Commentary: Why Anies Baswedan, a new governor with big shoes to fill, is echoing hardline sentiments

Commentary: Why Anies Baswedan, a new governor with big shoes to fill, is echoing hardline sentiments

The Jakarta governor’s mention of pribumi comes as a surprise for many and stirs apprehensions on his approach to pluralism, says ISEAS-Yusof Ishak Institute’s Deasy Simandjuntak.

SINGAPORE: The new governor of Jakarta Anies Baswedan and his running mate Sandiaga Uno were sworn in on Monday (Oct 16) in a ceremony at Jakarta’s Presidential Palace.

Mr Baswedan enters office after winning a rancorous election earlier this year, one characterised by intense identity politics that threatened to tear apart Jakarta’s fragile, multicultural social fabric.

During the election, his predecessor, the Chinese Christian former governor Basuki Tjahaja Purnama known as Ahok, became the subject of a racially and religiously charged campaign launched by Islamic hardline groups. These groups accused the former governor of blasphemy, which many believed lost him the election and ultimately led to his imprisonment.

Backed by these groups and strongly endorsed by the Islamic Prosperous Justice Party, Mr Baswedan’s election triumph was a sign of a rising trend of Islamism in Jakarta.

The fact that his candidacy was strongly endorsed by the Great Indonesia Movement Party leader Prabowo Subianto, a former opponent of President Joko Widodo in the 2014 presidential election, also suggested that Mr Baswedan’s victory against Ahok – President Jokowi’s key ally – was a setback for the present Indonesian government.

New developments on Monday show that Mr Baswedan’s rallying of hardline sentiments may be more than a transient campaign tactic.


Mr Baswedan’s inaugural speech on Monday has raised concerns over how his government would approach Jakarta’s plural society.

Amid calls to bring back unity while using nationalist rhetoric language, the new governor said in his speech: “In the past, we pribumi were oppressed and defeated. Now we have independence, now is the time to be the host in our own home.”

Mr Baswedan’s speech has sparked outrage from many Indonesians on social media. Many see his words as racist, parochial and unfriendly to pluralism, in a country where the word pribumi is taken to refer to native Indonesians and has nativist connotations that excludes other races especially those of Chinese, Arab and other foreign descent.

A man holds a Koran as Jakarta Governor Anies Baswedan stands during a swearing-in ceremony at the
A man holds a Koran as Jakarta Governor Anies Baswedan stands during a swearing-in ceremony at the Presidential Palace in Jakarta, Indonesia on Oct 16, 2017. (Photo: REUTERS/Beawiharta)

Even government officials have felt the need to respond. Director-General of Regional Autonomy at the Home Ministry Sumarsono has come out to highlight that government officials have been asked to refrain from using the word pribumi given its exclusionary overtones, outlined in the Presidential Instruction No. 26 issued by Habibie in 1998.

Mr Baswedan’s subsequent clarification that he was referring to Indonesians’ collective struggle for independence against a Dutch colonial power from centuries past, and not the present, does not seem to cut any ice with keen observers.


Mr Baswedan’s use of this politically sensitive word comes as a surprise to many. 

A key campaigner for Jokowi in the 2014 presidential election and his former education minister, Mr Baswedan had subscribed to the president's brand of pluralism and mantra of unity in diversity.

Not many outside Indonesia may recall, but Mr Baswedan had been a prominent academic, the alumnus of Northern Illinois University and the former rector of Paramadina University, an institution known for its promotion of tolerance and moderate Islamic values.

One of Mr Baswedan’s most famous essays in 2014 argued for the Indonesian government to safeguard Indonesia’s national fabric (tenun kebangsaan), where he described Indonesia as a fabric woven from many ethnic groups and religions.

A prolific and persuasive orator, he had warned against violent discrimination which he believed would “rip the woven fabric apart”. He also spoke out against discriminatory practices, emphasising that all Indonesian citizens have the same status under the rule of law.

Indonesian President Joko "Jokowi" Widodo speaks during the 10th Indonesia - Malaysia - T
Anies had been part of President Jokowi's cabinet before running against Ahok. (Photo: REUTERS/Aaron Favila)

It is hard to imagine that he now seems to be embracing the hardliners’ brand of exclusionism.

It was one thing when hardline groups like the Islamic Defender Front (FPI) demonstrated overwhelming support for his campaign, but quite another for Mr Baswedan to seemingly echo their viewpoint in his maiden address as newly sworn-in governor of the nation’s capital.

Some see Mr Baswedan’s words to court conservative hardliners as a reflection of his ambition for higher office.

Mr Baswedan had competed in the Democratic Party’s 2013 convention which sought eligible presidential candidates, only joining Jokowi’s team when he failed.

Even though he has once publicly said he wouldn’t run in the 2019 presidential elections, some think his calculus may have changed since, after realising the enormity of the advantage support from hardline groups may afford him.

So no one is ruling him out at this point, whether as a running mate to Mr Subianto or even as a presidential candidate. 


Whatever the case, Mr Baswedan will now have to turn his attention to fulfilling some big campaign promises, at least in the four programmes his task force has prioritised.

Identity politics may have captured the nation’s attention, but those in Jakarta will judge Mr Baswedan by his urban development policies.

One key programme is his “one sub-district, one centre for entrepreneurship” programme - inspired by the successful movement of the “one village one product” in Japan. Mr Baswedan and Mr Uno plan to train 200,000 new entrepreneurs over five years.

They seem to be on track given that the programme has attracted 12,000 participants according to their last update in April.

Another priority for Mr Baswedan is to get the Smart Jakarta Plus and Healthy Jakarta Plus programmes up and running.

An enhancement of existing welfare programmes launched by Ahok, Mr Baswedan had pledged to extend education subsidies and healthcare benefits to a greater swath of needy students, as well as expand the cards' access to religious teachers, mosque guards and preachers.

Jakarta smart cards
Students in Jakarta showing off their smart cards. (Photo: KJP)

Much public support from Jakarta will be riding on his ability to deliver on these two programmes.

But the most awaited programme that Mr Baswedan has promised to roll out are reforms to housing financing, particularly a “no down-payment” home mortgage programme. If realised, it could help young Jakarta urbanites who aspire to own a house yet cannot afford the current down-payment rate of up to 15 per cent of the property’s price.

Yet the need for coordination with multiple stakeholders may now mean that the programme will not be realised this year.

A project that many who live in Jakarta will also watch closely is the Jakarta bay reclamation project, launched under Ahok and objected to strongly by Mr Baswedan in the past on the grounds that the project would only benefit some segments of Jakarta society.

In 2016, due to a corruption case involving a Jakarta parliamentarian and issues of spatial zoning and the project’s environmental impact, the central government temporarily halted the project. Now that the central government deems that the necessary requirements have been fulfilled and has lifted the moratorium, it will be interesting to see Mr Baswedan’s next move.

Mr Baswedan has his work cut out for him.

He also has big shoes to fill seeing that Ahok had left behind a strong legacy with the construction of the first subway in Jakarta, moves to improve sanitation and curb flooding in the city, and policies to enhance transparency in government budgeting.

Whether he’ll resort to playing to sectarian groups may depend on his degree of success in Jakarta public policy.

With an eye on 2019, it may be tempting for him to rouse those supporters if his policies find no favour with Jakarta urbanites.

Deasy Simandjuntak is a visiting research fellow at the ISEAS-Yusof Ishak Institute.

Source: CNA/sl