The Carpenter-President: On Ben Bland’s “Man of Contradictions: Joko Widodo and the Struggle to Remake Indonesia”

December 11, 2020   •   By Febriana Firdaus

Man of Contradictions

Benjamin Bland

WHO IS JOKO WIDODO, the enigmatic president of Indonesia? The scholar Ben Bland has spent two decades studying the political culture of my country, as well as the working-class background of the furniture-maker known to his citizens as “Jokowi,” and has tried his best to wrap the answer in a book aptly titled Man of Contradictions.

Bland begins his narrative with a personal account of chasing down and interviewing Jokowi when he ran as Jakarta governor candidate in 2012. But he doesn’t let the readers fall into Jokowi’s persona much longer in favor of the broad political canvas of new-order authoritarianism still entangled in Indonesian bureaucracy. What’s his plan? Everyone is still trying to figure it out.

Bland refuses to see the problem through the simple view of a Jokowi worshipper or those who lay all fault at his door. When Indonesia chose him in 2014, he was the fresh apple in the bunch. Pro-democracy and human rights activists overwhelmingly supported him. Enthusiastic supporters from remote islands to the capital city marched for him, even in the region like West Papua, where there is still a low-level insurgency and secession movement. They saw Jokowi as a representation of “ordinary people.”

For 32 years, Indonesia was under the dictatorship of Suharto, a close ally of the United States. Backed by the CIA and Islamic vigilante groups, Suharto and the Indonesian military arrested, kidnapped, and killed suspected communists.

Months-long demonstrations and crisis economy forced him to step down in 1998. Indonesia then entered an era of reformation, looking for a new kind of leader, and Jokowi was a wish fulfillment. His popularity skyrocketed once people found out he originated from a humble village in Central Java.

That was the state of mind of most of Indonesia at that time. But then Jokowi placed retired military generals in his cabinet, such as Abdullah Mahmud Hendropriyono, who was accused of being the mastermind behind the killing of top human rights activist Munir Said Thalib. Then came security minister Wiranto — who the UN has indicted for “crimes against humanity” relating to more than 1,000 deaths during East Timor’s bloody 1999 independence vote.

This book gives a hint that every Indonesian is also responsible for their political choices. Jokowi was a consensus Indonesian choice, a bitter truth that we have to accept. While voters thought that Jokowi would purge his administration of the controversial figures that once brought Indonesia to the dark era, he compromised with them instead. Jokowi “shared the cake” or made everyone an ally, copying his predecessor Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono’s political strategy.

A Jokowi loyalist argued to me once that the president needs to “calm down” the opposition for the sake of political stability so that he can focus on the economy and building the infrastructure. But the Jokowi Way is not making everyone happy. It makes elites happy: it’s politically stable — or I can say, “passively stable” — but many see it as something close to oligarchy.

The controversial Omnibus Pro Jobs Law that has just passed is emblematic of Jokowi’s rule. The law is criticized by experts and global investors, as it is believed to weaken environmental protections and workers’ rights. As Bland writes, the president has never been committed to democracy or human rights. Jokowi focused instead on boosting investment and building the economy.

It’s ironic because Jokowi has recruited many pro-democracy activists who helped to topple Suharto, one of the most corrupt presidents in Indonesian history. Two academics wrote an analysis in The Conversation on why the former pro-democracy activists who joined his administration failed to help him. The academics blamed Indonesia’s old traditions: political transactional and corruption. But Jokowi is seen as a leader who lacks political will to save the nation from corruption.

Dissatisfaction with Jokowi’s administration peaked amid COVID-19. For the past six months, Jokowi’s gestures have shown that he is prioritizing the economy rather than preparing the health system for the potential outbreaks. He still faces backlash and a lack of trust. Is it too late for him to fix the situation? Bland wrote most of his book before the pandemic but gives a clue that the president is most interested in the economy above all else.

Perhaps Bland’s strongest message in this mini-biography of the president is that Indonesian politics are not ideological but transactional. Religious issues, usually used as hate spin during the presidential campaign, are just a part of the bigger story, not the main one. General Prabowo, Jokowi’s biggest rival, accused him of not being “Islamic enough” and in league with communists. Then Prabowo backtracked his statement after Jokowi appointed him as defense minister. Other critics were silenced and rewarded with cabinet positions.

Bland also explains why Jokowi is not “Indonesia’s Obama,” as some have intimated. What Obama and Jokowi experienced during their childhood is completely different. Obama had to deal with antiblack racism, but Jokowi experienced economic difficulty — it shaped his personality and leadership. When it comes to human rights issues such as religious minorities and West Papua, he keeps his distance.

Newcomers to Indonesia’s fraught politics will find this book useful as a primer — especially international students who study the country. The key with Indonesia is not to fall into dualism: conservative versus liberal or Islam versus religious minorities. The multiparty system here defies binaries and opens the door to all sorts of non-politicians. This country has many paradoxes, and is still in the making.


Febriana Firdaus is an independent investigative journalist based in Indonesia. She has written extensively on West Papua.