Opening Indonesia: An Interview with President Joko Widodo

Foreign Affairs

November 1, 2014
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On July 9, nearly 135 million Indonesians went to some 480,000 polling stations and picked a new president — just the third to be directly elected in the country’s history. (Indonesia overthrew its longtime dictator, Suharto, in 1998, but his initial successors were chosen by the legislature.) Their choice: Joko Widodo, known universally as Jokowi. A former small-town mayor from central Java, Jokowi first burst onto the national scene when he was elected governor of Jakarta in 2012. A populist and technocrat, Jokowi is neither rich nor wellborn; he dresses simply, is a self-professed metalhead with a special fondness for Metallica, and worked in the family furniture business before entering politics. His wild popularity and rapid ascent — from provincial unknown to the leader of the world’s third-largest democracy — have drawn comparisons to another president who spent part of his middle-class childhood in Indonesia: Barack Obama. But high expectations can be a curse as well as a blessing, and Jokowi faces huge challenges: endemic corruption, a once-promising economy that has gone into a tailspin, and a lingering threat of Islamic extremism. In mid-September, he met with Foreign Affairs managing editor Jonathan Tepperman at his Jakarta residence for his first interview with an English-language publication since his election.

You just got through a very difficult campaign. The result was much closer than initially predicted, and there were a lot of rumors spread about you during the race: that you were Jewish, a Christian, ethnic Chinese, a communist, an American agent, etc. Then your opponent disputed the results. Has all that made this diverse country even more divided, and how can you reunite it? It’s true, yes, that the campaign was very ugly, very passionate. But this is normal in democracies, and I’m sure that the people here will now come together again. Maybe the elite can show the people how. I recently met with our competitor Hatta Rajasa [the opposing vice-presidential candidate], and people know that we are good friends. It’s good to show people that after campaigning, we are friendly. It’s also like that with Prabowo Subianto [the opposing presidential candidate].

When you form your cabinet, will you also bring people from different parties together to show national unity? I’m willing to work with all parties to reform Indonesia.

In your previous two jobs, as mayor of Solo [also called Surakarta] and then governor of Jakarta, part of the key to your success was your use of blusukans: daily trips outside the office to meet with common people and hear their problems. Can you continue to use such personal politics as president of 250 million people spread across 13,000 islands? In Solo and Jakarta, I always went to the people every day. I stayed in the office only one or two hours, where I signed, signed, signed. After that, I went to the market, I went to the riverbanks, I went to the slums, I went to the kampung [villages]. I asked people what they need, what they want. I can also do this for Indonesia. And we can use “e-blusukan,” via Skype or teleconference. But for me, it’s very important to face the people directly.

That’s something most presidents find difficult, as they get surrounded by advisers and security. But I have already tried. I’m sure I can manage.

You’re the first Indonesian president with no ties to the Suharto regime. You represent a new generation. What does that say about Indonesia and about the kind of president you’ll be? The fact that someone like me could become president shows that our democracy is maturing. We have a lively and independent media. We used social media in our campaign and had more than 3,000 groups of volunteers. This is a new political system. We are taking a human-centric approach to win the trust of the people.

Will the fact that you never had any stars on your shoulders or were married to the daughter of Suharto [as Prabowo, an ex-general, was] allow you more freedom? That’s right. For me, democracy must deliver a better life for the people.

Have previous Indonesian governments not done a good job at that? No. They had the budget, but in my opinion, they didn’t have the system to deliver it to the people. But we, for example, used a [smart-card] system in Solo and Jakarta to deliver support directly to the people. Now I want to develop an Indonesian smart card.

That would deliver health-care and education subsidies directly to the people, without giving officials a chance to steal money along the way? Right. From the budget, we send funds directly to the people. It’s very simple.

Indonesia has a great many advantages, from enormous natural resources to a young population. For most of the last decade, it was one of the fastest-growing economies in the world, but starting a few years ago, the economy began a sharp decline. What went wrong, and how will you address it? I think of how to win the trust not only of the people but also of investors. If we have good trust, I think the economy is not a problem. [In the past,] we have always made promises [to investors], but in fact there was no delivery.

Many foreign companies feel like they’ve been unfairly discriminated against in legal and criminal prosecutions. That’s done a lot to damage investor confidence here. So has the fact that regulations aren’t applied and enforced in a predictable way. I met the other day with investors from the U.S., from Russia, from Japan, from [South] Korea. They asked about democratic reform and business permits. They asked about land-acquisition problems. And I have experience there. When I was the mayor of Solo and governor of Jakarta, we had what we called a one-stop service office. In the past, when you asked for a business permit, they sometimes delivered it in six months, sometimes one year, sometimes two years. But now the maximum is around 30, 35 days.

So will you do that on a national level? Yes. We will copy it and bring the process to regions [throughout Indonesia]. Because we already have the system here, we can ask local governors and mayors to copy it.

That will make the bureaucratic side better. But what will you do to give confidence to foreign investors that they will be treated more fairly here? I can invite them to the offices and show them that this is how to get a business permit, that it’s very easy, like this, like this, like this.

Won’t Indonesia’s devolution of power to its many regions make this more difficult? No, because 85 percent of their budgets come from the central government. So for me, it’s very easy.

Can you control how that money is spent? Yes. We can use e-budgeting, e-audits. Already in Jakarta, we use an [electronic] task-management system. So it’s very easy to control. We can check the money that goes in and the money that goes out.

Fuel subsidies eat up a huge amount of the government budget. You recently met with the outgoing president [Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono] to press him on the issue, but he refused to raise prices. How do you plan to deal with the problem? We currently spend around $30 billion a year on fuel subsidies. Next year, the total for all subsidies will be around $43 billion; that represents around 20 percent of the [total budget]. I want to cut subsidies gradually over three years and to focus funds on productive activities: infrastructure that will help farmers, like irrigation, and fertilizer, or fuel for fishermen. We also want to concentrate on railway infrastructure and deep-sea ports. It’s very important, because when we have sea transportation and a railway — not only in Java but also in Sumatra, in Kalimantan, in Sulawesi, in Papua — I’m sure the cost of the transportation will decrease here. Now it’s more than 15 percent of the cost of doing business, whereas normally it is less than seven percent. So here it’s double.

How much do you plan to invest in such projects? We want to concentrate on seaports and railways. If we can, we will use our national budget. But if not, I will seek investors, especially for the ports. Many investors are very interested in this project.

What will you do to ensure that cutting fuel subsidies doesn’t hurt poor people? We will create what we call an Indonesian smart card that can be used for education, and [help them in other ways].

What will you do to combat the threat of political Islam and to preserve Indonesia’s reputation for tolerance? Indonesia is the world’s third-largest democracy. And we also have the world’s largest Muslim population. This demonstrates that democracy and Islam are not incompatible. Terrorism is not associated with any religion.

But there are forces in Indonesia, including the Prosperous Justice Party and groups like the Islamic Defenders Front, that push for a much more aggressive, Saudi-style Islam. What will you do to ensure that the country stays moderate? To deal with radicalism and extremism, we need to deal with economic inequality. This is what I learned from my experience in Solo and then in Jakarta. And I think if our government does more to empower the people, then I’m sure that we can decrease radicalism and extremism. This is what the people here want.

Will you bring the Islamic parties into your government? We will talk to everyone.

Can Indonesia serve as a model for other Muslim countries struggling with such problems? Yes. We have good experience. Here we combine the military approach with the soft approach. We have programs to inform people that this is right and this is wrong.

You’re talking about education on the true nature of Islam? Education for students, yes, but dialogue with the people is also very important.

Indonesia has been very successful in combating terrorism over the last decade. But ISIS [the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham] has recently attracted several hundred Indonesians to go and fight in Syria and Iraq. What is the state of the terrorist threat in Indonesia today, and what is your plan for dealing with it? We must work closely with moderate Islamic organizations. And I will look to balance the prevention side with the law enforcement side of counterterrorism. We have more than 20 years’ experience with this problem.

And how serious is the threat of terrorism today? I think it’s more or less declining.

Corruption is one of the hardest problems for any government to address, but it’s a particularly big problem here. How will you succeed in fighting it? I will continue to support the work and maintain the independence of our Corruption Eradication Commission. But first and more important, we need to introduce bureaucratic reforms and consistently monitor the problem. We must check consistently, every day, every week, every month, because this can change our bureaucratic culture.

For example, in Jakarta, we have a new system for when you want to get an id card here. Before, it took two weeks, three weeks; now, only one day. And my objective is only one hour. Step by step. As for building permits, before it sometimes took six months, eight months, two years. Now, I gave my bureaucracy here the goal of only two weeks, using an online system. You can ask for the permit from your office, from your house. And we can copy this system in other provinces.

What are your top foreign policy priorities? For example, you talked during your campaign about opening an Indonesian embassy in Palestine, and you traveled to Saudi Arabia for a haj just a few days before the election. Do you plan to get more involved in the Middle East? You’ve also talked about turning Indonesia into “a great maritime nation.” Indonesia will remain open for business, and foreign participation is especially welcome in sectors such as infrastructure, industry, and manufacturing. I will also push initiatives to strengthen our competitiveness in the global market. And there are five or six million Indonesians working abroad; we also need to increase protection for them.

Many of your neighbors are seeking a greater U.S. military, economic, and diplomatic relationship to balance the rise of China. Does Indonesia want a greater U.S. presence here? Both China and the U.S. are close friends of Indonesia, and we welcome their interest in our region. Indonesia is open. We will work with all major powers through strategic partnerships. As for the South China Sea problem, I think we can play the role of an honest broker.

What is the most important thing you want outsiders to know about your new government and Indonesia? We’re open. We’re open to all countries for investment. And when I talk about developing Indonesia into a great maritime nation, it is not just about defense only, but it’s also about trade, tourism, fishing, and transportation. So that means that now we need investors from all countries to build our infrastructure, to build our economy. For me, economic growth is very important, to give our people jobs and a better life.

Note: This interview has been edited and condensed.

From “Opening Indonesia.” Interview by Jonathan Tepperman. Foreign Affairs. November-December 2014