Joko’s ability to resolve the near-impossible Tanah Abang market relocation may seem inconsequential, but it is actually a major transformational step for the country. It proves that change is possible. The old top-down ways are redundant. Change can only be effected when leaders hit the ground and engage with the people.

Joko’s Golden Touch

By Karim Raslan on 10:20 am August 1, 2013.
As Lebaran, or Idul Fitri, approaches and the fasting month builds in intensity, Jakarta becomes an increasingly difficult place to manage. Traders pour out onto streets, blocking the roads, while commuters fret and fume. It’s at times like this when a hands-on leader becomes all the more important. The city — indeed all cities — need someone who’s willing to step forward and say “enough is enough.” In this sense, the Tanah Abang market relocation issue has been a major challenge for the administration of Jakarta Governor Joko Widodo.Central Jakarta’s Tanah Abang market is an iconic spot in the capital. Famed for its textiles, a market has existed in the area since the 1700’s. Indeed, Jalan Kh Mas Mansyur that frames it is one of Jakarta’s vital arteries, linking the north and south of the city, as well as the country’s financial hub, Bank Indonesia.

The market area has become a magnet for the street peddlers — particularly during Ramadan as families stock up on new clothes and snacks for Lebaran. The added congestion turns the area into a “Bermuda Triangle” for the city’s traffic — a place where time seems to stop. This is the sort of issue in which a less-capable leader could easily stumble.

The vendors come mostly from underprivileged backgrounds, many working temporarily in the hope of making some extra money for the holiday.Persuading them to change their modus operandi requires tact and vision. Beside the vendors, there is an entire infrastructure of vested interests from the local gangs, or preman , to various businesses and indeed the authorities themselves.

Enter Joko, who faced a similar challenge during his tenure as mayor of Solo, Central Java. In December 2005 he convinced a group of street vendors in Solo’s Banjarsari Park to relocate to a new market in Kithilan Semanggi.

Joko was able to do this — as Rushda Majeed wrote in a July 2012’s case study for Princeton University’s Innovations for Successful Societies program — by holding more than 50 lunch meetings with the vendors. These were not just one-sided affairs, as the mayor listened to the vendors’ demands, collected data and drove hard bargains. This formed the basis for his leadership style as Jakarta governor.

Joko has attacked the problem at Tanah Abang with his usual technique of going to the field and talking to people. The going hasn’t been easy — Joko and his deputy Basuki Tjahaja Purnama have been criticized by local politicians and groups who accuse them of not understanding the needs of the vendors.

However, their patience appears to be paying off and Basuki announced on Tuesday that the Tanah Abang street vendors have agreed to move to nearby Block G, where some 1,000 kiosks have been set up.

Joko’s ability to resolve the near-impossible may seem inconsequential, but it is actually a major transformational step for the country. It proves that change is possible. The old top-down ways are redundant. Change can only be effected when leaders hit the ground and engage with the people.

Despite criticism, these activities are important in winning trust and building social capital in a society where no one trusts politicians. This rapport can be used for practical purposes, to initiate and push through policies that benefit the entire community.

For instance, Joko has also managed to persuade squatters in Pluit, North Jakarta, to relocate, freeing up space to boost flood prevention efforts.

More importantly, such activities give leaders real-time and on-the-ground knowledge. It allows them to truly understand what’s going on — vital to successful governance.

In this sense, Joko is like Lee Kuan Yew, the former prime minister of Singapore, with his emphasis on engagement and direct knowledge. Of course, the governor of Jakarta is far more democratic and consensual than the Grand Old Man of Singapore.

Joko’s success could very well be that he knows that a personal touch and a commitment to delivery can transform a community, if not a country.

Karim Raslan is a columnist who divides his time between Indonesia and Malaysia.

About bambooinnovator
Kee Koon Boon (“KB”) is the co-founder and director of HERO Investment Management which provides specialized fund management and investment advisory services to the ARCHEA Asia HERO Innovators Fund (, the only Asian SMID-cap tech-focused fund in the industry. KB is an internationally featured investor rooted in the principles of value investing for over a decade as a fund manager and analyst in the Asian capital markets who started his career at a boutique hedge fund in Singapore where he was with the firm since 2002 and was also part of the core investment committee in significantly outperforming the index in the 10-year-plus-old flagship Asian fund. He was also the portfolio manager for Asia-Pacific equities at Korea’s largest mutual fund company. Prior to setting up the H.E.R.O. Innovators Fund, KB was the Chief Investment Officer & CEO of a Singapore Registered Fund Management Company (RFMC) where he is responsible for listed Asian equity investments. KB had taught accounting at the Singapore Management University (SMU) as a faculty member and also pioneered the 15-week course on Accounting Fraud in Asia as an official module at SMU. KB remains grateful and honored to be invited by Singapore’s financial regulator Monetary Authority of Singapore (MAS) to present to their top management team about implementing a world’s first fact-based forward-looking fraud detection framework to bring about benefits for the capital markets in Singapore and for the public and investment community. KB also served the community in sharing his insights in writing articles about value investing and corporate governance in the media that include Business Times, Straits Times, Jakarta Post, Manual of Ideas, Investopedia, TedXWallStreet. He had also presented in top investment, banking and finance conferences in America, Italy, Sydney, Cape Town, HK, China. He has trained CEOs, entrepreneurs, CFOs, management executives in business strategy & business model innovation in Singapore, HK and China.

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