Good News from Across the Sea

Or, the Tale of Evil vs. Relative Sanity

By Reuven Pinnata

Originally published in the November 2014 issue.

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I’d like to think that I have outgrown my once-beloved fairy tale books. I’ve become quite ardent in proclaiming that reality is now the only thing that I will sleep to—perhaps not because it is so beautiful and reassuring, as those children books usually are, but because it is just too much that I might as well ignore it at least for a few hours. However, if there’s one thing from those tales that I still like to cling to, it is the notion of the triumph of goodness over evil. In terms of clichéd-ness, that statement has already been mugged, robbed, shot, and beaten to death. We’ve gotten used to reading the extraordinary tales of how those with power once again manage to oppress the people, how an irrational war has once again been waged, how pressing issues have once again been safely swept under the rug. Whatever triumph it is, it still seems very far off. But I’m not encouraging you, dear reader, to lose hope; in fact, I’m going to share a bit about the latest presidential election in Indonesia last summer and how sometimes, ‘the good guy’ gets to win.

Jokowi and Prabowo—the last time I heard a pair of names touted around in such a polarized way, I was reading about Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. As far as I knew, the people I lived among were unambiguous in their support for the former and their contempt for the latter; my mom went so far as to putting up a humongous Jokowi banner on the façade of our house. I tend to distrust any such black-and-white portrayal, but my distrust didn’t last long.

Any sensible individual will agree to my proposition: if you must choose between two presidential candidates, you will choose the one that at least is less likely to screw up the whole country. And Prabowo was very likely to screw up Indonesia. In the first place, his familial roots were sketchy—not in the sense that they were ambiguous—their associations and resulting influence on his current political philosophy were too obvious: his father served as the minister of economy under the New Order. And in Indonesian political jargon, the New Order basically means Suharto’s 31-year authoritarian regime. What made it even more alarming was how Prabowo himself seemed intent on carrying out the militarist ideals of that regime, and a cursory glance at the history of his military activities can confirm this supposition. During the notorious 1998 riots, one of the darkest chapters in the history of the New Order, he was responsible for kidnapping and torturing at least nine democracy activists, a crime which had him expelled from the military and which he later admitted to, claiming that he was ordered to do so. As if it was not horrific enough, in a 2001 interview with the American journalist Allan Nairn, he commented, “You don’t massacre civilians in front of the world press. Maybe commanders do it in villages where no one will ever know, but not in the provincial capital.” In the same interview, he also implicitly showed that his militarism had taken turn for the worse: “Indonesia is not ready for democracy. [It needs] a benign authoritarian regime.” He added, “Do I have the guts… am I ready to be called a fascist dictator?” And this person was a step away from running the whole country.

As you can probably guess, Jokowi did not actually have to do a lot to win over public opinion (although the final tally showed that Jokowi won only by 6.3%). To add to that advantage, Jokowi’s positive public image and impressive accomplishments had cemented themselves. His populist image was strengthened by his hands-on, “blusukan” (an untranslatable Javanese word which more or less means “going deep into less desirable places”) leadership style; he would often make visits to local—often also poor—regions to directly talk about economic problems with the people. His run as the mayor of Solo resulted in a lot of infrastructural developments, including the implementation of an all-resident healthcare program; his election as the mayor of Jakarta had also produced similarly progressive results. His radically people-oriented approach to problems seemed to be what the people, especially the lower class, and Indonesian politics needed. A widely publicized example is his visit to Pluit Dam, a slum area in North Jakarta, where he held more or less 20 meetings with different groups of residents to explain his eviction plan and his solution to it. And this kind of approach proved to be extremely popular, even in international political sphere; in 2014, he was listed by Fortune as one of “The World’s 50 Greatest Leaders.”

Take for example, the enthusiasm for Jokowi shared by the Indonesian students in our college. Although he did not participate in the election due to some bureaucratic matter, Kevin Hartanto, a sophomore and a native from Jakarta, is certain that he would have voted for Jokowi. He pointed towards Jokowi’s 2-year run as the governor of Jakarta as an example of his leadership ability. “He understands what the people are struggling with right now,” he adds. Belinda Lieviant, another student from Indonesia, is disturbed by Prabowo’s alleged racism towards the Chinese-Indonesian community. Indeed, the majority of victims in the 1998 riots were Indonesians of Chinese descent. Michelle Antonio, another native from Jakarta, notes that Jakarta became noticeably more organized when Jokowi assumed his position as governor, and she has high hopes for him in the future. “I hope he’ll be able to stop the widespread corruption in the government. Maybe not in a short time, but I hope at least he will change that.”


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