KUALA LUMPUR, It is the kind of news that is guaranteed to go global. Reports of Indonesian President Joko Widodo, or Jokowi as he is more popularly known, and his wife Iriana queuing at the Jakarta airport like ordinary passengers before taking their seats in economy class have become world news.
The Indonesian people have been given yet another moment to savour – and their new president has certainly endeared himself to the voters with his modest lifestyle.
The couple was taking a short flight to Singapore to attend the graduation ceremony of their 19-year-old son from the Anglo-Chinese International School, a Methodist secondary school.
Jokowi did not exactly make a big fuss about travelling economy but his publicists certainly did a good job in making sure the Indonesian people, and the rest of the world, knew about it.
As Jokowi explained later, this was strictly a private affair and there was no need to make use of government facilities for what was essentially a personal matter.
Jokowi, of course, is still on what is known as the “honeymoon phase” of his presidency.
The Indonesians find him refreshing. He is the direct opposite of many of the Indonesian politicians who are seen as corrupt, arrogant and patronising.
The news of Jokowi travelling economy class has gone viral but, as to be expected of social media, there are also many counter reports that question his motive and play up the fact that the couple stayed at an expensive five-star hotel along Orchard Road.
Some viewed it as nothing more than a publicity stunt.
“Why should he go through the metal detector, join the queue, etc? Sir, stop polishing your image, just act natural,” Rangga Aditya commented on news portal Detik.com.
Harry Azet tweeted: “Living a fake life is difficult: Jokowi went to Singapore flying economy but slept in an expensive hotel.”
Well, that’s social media for you. Everyone has an opinion and is more than happy to share it with the rest of the world.
As a journalist who has seen enough of politicians and their publicity-seeking stunts, I often observe such news with a healthy dose of scepticism. But seeing the approach that Jokowi has adopted since taking over the presidency, I do hope that it can be sustained.
Not only will it be good for his country, but he can also be a good example to other world leaders who sometimes forget the very people who voted them into power.
Actually, in Malaysia, it is rare to see our politicians doing things like the common people. Where they go, they are usually accompanied by some form of entourage. They never seem to walk alone.
For example, our politicians just love to have an entourage to send them off at the airport for their travels, and an equally big-sized crowd to welcome them back.
This is perhaps some kind of assurance that they still have power, although the people who are part of the crowd may also want to be seen to be there for different reasons.
What is clear is that when they lose power, their supporters are usually nowhere to be found. Many of them will probably think it is a waste of their time and money to go to the airport to see a former powerful politician off.
The same rules also apply to the corporate world, I am sure.
Interestingly enough, we now have budget airlines like Air Asia and Firefly, and it is normal for the politicians to be together with the other passengers on short flights from the capital to their respective hometowns.
But their aides surely make a big fuss of how these politicians, from both sides of the divide, are so in touch with the common people and are prepared to make such sacrifices.
Anyone who enters the political arena must be prepared to take the good with the bad.
It is a matter of time before Jokowi’s opponents may want to question him on why he sent his son to study in Singapore instead of letting him study at home.
The Anglo-Chinese International School was recognised as an International Baccalaureate (IB) World School in 2005. It is consistently ranked among the top three schools worldwide that offer the IB, with score averages as high as 42 out of a total of 45 points, according to one report.
In Malaysia, there are politicians who love to attack Malaysians for sending their children to vernacular schools instead of national schools.
Then they quietly send their own children to international schools or even boarding schools in the United Kingdom and Australia.
And these are often the same politicians who wax poetic about the importance of the national language and criticise those who want to promote the wider usage of the English language.
But back to air travel, we have to get real about how our high-ranking political leaders should travel.
Going economy on short flights may be fine, but I don’t think they should fly economy if they are on a 14-hour long haul flight to London, or a 22-hour journey to New York.
While we can cope with a non-stop crying baby a few seats away or, horror of horrors, next to us, we wouldn’t recommend it to a head of government who needs to read up on his working papers ahead of an important meeting.
There would be serious implications for the nation if he were to arrive in a foreign capital exhausted after a long economy-class trip.
For sure we do not want our prime minister to be forced to make small talk with a busybody fellow passenger or take pictures with everyone on the plane over the next 14 hours.
That’s not how a clever leader should operate even if we want him to be down-to-earth.
But we must salute Jokowi for saying that he did not use the presidential private jet or the VIP terminal because he was travelling for personal reasons, adding that “I am going for family matters, a private agenda, not a state visit – so why should I use the facility?”
We’ve got to love him for that, don’t we?
Other populist buttons pressed by Jokowi included, as reported by Tempo.com, both he and his deputy Jusuf Kalla wearing shoes ordered from a local producer in Cibaduyut – a district in Bandung famed for producing leather goods, including shoes – for the swearing in ceremony. It wasn’t Italian made, for sure.
Rather than revelling in her new status as Indonesia’s first lady, Jokowi’s wife was also quoted as saying that she would maintain her current style, except on formal occasions when she needs to coordinate with her husband.
The trouble with most politicians is that they lose the connection with the people after a while. They forget the people who put them in their positions in the first place.
No one would begrudge them the perks and privileges that come with the office, but many of them just get too used to such benefits and do not know how to draw the line between what is official and what is personal.
And we certainly will not appreciate the pompous display of extravagance, especially in tough economic times when the people struggle to pay the bills.
We also need to cut down on unnecessary practices each time the political elite are in attendance.
Granted that we respect titled people, but ordinary Malaysians often wonder why we need to devote so much time to address the many Tan Sri and Puan Sri, Datuk Seri and Datin Seri, Datuk-Datuk and Datin-Datin in the salutations before every speech.
And the VIPs also like to be kept in a “holding room” before the function, which, of course, needs to be paid for by the organisers.
This is where all the small talk is carried out until such time as when they make their grand entrance to the function room. If it’s a dinner, the guests are sometimes subjected to horribly long speeches before dinner starts at 9.30pm.
In many countries, especially in Europe, the guest of honour arrives on time and simply proceeds to the function room without any need for such formalities.
The person delivers the speech, do what’s necessary and then just depart to save everyone’s time, so we can all get back to work.
The world has changed. The old ways don’t work anymore because every word and action is being scrutinised in real time, and flashed to the world instantly.
All politicians will get a better report card if they are serious about their work and are able to get the job done well for the benefit of the people.
If not, they will only be remembered for putting their country in the news, for all the wrong reasons.