‘The world’s most effective democratically elected leader today’?

RASHMEE ROSHAN LALL October 22, 2021

Jakarta. Photo by Afif Kusuma on Unsplash

“Bad news travels. Good news doesn’t”. Thus begins veteran Singapore diplomat Kishore Mahbubani’s piece on president Joko Widodo of Indonesia. He has a point about the movement of news, especially his acid reflection that the world is agog about the Afghan government’s collapse but knows little and cares even less about President Widodo’s effectiveness as democratically elected leader of the most populous Muslim-majority country.

The piece, which appeared on Project Syndicate, is headlined “The Genius of Jokowi”, so it’s obvious that the writer is prepared to argue a passionate case.

The fine detail of that case is interesting. Mr Widodo is presented as a paragon of a leader, a man of the people, a healer and a unifier. While Mr Mahbubani offers some facts and figures, he doesn’t do enough to compare and contrast the situation under President Widodo with how it was before.

Anyway, here’s Mr Mahbubani’s case in favour of Mr Widodo. Indonesia, he says, is a very difficult country to rule being enormously ethnically diverse, consisting of 17,508 islands and, at 5,125 km (3,185 miles) across its east-west expanse, wider than the continental United States. But Mr Widodo, says Mr Mahbubani, has worked wonders, bridging Indonesia’s political divides and even bringing his rivals from the 2019 re-election campaign into his cabinet. He has, says Mr Mahbubani, “reversed” the momentum of the most Islamist parties. His government has redistributed land to the poor, introduced the Indonesian health card, a new national health insurance scheme and the Smart Indonesia Card to increase school enrollment and achieve universal education, and also runs a cash-transfer program for the poor.

All of this sounds very good indeed and it is a sign of Mr Widodo’s effectiveness. But is Jokowi really “the world’s most effective democratically elected leader today”? It is a bold and sweeping claim but Mr Mahbubani falls short in being unable to fully stand it up.