When you think about it, the late Indonesian President BJ Habibie kind of had a point.
Singapore really is a “little dot” surrounded by the vast archipelago that is Indonesia.
We number less than six million on our island, while Indonesia has more than 260 million across over 17,000 islands.
Indonesia is a member of the G20, while Singapore attends summits as a guest.
Whichever way you slice it, Indonesia is an important country, and one that is important to Singapore.
Trade between us is growing, the flight route from Singapore to Jakarta is the third-busiest in the world.
There’s much more that could be done in business or people-to-people relations.
So, with that in mind, the visit by President Joko “Jokowi” Widodo is something that Singapore pulls out all the stops for.
My first glimpse of Jokowi in the flesh came at the Istana during the Singapore-Indonesia Leaders’ Retreat.
It’s an important diplomatic event that allows the two leaders a chance to develop their personal relationship.
A military band was out to greet Jokowi and await his arrival.
One of the first things I noticed, watching Jokowi and Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong together, was that Jokowi cuts a slender figure, compared to seeing him in the media.
I watched Jokowi complete his route and disappear into a private room with PM Lee for their four-eye meeting.
As the media are shuffled outside to wait, I passed the time imagining what they might have discussed.
The purpose of the four-eye is to have a private conversation with no other politicians around.
PM Lee would have almost certainly congratulated Jokowi on his impressive electoral victory. Perhaps they also discussed Singapore’s own upcoming general election, and our 4G leadership renewal.
I can’t imagine that their approach to Indonesia would be substantially different from that of the 3G ministers — keep ASEAN’s largest country as a friend and ally.
No questions, just speeches
Soon, it was time for the press conference. No questions were allowed.
Otherwise, someone might have tried to ask Jokowi about recent events, like the mooted ban on extramarital sex.
Or the haze.
Instead, we listen to prepared speeches.
In the office, we discussed if Jokowi would speak in Bahasa Indonesian or English.
I thought he would speak in English, as a way to demonstrate his statesman-like qualities. A colleague thought he would speak in Bahasa, as a way of “showing the flag”.
Jokowi chose to speak in English, heavily accented, but he had no difficulty making himself understood.
Interestingly, though, he signed a presidential decree a few days later on Oct. 11, allowing himself and other high-ranking officials to use Bahasa in formal speeches, even while overseas.
His speech was efficient, professional, and over in three minutes.
He did have some nice words for the Singapore audience, thanking PM Lee and expressing his hope that both countries would continue to work together for mutual prosperity:
So much for the Istana appearance. If I was hoping to glean a deeper insight into Jokowi, the man, I was left disappointed.
The whole thing was, predictably, carefully planned and stage managed to the second.
There was no opportunity for Jokowi to be spontaneous or show off his non-politician side.
And the lack of an open question-and-answer session meant there was no opportunity to ask questions of the leader of a country viewed as highly important to the lives of Singaporeans.
However, it turned out that Jokowi would spend an additional day in Singapore.
His younger son, Kaesang Pangarep, happened to be graduating from the Singapore University of Social Studies (SUSS). And Jokowi would attend in his private capacity as a proud father.
Despite living in the East, I made it to Clementi in the (very) early morning with time to spare.
The campus was packed with security, civil servants and the media, both Singaporean and Indonesian.
Two presidents attended the ceremony, Jokowi and President Halimah Yacob, the Patron of SUSS.
Education Minister Ong Ye Kung, who had been appointed as the Minister-in-Attendance for Jokowi’s visit, was also there as the guest-of-honour.
Jokowi was there with his wife, clad in a resplendent red-and-gold outfit. Their son Kaesang would go up on stage twice. Once to receive his degree, and another time to win an award.
The Jokowis clapped politely as each student’s name was called. They looked pretty much like any other couple attending their child’s graduation. The only thing that seemed different were the sea of serious-looking gentlemen in suits surrounding the couple, some with wires to their ears.
And, uh, the fact that they were seated beside our minister for education:
I got a close-up look as Kaesang walked past his parents after receiving his award. His mom reached out to pat his arm, a tender and familiar gesture. It’s a reminder that while they are the most prominent couple in Indonesia, they are also proud parents like any other.
We unfortunately didn’t get to see Jokowi and his son share a few words. The media isn’t allowed to pry into this private encounter.
But we do get to see Jokowi making his way through the crowds gathered at SUSS on his way out. There are cheers, actual shrieks of delight, as if a pop star or an actor was passing by.
Those present clamoured for selfies and handshakes. And far from ignoring them or getting his security guys to shove them aside, he gamely posed for photos.
It isn’t every day a sitting president of a populous nation stops by Singapore for some personal matters.
After Jokowi left, we got the opportunity to interview Kaesang.
His answers provide some insight into his dad — his focus on business and family. But of course, few things beat the chance to exchange a few words with the man himself.
Jokowi seemed like a thoughtful, measured individual, not someone prone to excessive pomp and grandeur.
As Indonesia prepares for another five years under his leadership, Singaporeans would do well to keep an eye on their elected leader.
Top image collage by Rachel Ng and Sulaiman Daud.