When President Joko “Jokowi” Widodo invited new Australian Prime Minister Anthony Albanese to join him on a leisurely bicycle ride through the grounds of the Bogor Presidential Palace on 6 June, the Australian media contingent couldn’t reach for their social media accounts fast enough. The unusual spectacle of two world leaders riding bikes was enough to prompt a series of tweets and articles about “Bicycle Diplomacy”.
To be fair to the travelling journalists, the casual ride through the gardens, a route Jokowi regularly takes as part of his exercise regime, was certainly a pronounced shift in tone from the day’s earlier events. Albanese’s visit began with an extremely formal ceremonial welcome to the Presidential Palace, replete with dancers in traditional dress and guards on horseback.
This is not the first time Jokowi has surprised foreign dignitaries and their entourages with a shift in gear (excuse the pun). Many Australians would remember his blusukan visit to Tanah Abang Market with a sweaty Malcolm Turnbull in 2015.
Nor was this the first time Jokowi had taken a foreign dignitary for a bike ride. In November 2014, as newly installed president, Jokowi took then-Mayor of London and keen cyclist Boris Johnson on a ride through the streets of Jakarta on Car Free Day, accompanied by then-Jakarta Governor Basuki “Ahok” Tjahaja Purnama.
As the media following the Albanese visit were quick to point out, the bilateral bike ride was intended to symbolise the humble origins of both leaders. Albanese is the son of a single mother and grew up in social housing, while Jokowi was raised in simple housing in Solo, Central Java, and his family was forcibly relocated several times.
Although Albanese didn’t look entirely comfortable on his bamboo bike, the stunt fitted both leaders well. The Australian’s heartfelt appreciation for the experience was reportedly warmly accepted.
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This was far from the first time Australians have seen their leaders engage in sports and leisure activities – from Harold Holt’s fatal ocean swim to Tony Abbott’s frequent forays into the surf, or John Howard’s morning power walk. For Indonesians, however, the image of Jokowi on a bike conjures something altogether different.
In fact, the bike has become a symbol of Jokowi’s presidency – expertly deployed in many ways. Jokowi’s ride with Albanese was a sign of friendship towards the new prime minister, but it was also directed at Jokowi’s own constituency.
Since he emerged on the national stage in 2012, Jokowi has carefully projected an image of a humble outsider. He works hard to present himself as having more in common with the public than the oligarchs who surround him, even though his administration is, in fact, heavily reliant on those oligarchs, and has produced policies that cater to their interests.
Jokowi has long been known to be a keen cyclist but, like his blusukan visits, bikes have become part of this wider image-crafting project. They are used to signify Jokowi’s personal values, to connect directly with citizens, and even to convey government messaging and policy. To this end, he has led what has become a hugely popular public ritual commonly known as Hadiah Sepeda Jokowi (“Jokowi’s Bike Prize”), which began around 2015.
In community meetings and public receptions with farmers, students, civil servants, artists and musicians – whether in villages or the Presidential Palace – Jokowi conducts a quiz, asking select audience members five questions. The topic is usually relevant to the community or theme of the meeting. For example, farmers might be asked to “name five trees that grow in your village”, while musicians might 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 explained that he chose to gift bikes not only because they are a non-polluting form of transport and are accessible to everyone but also because they encapsulate many of his personal values and ambitions for the nation. “Cycling is done independently and is hard work,” he said. “Progress, pace, and speed are a result of your own effort, the movement of your own body, without machines or the help of others.”
Jokowi’s use of bikes to promote his image is becoming ubiquitous. Anyone who has passed through an Indonesian airport in the last four years or so is likely to have seen people posing for photos with a cardboard cut-out of a smiling president on his bike. The internet is overflowing with photos of Indonesians “hitching a ride” with their popular president.
In fact, Hadiah Sepeda Presiden has become a cultural phenomenon, with countless memes and YouTube videos, complete with humorous banter between over-awed contestants and their quizmaster president. 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, disadvantage and struggle, in his 2021 film, Sepeda Presiden.
The Hadiah Sepeda Presiden initiative is also presented as promoting Indonesian industry, manufacturing, innovation and design. The bikes given as prizes are often made by Sidoarjo-based Polygon or another local manufacturer. The bamboo bike gifted to Albanese was produced by social enterprise Spedagi, based in Temanggung, Central Java. In press briefings and public relations materials prepared by his team, these brand details are carefully noted and repeated in subsequent reporting.
The impact of a presidential post, tweet or press release mentioning a company or brand are not insignificant. In August 2020, Jokowi posted images on his Instagram account of an Indonesia-made folding bike, the Kreuz, not unlike 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 retails at about Rp 15-30 million ($A1,400-2,800) fully kitted-out.
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This post, like many others Jokowi made during the Covid-19 pandemic, also aimed to deliver a message about the importance of regular exercise – another topic dear to the president’s heart.
Australia’s prime minister was not the first world leader to receive a bamboo bike from Jokowi. Bulgaria’s president was given one last year. But the familiar – almost familial – symbolism of this gift would have resonated in Indonesia.
Nevertheless, it does leave Albanese with a challenge if Jokowi comes to visit Canberra. The Australian prime minister hinted that a reciprocal ride around Lake Burley Griffin might not be on the cards, but let’s hope that the Australians can come up with something with a similar kind of resonance.