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Ahok Is Rude and Brash and Jakartans Love Him For It

The Wall Street Journal, Mar 17, 2015

JAKARTA, Indonesia–Jakarta Gov. Basuki Tjahaja Purnama is facing an inquiry from lawmakers over his handling of this year’s draft budget that could lead to impeachment. The inquiry was first raised weeks ago and has unraveled into a public dispute between Mr. Purnama and the city council.

As the dispute has dragged on, the public has increasingly rallied around Mr. Purnama, popularly known as Ahok.
Separate surveys released last week showed that the governor’s popularity had grown amid the budget dustup. And analysts say that has a lot to do with trust and transparency and the perception that he’s running a clean administration.

“I think he’s doing good things,” said Windhu Hidranto Sudjono, an infrastructure expert and head of PPP Indonesia, a consultancy that advises the government on public-private partnership deals, including the Jakarta MRT. “He’s being more open, more honest, trying to open up systems which have been closed for so long.”

Mr. Sudjono said people like Mr. Purnama “because of his courage to say what needs to be said. The way he says things is maybe not always acceptable, but the fact that he’s saying it is good.”

As much as his tough guy act has won him fans, however, it has also drawn criticism. The short-tempered governor has earned a reputation for publicly berating underperforming officials or subordinates. Videos of him losing his cool have gone viral.

He’s been called arrogant and rude, even by his supporters.

“I don’t agree that you always have to be shouting at people,” said Mr. Sudjono. “If he overdoes it, people won’t be talking about the message but about the way he delivers it.”

Some political analysts say he needs to soften his tone and rely more on a team of public relations strategists.
Raja Juli Antoni, director of the Jakarta-based Indonesian Institute think tank, says its the intent rather than the delivery that matters and people should and accept him as a man of action focused on providing good governance.

“To smile, be gentle in front of people” that is the Javanese way, said Mr. Antoni, referring to people from Indonesia’s main island of Java. Mr. Purnama is from resource-rich Bangka-Belitung island off the coast of Sumatra and is an ethnic Chinese, a minority that has historically held control over business and trade.

His background as a double minority – he is also a Christian in a country with the world’s most Muslims – drew a lot of attention when he ran as Joko Widodo’s deputy during the 2012 election for Jakarta governor. But it has seldom been raised since he took over as governor after Mr. Widodo became president.

“People don’t see him as Chinese. People see him as a really crazy guy, and he’s proven he’s fighting for the people consistently,” said Dharsono Hartono, the managing director of forest conservation company PT Rimba Makmur Utama and a Chinese-Indonesian.

His transparency and desire to stand up for the little guy – even if shouting while doing so – has, for the most part, won him kudos among Jakarta residents who describe him as brash but decisive.

And that decisiveness is a quality residents say is desperately needed in an overcrowded city marred by crumbling or inefficient infrastructure, pollution, traffic and flooding.

Even if he survives the council’s inquiry, however, which most suspect he will, he’ll still face plenty of resistance from the country’s political elite, said Mr. Sudjono.

The key to his survival will be maintaining the support of the people and living up to his promises, said Mr. Hartono, who points out that he’s already making some headway.

“He can show he’s pushing his agenda on traffic and flooding,” Mr. Hartono said. “You can see that the subway is being built. We’ve been talking about it for 20 years, but finally it’s breaking ground because he pushes the agenda. He dares to stand up and say ‘we have to do it’.”