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Shades of Sukarnoism in president's foreign policy

Since taking office a year ago, Indonesian President Joko Widodo has pursued a stridently nationalist foreign policy that marks a departure from the multilateralism of his predecessor, Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono. While diplomats in Jakarta voice concerns about the foreign policy shift, some expect the government to moderate its rhetoric as the president consolidates power and gains more experience.

     A decade ago Widodo, or Jokowi as he is widely known, was a small-scale furniture maker with a local degree in forestry. His rise to the presidency of the world's fourth-largest nation was a stunning political achievement, built on his outsider status, a reputation for probity while in local government, and his folksy, "man-of-the-people" manner.

     The speed of his ascent meant that Indonesians, and the world, knew little about the political views of a president known mostly for his commitment to bureaucratic reform and a love of street festivals.

Sukarno factor

The one ideological constant of Indonesian politics is nationalism, specifically the brand preached by Sukarno, Indonesia's first president and self-styled "great leader of the revolution." Sukarno's nationalism had a distinct populist flavor designed to appeal to the small farmers, plantation workers, market traders and handicraft makers who made up the bulk of the population during the anti-colonial movement.

     His hero was less 19th century national hero Prince Diponegoro or the great 14th century Majapahit King Hayam Wuruk than the humble Marhaen, a poor Javanese farmer whom Sukarno claimed to have met in the 1920s. Sukarno's genius was not to celebrate national ambition but to nurture the resentments of people like Marhaen who felt that their lives would be better if foreigners -- including Chinese-Indonesians -- would leave them alone.

     Sukarnoism took center stage in the 2014 presidential election campaign, but largely in style rather than substance. Widodo, whose party is headed by Megawati Sukarnoputri, Sukarno's daughter and a former president, has a natural claim to the Sukarnoist political mantle. Prabowo Subianto, a multimillionaire former general, son of Indonesia's first economic technocrat, former son-in-law of President Suharto and a perennial presidential candidate, went so far as to don Sukarno-esque safari suits and deliver his speeches from behind replica 1950s microphones in an attempt to capture the Sukarnoist zeitgeist. 

     Such is the theater of Indonesian politics. But what surprised many observers was the stridency of the nationalist rhetoric in the new president's early forays into foreign policy. In April he justified the execution of seven foreigners convicted of drug smuggling as a defense of national sovereignty. "No one may intervene with the executions because it is our sovereign right to exercise our laws," he announced in reply to last-minute appeals from foreign governments and the United Nations.

     Widodo's first major diplomatic initiative was to host a meeting of international leaders to commemorate the 60th anniversary of the original Asian-African Conference, an important milestone in the rise of the Non-Aligned Movement and Sukarno's greatest achievement on the world stage.

     In his main address at the conference, Widodo startled world leaders with an aggressive attack on the West, declaring that "the view that world economic problems can only be solved by the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund and the Asian Development Bank is outdated."

     He said: "The management of the global economy cannot be left only to those three international financial institutions. We must build a new global economic order that is open to new emerging economic powers."

     That was not language that one expected to hear from a head of state, even one with limited experience of international affairs. It drew a statement from former president Yudhoyono, who pointed out that Indonesia had paid off its IMF debt and that the government was responsible for the country's economic management.

     Many in Jakarta's expatriate circles saw Widodo's outburst as a bid to shore up political support at a time when he was perceived to be under threat from an entrenched opposition and from the head of his own party.

     But the fact that foreign policy has continued to drift in a xenophobic direction suggests that there may be more to Widodo's Sukarnoism than political posturing. Visa regulations were tightened in June, requiring even foreigners delivering a lecture at an Indonesian university and foreign directors attending company meetings to obtain work permits.

Inward turn

In September, labor unions organized protests in 20 districts including the capital city against foreigners taking local jobs.

     The government's xenophobia reached absurd levels with the introduction of a ban of the word "international" from the names of international schools in Indonesia. To comply with the ban, the Jakarta International School, the oldest and largest expatriate school in the country, was renamed the Jakarta Intercultural School, and the erstwhile British International School became the British School Jakarta.

     The aim of the regulation, according to officials, was to prevent new schools from cashing in on the public perception that international schools were better than local schools. It did not occur to them that improving the quality of education in the country's 236,000 state schools would do more for the image of local schools than changing the names of foreign institutions.

     Indeed, Indonesia ranked 66th out of 67 countries in a standardized mathematics test by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development which compared the performance of 15-year-olds around the world in 2012.

     More recently, Vice President Jusuf Kalla reacted indignantly to criticism from Singapore of his government's failure to control forest fires that had blanketed the island state in a haze for most of September. "Singapore can come and see for themselves if they want to help. Don't just talk," he said while attending the U.N. General Assembly meeting in New York on Sept. 27.

     In fact, Singapore had offered assistance three times in the same month, but was rebuffed by the government which insisted that Indonesia could deal with the crisis without external help.

     He added that Indonesia need not apologize for the fires each year, suggesting that instead Singapore should be grateful for the other 11 months it is not shrouded in haze.

     Kalla's spiteful intervention points to a key difference between the Widodo and Yudhoyono administrations. While Yudhoyono was no more successful than the current government in preventing dry-season forest fires, he was quick to offer official apologies to Malaysia and Singapore, the two countries most seriously affected.

     Yudhoyono's policy of "a million friends and no enemies" paved the way for Indonesia to assume a larger role on the international stage, including membership of the Group of 20, leadership in the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, hosting a major U.N. climate change conference and steering the post-2015 U.N. development agenda. His commitment to ASEAN led to restraint on contentious issues like illegal fishing, a position the Widodo government abandoned with its policy of sinking foreign fishing boats -- mostly from Thailand and Vietnam -- that ventured into Indonesian waters illegally.

     Some observers see the government's nationalist rhetoric as evidence of a weakened leadership rather than a change in policy. Unchallenged within parliament and in his own Democrat party, Yudhoyono had a firmer grip on his cabinet and could shield foreign policy decisions from domestic politics in a way that is not yet possible for Widodo.

     As one Western diplomat pointed out, we are witnessing "not the rise of ideology but rather a breakdown of political discipline" as domestic political fights spill over into the foreign policy realm.

     If that is the case, there is a chance that Widodo will tone down his nationalist rhetoric and move toward the multilateralism of his predecessor as he consolidates his position. In that spirit, his scheduled summit with U.S. President Barack Obama on Oct. 26 looms as an opportunity for him to take control of the government's foreign policy agenda and move beyond the politics of resentment that characterized his first year in power.

Jonathan Pincus is president of the Rajawali Foundation, a philanthropic organization, and senior adviser to the Jakarta-based Center for Public Policy Transformation.

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