Indonesia's Oxford-educated influencer faces heat over G20 role

PHOTO: Instagram/Maudy Ayunda

Indonesia's move to select a celebrity as its G20 spokesperson underlines President Joko Widodo's fixation on his public image, analysts said, as Jakarta continues to rely on influencers to communicate its policies to the public.

Southeast Asia's biggest economy last month named Ayunda Faza Maudya, 27, as its official G20 spokesperson, in the hopes that the actress, singer, author, activist and social media influencer - more popularly known as Maudy Ayunda - will be able to impress upon young people the significance of Indonesia's presidency of the forum.

Minister of Communication and Informatics Johnny Plate said Maudy was picked so the government "can reach the wider public, particularly millennials and Generation Z".

"Maudy Ayunda graduated with a politics, philosophy, and economics degree from the University of Oxford, and earned a master's degree in business and administration as well as a master of art in education from Stanford University," Plate said. "Maudi also can speak a few foreign languages, which I hope will help in her duty as a spokesperson."

Maudy, who has more than 16 million followers on Instagram and Twitter combined, has long been viewed as a role model for education given her Ivy League background.

She started acting when she was 11, and she has published a "collection of thoughts" in a book titled Dear Tomorrow and a children's book, Kina and Her Fluffy Bunny.

In addition to her native Bahasa Indonesia, Maudy speaks English, Mandarin and Spanish. In 2020, she was mentioned in Forbes Asia 's 30 Under 30 list as an influential figure in the entertainment and sports category.

Maudy has also been an activist, campaigning for the eradication of modern slavery, including forced labour and marriage.

However, analysts say her lack of experience in diplomacy may be a risk for Indonesia during its first presidency of G20.

"She might have studied at Oxford and Stanford, but she does not have foreign diplomacy experience, which one must possess if they were to be a spokesperson at such a huge event as the G20," said Ujang Komarudin, political analyst with Indonesia Political Review .

Ujang said Jakarta's reputation could be "stained" if Maudy were unable to respond to a question about geopolitical developments at a time the Ukraine war was having an impact on international diplomacy.

Indonesia currently faces a boycott from Western countries over its decision to invite Russia to the G20 meetings and summit, which will take place in Bali in November.

According to a Bloomberg report this week, at Maudy's first press conference about her role, she "appeared to ignore questions about [Russian President Vladimir] Putin's attendance. Organisers told journalists to ask about her personality instead".

The influencer told Bloomberg her job was "to report the G20 meeting results that are relevant to Indonesia" and not sensitive questions such as the world's geopolitical tensions.

"Maudy needs to learn and work hard to understand every moments and agenda relating to the G20, if not then it would be a [reputational] suicide for Indonesia," Ujang said.

Some people on social media have also questioned Maudy's credentials to be the face of the G20.

"Interesting how those who defended Maudy Ayunda's appointment ... used 'but she went to Oxford/Stanford' as an argument. Inferiority complex? Overestimating the impact of overseas education over knowledge in global affairs? Or an effect of Maudy's good [public relations campaign?]," said the Twitter user.

But Rizal Ramli, former coordinating minister for maritime affairs, said that criticism of Maudy was "a bit too harsh and cynical", adding that senior foreign policy advisers could brief her on Indonesia's foreign diplomacy.

This is not the first time Jakarta has tapped a celebrity to promote the government's agenda, a move which has at times resulted in gaffes that embarrassed the Widodo administration.

Indonesia's President Joko Widodo attends an Asean leaders summit with United Nations Secretary-General Antonio Guterres, in Bangkok, Thailand, on Nov 3, 2019.
PHOTO: Reuters

In January last year, Widodo invited television personality Raffi Ahmad to join the first group of Indonesians to receive China's Sinovac Covid-19 vaccine.

The "representative of the youth", as the presidential palace dubbed him, landed himself in hot soup a few days later, after he attended a birthday party without social distancing and wearing a mask.

Raffi later released a statement on Instagram apologising to Widodo and other officials.

During the 2019 presidential election, Widodo selected some 47 social media influencers to help broadcast his agenda to young voters. At least 17 of these celebrities, who had large social media followings, were rewarded with cushy jobs, including roles at state-owned firms, after Widodo defeated his rival and former general Prabowo Subianto.

During Widodo's first term from 2014 to 2019, Jakarta spent 90.45 billion rupiah (S$8.6 billion) to hire influencers to promote their policies, according to Indonesia Corruption Watch.

When tourism began to slow in February 2020 after the Covid-19 pandemic hit, Indonesia sought to spend up to 72 billion rupiah to hire influencers to promote tourism - a plan which faced strong backlash from the public.

"There is a perception among officials that a government policy will not be popular if they don't hire influencers to promote it," Ujang noted. "That's why we now have public figures appointed to be brand ambassadors for many things."

Lina Miftahul Jannah, a public policy expert from the University of Indonesia, said there was nothing wrong with hiring influencers to socialise the government's agenda, as long as the government was transparent about how they were selected.

"The government must have their own calculations, and these calculations need to be communicated to the public," she said. "In Maudy's case for example, we don't know why she was selected as she is not the only celebrity to have pursued an education overseas."

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This article was first published in South China Morning Post.