Indonesia is a country of symbolism. Stemming from the Javanese culture, which comprises a majority of the population, every ritual and events will be embedded with subtle messages in the form of symbols and gestures which is not explicitly stated or written – or in some cases, it is used to accentuate what has already been stated or written. Those who can master these symbolisms will surely be able to send the right messages to the right people, win hearts, and even win elections.
President Jokowi, a Javanese man himself, is someone who understands and knows how to play these symbolisms.
The cabinet announcement last week, was held on the lawn of the Presidential Palace. His ministers, was donned in white shirts and black pants like the trademark attire of the President himself. When introduced, each of them was asked to run to the President. Hence, the “Working Cabinet” or Kabinet Kerja, was symbolised as the President’s men and women, who follows the same instruction of the President. They are ready to work, starting with a clean slate, different from the past regimes.
At least this is what they would like to portray.
The earlier canceled cabinet announcement was supposed to be held in Tanjung Priok, arguably Indonesia’s busiest port, and working helmets was prepared for each of the ministers. Tanjung Priok would have been a good show of priority for Indonesia’s maritime revival, similar to President Jokowi’s first speech after the presidential election announcement in the old harbor of Sunda Kelapa. Perhaps it is good that the Tanjung Priok plan did not materialise, because some were already quick to critique whether President Jokowi is someone who prefers “being with the people” instead of someone who can work efficiently from the palace.
As far as intended symbolism goes, there are others who can read between the unintended symbolisms as well. For example, why is Puan Maharani, daughter of PDIP Matriarch Megawati Soekarnoputri did not run towards President Jokowi when introduced as the Coordinating Minister for Human Development and Culture, and instead used a golf cart when other ministers walked in the palace.
Symbolisms may also be used to tone down the realities on the ground.
Despite the focus on the maritime sector, the newly created post Coordinating Minister for Maritime Affairs needs a lot of hard work since the institution is practically still Indroyono Soesilo as an individual. There are no staff, no budget, and no programs to manage yet, although thankfully BPPT is quick to lend an office for his daily work.
In the other ministerial posts, we also need to observe how the massive institutional shifts and mergers will play out:
- The Directorate General for Higher Education under the Ministry of Education will now be merged with the Ministry of Research and Technology
- Ministry of Public Housing will now be merged with Ministry of Public Works
- The Directorate General of Spatial Plan under the Ministry of Public Works will now be merged with The National Land Agency – supposedly to have regulatory powers when transformed as the Agrarian Ministry
- The Ministry of Forestry will now be merged with Ministry of Environment
The latter is even more worrisome, as environmentalists were quick to point that the two ministries have different paradigms as one is for exploitation, and one is for protection. When combined with spatial planning powers, conversion of natural forests into palm oil plantations or mining concessions will be expedited without proper checks and balances. One could have faith if the strategic ministerial posts were given to professionals, but we should be wary since these two posts are given to the Nasdem Party. One should also be even more cautious when the downstream and trade sector have the risks to be captured by corporate interests that will benefit from such arrangement.
There is a risk that in the early days of the government, ministries will be busy doing internal reorganisation work instead of strategically thinking about what they want to do in terms of policies and programs. Not to mention that there is a risk of delay since the apparatus of the parliament is not yet ready to discuss budgeting and program planning due to the recent DPR leadership crisis. The media is also not helping by highlighting the idiosyncrasies of the newly-appointed ministers rather than scrutinising on what they think the government should and can do.
Symbolisms may be useful, but despite all the media spins, tattoos-and-whatnot, what is more important is the actual performance of these ministers. After all, white is a colour that can easily get tainted.