July 17, 2023
JAKARTA – Medan Mayor Bobby Nasution, the 32-year-old son-in-law of President Joko “Jokowi” Widodo, is probably too young to have heard folk singer Iwan Fals’ popular song “Sugali” – or he may just not be much of a fan.
It’s a catchy, country-inflected tune about a thug named Sugali who chooses to live a dangerous life under the New Order’s “Petrus” policy. The name Sugali comes from the word gali, short for gabungan anak-anak liar (wild boys’ gang), a term for urban thugs in the 1970s, while the term “Petrus” is a portmanteau of penembakan misterius (mysterious shootings), referring to the summary killings of preman (thugs) as a supposed means to bring down crime rates in the country.
The song is a grim reminder of a dark episode of our nation’s past, when the state apparatus was regularly mobilized to eliminate the “enemy”, as defined to suit the interests of power.
It is, therefore, extremely disturbing that a few decades after “Sugali” played on radio stations across the country, a member of the first family on the path to becoming a key figure in the President’s nascent political dynasty is supporting a policy that evokes the same horror as the Petrus killings of the early 1980s.
Bobby, responding to the rising cases of begal (violent robbery) in his city, called on the police to take strict action against perpetrators and shoot them dead “if necessary”.
“The violent robberies by motorcycle gangs have caused public concern and should be dealt with firmly because the perpetrators keep repeating their actions,” he said.
And the police did exactly that, killing a robber in Deli Serdang, North Sumatra, on July 9. Bobby quickly gave them his stamp of approval.
“Robbers and other criminals have no place in Medan. Their actions worry people. The law enforcement [officers] have done the right thing. I appreciate the Medan police,” he said.
His statements have drawn criticism from human rights activists who warn that such an approach to crime is neither effective nor legal. But questioning the logic or legality of Bobby’s bellicose rhetoric may be the least of our concerns.
Duterte’s penal populism
More concerning still is how Bobby has responded to the criticism. He has doubled down on his controversial stance and has even accused his critics of being elitist and out of touch, claiming that killing robbers on sight is what the people want.
“Thank you, on behalf of the begal,” he said sarcastically when asked about the criticism against him.
His claim that he is only trying to protect his constituents by calling on the police to kill criminals is not only logically flawed but also morally suspect. We do not know for sure if the majority of the residents of Greater Medan actually support such a policy, and even if they do, Bobby must do what is right: ensure that law enforcement officers are held accountable for their actions.
There is no way to sugarcoat this: Bobby’s remarks on the begal problem reek of the so-called “penal populism” of former Philippine president Rodrigo Duterte. Populism is generally defined as anti-elite rhetoric often fueled by left-wing or right-wing ideology. Penal populism, which is closer to the right of the political spectrum, specifically refers to “an understanding of justice in which criminal and antisocial activity should be harshly punished” (Kenny & Holmes, 2020).
During his presidency, Duterte launched a brutal anti-drug campaign that led to the extrajudicial killing of mostly powerless and marginalized people. An Amnesty International investigation found that the Philippine police under Duterte “systematically targeted mostly poor and defenseless people across the country while planting ‘evidence’, recruiting paid killers, stealing from the people they killed and fabricating official incident reports”.
Duterte’s war on drugs claimed the lives of at least 7,000 Filipinos, according to Amnesty International. That figure does not include those killed by militias. It is estimated that the number of people killed in the pogrom in fact exceeded 27,000.
It was a senseless and brutal war on drugs, but Duterte always framed it as a critical policy to save his country to grant it a semblance of popular legitimacy. His penal populism helped him win the election, but that was it. It was driven by electoral ambition and nothing more.
Jokowi’s political heirs
Bobby may just be a young politician who doesn’t know better. But how do we know he has not succumbed to the electoral temptation of aggressive populist rhetoric?
Bobby is a key member of the political dynasty that President Jokowi is trying to build before his term ends in October 2024. It is only a matter of time before the political scion expands his power beyond North Sumatra. So what he said matters, and there is a clear indication that Bobby is veering into a dangerous lane of populism.
On New Year’s Day, Bobby declared Medan an “LGBT-free” city, in a clear attempt to gain the support of Indonesia’s largely conservative voters. He claimed the remark was just a joke, but he has made clear he is no defender of the lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer (LGBTQ) community, claiming that Indonesian culture does not condone homosexual relationships.
That’s textbook populism. You create a list of enemies – communists, criminals, drug peddlers, homosexuals, radical Muslims or whatever suits your audience – and portray yourself as one of the few people willing to fight them, if not the only one.
Jokowi, Bobby’s father-in-law, is a populist leader, but he portrays himself more like Bernie Sanders than Duterte or Donald Trump, though some would object to such an assessment. Bobby, alarmingly, has shown a different, more sinister kind of populism.
Haven’t we learned from the 1965 killings, the Petrus campaign, the Tanah Abang riots and so many others? Haven’t minority groups, such as the LGBTQ community, suffered enough over the last few decades? Have we not learned anything about the entrenched culture of impunity that allows our coercive state apparatus to get away with extrajudicial killings?
We are no strangers to dangerous populist ideas that exploit our base fears and desires simply to further elite interests. The last thing we need is another populist leader who could not care less about our basic rights as free and dignified human beings.