April 16, 2016
As Joko Widodo clicks through a presentation on infrastructure projects he has launched, an adviser hurries him along, warning that his time is running out. But the Indonesian President is having none of it.
“No, it’s better I show you,” he says, pointing at photograph after photograph of port, highway and dam schemes he kick-started after years of delays caused by land acquisition problems and intra-governmental disputes.
“I’ve already been to the toll road in Sumatra six times to check land acquisition and construction,” he says in an interview with the Financial Times, explaining this was the only way to start work on the much-needed highway after 30 years of abortive efforts.
A rare G20 leader happier talking about cement and building permits than big-picture vision, Mr Widodo’s prosaic style has disappointed some of his most enthusiastic backers. But his focus on managing the budget, building infrastructure and trying to reduce regulation has helped see him through a difficult start to his presidency, which was beset by a slowing economy and political problems.
Before departing on Sunday for a trip to Europe to drum up trade and investment, Mr. Widodo insists he will push ahead with his plans to deregulate the economy and accelerate infrastructure development.
“I will continue to make economic reforms, removing excessive permits, licences and restrictions,” he says, speaking sometimes in broken English.
“My commitment is to make Indonesia’s economy open and competitive.”
For much of last year Mr Widodo looked uncomfortable as he stumbled from one political problem to another, while the economy continued to weaken because of reduced Chinese demand for Indonesia’s commodities.
A dispute over the appointment of a graft-tainted police chief damaged his reputation for clean government. Policy U-turns, ministerial infighting and protectionist measures undermined hopes for reform — and his uncompromising defence of the execution of foreign drug traffickers prompted a diplomatic backlash.
But now the President who grew up in a riverside shack — the first democratic leader of Indonesia from outside the nation’s crony-ridden elite — is looking more at home in the palace. “I enjoy my job,” the 54-year-old says.
Not a bead of sweat forms on Mr Widodo’s forehead, even though the temperature is well over 30C and the air conditioning in the Dutch colonial-era Independence Palace is off.
A close adviser jokes that the President is a “cool customer”. Perhaps too cool, he adds, because he made a slow start to his presidency. “At the beginning, he did not know many people in Jakarta and many of the ministers initially appointed were not his choice,” he says. “But he is improving.”
Mr Widodo’s preoccupation with the nuts and bolts of road and bridge projects upsets those who were hoping for a bolder figurehead. However, for analysts who have seen previous plans for infrastructure investment and economic reform come up short, his approach is what Southeast Asia’s largest economy needs.
“He is not the guy who wants to come up with a grand plan, but [he is] a doer,” says Ray Farris, Asia strategist at Credit Suisse.
“I will continue to make economic reforms, removing excessive permits, licences and restrictions. My commitment is to make Indonesia’s economy open and competitive.” Mr Widodo’s focus on tactics rather than strategy has proved less effective in tackling Indonesia’s broader social and political problems.
When asked if he is concerned about rising discrimination against homosexuals, Mr Widodo’s perfunctory response is that “we respect human rights but Indonesia is the world’s largest Muslim country”.
As for the challenge of attracting investment from China while also pushing back against Beijing’s assertiveness in the South China Sea, he simply says that “all activities that may increase tension must be stopped”, before adding that it is not only Chinese boats that regularly plunder Indonesia’s fisheries.
After a recent skirmish between Indonesian and Chinese patrol vessels near Indonesia’s Natuna islands, his cabinet members offered wildly conflicting views on how to react. Analysts say the disarray betrayed Mr Widodo’s weakness when it comes to co-ordinating more complicated policy areas.
“The question is whether he can really control his cabinet,” says Yohanes Sulaiman, a political analyst in Jakarta. Others warn that he needs to lay out a more convincing plan to raise the money needed to fund his pet infrastructure projects. “There doesn’t seem to be a lot of focus or leadership on addressing the core revenue problem,” says Mr Farris of Credit Suisse.
Unperturbed, Mr Widodo insists that running a country of 255m people and 17,000 islands is ultimately not that different from being mayor of a city of 500,000. But is the bigger-scale job pushing him to become a stronger leader? “It’s better you ask the people,” he says with a chuckle.