Book Review: Ben Bland (2020) Man of Contradictions: Joko Widodo and the Struggle to Remake Indonesia. Penguin Random House Australia.

In January 2006 I was fortunate to be part of a two-week exchange program organised by the Australia-Indonesia Institute and sponsored by the Department of Foreign Affairs & Trade (DFAT). The program was part of a wider effort of “soft diplomacy” between Australia and its closest neighbour. It was an eye-opener in so many ways for us – a Muslim majority state (the world’s largest) which openly celebrated its Hindu heritage.

In Yogyakarta, Indonesia’s cultural capital, we saw Muslim artists perform a ballet of the Hindu epic The Ramayana in a massive temple complex. For me, as someone of South Asian heritage where Hindu-Muslim relations haven’t always been the best, this was fascinating.

Also fascinating was experiencing a society where gender relations were far more open, where women had no trouble entering a mosque in tight jeans and where universities organised jazz parties for their students at the end of term. Indonesia was a groovy place.

But so few Australians know much about Indonesia apart from a destination to misbehave in Bali. We know little about their language, politics and cultures. Muslim Australians assume they know everything about Indonesian Islam. But ask the average Aussie Muslim if they have ever studied in a pesantran under a kiai or niai and chances are they won’t know what you’re talking about.

Lowy Institute South East Asia Program Director and former foreign correspondent Ben Bland has done Australians of all faiths an enormous favour by penning a short accessible biography of the man currently at the helm of Indonesian politics.

President Joko Widodo (affectionately known as Jokowi) is a man of humble beginnings. Before entering politics, he ran a small furniture factory in the city of Solo. He didn’t belong to a political family and had no military connections, something most Indonesian politicians rely upon to progress.

Elected governor of Jakarta in 2012, Jokowi proved popular for his strong anti-corruption stance and his support for the region’s religious and cultural diversity. Unlike his rivals, Jokowi listened to people’s concerns and secured their support without handing out wads of cash., Two years later, he was elected president of this nation of 240 million people.

Bland believes Jokowi to be a man of contradictions which reflect not just his personality but the broader nation he rules over. Though prone to micromanagement, Jokowi seems to have not been as successful as he wished in stamping out corruption. His grand economic plans included seeing Indonesia becoming the fifth largest economy in the world within 2 decades, but this ambition has at this stage been dashed by the widespread Corona virus infection.

Jokowi’s father, a timber trader and bus driver. His family were poor, often unable to afford rent and regularly evicted from their homes. But this book isn’t just a biography of a politician. It is a useful analysis of a complex nation we know little about.