A president yet to make his mark

It appears that the reaction to Trump’s controversial policies about Muslim travel bans may have had a negative impact on his already limited popularity.

Dr Dina Afrianty (Research Fellow, La Trobe Law School, La Trobe University)

On the side of the G20 meeting in Germany in 2017, Indonesian President Joko ‘Jokowi’ Widodo met with America’s new President Donald Trump for the first time. Jokowi opened his speech by saying that he would like to convey greetings from millions of Trump’s supporters in Indonesia. He smiled warmly, which was reciprocated by Trump.

The American President may not have been aware that 90 percent of Indonesian respondents to a South China Morning Post survey prior to his 2016 win over Hillary Clinton stated a preference for the Democrat contender.

This obvious flattery may reflect the way Javanese culture plays an important role in Jokowi’s leadership. It may also have simply been tactical flattery to make a good impression. Fundamentally, the meeting was said to focus largely on improving trade between the two countries. There is a good reason for this.

Indonesian foreign direct investment in American is very small, and U.S. foreign direct investment in Indonesia has fallen dramatically in recent years. President Jokowi has sought to promote investment opportunities with other large partners in recent years including China and Saudi Arabia.

Trump himself is no stranger to Indonesia and has a number of business relationships in the country. He is known to have an interest in land development in Bali and West Java. Some reports suggest locals are ignorant of the Trump role in these projects, but the President’s business partners in Indonesia are prominent and influential. Chinese tycoon and media mogul Hari Tanoesudibjo, who is also a leader of a newly established political party, attended Trump’s inauguration and is Trump’s business partner in Indonesia.

There is also known to be political connections between Indonesian political operatives and the Trump camp. Indonesia’s former speaker of the House of Representatives, Setya Novanto, along with a member of Indonesian Parliament from a populist party, Fadli Zon,

attended Trump campaign events in 2015. Novanto is known to be among the richest Indonesian politicians but is currently in jail for corruption. Zon is a senior member of the party established by Prabowo Subianto, who is known for his past human rights abuse and banned from travel to the U.S. for this reason. He unsuccessfully ran for President twice, losing in close races on the back of
a populist agenda.

The links between political operatives in the countries’ respective Presidential campaigns is of course telling. It demonstrates quite plainly how common the modern phenomenon of populist politics is, and how its tactics and techniques are easily translatable.

The most obvious subject which attracted public attention in Indonesia early in Trump’s tenure was his rhetoric about Muslims and Muslim nations.

It appears that the reaction to Trump’s controversial policies about Muslim travel bans may have had a negative impact on his already limited popularity. Indonesia’s foreign affairs minister was concerned that his policy would jeopardise the global fight against terrorism and cause a refugee crisis. There were also fairly large public demonstrations at the time.

His decision to relocate the U.S. Embassy in Israel to Jerusalem also led to rallies in Indonesia. This is not surprising, since both conservative and mainstream Muslim organisations actively protest America’s handling of the Israel-Palestinian conflict.

Indonesians, however, made a big deal about the Presidency of Trump’s predecessor Barack Obama. Known in Indonesia affectionately as ‘Barry’, Obama’s Presidency was marked by significant levels of warmth from the Indonesian people and he had a pop-star level of popularity. This was due to his personal history of schooling in the capital Jakarta. It was also due to his minority social status and less strident policies against Muslim nations.

It is important of course to distinguish personal Presidential profiles from Indonesia’s approach to America as a nation. Prior to ‘reformasi’, or the arrival of modern democratic Indonesia, Indonesia’s Soeharto regime developed close intelligence, military and commercial ties to America.

America was notoriously involved behind the scenes in the national tragedy of anti-communist massacres in 1965. Commercial engagement, particularly around resource development (extraction), remains important and continues to be a challenging area of public policy.

Against this background, there remains little tangible evidence of specific public attitudes and opinions. A major study was conducted by the Indonesian Survey Institute or Lembaga Survei Indonesia (LSI) in 2004 and 2005 at the height of post-September 11 tensions globally. Not surprisingly, Indonesia recorded relatively high levels of negative views about America at this time.

About 40 percent of respondents believed the American-led war in Iraq and Afghanistan was a war against Islam and a violation of human rights . At the same time, however, about the same percentage viewed the U.S. favourably. A few years earlier, surveys showed a much higher disapproval level of around 80 percent.

More recent global surveys indicate Indonesian attitudes are – broadly – similar today. Recent Pew research reveals favourable attitudes toward America in Indonesia is again around 40 percent, double the level in another large Muslim democracy, Turkey.

The Indonesian figure is not far off the global average of 53 percent. Equally the expressed level of support for Trump in Indonesia is 30 percent, almost exactly the same as the global average and a clear improvement on attitudes to him when presidential nominee in 2016.

While President Jokowi planned to visit America, his plans were interrupted by the arrival of the Coronavirus pandemic, and an envoy was sent to set up discussions around trade and investment in Indonesia in his place. Most recently, Trump has agreed to provide ventilators to assist Indonesia’s fight against the virus.

These are all positive signs, but the fact of the matter is there is much to do to build this relationship into a more substantial one, reflecting Indonesia’s size and potential influence.

More importantly, it is surely to the benefit of Indonesia and the region that there be a strong and fruitful relationship between two such large and healthy democracies.

The alternative to American investment is that from the Middle East and China. Business is business, and partnerships with other nations should not be avoided where they bring benefits.There is a risk that Trump may end his Presidency with a resort in Indonesia, and little else to show for it.