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Zubaidah Nazeer
Tuesday, Nov 4, 2014

Asian Opinions

Can Jokowi match his style with substance?

The Straits Times | Zubaidah Nazeer | Tuesday, Nov 4, 2014

You know he's a different kind of president when he wears a regular white shirt and black trousers to meet heads of state calling on him after his inauguration.

A fortnight into the job, President Joko Widodo also refuses to appoint a spokesman, preferring to speak directly with the media, sans bodyguards.

He let the public enter the Istana grounds on Inauguration Day on Oct 20, a first, and says he plans to meet the people monthly to listen to their problems.

Recently, he flew to North Sumatra at short notice to visit evacuees displaced by an erupting volcano.

Clearly, Mr Joko's style has set him apart from his predecessors. Its simplicity is largely why he endeared himself to the people.

Now, others are made to follow in his footsteps.

His ministers don the same white-and-black look during a Cabinet meeting and his security detail chief was spotted with black sneakers instead of regular black shiny shoes.

"If you want to wear those formal loafers, how do you run? They are hard," Major-General Andika Perkasa said. He joked that his men probably suffered blisters from wearing the hard shoes while guarding Mr Joko at a procession on Inauguration Day.

The President's two-year stint as Jakarta governor had seen him travelling without security cars and dressing casually, sometimes in his favourite pair of Everbest shoes.

But is his style merely window dressing or does he have the goods to deliver?

"President Jokowi's style is a reflection of whatever he has been like from before, as governor; he has not changed," said Mr Ade Rizki Pratama, an MP from the opposition Gerindra party, using the President's nickname.

"So we hope that it is not just a physical asset but that he can also deliver on programmes," he added.

Inevitably, the leader of South-east Asia's largest economy has been compared with that of the world's largest economy, United States President Barack Obama. The latter has been spotted in T-shirts, jeans and flip-flops outside official duties.

Like Mr Obama, Mr Joko has taken on the top job with a fractious opposition-dominated House, increasing his need for popular support.

"President Jokowi is the first president that understands intimately that the survival of the president is dependent on maintaining a strong support base with the electorate," said Jakarta-based political analyst Kevin Evans.

"So his need to maintain a first connection with the electorate is part and parcel of what he sees as his strength. If the electorate supports him, then Parliament can't and won't go too far," he added.

Those who have observed or worked with Mr Joko since his campaign for governor have also seen a man who is more astute than he appears.

In 2012, when he ran for Jakarta governor with running mate Basuki "Ahok" Tjahaja Purnama, now acting governor, the duo wore identical checked red-blue-white shirts, setting themselves apart from the incumbent and his running mate, often pictured in formal attire.

The casualness of Mr Joko and Mr Basuki's checked shirts resonated with people nationwide, sparking a trend.

Mr Joko exploited this, giving various reasons for his choice of shirt, ranging from its representation of the diversity of Indonesia to its symbolism of an ordinary man who was ready to work.

Last Sunday, he made his 34 ministers wear his signature white shirt and black trousers when he presented them to the public. This was the outfit he had adopted on the campaign trail and he explained this choice earlier to reporters: "White is the colour of purity, transparency, simplicity and is populist. I want it like this."

But while he may be able to keep his simplicity of style, he will have to adjust to new ways of working as President.

If Mr Joko wants people to take him seriously, he will have to prove soon that he can make hard decisions, such as the unpopular one of raising fuel prices.

Mr Ade says Mr Joko may have been used to doing ad hoc spot checks as mayor and governor, but as President, "he should be able to focus on his duties as it is not about managing only 100,000 people, but 250 million".

Kompas, the nation's largest-circulation daily, had this reminder for their new President: "Change in presidency, change in style. But what is awaited is the end result of improved people's welfare. The problem of welfare cannot be solved by style."

Shoring up support

"President Jokowi is the first president that understands intimately that the survival of the president is dependent on maintaining a strong support base with the electorate. So his need to maintain a first connection with the electorate is part and parcel of what he sees as his strength. If the electorate supports him, then Parliament can't and won't go too far." - Jakarta-based political analyst, KEVIN EVAN

zubaidah@sph.com.sg


This article was first published on Nov 02, 2014.
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