TOM PLATE WRITES IN THE JAKARTA POST: Our favorite optimist of Asia is at it again, and may the gods of our future bless this learned man.

He is Kishore Mahbubani (KM), the savvy Singapore policy-school dean and acclaimed author whose most recent book “The Great Convergence” might almost be considered an over-the-counter antidote to geopolitical depression.

His latest asserted positive trend-line is none other than Indonesia, heretofore the famously troubled country and hypothetically hopeless archipelago of countless islands and numerous ethnicities and dazzling corruptions, which in their totality, would dampen the optimism of any normal mortal man.

But not Mahbubani, who for years had been Singapore’s well-respected UN ambassador: For KM, Indonesia is a developing nation with immense promise and strategic importance as it is home to more Muslims than any country in the world. Here he is with his latest sunburst — about a rising political star in Asia: Jakarta’s quietly charismatic Governor Joko “Jokowi” Widodo:

“Fortunately, many global trends in the world continue to flow along the lines I suggested in The Great Convergence. More and more countries are learning best practices from each other. All this was brought home forcefully to me when I was invited to spend six hours driving around Jakarta in the car with the Governor of Jakarta.

“His honesty and incorruptibility are well-known. There are five other points worth noting about him. He is popular. Adulatory crowds naturally gathered around him at a hospital we visited. He is not populist, daring even to advocate for the removal of gasoline subsidies for cars in Jakarta. He is persuasive.

“A major East-West Highway [which was almost completely built] has been held up for 16 years by 1.5 kilometers of land acquisition problems. He persuaded the families to move. He is persistent. Only he could tirelessly work to persuade slum dwellers to leave their homes. And he is presidential.

“He understands well the political dynamics of Indonesia and the world. If more leaders like Jokowi continue emerging, the world will continue to move toward a great convergence.”

My sense is that Mahbubani is onto something. Effective political leadership, while difficult to define precisely, is usually recognized readily. There are various symptoms of strong leadership but, if my more cautious academic colleagues will permit me a sweeping generalization, one sure sign of an effective leader is attentiveness to critical detail.

Sure, you want to avoid across-the-board micro-management, but there needs to be a self-imposed limit on the extent to which one delegates, particularly when a lot is at stake.

In fact, Southeast Asia provides good examples.

During his 23 years as prime minister, Malaysia’s Mahathir Mohamad often dug deep into specifics, notably during construction of the showcase Petronas Twin Towers in Kuala Lumpur.

Thailand’s Thaksin Shinawatra, though PM for only six years until the 2006 coup, relentlessly pushed through the modern-airport project that had been bogged down in official sloth for decades.

Another example is modern Singapore’s founding prime minister, Lee Kuan Yew, who out of worry for his tiny country’s inherent limitations came to understand more about the engineering of water reclamation and the implications of rising sea levels than maybe the average MIT graduate student.

I always look for something like this quality in sizing up new leaders, and if my instinct (not to mention Mahbubani’s) is not misplaced, then we need to keep a watch on Jakarta Governor Joko Widodo.

The hands-on Jokowi, as the rising Indonesian politician is best known among his countrymen, recently sought to make a point by having civil servants leave their automobiles at home once a month for the commute to work — whether by bus, bicycle or whatever. To be sure, it’s a largely symbolic innovation that won’t make a significant dent in Jakarta’s vehicular traffic. Next to Cairo every day — and Los Angeles on some days … and Beijing on many other days — is there any urban traffic more famously evil than amid Indonesia’s sprawling metropolis of 10 million?

But even baby starter-efforts at traffic control are healthy symptoms of government that hasn’t given up.  Both London and Singapore, for example, have instituted significant public policies designed to reduce “rush-hour” congestion. And they more or less work.

Jokowi is saying that Jakarta needs to get smart about traffic and other tough urban issues if it is going to ever prosper by getting out of its own way.

Positive reviews of Jokowi’s leadership traits could prove good news for all of Indonesia. If the popular and down-to-earth governor is able to run for the national presidency of his country later this year, as the second and last term of the incumbent comes to an end, Indonesia may find itself with an exceptional leader to take it to the next level.

If one does care about that country, the world’s fourth most populous, yes, this is a reason for optimism indeed.

Mahbubani has put Jokowi on the global watch list and a lot of people will be watching. It is just possible that Indonesia will prove one of the biggest Asian success stories of this decade.

The writer, a Loyola Marymount University professor, is the author of the Giants of Asia quartet, which includes volumes on Lee Kuan Yew, Mahathir, Thaksin and Ban Ki-moon. His newest is In the Middle of the Future: Tom Plate on Asia (Marshall Cavendish).




Please see:

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.