[Our columnist Ricardo Saludo is giving way to the succeeding article.]
BY ROGER MITTON
Sometimes you get lucky. I indeed had good fortune 20 years ago when a quartet of Malaysian politicians struck me as flagging the Federation’s future.
It was an unexpected realisation, because most people, even seasoned political watchers like my editors at the regional newsmagazine Asiaweek, had never heard of these young upstarts.
But my Hong Kong minders gave the go-ahead for a big feature on the four, and my August 1994 story, headlined ‘Now, the Third Wave’, gave Hishammuddin Hussein, Khaled Nordin, Saifuddin Nasution and Shafie Apdal their first prominent coverage.
In their early 30s then, they were mere foot soldiers in Malaysia’s dominant party, the United Malays National Organization (UMNO), and many readers in the country, let alone among the international community, had yet to notice them.
But that quickly changed with the rise and rise of the talented foursome, one of whom will almost certainly become prime minister one day.
Hisham is already the defence minister and UMNO’s top-ranking vice president, while Shafie is a fellow party VP and cabinet minister.
Khaled, after two stints in cabinet, was recently appointed chief minister of mighty Johor state, the birthplace of UMNO.
Saifuddin split from UMNO over the treatment of his mentor, former UMNO stalwart and deputy PM Anwar Ibrahim, and is now secretary-general of the opposition People’s Justice Party, headed by Anwar.
It was hard to imagine another such prescient leadership feature coming my way, yet luckily one did. Five years later at the turn of the millennium, two relatively unknown politicians, this time from Thailand, set my antennae buzzing.
The resulting article, in May 1999, boldly claimed that one of the duo, Abhisit Vejjajiva and Chaturon Chaisang, would be prime minister before the age of 50.
A decade later, Abhisit was PM at age 44, and it is not impossible that Chaturon, who was reappointed education minister last week, will follow in his footsteps.
Why this reiteration of past prophetic predictions? Well, because another beckons, and if it does not prove equally accurate, then I promise to devour another steamed hat, my requisite delicacy on those occasional misreadings in my decades of journalism.
Early last year, a colleague in Indonesia urged me to keep an eye on a guy called Jokowi. I had never heard of him, but I quickly rectified that oversight.
Joko Widodo, widely known among Indonesians as Jokowi, was then a relatively unknown mayor of the East Java town of Solo who had decided to launch an audacious bid to become the governor of Jakarta. That was like the mayor of, say, Chippewa Falls, Wisconsin, aspiring to become Hizzoner, the mighty Mayor of New York City.
Jokowi was thought to be joking. He was not even a Jakarta native, and the incumbent Governor Fauzi Bowo was supported by Indonesian President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono.
But sensing the same buzz elicited in past years by those Malaysian and Thai pretenders, I travelled to East Java and quickly became convinced that Jokowi would be elected the boss of Indonesia’s sprawling capital.
And so he was last October.
Now, after being tagged as “Indonesia’s most promising politician” and even being compared to American President Barack Obama, Jokowi is eyeing the nation’s highest office.
Those who think the Jakarta Governor is still kidding should have a look at the results of a survey in April commissioned by Washington’s Center for Strategic and International Studies.
The CSIS poll on whom Indonesians would elect in next year’s presidential elections, saw Jokowi topping a seven-candidate race with 35.1 percent of the vote, well ahead of incumbent Vice-President and former Suharto-era special forces commander Prabowo Subianto, coming in a far second, with 16.3 percent.
If only four candidates ran for president, Jokowi is projected to get nearly 41 percent, more than double the 19.3 percent extrapolated share for general-turned-resources tycoon Prabowo, and even smaller results for billionaire Golkar head Aburizal Bakrie and retired armed forces commander Wiranto. So wipe that snicker off your face.
Already, there are moves within the Indonesian Democratic Party of Struggle (PDI-P by its Bahasa initials), the lead opposition group, to position Jokowi as its presidential candidate, instead of party leader and past Indonesian president Megawati Sukarnoputri, daughter of the nation’s late founding father Sukarno.
Those scratching their heads over Jokowi’s leap from darkest Solo to dazzling Jakarta and perhaps the presidential palace, should look back no further than the last race to the top.
In 2004, then Coordinating Minister for Political and Security Affairs Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono looked set for humiliation in challenging his boss, then-President Megawati, who had succeeded in 2001 after her predecessor Abdurrahman Wahid was impeached.
Yudhoyono’s Democratic Party got just 7.5 percent of votes in the April 2004 legislative elections preceding the presidential race three months later. Megawati’s PDI-P came in second with 18.5 percent, close behind the Suharto-era ruling party Golkar, with 21.6 percent.
But in the July presidential polls, Yudhoyono triumphed with 60.1 percent of the vote in the runoff election against Megawati, despite the latter’s alliance with Golkar. The likely reason: Indonesians favored the underdog against the old guard politico, possibly seeing the upstart as more likely to bring real change.
The new leader lived up to voters’ expectations by empowering the anti-corruption commission, whose efforts even led to the conviction and imprisonment of a close Yudhoyono relative. That helped SBY, as the President is popularly known by his initials, to win a second and final five-year term in 2009.
That same Indonesian leaning toward a newcomer seen to advance reform, may be behind the immense popularity of Jokowi, 52, against sixtysomethings Prabowo and Bakrie. After all, the Jakarta governor won his current post precisely by advocating reform and advancing it in the metropolis.
So if Jokowi wins next year, his innovative dynamism may, with luck, shake things up a bit nationwide and regionwide, given Indonesia’s leading position in ASEAN.
More to the point, like those earlier Malaysian and Thai aspirants, the reformist Jokowi’s equivalent ascent marks an uplifting boost for democratic reform and the rejuvenation of an open and pluralistic system.
In sum, the ongoing sea change in the region’s political leadership and culture will continue apace—with a little luck.
Roger Mitton is a Southeast Asia regional consultant and a former senior correspondent for Asiaweek magazine and The Straits Times of Singapore.