Newsmaker: Joko Widodo

The new Indonesian president-elect was this week voted into power in the world’s largest Muslim country. As a heavy-metal-loving man of the people, however, he’s a very different brand of politician from his rivals, writes Kevin Hackett.

Kagan McLeod for The National
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You could be forgiven, at first glance, for thinking that Joko Widodo was some distant relative of the US president, Barack Obama. Slender, tall, with a wide, toothy grin, and tremendously popular with his compatriots, who see clearly his potential to bring sweeping changes to the politics of his country, the parallels are numerous. But Widodo – known to millions simply as Jokowi – isn’t an American. He’s an Indonesian who has risen from poverty and obscurity to become president-elect of one of the world’s most populous countries.

Indonesia is an enormous equatorial archipelago of more than 17,000 islands extending 5,150 kilometres from west to east, between the Indian and Pacific Oceans of South East Asia. It's also, says National Geographic, the world's fourth most populous nation and is 86 per cent Muslim, which makes it the world's largest Islamic country. The country's inhabitants are separated by the seas and are clustered together on the thousands of islands; the largest cluster being on Java, which has 130 million inhabitants alone (60 per cent of Indonesia's population) on an island that National Geographic says is "the size of New York State".

To govern a country as sprawling and diverse as Indonesia is not for the faint of heart, then, and Widodo has much to prove. So many Herculean tasks for such narrow shoulders; is he the man that can really make the changes that seem to be so desperately wanted and needed by his country? Time will tell, but the world is closely watching, and the early signs are that this most modern of politicians will, if he gets his way, make Indonesia radically different, for the better.

It’s difficult to explain just how popular the man is. The market research company Roy Morgan Indonesia claims that more than 98 per cent of the Indonesians that it surveyed watch television in any given week, and, while it’s perhaps a given that the majority of news stories broadcast were from the capital Jakarta, it found that internal data from round-the-clock news stations showed that ratings surged whenever Widodo was featured, while other political items caused viewers to switch channels. His reach is clearly phenomenal.

When the Indonesian current affairs website reported that the senior politician Amien Rais had criticised Widodo, more than 11,000 readers posted comments, apparently the highest number for a single story since the site was established back in 2008. Other politicians are, unsurprisingly, becoming wary of saying anything negative about him. is widely read by urban, middle-class, “white collar” workers – the type of voters that Indonesian politicians so desperately want to appeal to, and, as the site’s editor in chief Rikard Bagun says: “He is the people’s darling, not the media’s darling. They feel he is close to the people. The media is just amplifying the people’s views.”

In stark contrast to the standoffish politics that we often see in the West, where leaders – no matter what party they represent – can seem remote and distant, unreachable and untouchable by the people that they purport to serve, Widodo gets out there, actually seeks open communication and has no problem in proclaiming a love for heavy-metal music; something that, no matter what your taste in music is, cannot help but endear him to you. Apparently he had a guitar signed by members of Metallica and has made no secret of his love for even the likes of the British “grindcore” pioneers Napalm Death. He has, he told the Indonesian heavy-metal website, been listening to heavy metal since he was 14 years old, and he’s all for championing the arts in Indonesia, swapping the business attire (it’s still mostly casual, though) of the day job for T-shirt and jeans when he’s regularly spotted at rock concerts. Just as a point of comparison, Ed Miliband, the leader of the Labour party in the United Kingdom, chose Take on Me by A-Ha as one of his Desert Island Discs on BBC ­Radio 4.

So apart from a penchant for headbanging (something that he no doubt leaves for private moments these days), what do we know about him? The man who, after being cleared of allegations of fraud and vote rigging spouted by his defeated rivals in this week’s election, will assume office as president on October 20, is now 53 years old. He’s Muslim, married to Iriana and has three children, and was born on June 21, 1961, in Surakarta (also known as Solo). He’s the eldest son of Noto Mihardjo and Sujiatmi Notomihardjo, and has three younger sisters.

Widodo was educated at State Primary School 111 in Tirtoyoso, which has a reputation as being a school for those without much in the way of money, and his family’s constant financial difficulties meant that he had to work throughout his schooling to help pay the bills and to even buy his own school equipment. His early life was tough, his family being evicted from its riverside slum home no fewer than three times, and by the time that he was 12, he was working with his father in his furniture workshop.

After leaving primary school, Widodo continued his studies in middle school SMP Negeri 1 Surakarta and SMA Negeri 6 Surakarta high school, continuing his education in the forestry faculty of Gadjah Mada University, from where he graduated in 1985 with a degree with a thesis entitled “Study on plywood consumption in final consumption in Surakarta municipality”. Nobody could claim that his was a privileged upbringing.

After he graduated, he worked for BUMN PT Kertas Kraft Aceh and was sent away from his home. He soon returned to familiar surroundings, however, as his wife became pregnant, and he was fired up by the idea of using his woodworking skills at his uncle’s business, known as CV Roda Jati. But even that didn’t last long, and, in 1988, he started his own furniture-making business, called CV Rakabu, named after his first child. By all accounts this business was initially quite successful, but he ended up having to close it down, borrowing money from his mother to start up again in 1990.

His transition from an on-the-skids sole trader to leader of Indonesia seems utterly incredible, but Widodo’s business skills improved to the point that he became a wealthy man employing, at one point, 1,000 people. In 2002, he became president of the Surakarta branch of the powerful furniture manufacturers’ association. His clean, corruption-free and no-nonsense approach to business, combined with his empathy towards people experiencing difficulties, led to him being voted mayor of his home city, Solo, and his tenure was successful enough to merit him being re-elected in 2010. Two years later, he resigned to run for the office of governor of Jakarta. Another two years down the line, here we are, with Widodo being voted in as ruler of his country.

Political ascensions are seldom so meteoric, something that his stuck-in-their-ways rivals have been keen to suggest makes him inexperienced for such a responsible position. When he assumes office, he will become the seventh Indonesian president and the first to not have been part of the political elite or have been an army general. But what he does have on his side is experience from the hard knocks of life, and that, combined with his incredible business turnaround, is what matters most to the majority of voters.

Much of Widodo’s success can be put down to the way he has interacted with the working classes while governor of Jakarta. Regularly conducting what are known as “blusukans”, or “unscheduled visits”, he and his team are renowned for walking around, talking to local people about the issues affecting them and carefully listening to their concerns, before going away and actually doing whatever they can to help. Whether it was the positioning of bus stops, persistently blocked drains or refuse-collection worries, Widodo made progress where others had either failed or not cared.

He has also paid unannounced visits to city officials at government offices, sometimes catching them off guard and not doing their jobs. This, too, has been dealt with, with ruthless efficiency. He has uncovered corruption and blitzed it, and, in the process, steadily won the hearts and minds of the people who see his new way of politics as a refreshing change.

Widodo acts, looks and dresses like everyone else in Indonesia. The only thing remarkable about him is the way that his governance has touched Indonesians everywhere. He’s a hero, an everyman, a husband and a father, and, as ruler of one of the world’s most populated countries, the potential improvements that he makes could be felt throughout the entire world. Keep an eye on this one – he’ll go a long way.

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