Sun, 21 Jun 2009
Duncan Graham

In the slightly less polluted suburbs of Jakarta and other big Indonesian cities, restaurants specialising in beef dishes are doing well, particularly those serving steaks from New Zealand and Australia.

It’s another sign of the growing prosperity of the middle classes, their discriminatory palates and smart marketing; the flashing signs outside the eateries are usually in English (for snob value) and often stress the breed of beast customers will allegedly consume. Black Angus is a favourite.

It’s also an indicator that the Indonesian economy is managing to fend off the global recession. While Westerners suffer negative or minimal growth keeping us housebound, Indonesians are enjoying a four per cent growth rate allowing the well heeled to continue dining out.

Beef has long been out of reach of poor Indonesians who get their protein from chicken, fish and soybeans. Feedlot local beef tends to be tough and apart from a speciality called rujak cingur made from the cow’s snout, few know how to cook it well.

Free-range steaks from NZ and Australia have a reputation for being tender and tasty, and NZ’s clean-green image resonates with educated and health-conscious diners, mainly ethnic Chinese. Trendy restaurants give their customers a flat pre-heated stone and a slab of raw meat. The stone retains its heat long enough for diners to sizzle their own steak.

The growing popularity of Kiwi and Ozzie beef over the local product was one of the reasons put forward for this week’s sudden ban on Antipodean beef imports by Indonesian authorities, allegedly because the meat did not meet the halal (permitted) standards demanded by Muslims.

The ban was triggered by a letter from the Majelis Ulama Indonesia (MUI Indonesian Islamic Scholars’ Council). This advisory body issues fatwa, or religious edicts. Apart from rejecting Kiwi T-bones it has passed fatwa on men and women exchanging texts, chanting during yoga and, more importantly, smoking in public places.

In brief the MUI implied Kiwi cattle were not having their throats slit while facing Mecca by an approved Muslim butcher chanting the name of Allah as the knife goes for the jugular.

There are 60 meatworks in NZ licensed to supply halal meat to the Indonesian market and they’ve been operating smoothly for decades. The trade is worth almost $100 million a year.

But suddenly the abattoirs’ halal licences were found to have expired, just as more than 70 containers landed on Jakarta’s Tanjung Priok wharf. A similar surprise ban occurred last July when Kiwi export labelling was deemed defective.

That problem was quickly and effectively handled by Amris Hassan, the Indonesian Ambassador and his Wellington staff, but this time the task has been tougher, involving Trade Minister Tim Groser who was in Bali for trade talks.

Groser is no nave newcomer to dirty trade wars. He’s a former ambassador to Jakarta and the World Trade Organisation, a trade negotiator before entering politics and an Indonesian speaker. So when he told National Radio that he “didn’t quite know what went wrong” - the sub-text suggested devious doings.

After three days of confusion the containers started rolling off the wharves. The face-saving explanation was that an MUI letter warning the halal licences had to be renewed before October had been misinterpreted by government authorities.

During the 2008 labelling crisis there were dark hints that Indonesian importers of Brazilian beef had used their political clout to engineer the ban on NZ beef. Since then NZ and Indonesia have signed a free trade agreement (FTA) which progressively reduces tariffs on Kiwi exports to the republic.

During the negotiations the Indonesians lobbied for a deal similar to the FTA signed in April 2008 with China. This involved work visas for a swag of Chinese professions and trades, including chefs, tour guides and teaching aides.

But by February this year unemployment was rising in NZ and the jobs vanished from the negotiations. Jakarta trade officials publicly accused NZ of giving too little and demanding too much, but the agreement was signed despite the posturing.

Then the local meat trade demanded protection, with Agriculture Minister Anton Apriyantono promising to impose quotas to protect the nation’s four million beef farmers who supply about 70 per cent of the local market.

Indonesia’s leading and conservative English-language newspaper The Jakarta Post commented: Beef importing business practices have been rather murky with numerous vested interests backed by top government officials reportedly working together to maintain their advantage in the huge Indonesian market of 230 million people.’

The fourth most populous nation in the world presents great trade opportunities, but it’s a market where exporters need to tread warily.

(First published in Scoop, 10 June 2009)



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