Can Man-of-the-People Widodo Micromanage 240 Million Indonesians?

By Fransiska Nangoy & Kanupriya Kapoor 28 November 2014

JAKARTA — From flying economy class to making surprise visits to street markets and poor neighborhoods, the leadership style of new Indonesian President Joko Widodo is proving very different to his predecessors, who were often seen as stiff and aloof.

On a recent visit to cocoa plantations in eastern Sulawesi, Widodo squatted on the ground to chat with farmers about boosting their output. Excited onlookers scrambled up trees to get a better look at the president in his casual clothes and sneakers.

Widodo’s down-to-earth manner, cultivated as a small-city mayor and then as governor of Jakarta, has won him many admirers in Indonesia, even if his bodyguards appear flustered when he breaks away and starts talking to ordinary people.

His mantra of “getting down to work” could also be what is needed to tackle bureaucratic inertia and endemic corruption in Southeast Asia’s biggest economy, although some experts believe the 53-year-old former furniture businessman is still enjoying a honeymoon after only five weeks in office.

“He received so much positive feedback, but this will not last forever,” said Shinta Widjaja Kamdani of the Indonesian Chamber of Commerce.

“People will look for results.”

Widodo has already tackled some sensitive policies.

Last week he raised subsidized fuel prices by more than 30 percent, a move expected to save the government more than US$8 billion next year.

He also plans to tighten control over a potentially unruly cabinet stacked with political appointees, there to appease the parties in his coalition, with the creation of a “kitchen cabinet” of trusted aides to help him push through reforms.

Widodo’s initial decisions have impressed investors at a time when Indonesia’s economy is growing at its slowest pace in five years.

“The early signs are that he is bringing a new philosophy into the government of Indonesia,” Richard Adkerson, chief executive of miner and oil producer Freeport-McMoRan, a major investor in Indonesia, told a conference in New York last week.

As he did when Jakarta governor, Widodo has made clear he is not afraid to ruffle feathers.

“I told my ministers that if they fail to reach their targets, then sorry, but there are thousands queuing up to replace them,” Widodo said this month at a business forum, according to local media.

Widodo is also taking a no-nonsense approach to spending.

This week he slashed the government’s travel budget by over a third to free up funds. His ministers have similarly barred staff from holding meetings in expensive hotels.

Leading by example, Widodo did not take the presidential plane to attend his son’s university graduation ceremony in Singapore last Friday. Instead, he flew economy class on national carrier Garuda Airlines, winning praise on social media for his “humility.”

Widodo also took a slimmed-down entourage to international summits this month, said cabinet secretary and close presidential adviser Andi Widjajanto.

He added that Widodo had not appointed a spokesman, and didn’t plan to do so, because “he wants to talk to his people directly.” The president also frequently appears before the media after cabinet meetings or conferences.

Widjajanto said Widodo had urged his ministers to follow his lead and “make field visits instead of just sitting in their offices.”

All this is very different to previous administrations, where presidents were usually unapproachable, delegating most public interactions to aides.

But as the leader of 240 million people, some urge Widodo not to be a micromanager.

“It’s great to check periodically on how things are going, but at some point he has to also think of the big picture,” Stuart Dean, the CEO of General Electric’s operations in Southeast Asia, told Reuters on the sidelines of a conference in Jakarta this week.