Meet the new election hopefuls

From left to right: Mr Bondan Winarno, Mr Rhoma Irama, and Mr Richard Sam Bera.

The Celebrity Food Critic

Mr Bondan Winarno believes he has a good recipe for political success. While other candidates make big promises about reforming education, reducing corruption or helping the poor, he thinks the way to get a person's vote is through the stomach.

The TV food critic-turned-politician is promising to improve nutritional standards, have stricter monitoring of canteen food in schools, and encourage more home-grown produce when out canvassing for votes.

"I have approached many of the mother-type voters. I could easily get them interested in what I'm talking about," he says.

Mr Bondan, 63, is leveraging on young mums interested in what is best for their children - which happens to his forte: food.

His popular television programme Jalan Sutera (Silk Road) has him travelling across Indonesia tasting the country's diverse culinary traditions.

Mr Bondan started out as a journalist writing for various publications including Indonesia's largest daily Kompas and largest magazine Tempo, before his passion for food took him down a different path.

He now has 428,000 Twitter followers and is hoping to make yet another career switch - vying for a seat in Jakarta for the nationalist Gerindra Party, which is led by former army special forces general Prabowo Subianto.

Get Mr Bondan talking about his latest mission and he sounds almost like British chef Jamie Oliver, preaching with great zeal about the benefits of healthy eating.

The Gerindra candidate points out that one in three children in Indonesia is malnourished, and that it has become such a huge problem that a political decision is required to address this. And he is the man with the plans.

"We could go as far as providing food recipes for school canteens," he says.

"I'm not so much selling myself but selling the programme I'm going to achieve, I'm going to work on. It's up to the voters whether they want to give me their mandate to pursue this goal."

Part of his plan calls for promoting noodles made of cassava, a common crop in Indonesia that has the additional advantage of needing less water than rice to cultivate.

"Indonesian kids are fond of noodles nowadays. Noodles are made of flour, which we import heavily. We must promote the use of cassava, which has a lot of fibre," says Mr Bondan with great enthusiasm before resuming his campaign rounds.

His 12-page campaign leaflet reads nothing like the political literature being dished out by other politicians for next month's legislative elections on April 9.

For one thing, the leaflet is entitled "The fight to create Nutritious Indonesia". It contains minimal political talk but many tips on healthy living. It even has recipes for two cheap and nourishing dishes - cassava noodles in fish soup and tuna claypot rice.

The Dangdut King

The 67-year-old with long sideburns struts out on stage, his guitar slung over a white pantsuit showing the hint of a paunch.

The crowd goes wild.

But this is not some contestant in an Elvis Presley lookalike show - it is Rhoma Irama, the self-styled Dangdut King of Indonesia, on the election campaign trail in Aceh.

Mr Rhoma aspires to be president, running on the ticket of the National Awakening Party (PKB), a relatively small Islamic party with 28 seats in Parliament.

PKB may not have the standing and grassroots support of establishment parties like Golkar and the Indonesian Democratic Party- Struggle (PDI-P), but it has Mr Rhoma to draw the crowds, in a style of campaigning that has been dubbed "electiontainment".

And on that recent day in Banda Aceh, he had the audience singing along with him as he belted out his hit song, Indonesia.

"... my heart always questions why are our lives not the same. The rich get richer, the poor become poorer," he crooned, a theme of social justice running through the song.

Fighting corruption, being a good citizen and responsible leadership are part of his repertoire now that he is a politician.

In the 1970s, it was more Western- style rock 'n' roll before he formed Orkes Melayu Soneta, the country's first dangdut group. His song Begadang (Stay Up All Night) made it to Rolling Stone Indonesia's top 150 Indonesian songs of all time in 2009.

After he performed the Haj in 1975, he began adopting a more pious public image, at one point telling off racier singers like Inul Darastita, famous for her sensual dance moves.

In 2012, he got flak for suggesting publicly that Indonesians should vote along religious lines and that Mr Basuki Tjahaja Purnama, Jakarta's vice-governor, was unfit to run the capital city because he was Christian and Chinese.

Asked by The Sunday Times whether he stands by his statement, Mr Rhoma replies: "I still say this - that Islam forbids anyone to support a leader who is not of the same faith if Islam is in the majority."

But he goes on to say he is not bothered if deputies are non-Muslim or of a minority ethnic race, as that is not a leading position.

For some young voters like Mr Muhammad Zulkifli, 22, it takes more than song and dance to win his vote. "Indonesians don't need a has-been without a clear vision. Our president has to do more than sing to inspire people, and not use race-based politics. Let's not embarrass Indonesia," he says.

But for the Aceh fans who travelled long distances to hear the Dangdut King sing that day, the music was all as they chanted "dua... dua… dua", referring to the number "2" that PKB is assigned on the voting list.

The Olympic Swimmer

Three-time Olympian Richard Sam Bera is Indonesia's most famous swimming star, but these days he has been gearing up for a competition of a different kind, out of the pool and into political waters.

The 42-year-old is running for a Jakarta seat in the National Parliament with Governor Joko Widodo's Indonesian Democratic Party-Struggle (PDI-P), because he sees the potential for Indonesia to become a "powerhouse of sport".

"The development of sport (in Indonesia) has come to the lowest point and I am really concerned," says the swimmer who, in 2001, broke Singapore swimmer Ang Peng Siong's 12-yearold record in the 50m freestyle event at the SEA Games.

Mr Sam Bera, who has 11 SEA Games medals and an Asian Games bronze medal to his name, laments that Indonesia lacks the "machinery" to develop elite athletes, as China and the United States do.

The soft-spoken ethnic Chinese candidate speaks with a hint of an American accent picked up during his varsity years at Arizona State University in the 1990s.

Although Mr Sam Bera attended the college on scholarship, he bemoans the fact that there are not nearly enough opportunities for aspiring sportsmen.

As a father of a 10-yearold child, he also wants a greater emphasis on sports in school "because it shapes the character of kids", and promotes discipline.

This is the message that the political newcomer, who joined PDI-P in 2008 and is head of its sports and youth wing, has been spreading at his daily walkabouts while campaigning for the April 9 election.

When The Sunday Times accompanied him on one such walkabout in the Grogol Pertamburan district in West Jakarta yesterday, it was clear that Mr Sam Bera, who swam competitively from 1982 to 2005, has one of the more recognisable faces in these elections.

Residents greeted him with friendly handshakes as he asked for their support, with some asking to take photographs with him.

The response, he says, has been "encouraging". "People haven't heard the message of sports at elections, which usually focus on the eradication of corruption or prosperity.

So it's a fresh idea," he tells The Sunday Times. Tall, tanned and trim, he is comfortable being in the spotlight and eases into his role as politician like a fish takes to water.

He used to be a TV sports anchor and is now editor-in-chief of Fitness for Men and FHM magazines.

The champion swimmer is also relying on a medal-winning formula in his latest competition: "I have to know my strengths and weaknesses, know the lay of the land and know my adversaries.

"The same principles in sports apply in politics."

 

Get a copy of The Straits Times or go to straitstimes.com for more stories.