By Gross Domestic Product (in purchasing parity terms) the United Kingdom ranks eighth in the world. And the country ranked above it? Answer: Indonesia. Geeky brownie points for those who knew. Founded from the remnants of the Dutch East Indies Empire after World War II, Indonesia is without question the least well-known major country in the world - surprising perhaps for a country of 280m people of whom 230m are Muslim.
Westerners generally know about Bali, a favourite tourist destination where this week’s G20 summit took place, but not that it is only one of Indonesia’s 17,508 islands spread around five major island groups. But at long last Indonesia’s time in the sun may have come.
Sadly, for those who like geopolitical drama, the risk of an epic bunfight between Russia and the West has passed with the recent revelation by Indonesia’s President Yoko Widodo (‘Yokowi’) that Vlad ‘The Terrible’ Putin was not attend. Putin along with President Zelensky of Ukraine had been invited.
The conference itself took place at Nusa Dua in Bali. When I stayed there in the early 80s there was only the one hotel - a grimly banal 5-star beach resort of the kind that has become so ubiquitous over subsequent decades. There are now 18 more 5-star hotels at Nusa Dua, which has developed into a tourist cornucopia not dissimilar to Egypt’s Shamal Sheik. Perfect then for the congress of verbal flatulence that characterises these mega summits.
Indonesia’s President Yokowi, very much a domestic politician, who is much less comfortable in the realm of international politics, had opted for neutrality on the subject Ukraine. Earlier this year, Yokowi even went to Kiev and Moscow to try to broker a peace deal. Expect him to be similarly neutral on the issue of Taiwan.
Jokowi’s preferred path of moderation and pacifism may have been influenced by the slaughter of all government officials in his hometown of Surakata following the ousting of pro-communist President Sukarno in 1965. The so-called Indonesia Genocide, in which the army, under the command of Suharto’s successor, President Sukarno, killed as many as 1.5m people during a purge of communist supporters, remains the seismic event in modern Indonesian history. Such is his preference for reconciliation that Yokowi even brought his arch political enemy, Prabowo Subianto, a retired general, into his government as Minister of Defence.
With the eyes of the world firmly on Xi Jinping and US President Joe Biden at the G20 meeting, Indonesia’s rare moment in the sun was somewhat obscured. This is a pity. There are issues for which Indonesia should be grabbing not just headlines, but also plaudits. Not very newsworthy in the West perhaps, but Jokowi has been a reformer of distinction.
Under Yokowi, Indonesia has, since 2014, improved its position in the Transparency International Corruption Perception Index. In large part this was due to the setting up of the KPK (Komisi Permerantun Korupsi), an anti-corruption commission that was given real teeth. Notably, Yokowi, a former furniture manufacturer who is only modestly well off, banned his own family members from any involvement in government contracts.
Security has also been a success. Given that Indonesia has the world’s largest Muslim population and with it a highly active Jihadi group, Jamaah Islamiyah, based in Central Java, the suppression of terrorist acts has been extraordinarily successful. The start of the millennium was defined by Jihadi atrocities in Bali; most famously in a 2002 nightclub bombing in Kuta which killed 202 people including 88 Australians, 38 Indonesians and 23 Britons. Since then, an anti-terrorist unit known as Densus 88, trained by America and Australian experts, has successfully clamped down on terrorist acts.
Jokowi has brought transformative infrastructure to Indonesia’s main island of Java, whose population is pushing 150m. The Trans-Java Toll Road now links Jakarta, population 32m, with the second and third largest metropolitan cities of Surabaya and Bandung, both with populations over 8m.
Industrialisation is following as Jokowi follows an aggressive policy of import substitution – turning Indonesia away from being a mere exporter of commodities. Indonesia accounts for thirty percent of global nickel production, twice as much as the next producer. Nickel is a vital component in lithium batteries. Elon Musk has taken note. With Musk baulked by Indian red tape, Jokowi swooped in with a carte blanche offer for Tesla to build a giga-factory in Indonesia.
Even more importantly Jokowi is planning to spend $40bn over the next decade to save the capital, Jakarta, from sinking, literally, under the weight of its own success reflected in its population growing by 3m people over the last decade. To relieve the pressure, Jokowi has announced the building of a new capital, Nusantara, in Kalimantan on the island of Borneo.
Indonesia is also an oil exporter – palm oil not petroleum. Indonesia’s time as a petroleum oil exporter has gone - annual car sales in Indonesia have doubled to 1m over the last 20 years and the country consumes its own oil production and then some. Somewhat controversially, it is at the expense of its dense rain forests that Indonesia produces 58 percent of the world’s palm oil, a substitute for Ukraine’s vegetable oil. Reflecting global shortages of vegetable oils, palm oil prices have tripled in the past year.
Conflict in the Ukraine may have exacerbated a cost-of-living crisis in Europe, but Jokowi understands that the consequences of food price inflation are likely existential famines in Africa and Asia. Against this background, Yokowi’s barely reported attempts to mediate peace in Ukraine deserve greater respect, not to mention attention, from the West’s media - so too the rule of this modest but effective ruler who is in the process of transforming one of the world’s sleeping giants.
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