Indonesian leader Joko Widodo is bidding to put a new generation shine on his second term administration with the appointment of young business entrepreneurs and other experts to his 12-member presidential staff.
Whether the new blood appointments can counter the influence and power of the many old school politicians appointed to Widodo’s new Cabinet will likely determine the new government’s reform legacy.
Re-elected to a new five-year term at polls in April, Widodo recently appointed seven new top advisors aged between 23 and 36. The move came after he tapped Nadiem Makarim, the 35-year-old founder of ride-hailing giant Gojek, as his education minister.
The new line-up includes 29-year-old Adamas Belva Syah Devara, the Harvard University-educated co-founder and managing director of Ruangguru, an educational technology business, and Putri Indahsari Tanjung, daughter of a local media tycoon who set up her Creativepreneur Event Creator business when she was just 15.
Introduced to the media last week at the Presidential Palace, the seven young nominees sat on bean bags, saggy furniture that has become a global cliché of millennial-run “start-up” offices.
Belva told local media that his nomination represented “a huge commitment from the president to involve the millennial generation in public policy”, while Putri said “we need young talent, especially in this digital era.”
Widodo, more widely known by his nickname “Jokowi,” then took to his Instagram account to describe the new generation advisors as “my partners in discussion every month, every week or every day.”
“With them, I can look for out-of-the-box ideas and leaping breakthroughs towards development,” the president added.
Djayadi Hanan, a political science lecturer at Paramadina University in Jakarta, said that Widodo wants younger business minds in government to divine new ideas to modernize the economy, which has failed to grow at the 7% target Widodo set at the start of his first term in office five years ago.
The president, Hanan said, “wants a kind of disruption in his efforts to transform the Indonesian economy.” But whether the young blood additions can make their voices heard over a notoriously slow-moving bureaucracy and Cabinet many see as packed with old-school vested interests remains to be seen.
“Widodo can appoint such young innovators all he wants,” said Michael Buehler, a lecturer at the School of Oriental and African Studies who specializes in Indonesian politics.
“If the fundamentals of Indonesia’s economy don’t change, I doubt Indonesia will be able to change it’s image of a place where corruption remains systemic and endemic; where the capacity of the legal system is weak; and where red tape and bureaucratic obstacles pose serious obstacles to investment.”
“The challenge will be: can the president really bring these youngsters’ ideas and creativity – assuming they are really having new ideas and creativity – into implementable programs? Also will the bureaucracy be willing and ready to do so” said Hanan.
Widodo’s transformative plans include shifting the administrative capital from the crowded and traffic-plagued mega-city of Jakarta to a greenfield location on the Indonesian part of Borneo.
The government also hopes to complete a new high-speed rail line connecting Jakarta to the West Java city of Bandung, as well as develop transport links to would-be tourist draws scattered across the vast archipelago, such as Lake Toba on Sumatra and Borobudur, a picturesque Buddhist temple, in Central Java.
There are other signs, however, that Widodo’s second term could be more business-as-usual than millennial-led revolution.
The run-up to his second term was hit by huge protests in cities across the country over attempts to legally defang the country’s popular and effective anti-corruption commission, which has been a thorn in the side of the country’s politicians.
A parliamentary bid in September to revamp the criminal code in ways many perceived as undemocratic, including prohibitions on couples living together out of wedlock, extramarital sex and even insulting the president, sparked protests nationwide led mainly by students.
Widodo, widely-touted as the first “non-elite” to become president, followed those controversies by naming a new Cabinet comprised of several ex-military officers and taking in most of the erstwhile opposition, naming Prabowo Subianto, his challenger for the presidency, as defense minister.
His vice president, 76-year-old Islamic cleric Ma’ruf Amin, has made countervailing headlines to Widodo’s millennial picks by appointing a team of aged expert advisors that at least one critic said harked to the country’s bygone “colonial” era.
“Jokowi is focused on political stability first of all,” said Bonar Tigor Naipospos of The Setara Institute, a Jakarta-based politics and religion research organization.
Mimicking his stance after losing the 2014 presidential election to Widodo, Prabowo at first refused to acknowledge the legitimacy of this year’s election result, prompting deadly riots in Jakarta. “I think he [Widodo] wants to reconcile with opponents and to put distance between Prabowo and Islamist groups.”
Several thousand Islamists staged a rally on Monday in the capital to commemorate the huge December 2, 2016 protest that led to the downfall and jailing of then Jakarta governor, Basuki Tjahaja Purnama, a Christian of Chinese descent and former Widodo ally, over allegations that he committed blasphemy against Islam.
Prabowo ran in this year’s presidential election with the support of these same hard-line Islamist groups but did not attend yesterday’s event – a sign that he and other former opposition elites are, at least for now, firmly part of Widodo’s bloated and aged camp.
Widodo’s big-tent approach to running the country is arguably is a betrayal of those who supported his first tilt at the top job, where he, too, ran as a new generation leader.
His first presidential election win in 2014 was driven in part by “relawan”, mostly millennial-age volunteers who saw the former mayor and businessman as a way to overturn the cabal of military and business-linked political dynasties that have long dominated the nation’s politics.
Widodo’s first term disappointed many millennials, as the president put idealism to a side and instead guided the ambitions of the range of political parties that supported his election.
The naming of millennial Makarim as education minister and the nomination of seven other millennial advisors is thus likely seen by the president as “a way to counter narratives about a democratic rollback being under way in Indonesia and the government being beholden to the interests of old elites,” said Buehler.