announced and never delivered, the sight of things actually happening in real time was a welcome relief, and Jokowi’s fame spread. That he is now slipping back to parity and even behind Prabowo is a measure of many factors. There are powerful forces arrayed against him, most particularly among the media-ownership families, and the recently ruling Demokrat Party — whose leader, President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, is barred from running this year — has come out against him. But Jokowi has powerful supporters, too, and the slow leaching of support has been in part due to his unwillingness to project the full presidential-style performance, with pseudo-military-style rallies, marches and parades. In a series of recent TV debates, his micro problem-solving has come to be seen as lacking an overall narrative, a big vision for Indonesia.
That is something Prabowo has in excelsis — he has managed the difficult trick of channelling both the strongman style of Suharto and the radical nationalist vision of Sukarno, all of without any real content. He is terrifying the West because of talk of returning to the 1945 independence constitution, which, as befits a country being born in revolution, vested a lot of powers in president and party. He talks of using the government to crack down on corruption, but since various agencies are at the root of it, this is simply words. He talks of pushing back against foreign powers extracting wealth, without mentioning that this is done with the gleeful complicity of the military and oligarchical powers behind him.
In any case, the persistent capital starvation, public and private, appears to have more to do with corrupt leaching out in the first instance than any wider extraction — liberal and Marxist analyses would agree that what the country needs is a reasonably rule-governed capitalism and only semi-suicidal levels of corruption in public spending, rather than anything more ambitious. Ideally what it needs is efficient state capitalism, but that is quite beyond it at the moment.
Prabowo has been compared to Suharto, to Putin, and by Tony Walker in The Australian Financial Review -- in one of the least useful comparisons ever, Walkley-standard confusion — to Hugo Chavez, but the reality is that he is a strongman without a strong idea behind him, and that would appear to be a disaster for the country, promising only greater and deeper stagnation, whatever appears on the balance sheet. Jokowi’s simpler problem-solving approach would be far closer to what the country needs — making things less worse, in such a way that new possibilities might emerge. Indonesia is, after all, the great failure of Asia, its material and social infrastructure slipping back to sub-Saharan African levels — and now falling behind places like South Africa and Botswana.
With a place like China, there is no comparison, none at all. The people’s republic turns out whole cities at a time, connects them with Maglev trains and puts a new full-service hospital in every regional town across the country. While China ascends to the next level, Indonesia (and Thailand to a lesser extent) are stuck in a mire that combines military-oligarchical rule with neoliberal capital flows, a system of perfectly calibrated national underdevelopment. This was not, I suspect, what the ’45 generation had in mind when they fought for self-determination.
Yet it is so stonkingly obvious when you see the place and inquire into it — and its sub-systems like education, for example, all with their own dysfunctions — that you wonder why the scale of the disaster isn’t better known. And of course the answer is obvious — because for 20 years in Australia, Indonesia has had relatively little real scrutiny in Australia, proffered as a development model by both the News Limited Right and the Suharto fanclub in the Right of the ALP. Though the means by which Suharto came to power was so fantastically violent as to sew a current of fear and menace into the basic political fabric, the country was portrayed as having begun in 1966, with Suharto as some wise avuncular elder. Australia got it worse than most, since Paul Keating chose the bastard as some sort of father figure, during his Kokoda-kissing phase, when his political career had clearly come to an impasse of utter meaninglessness and he required some fantasy object that would bridge his present and his past. Even then, the country was beginning to slip slowly back, as infrastructure failed to keep pace with wider economic life.
Now it is almost too late — the sheer amount of capital and good governance it would take to get somewhere like Jakarta to a point where it is merely 10 years behind boggles the mind. Jokowi would appear to have a better chance of getting it, and the country, there — but may well be overhauled by the end of next week, when the country goes to the polls. Should Prabowo be elected, there seems no reasonable possibility that he will be able to deliver, and quite a substantial one that he will abrogate parliamentary rule when that failure becomes apparent, and then all bets are off.
Such a waste, really. There’s something almost downright shameful about still using the rail station your colonial masters built, or that the best buildings in Bandung are still the Dutch ones, where the Asia-Africa conference took place, promising a non-aligned Third World, marching to democratic socialism, and where, perhaps inevitably, my wallet was lifted. But most striking of all was Old Batavia, the original core of Jakarta, which, though festooned with signs promising imminent UNESCO world heritage status, is sagging with disrepair. They should either plane it flat and have done with it or schmick it up properly, rather than the half-assed torpor it is currently left in, which says rather more about the post-colonial order than they would want it to.
And my mind went back to Shanghai, arriving there two years ago, another accidental journalistic moment — 90th anniversary of the founding of the Chinese Communist Party — and seeing, across from the old Bund, meticulously restored, the towers of Lujiazui, built to reign over the old European concession, and on one glittering one, the red hammer and sickle projected a hundred storeys high, and did not know what to think then, and in the ready-made ruin of Jakarta, where the city is the slum, the slum the city, still do not now.