Johannes Nugroho: Is Ahok Too Upper-Middle Class? i

In the aftermath of his electoral defeat, incumbent Jakarta Governor Basuki 'Ahok' Tjahaja Purnama found himself inundated by an outpouring of flower boards and wreaths sent by his supporters and admirers who wanted to show him their unchanged affection and best wishes. (JG Photo/Yudha Baskoro)

By : Johannes Nugroho | on 10:00 AM April 29, 2017
Category : Opinion, Commentary

In the aftermath of his electoral defeat, incumbent Jakarta Governor Basuki "Ahok" Tjahaja Purnama found himself inundated by an outpouring of flower boards and wreaths sent by his supporters and admirers who wanted to show him their unchanged affection and best wishes.

The consolatory wreaths have been reported to number more than 2,000, creating a colorful and unprecedented scene at City Hall.

By Indonesian standards, sending a flower board or a wreath is not a cheap affair. With prices ranging from $40 to $300, a wreath is the quintessential upper-middle class well-wishing signature. A common sight at an upper-middle class or upper-class wedding, shop opening and even a funeral wake, they are meant to lend prestige to any social event.

Hence it would seem that many ardent Ahok supporters are to be found among Jakarta's upper-middle class. As a rule, it is not easy to define Indonesia's middle classes as they do not necessarily correspond to their counterparts in Western industrialized nations.

According to the Asian Development Bank (ADB), an Indonesian belongs to the middle class if he or she can afford to spend between $2 and $20 a day. The Indonesian middle classes are further stratified into a lower-middle class with daily spending of between $2 and $4, median-middle class that spends between $4 and $10 and the upper-middle class that spends between $10 and $20.

Based on the ADB figures, it makes sense to assume the well-wishers who sent floral wreaths to Ahok were predominantly upper-middle class. So why do they love him so much? The answer is evident on a few levels.

First, the governor shares the same social language mode with the capital's well-to-do residents. For example, at his blasphemy trial a week after his electoral defeat, reading out his own defense, Ahok used the animated film "Finding Nemo" as a metaphor for what has befallen him.

"If you swim upward, you will go into the net. Most fish swim upward. So, Nemo must swim against the current. It is the same. We must go against the current. Although many are dishonest, it's fine, as long as we keep being honest. It does not matter if no one says thanks for what we have done for them."

Ahok's reference to "Finding Nemo," a popular film among urban middle-class Indonesians, is telling. While it is far from being high-brow, it is part of the popular culture and signature that most of his supporters understand and can relate to. By contrast, the "Finding Nemo" allegory will probably have less of an impact, if not completely lost in translation, with audiences of lower economic classes.

During his tenure as governor, Ahok also consistently made policies representing values and aspirations which would have found appeal with the middle classes, particularly the more urbane and well-traveled upper-middle class. The cleaning up of Jakarta's main rivers and the bulldozing of riverside slums were lauded as breakthroughs in the bid to gentrify the capital to put it on par with other metropolises around the world. The governor himself often spoke of his dream in which Jakarta could rival Singapore, the neighboring city-state, sometime in the future.

At the other end of the spectrum, however, Jakarta's slum dwellers who found their homes razed to the ground would have had only grievances against Ahok's gentrification drive. Nor would they have seen it as a necessary sacrifice for the greater good; for the greater glory of civic and even national pride.

Social activists spoke against his uncompromising and "arrogant" approach, sometimes involving the police and military, towards residents of "illegal squat tenement." They blame the governor for failing to appreciate the complexity of the issues concerning Jakarta's slums; for dehumanizing the poor squatters and in the case of Bukit Duri; for disregarding the law because the tenement was razed while a lawsuit by its residents was still lodged in court. Environmental activists have also criticized his support for the North Jakarta reclamation project.

While religious and racial issues were obviously at work against Ahok in his election bid – made particularly acute by the blasphemy charge against him and the subsequent massive public protests by Islamic groups – it is possible that the governor's popular appeal was overrated. With hardcore supporters comprising mainly educated, upper-middle class Jakartans, Ahok would always have had an uphill electoral battle on his hands.

According to a study by the Institute for Democracy and Social Welfare (Indeks) in 2015, the upper-middle class in Jakarta, defined by its monthly spending of between Rp 3.9 million and Rp 7.8 million ($290-$580) per capita, was about 18 percent of the entire population in the capital city. In comparison, the lower-middle and lower classes made up about 76 percent.

Although Ahok also initiated and championed policies that benefited the poor through various education subsidies, grants and low-cost public transport, it is fair to say that upper-middle class voters best understood his style of political communication. His passing commentary on the Al Maidah verse in the Koran, which formed the basis of his blasphemy charge, would hardly have raised any eyebrows among the upper-middle class but was risqué and considered disrespectful by the prevalent standards of the lower classes.

Indiscretion in communication proved to be Ahok's weakness as his unnecessary and unsought-for hermeneutic on Islamic religious doctrine was used against him with deadly effect. Ahok's greatest error of judgment was mistaking everyone for the segment of Jakartans who understood and appreciated him best: the well-to-do, largely secular upper-middle class. In the film, by swimming against the current, Nemo can escape. It remains to be seen whether Ahok will be able to achieve the same feat.

Johannes Nugroho is a writer from Surabaya. He can be contacted at johannes@nonacris.com and on Twitter: @Johannes_nos

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