When President Joko “Jokowi” Widodo invited new Australian Prime Minister Anthony Albanese to join him on a bike ride through the grounds of the presidential palace in Bogor on June 6, Australian media could not access quickly enough. to their social media accounts. The unusual sight of two world leaders on bicycles was enough to spark a series of tweets and articles about ‘cycling diplomacy’.
In fairness to the traveling reporters, the laid-back stroll through the gardens, a route Jokowi takes regularly as part of his exercise regimen, was certainly a pronounced change in tone from the day’s earlier events. Albanese’s visit began with an extremely formal welcome ceremony at the presidential palace, filled with dancers in traditional costume and mounted guards.
This isn’t the first time Jokowi has surprised foreign dignitaries and their entourages with a gear shift (excuse the pun). Many Australians would remember his blusakan visit to Tanah Abang market with a sweaty Malcolm Turnbull in 2015.
It wasn’t the first time Jokowi had taken a foreign dignitary for a bike ride, either. In November 2014, as newly installed President, Jokowi took on the then Mayor of London and eager cyclist Boris Johnson on a stroll through the streets of Jakarta on Car-Free Day, accompanied by the Governor of Jakarta, Basuki “Ahok” Tjahaja Purnama.
As media following the Albanians’ visit were quick to point out, the bilateral bike ride was meant to symbolize the humble origins of the two leaders. Albanese is the son of a single mother and grew up in public housing, while Jokowi grew up in simple housing in Solo, Central Java, and his family was forcibly displaced several times.
Although Albanese didn’t look entirely comfortable on his bamboo bike, the stunt suited the two leaders well. The Aussie’s sincere appreciation for the experience would have been warmly accepted.
It was far from the first time Australians had seen their leaders indulge in sport and recreation – from Harold Holt’s deadly ocean swim to Tony Abbott’s frequent forays into surfing, or John Howard’s morning walk. For Indonesians, however, the image of Jokowi on a bicycle conjures up something quite different.
In fact, the bicycle has become a symbol of Jokowi’s presidency – cleverly deployed in several ways. Jokowi’s jaunt with Albanese was a sign of friendship for the new prime minister, but it was also aimed at Jokowi’s own constituency.
Since bursting onto the national stage in 2012, Jokowi has carefully projected the image of a humble underdog. He works hard to portray himself as having more in common with the public than the oligarchs around him, even though his administration is, in fact, heavily dependent on these oligarchs and has crafted policies that cater to their interests.
Jokowi has long been known to be an avid cyclist but, like his blusakan tours, the bikes have become part of this larger image-building project. They are used to signify Jokowi’s personal values, to connect directly with citizens, and even to convey government messages and policy. To this end, he conducted what has become an extremely popular public ritual commonly referred to as Hadiah Sepeda Jokowi (“Jokowi’s Bike Prize”), which began around 2015.
At community meetings and public functions with farmers, students, government officials, artists and the musicians – whether in villages or at the presidential palace – Jokowi hosts a quiz, asking five questions of selected members of the public. The topic is usually relevant to the community or meeting topic. For example, farmers could be asked to “name five trees that grow in your village”, while musicians could be asked to “name five regional songs”. A correct answer wins them an Indonesian-made bike ordered from a local store.
In a Facebook post in August 2017, Jokowi Explain that he chose to offer bicycles not only because they are a non-polluting and accessible means of transport for all, but also because they embody many of his personal values and his ambitions for the nation. “Cycling is done independently and it’s hard work,” he said. “Progress, rhythm and speed are the result of your own effort, the movement of your own body, without machines or help from others.”
Jokowi’s use of bicycles to promote his image becomes ubiquitous. Anyone who has passed through an Indonesian airport in the past four years or so has likely seen people posing for photos with a cardboard cutout of a smiling president on his bicycle. The internet is full of photos of Indonesians “hitchhiking” with their popular president.
In reality, Hadiah Sepeda President has become a cultural phenomenon, with countless memes and youtube videos, complete with humorous banter between over-impressed contestants and their quizmaster chair. While it is easy to be cynical about the exercise, watching the events one can see the gap between the national leader and ordinary citizens disappearing, for a few moments at least. Acclaimed Indonesian filmmaker Garin Nugroho even used it as a vehicle to tell a little-heard story about Papuan culture, its disadvantages and struggles, in his 2021 film, President Sepeda.
The Hadiah Sepeda President The initiative is also touted as promoting Indonesian industry, manufacturing, innovation and design. The prize bikes are often made by Polygon, based in Sidoarjo, or another local manufacturer. The bamboo bike donated to Albanese was produced by a social enterprise Spedagi, based in Temanggung, Central Java. In press briefings and PR materials prepared by his team, these branding details are carefully noted and repeated in subsequent reports.
The impact of a presidential post, a tweet or a press release mentioning a company or a brand is not negligible. In August 2020, Jokowi posted pictures on his Instagram account a folding bike made in Indonesia, the Kreuz, a bit like the famous British Brompton. The post went viral, attracting over 1.4 million likes in less than a day, and huge orders for its Bandung-based manufacturer. The bike sells for around Rp 15-30 million (A$1,400-2,800) fully equipped.
This post, like many others posted by Jokowi during the Covid-19 pandemic, was also meant to convey a message about the importance of regular exercise – another topic close to the President’s heart.
The Australian Prime Minister was not the first world leader to receive a bamboo bicycle from Jokowi. The Bulgarian president received one last year. But the familiar – almost family – symbolism of this gift would have resonated in Indonesia.
Nonetheless, that leaves Albanese with a challenge if Jokowi comes to visit Canberra. The Australian Prime Minister has hinted that a reciprocal ride around Lake Burley Griffin may not be on the cards, but hope Australians can come up with something with similar resonance.