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(Jakarta Globe) "Javanese Rules" on withdrawn BG


When President Joko Widodo received Prabowo Subianto for a private audience at the Bogor Palace recently, both men were wearing batik shirts. Jokowi looked radiant in a green shirt featuring a contemporary motif of “peksi” (birds) and vegetation. In  contrast, Prabowo sported a shirt with a classic motif known as “semen romo” (Father of Spring) in golden brown with the peksi or aviary details woven in.

The meeting itself was hailed as a surprise move on Jokowi’s part, given the past rivalry of the two for the presidential office. The president’s supporters cited it as proof that the leader was inspired by the Javanese philosophies of “rukun” (the ability to get along) and “memayu hayuning buwana” (to construct a cosmologically harmonious space around oneself) in behaving courteously towards his former adversary.

However, the meeting was also construed as a ruse on Jokowi’s part to increase his bargaining power with the main party in his coalition, the Indonesian Democratic Party of Struggle (PDI-P) and its chairwoman Megawati Soekarnoputri. In courting Prabowo, Jokowi may also be accused of violating another taboo in Javanese ethics, “kacang lali kulite” (the bean which denied ever coming out of its shell), meaning someone who conveniently forgets his or her own origins.

If ever Jokowi drops the PDI-P in favor of a new coalition, charges of disloyalty — even treachery — will no doubt be heard from his political patron Megawati’s quarters. The decade-long tenure of President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono saw a feud between Megawati and SBY, who was, in her eyes, a treacherous bean that disowned its own shell.  He became one because, having served as her minister, he then proceeded to run against her in the presidential election.

Loyalty appears to be a strong motif for Megawati. When Jokowi nominated a sole police chief candidate in Comr. Gen. Budi Gunawan, it was rumored that the decision had been Megawati’s, out of her loyalty to Gunawan, who served as her presidential adjutant.

In this scenario, Jokowi was a man who found it hard to say “no” to his political patron. Hence Jokowi contrived to obstruct the plan without having to refuse his patron by using a tactic known as “nabok nyilih tangan” (to hit using another’s hand). Jokowi allegedly told the Corruption Eradication Commission (KPK) to name Gunawan a graft suspect, so as to make him an unsuitable candidate to head the police force.

But as subsequent events proved, the scenario became implausible as the president did not try to shield the KPK from counter strikes by the police when one of its deputy chairmen was arrested. To make matters worse, PDI-P interim secretary general Hasto Kristiyanto jumped into the foray by alleging that KPK’s move against Gunawan was personal vengeance by its chairman Abraham Samad who had wanted to run as Jokowi’s vice-presidential candidate but was foiled by Gunawan.

The expression “nabok nyilih tangan” seems far-fetched here. Would Jokowi really be so under-handed and cowardly as to try to use the KPK in this way because he couldn’t say “no” to Megawati? The term becomes even more appalling considering it was once tweeted by the disgraced former chairman of the Democratic Party, Anas Urbaningrum, to hint that his criminalization by the KPK was on then-president Yudhoyono’s order.

Interpreting Indonesian politics though the prism of Javanese maxims and proverbs is tricky. Javanese code of conduct is supposed to be subtle and indirect. Like the dalang in a shadow puppet performance, a consummate Javanese leader is “samar” (shrouded in mystery) in his conduct. To betray himself with indisputable evidence of his intent would demolish the subtlety of the Javanese way.

But in truth can we really expect Jokowi to behave according to the precepts set down by royal courtiers centuries ago? The difference in the batik shirts worn by Jokowi and Prabowo is perhaps telling.   Prabowo’s classic “semen romo” is immediately recognizable among lovers of traditional batik. The motif is usually reserved for leaders, its symbols representing the ideal qualities of traditional Javanese rulers.

Yet Jokowi’s contemporary “peksi” green shirt fails to conform to the old presets. In it perhaps lies the president’s truer contemporary Javanese outlook, unfettered by classical ideals.

Johannes Nugroho, can be contacted at