- By Benjamin SolowayBenjamin Soloway is an assistant editor at Foreign Policy. He worked previously in Indonesia as a web editor and Princeton in Asia journalism fellow at the Jakarta Globe. He has also lived in Brazil and Turkey. His work has been published in the Boston Globe, the New Republic, USA Today, the Washington Post, and elsewhere. He studied history at Wesleyan University.
Indonesian Speaker of the House Setya Novanto, a baffled grin plastered on his face, appeared alongside Donald Trump at a press conference in New York City’s Trump Tower on Thursday.
After announcing that he would not run as an independent candidate if he failed to lock down the Republican presidential nomination, Trump presented his guest. “The speaker of the house of Indonesia — he’s here to see me. Setya Novanto, one of the most powerful men and a great man,” he said. “Do they like me in Indonesia?”
“Yes, highly,” Novanto replied. “Thank you very much.”
Deputy Speaker of the House Fadli Zon was there as well. “I think we like [Trump] because he’s also invested in Indonesia. He has some projects in Bali and West Java, so he’s a friend of Indonesia,” Zon told Business Insider. He also expressed an affinity for Trump’s views on immigration. “He has no problem … with immigrants as long as it’s legal,” Zon said. “So, I think it’s very normative, a very good thing to say. I think it’s very universal.”
Novanto is in the United States to meet with U.S. lawmakers, United Nations officials, and members of the Indonesian diaspora community. He has not been authorized to endorse any candidate on behalf of the Indonesian government, according to Arrmanatha Nasir, a spokesman for the country’s Foreign Ministry. “The speaker met with Donald Trump in a personal capacity, unrelated to his official meetings in the United States,” Ardian Wicaksono, a counsellor for political affairs at the Indonesian Embassy in Washington, told Foreign Policy.
Novanto has been linked to a number of high-profile corruption cases over the past decades, though he has never been charged.
Zon was right about Trump’s business interests in Indonesia: The New York-based Trump Hotel Collection in August announced a partnership with Indonesian conglomerate MNC Group to manage a resort and residential development in Bali, Indonesia’s top destination for well-heeled tourists. Hary Tanoesoedibjo, a media tycoon and politician ranked the 22nd richest person in Indonesia by Forbes, runs MNC Group.
Novanto and Zon’s appearance with Trump came after the Jakarta Globe, an English-language newspaper in Indonesia’s capital, ran an op-ed lauding Trump as a role model for Indonesian politicians. “Trump is above all a patriot and will stand up for [U.S.] interests in the face of a variety of threats, such as China’s currency manipulation, or Mexico sending undesirable individuals across the border,” the essay argued. “Similarly, Indonesia needs leaders who will stand up for the country, who will not let others take advantage of our natural resources.” (Full disclosure: I used to work for the Jakarta Globe).
No data exists on Trump’s popularity in the archipelago, but Indonesian politics in recent years has known its fair share of Trump-like figures. Some 32 billionaires live in Indonesia — the world’s fourth-largest country by population and the largest economy in Southeast Asia — and several top political figures there have eye-popping personal fortunes.
Prabowo Subianto, worth well over $100 million and known for his love of falconry, leads the opposition Great Indonesia Movement Party, to which Zon belongs. Prabowo, a former general and special forces commander, who always goes by his first name, faces long-standing allegations that men under his command committed war crimes during the East Timor conflict and kidnapped pro-democracy activists, both during the presidency of strongman Suharto. Those accusations didn’t prevent Prabowo from winning nearly 47 percent of the vote in the 2014 presidential election, which he narrowly lost to then-Jakarta governor Joko Widodo of the Indonesian Democratic Party of Struggle.
Novanto’s appearance beside Trump makes even more sense than Zon’s. Novanto is a member of the Golkar party, run by billionaire tycoon Aburizal Bakrie, whose Bakrie Group, one of the largest companies in Indonesia, holds diverse interests in the agriculture, energy, media, mining, and property sectors. Bakrie ran for president in 2014 but stepped out of the race in May, less than a month before the election, amid mounting questions over his family-owned company’s tenuous financial situation and history of shady practices.
Jakarta’s 50-floor Bakrie Tower, the main symbol of the Bakrie empire, is jet-black, shiny, gently curved, monolithic, and garish — like a comic book villain’s headquarters. “People should vote for the party that they like, not just based on the candidate,” Bakrie told me in 2014, when I interviewed him over lunch in his opulent Central Jakarta home. But he built his candidacy around his personal brand, which suffered when he decided to vacation in the Maldives with a young actress, her sister, and a large teddy bear — without his wife — ahead of the elections. Bakrie has long been dogged by the legacy of the Sidoarjo mud flow — a mud volcano that has been continuously erupting since 2006, when oil and gas exploration company Lapindo Brantas, owned by Bakrie’s family firm, drilled a natural gas borehole that blew out. The unceasing high-pressure mudflow has since buried 12 villages in East Java.
Along with Novanto, Indonesian Vice President Jusuf Kalla belongs to Bakrie’s Golkar party. So the Trump affinity is less improbable than it seems at face value.
But plenty of Indonesians want nothing to do with the Donald. “Just because one lawmaker loves you doesn’t mean other Indonesians do,” a Jakarta-based journalist wrote on Facebook. “We hate you, go away, shoo!”
Photo credit: Screenshot taken via YouTube