Man of Contradictions: understanding the enigma named Jokowi

Ben Bland’s recent book, Man of Contradictions, is touted as the “first English political biography” of Jokowi. There are two biographies of Jokowi in Indonesian, written by Alberthiene Endah. Other “semi-biographies”, such as “Jokoway” by Joko Sulistyo, are questionable at best, as they are written by active government staff. So, I was anticipating Bland’s biography to provide a more impartial picture of Jokowi’s governance.

Front cover of Man of Contradictions. Source: Penguin AU.

In this respect, it delivered. Drawing from his numerous interviews with Jokowi, Ben Bland manages to deliver a relatively impartial assessment of Jokowi’s governance over the years. His central thesis: to understand the enigma that is Jokowi, one must understand his contradictory nature.

The book is comprised of six rather short chapters. In the first three chapters, Bland describes Jokowi’s journey from an everyman who rose from being a furniture businessman to the highest political office in the country. He started off as the mayor of Solo, where he startled both his subjects and local bureaucrats with his signature brand of on-the-ground politics known as blusukan. The approach proved effective in capturing the hearts of Solo residents and the attention of political elites. Not so much for the local bureaucrats who were content with their usually slow pace of life. Within the span of a few years, Jokowi was cruising on a highway from Solo to Jakarta, where he continued to capture the hearts of Jakarta’s urbanites. His continued success gave him a ticket, sponsored by Megawati, to the State Palace.

The following chapters then examine how Jokowi has performed in differing aspects of government, from economics, democracy, and foreign policy. In this these chapters that Bland shows us how, despite his simple, CEO-like technocratic approach to government, contradictory Jokowi could be.

Here are some examples.

Jokowi’s thinking is simple. “We have natural resources and we have human resources. If we change the management of this city and the management of the country, then I think our country can grow better”, Jokowi said to Bland. But it turned out running a country wasn’t like running a furniture business. Once the challenges of running Indonesia started piling, Jokowi “struggled to recreate the intensity of his city-government and became much more reactive.”

Jokowi portrays himself as a man of action. He’s the president in a hardhat, in the field, getting things done. While he’s not in the field, he’s busy cutting up red tape and planning more infrastructure projects. Yet underneath the veneer of new highways, Jokowi still doesn’t have a coherent economic or development policy. As an adviser tells Bland, Jokowi would just “push projects depending on where he was visiting.”

It gets even more confusing in the realm of foreign policy. Many observers, myself included, were swept away when Jokowi announced his plan to make Indonesia a global maritime fulcrum. The grand vision, the brainchild of seasoned Indonesian international relations scholar Rizal Sukma, sought to capitalise on Indonesia’s geopolitical position, which would lead to Indonesia playing a bigger role in both regional and international politics. It was a vision that was warmly welcomed by other powers. Finally, Indonesia was willing to rise to the challenge of being a middle power! One must imagine the dedicated amount of diplomatic and political work needed to entice regional partners and to promote this vision. But the vision remained just that, a vision. Jokowi’s Global Maritime Fulcrum ended up being more focused on domestic problems instead of regional or even international problems. Jokowi’s foreign policy, as Bland writes, is “…unpredictable, seesawing between nationalism and globalism.”

In the concluding chapter, Bland advises the reader to stop looking for a “straightforward Indonesia story we want to see” and instead, “embrace the contradictions at the heart of this fascinating and important nation.” Jokowi’s contradictions are an “embodiment of the contradictions inherent in modern Indonesia’s 75 years of history”, but this not a reason to be disappointed, as, quoting Chatib Basri, Bland writes, “Indonesia always disappoints. It disappoints the optimists and it disappoints the pessimists too.”

One of the shortcomings of the book is that it underdelivers. It was marketed as the first political biography of Joko Widodo. However, it felt less like a political biography and more of an extended exposé on Jokowi. While Bland seems to acknowledge this shortcoming (“I also hope that it provokes a fuller debate about Indonesian history…”; which, to be fair, did just that), perhaps with a little more time, the book could have been a proper political biography in the vein of J. D. Legge’s Soekarno or R.E. Nelson’s Suharto: a political biography. I would have expected more information, extracted from Bland’s numerous interviews with Jokowi, to be included in the book so the reader may understand what makes Jokowi tick.

One thing that I did want to be longer was the foreign policy section. It started off strong, but I feel the section was a bit rushed. Of course, to be fair, Jokowi isn’t much of a foreign policy president anyway. I was expecting, again, more first-hand information pertaining to Jokowi’s foreign policy processes which would be useful to compare against the numerous yet shallow press releases coming out of the Palace.

For those seeking to understand how Jokowi got from being a nobody living on the riverbanks of the Kalianyar to the State Palace, or for those seeking to understand in detail how Jokowi navigated through Indonesia’s devilishly convoluted political system, then this might not be the biography you’re looking for. If you’re seeking a short yet informative and impartial guide to get you up to speed on Jokowi, Bland’s book is exactly what you need.  

Header image: ahmad syauki / CC BY (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0) (edited to include text)

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