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Book Review: Man of Contradictions

The genre of English-language biographies of Indonesian presidents and other senior leaders has a long and reputable history. John Legge’s biography of Sukarno, building on earlier work by Bernhard Dahm, offered deep empirical and analytical insights into the life and thought of Indonesia’s first president. Robert Elson, for his part, delivered a comprehensive biography of Suharto, which will soon be followed by the even more intensive work of David Jenkins. Jenkins, who has spent much of the last two decades investigating Suharto’s life, is about to publish the first volume of an in-depth biography of Suharto. It is meticulously researched, beautifully written and has all the hallmarks of a biographer wrestling with the details as well as the broad outlines of his subject’s life. Similarly, Rudolf Mrazek’s biography of Sutan Syahrir, an early but influential prime minister, and Rose Mavis’ biography of Mohammad Hatta, Indonesia’s first vice-president, are examples of fine scholarly biographies drawing from years of archival and other research.

During Indonesia’s contemporary democratic period, Greg Barton produced a biography of Abdurrahman Wahid (who was president from 1999 to 2001), and while Barton was generous to his subject, the book included many valuable and previously unknown details about Wahid’s childhood as well as from the presidency itself. Angus McIntyre, around the same time, published his excellent book on Indonesian presidents, which used a political psychology angle to highlight continuities and differences between Sukarno, Suharto and Megawati Sukarnoputri. While McIntyre was prudent enough not to call his book a biography, it included a biographical profile of Megawati that offered fascinating analyses of her thinking and actions, tying them back to her upbringing in Sukarno’s palace. This was all the more useful since there is, to this day, still no substantive English-language biography of Megawati.

Hence, any author who announces through a large media campaign the publication of ‘the first English-language biography of Jokowi’ must be prepared to be measured against this strong tradition of Indonesian presidential or prime-ministerial biographies. And indeed, the author in question, Ben Bland, was well positioned to deliver such a biography. Bland was the Financial Times correspondent in Jakarta between 2012 and 2015, witnessing Jokowi’s rise first-hand. During this time, he conducted what I consider to be the best and most insightful interview ever done with Prabowo Subianto, Jokowi’s challenger in both the 2014 and 2019 elections. He also had frequent interactions and interviews with Jokowi, and generally possesses a good instinct for juicy, engaging stories as well as very sound analytical judgment.

Furthermore, there has been an outstanding record of books on Indonesian politics written by foreign correspondents. For instance, Hamish McDonald’s Suharto’s Indonesia is probably the best account of Suharto’s transformation from a soldier supported by many anti-Sukarno students into a shrewd autocrat. In the same vein, David Jenkins’ Suharto and his Generals, 1975-1983 is a treasure trove, full with breath-taking interview material and analyses, and Adam Schwarz’ A Nation in Waiting is the definitive account of Suharto’s last decade in power.

But assessed against the self-made claim of having produced Jokowi’s first English-language biography, and against the quality of the work done by both biographers of Indonesian leaders and Jakarta-based journalists-cum-writers, Ben Bland’s Man of Contradictions is a disappointment. To be sure, it is a well-written paper with a number of witty observations, and it gives readers with little knowledge of the country and its current president some useful introductions. Had it been marketed this way, there would be very little to object to. In fact, Bland’s arguments reflect what many other observers of Jokowi, both in Indonesia and abroad, have said for years – especially after his first term had demonstrated his lack of reformist credentials. However, any product must be measured by what it claims to be, and so Bland’s packaging of his pocket-sized book as a biography of Jokowi deserves scrutiny.

Bland’s work, as effective as it is as a brief introduction into contemporary Indonesia, lacks the most basic features of a good political biography. There is no archival research; no effort to reveal new facts; no attempt to test existing biographical narratives; and very little that goes beyond what is already published, both empirically and analytically. A good example is Bland’s treatment of Jokowi’s childhood. Jokowi has made much of the fact that he came from very humble beginnings, helping him to build the image of a non-elite outsider that carried him to victory in his local and national elections. The task of a biographer would be to unpack this narrative and test its accuracy. Instead, Bland replicates the official version, and is satisfied with noting that it has been challenged by some. All this is done on two pages, and a few pages later, we already find ourselves in 2005, the beginning of Jokowi’s political career. Much of what happened in between is dismissed by his biographer as ‘uneventful’ (p. 20).

There is ample reason to dig deeper into what Jokowi’s childhood looked like. For a start, his own mother has questioned some parts of the official Jokowi story. When visiting Jokowi’s hometown of Solo in 2013, Jakarta Post journalist Sita Dewi tried to verify the claims (made in his autobiography) that Jokowi’s family had to frequently move from one rented riverbank shack to the next. Once, so the official account goes, the family was even evicted by the city from their house. In Solo, Sita Dewi asked Jokowi’s mother directly, who in turn ‘denied reports that said [Jokowi] once lived in a shanty house on the riverbank, and that he was once relocated by the city administration.’ She added that ‘we lived there from the time Jokowi was in kindergarten. The house was indeed a few hundred metres from a river, but it is located on a street and it is our own house.’ This does not mean that the recollection of Jokowi’s mother is correct, and that Jokowi’s is wrong. But it means that a Jokowi biographer would have to spend considerable time to get to the bottom of this – something Bland chose not to do.

Indeed, half-way through the paper, Bland abandons any attempt at delivering even just a mini-biography. Instead, he switches to thematic chapters, discussing Jokowi’s handling and view of the economy; his pragmatic interpretation of democracy; ‘Jokowi and the world’; and ‘why we keep getting Indonesia wrong’. With this structure, key events in Jokowi’s life as president are left uncovered. For instance, we learn almost nothing about how Jokowi failed to get his choice as running mate for the 2019 elections, Mahfud MD, approved by his coalition of nominating parties. Instead, the parties forced Ma’ruf Amin on him. The nomination of a second-term running mate is a defining moment in a presidency, and the reasons why Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono succeeded in this effort while Jokowi failed tell us much about each president’s effectiveness in strategising and intensity of control. In a proper biography, this incident would have warranted extensive discussion. Bland covers it in one sentence (p. 97), and misses the complex reasons for why the parties rejected Mahfud MD and wanted him to pick Ma’ruf in his place.

Bland’s interviews with Jokowi are insightful, but he rarely tells the reader when they took place. Most of the material reflects Jokowi’s general attitude towards an issue, and the references do not include an interview date. It is probable that the vast majority of the interviews were conducted during Bland’s time as Financial Times correspondent between 2012 and 2015, Jokowi’s first full year as president. Readers therefore are unable to get a sense of how Jokowi saw the dynamics of his presidency changing over time. There is no problem whatsoever with not being able to include many post-2015 interviews, but it is necessary to be transparent about these limitations. Minimally, readers need to know in what year an interview was conducted, so that it can be considered in relation to events and developments occurring at that particular time. The Schwarz and Jenkins books are great examples of how such referencing is done effectively.

While empirically thin, Bland’s account gets Jokowi right in its general portrayal of his political persona. This portrait, however, is neither new nor controversial. Bland’s description of Jokowi as a man who ‘has always been a pragmatist rather than an idealist’ and as a ‘leader driven by action, not ideas’ (p. 61) is unlikely to shock any reader with even the most fundamental knowledge of Jokowi. Similarly, Bland is spot on with the analysis of Jokowi taking an authoritarian turn despite earlier raising expectations of at least defending the democratic status quo. He also succeeds in highlighting that Jokowi’s disregard for democratic substance and procedures is a function of his long-standing prioritisation of the economy and national development over all other policy areas. But again, these ideas are now a main staple of the political analysis of Indonesia. Eve Warburton’s 2016 much-cited article on Jokowi’s ‘new developmentalism’ placed the president’s thinking in a broader historical and conceptual context, and Thomas Power’s 2018 piece on ‘Jokowi’s authoritarian turn’ laid out many of the arguments that are now widely used in broader discussions of democratic decline in Indonesia.

Faced with the challenge of saying something new, Bland decided to frame his account of Jokowi within a ‘contradiction’ paradigm. Jokowi is described as a ‘man of contradictions’ who governs a country of contradictions. But this framework, if it is one, doesn’t get us much closer to understanding Jokowi. Other reviewers have already pointed out the banality of Bland’s argument, but it is worth emphasising that diagnosing contradictions is banal for any politician (and country). Politicians are structurally caught between the private and the public; the ideal and the doable; personal deficiencies and political imagery; friendships and partnerships for convenience; the day-to-day tasks and the desired long-term legacy; and so forth. Barack Obama was both the icon of hope for minorities and progressives and the president who killed innocent families in Afghanistan with US drones. Bill Clinton was both a modernising figure and a despicable womaniser who cared little about how his actions destroyed the personal lives of the women he preyed on. And Jokowi is a president who tries to capture both pluralist and Islamist voters and displays both democratic and authoritarian features. (Yudhoyono, it must be said, had similar attributes).

The empirical superficiality and conceptual flatness of Bland’s paper would not matter if he didn’t insist so aggressively on its status as a biography. With this self-proclaimed goal, the bar was set so high that only a proper biographical research project would have allowed him to pass it. Occasionally, Bland lets on that he is aware of the exaggeration of his claims. Beneath the media blitz that sold the paper as the first English-language biography of Jokowi, Bland quietly called it – at the end of his introduction – an ‘unconventional biography’ that ‘could not possibly tell his whole life story in such a short work’ (p. 8). The author could have drawn the conclusion from this that ‘such a short work’ is insufficient to pass for a biography. That he, and his publisher, did not draw this conclusion can only be explained by an unwavering determination to use the descriptor ‘biography’ as an eye-catching marketing ploy.

In the last section of Man of Contradictions, Bland expands on his belief that ‘we keep getting Indonesia wrong’. There is no clear definition of the ‘we’, but his claim to have uniquely grasped Indonesia’s and Jokowi’s ‘contradictions’ suggests that he does not include himself in the category of those who get the country habitually wrong. As the culprits, he vaguely lists officials, investors, analysts, journalists and academics, with their nationality and/or location left unspecified. The reason for the consistent misinterpretation of Indonesia, Bland argues, is that ‘we’ engage in a ‘relentless search for easy, often monocausal explanations for the fiendishly complex world around us’ (p. 139). Bland finds that academics and policy analysts in particular ‘try to squeeze and shape a country, politician, or event into a single, overarching theoretical framework.’ As a result, they overlook all the ‘contradictions’ and complexities that Bland apparently feels he uncovered in his own work.

This deficient approach, he asserts, has affected the scholarship on Indonesia. He bemoans the lack of a ‘fuller debate about Indonesian history and its connection to contemporary politics, economics, and society’ (p. 145). He also expresses his hope that his paper will prompt ‘others to dig deeper into the people and the forces shaping this nation, climbing out of the silos in which so many researchers get stuck’. Bland offers no examples of ‘stuck’ scholars who have failed to connect contemporary Indonesia to its historical origins and trials. Similarly, he does not explain why amidst an unprecedented wealth of multi-disciplinary and highly heterogeneous research on Indonesia, he feels the need to advise the community of Indonesia experts – which includes academics who have studied ‘the people and forces shaping this nation’ for their entire lives – to ‘dig deeper’. When writing this, Bland sounds like a 19th century explorer who just returned from an exotic and understudied country that only he can explain to an unknowing and admiring audience at home.

Some years ago, I attended a workshop held by the editor of a high-ranking scholarly journal. He explained that in a large number of the submissions received by the journal, the authors claimed that there was no existing literature on the subject discussed in the manuscript, and that the latter would therefore fill a huge gap in the scholarship. ‘In 99 per cent of the cases,’ the editor said, ‘this means only one thing: “you haven’t read the literature”.’ Given Ben Bland’s claim of a lack of scholarship that appreciates the ‘contradictions’ inherent in Indonesia, it is likely that his problem is similar. I find it hard to believe that anyone who has read the work of Robert Cribb, Virginia Hooker, Jemma Purdey, Anthony Reid, Kate McGregor, Douglas Kammen, Adrian Vickers, Merle Ricklefs, Henk Schulte Nordholt, Ariel Heryanto, Asvi Warman Adam, Agus Suwignyo, Greg Fealy, Thomas Lindblad and so many others would claim that there is a lack of historical thinking on Indonesia. The same is true for research that explores Indonesia from a myriad of economic, social, anthropological, geographical, cultural, archaeological, biological and a whole range of other perspectives. Being a regular visitor to Indonesia-focused conferences, I continue to be amazed by the diversity of the research, and I have found little evidence for an alleged attempt to squeeze Indonesia into ‘monocausal explanations’.

If anything, this richness of research is now under threat by broader developments in the university sector. The Australian government’s attack on the humanities and social sciences, in combination with its refusal to offer COVID-19 relief to campuses, is likely to lead to the loss of many Asian Studies jobs, including on Indonesia, in this country. Bland’s caricature of researchers as being stuck in silos, and his claim that existing scholarship on Indonesia has consistently got it wrong, are not going to be of much help in trying to save these positions and the knowledge reservoirs attached to them. It is true that many of these researchers lack the forcefulness with which Bland has promoted his latest publication, and that academics need to find a more effective way of having their research recognised at the governmental and societal levels. But the complex research that Bland is demanding has existed for decades, and it is not too difficult to find.

Ben Bland, Man of Contradictions: Joko Widodo and the struggle to remake Indonesia. Docklands, Vic: Penguin Random House Australia, 2020.

Marcus Mietzner (marcus.mietzner@anu.edu.au) is associate professor at the Department of Political and Social Change, Coral Bell School of Asia-Pacific Affairs, Australian National University.

Inside Indonesia 141: Jul-Sep 2020

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