ASIA NEWS NETWORK
WE KNOW ASIA BETTER
Look to Indonesia
Publication Date : 06-08-2013
Jakarta governor Jokowi shows how it is possible to tackle difficult local issues when leaders are prepared to fully engage with the people.
All politics are local. But hot-button issues differ from country to country and city to city.
In Kuala Lumpur (after a spate of shootings – many fatal), they are crime and affordable housing. In Singapore, they are affordable housing and urban transport. In Jakarta and Manila, they are traffic congestion and flooding.
South-East Asian leaders are fast discovering that urban voters are a nightmare to handle.
They’re immensely distrustful of authority, quick to criticise and deeply ungrateful – everything that our political grandees detest.
Social media adds to the complexity of managing these cities; information now hurtles forward beyond anyone’s “control”.
As a result, many old-school leaders with their condescending (albeit well-funded) ways are being tossed out by voters.
Local politicians need to be extremely humble and consultative. Sadly, for every Hannah Yeoh (Subang Jaya state assembly member, described as "smart, principled and resourceful"), there are scores of stupid or bigoted representatives across South-East Asia, who think an election victory is essentially a licence to print money.
What they’ve failed to comprehend is that we now live in an era where urban voters don’t kiss the hands of their elected representatives.
Tried and trusted, top-down solutions have been jettisoned. In the cities, the man-on-the-street calls the shots and leaders have to listen and learn.
Given the challenges: how do you govern these communities?
As I always say: look to Indonesia.
Over there, and specifically in Jakarta, a seemingly minor market relocation has mushroomed into a critical challenge for its governor Joko Widodo (or Jokowi).
While many are talking about his potential as a presidential candidate, the really interesting thing about him is his unexpected leadership style.
The capital’s Tanah Abang market (a popular destination for Malaysian shoppers) is a vast commercial hub with tentacles that reach deep into virtually every hamlet of the 240 million-strong nation.
Famed for its textiles, the market has been in existence for well over 250 years.
With an estimated 28,000 merchants plying their wares and spread over six floors, Tanah Abang is one of Asia’s busiest trading centres.
And with Lebaran (Ramadan celebration) approaching, Tanah Abang mutates into a “Bermuda Triangle” of sorts – snarling traffic for miles all around, including the all-important Jalan Kh Mas Mansyur, one of the capital’s main north-south arteries.
The 700-odd street vendors outside the main structure are the main source of the congestion. But persuading them to relocate requires tact and perseverance.
Besides the vendors, there is an entire infrastructure of vested interests from the local gangs (known as preman), to various businesses and the authorities themselves.
Enter Jokowi, who faced a similar challenge during his earlier tenure as mayor of Solo, Central Java.
Back in December 2005, he convinced a group of street vendors in Solo’s Banjarsari Park to relocate to a new market in Kithilan Semanggi.
Jokowi was able to do this – as Rushda Majeed wrote in a July 2012’s case study for Princeton University’s “Innovations for Successful Societies” programme – by holding more than 50 lunch meetings with the vendors.
The meetings weren’t one-sided. He listened as much as he talked, pondering over their demands and collecting data as he worked towards a consensus.
This degree of inclusiveness is exhausting and not for the faint-hearted. However, the interventionist style has formed the basis for his leadership of Jakarta.
In order to resolve the knotty issue of Tanah Abang, he’s once again hit the ground to listen to the people.
The going hasn’t been easy – Jokowi and his deputy Basuki Tjahaja Purnama (“Ahok”) have been criticised by everyone from local politicians and national leaders to NGOs who have accused them of not understanding the needs of the street vendors.
However, the patience appears to be paying off. Tanah Abang’s street vendors have finally agreed to move to a nearby alternative location, called Block G, where some 1,000 kiosks have been set up – rent will only be charged after six months.
Jokowi’s ability to resolve the near-impossible may seem inconsequential, but it’s actually a major transformational step for Indonesia.
It proves that change – even in highly-politicised Indonesia – is possible, unlocking huge potential gains in infrastructural development.
Nonetheless, the key lesson is that change only happens when leaders engage with the people. In this respect, the process – meetings, forums and discussions – is a critical part of the journey.Cut corners and you’ll have problems.
Jokowi’s blusukan (the Indonesian language term for his meet-the-people encounters) is the vital ingredient in all this.
By constantly hitting the ground and conducting checks on his own civil servants, he has won the trust of ordinary Jakartans.
And this trust is like social capital. In communities where politicians are viewed with scepticism if not disdain, it means that people are more inclined to believe Jokowi.
Jokowi is now drawing on this social capital in order to push through programmes that benefit Jakartans: targeting flooding and traffic congestion.
For instance, he’s also persuaded squatters in Pluit, North Jakarta, to move, freeing up space to boost the city’s flood prevention programmes.
This, too, was a Herculean effort, involving the relocation of some 7,000 families – and the governor was able to win their consent only by a combination of gentle persuasion, humility and determination.
Blusukan (which Jokowi undertakes without scores of political aides and security officials) also ensures leaders stay in touch with the problems on-the-ground. It allows them to truly understand what’s going on.
As Malaysians’ anxieties about law and order as well as the rising cost of living continue to mount, I’d advise our leaders to visit Jakarta and observe the governor in action.
Maybe we need our leaders to hold some blusukan – to really listen and learn?