SINGAPORE, Nov 28 (The Straits Times/ANN): As Indonesia kicks off its maiden presidency of the high-profile Group of 20 (G-20) on Wednesday (Dec 1), the heat is on for President Joko Widodo to prove he is a force to be reckoned with, observers said.
Known to shy away from foreign policy, he had stepped out of his comfort zone last month to speak at the G-20 summit in Rome, and then at the COP26 climate talks in Glasgow, Scotland.
He told world leaders that Indonesia, as G-20 host, would encourage joint efforts for global economic recovery. He also vowed to tackle climate change in his country through forestry and land use to achieve a net carbon sink by 2030.
Judging by his upbeat remarks back home, Jokowi - as he is better known in Indonesia - was pleased.
"I felt there was something different in those meetings, compared with previously. There were so many requests for bilaterals from other countries. Whether I was sitting or standing, the leaders approached me, and they were from big countries," he said.
"We have to start building self-confidence, a sense of optimism as a leading nation."
The G-20 appears to be top on his mind, even as he zipped through the country to launch new roads and dams.
"The world will look at us so our ability to control the pandemic is really being tested," he told the Covid-19 task force.
If Widodo's focus in the first term of his presidency was domestic issues, a priority in the second term would be to bring in foreign investments. After all, he has envisioned Indonesia as a high-income country in 2045, observers said.
"He is a very efficient leader and does not want to travel internationally if there is no benefit for Indonesia," Indonesian Ambassador to Singapore, Suryo Pratomo, told The Straits Times.
"But he realises that Indonesia must be open and build communication with other nations because when Indonesia commemorates 100 years of its independence (in 2045), the aim is to get out of the middle-income trap," he added.
In the coming year, Indonesia will host 150 meetings across the country, ending with the G-20 leaders' summit on the resort island of Bali in October.
South-East Asia's largest economy is also preparing to host as chair of Asean in 2023.
Widodo has made it clear that growing external interest in Indonesia will lend support for its development objectives.
Still, he must deliver on his international promises and priorities, said Dr Teuku Rezasyah, a lecturer in international relations at Padjadjaran University.
He suggested that Widodo create a task force to solely manage the G-20, headed by a veteran diplomat who reports directly to him.
"As head of G-20, he needs to do a lot of shuttle diplomacy and webinars with top leaders of the world and assign the right people to represent him to deal directly with foreign governments," he told ST.
Dr Rezasyah noted that dealing with high-calibre G-20 countries would require high standards of management, conduct and good governance, an added responsibility which could overstretch the Foreign Ministry.
As far as domestic issues are concerned, Widodo is in a comfortable place, observers said.
The Covid-19 situation in Indonesia has since been tamed - from over 50,000 daily cases at its peak in July to a few hundred now. The pandemic proved to be the biggest test of his presidency which had knocked his June approval ratings from over 70 per cent to under 60 per cent.
Politically, Widodo is strong.
With the National Mandate Party entering his ruling coalition in August, Widodo now controls 82 per cent, or 471, of 575 seats in Parliament, the biggest-ever support for an Indonesian president and a feat for a political outsider with humble beginnings.
This would allow him to push through his agenda such as infrastructure projects "without the noise and commotion" from a divided Parliament, according to Voxpol Centre Research and Consulting executive director Pangi Syarwi Chaniago.
Going global is a natural next step, but it comes with challenges for a president known to shun diplomatic work and public speaking.
"But Jokowi needs to leave a legacy - that he's not only appreciated at home but also outside Indonesia," Arya Fernandes, political analyst at the Centre for Strategic and International Studies, told ST.
Still, there is little doubt that the people's interests remain Widodo's key priority.
Earlier this month, the 60-year-old grandfather-of-four created a buzz when he rode his Kawasaki bike through the newly opened Mandalika International Street Circuit in Lombok.
In his perpetual quest to promote the local economy, the ever-enterprising leader posted on social media a photo of himself, with a helmet under his arm and wearing biking attire made by "the skilled hands of the nation's children". He also painstakingly named each brand.
He wrote: "I look rather stylish, don't I?" - The Straits Times/ANN