Then president Megawati Soekarnoputri tried to centralize the licensing of foreign and domestic investment in the Investment Coordinating Board (BKPM) in 2004, but failed because of the strong bureaucratic jealousy between government institutions.
Going off in a strikingly different direction, President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono announced plans in May 2005 to dilute the function of the BKPM into simply a promotion and company registry office, and to decentralize investment licensing in the spirit of local autonomy.
But except for putting the BKPM under the jurisdiction of the Trade Ministry, no other concrete measures have been taken to follow up on that idea.
The new investment law that was enacted by the House of Representatives on Thursday seeks not only to upgrade and strengthen the status of the BKPM, but also to centralize investment licensing at this agency under the concept of a one-stop investment licensing and service center.
However, the articles in the new law regarding the delegation to the BKPM of licensing authority by the various ministries and regional administrations are so ambiguous that past mistakes could be repeated, with investors again finding themselves stuck in a bureaucratic maze.
The law stipulates that the investment board shall be led by an official with ministerial status who is responsible directly to the president. This is, to a certain extent, similar to the BKPM's status under Soeharto's authoritarian administration. During the New Order, the investment board was considered a non-ministerial government institution under the oversight of the President's Operation Offices (State Secretariat).
However, the law also states in another article that the BKPM, in executing its function as a one-stop licensing and service center, shall involve direct representatives from related ministries and regional administrations.
This means that all ministries, government agencies and regional administrations related to the licenses/permits and services/facilities needed by investors should assign representatives to the BKPM.
Hence, the investment board will have officials from Manpower and Transmigration Ministry for processing work permits for expatriates, from the Justice and Human Rights Ministry for residency permits and entry visas, the Finance Ministry for granting tax and import duty incentives, etc., etc.
This could be the trap that makes the concept of the one-stop licensing and service center unworkable, because the law does not explicitly require the various ministries and regional administrations to transfer their licensing authority fully to the BKPM.
The new provisions will only spare investors the arduous procedures that require them to go from one ministry to another, from one regional administration to another, to obtain the various permits or facilities needed for their investment projects. Investors need only to file their applications with the BKPM, which is responsible, on behalf of the investors, for obtaining the necessary permits or facilities from the relevant ministries.
But inter-ministerial coordination has always been the weakest point of the government. Even the authoritarian, centralized administration of Soeharto took almost 15 years to make the BKPM a one-stop administrative center for investors. But this facility broke down soon after Soeharto's fall.
The reason behind the extreme difficulties in inter-ministerial coordination is not only the pervasive bureaucratic jealousy. From the perspective of public administration, seen as one of the most corrupt in the world, licensing authority means money for officials.
Centralizing investment licensing at the BKPM could also generate a hostile bureaucratic climate for investment ventures in the regions, and this will sabotage one of the primary objectives of local autonomy -- to encourage regional administrations to compete for investment.
The central government should instead delegate most of its licensing authority to regional administrations, with the BKPM retaining authority only for those requirements that need national standards, such as the environmental impact analysis, tax incentives, etc.
Instead of centralizing the overall investment licensing in Jakarta, which is after all contrary to the spirit of local autonomy, the government should help empower regional investment offices -- Provincial Investment Coordinating Offices (BKPMD) -- to enable them to better serve businesses and woo new investors through business-friendly policies.
Many local administrations still don't fully realize the great contribution of investment to their local economies through job creation and the injection of purchasing power to fuel consumer demand, thereby generating growth in the manufacturing industry.
Investors need expedient procedures for obtaining all the permits and facilities needed for their ventures, but the method of addressing this need should not kill the incentive for regional administrations to compete with each other in wooing domestic and foreign investment.
However, there are still escape clauses in the law that can help the government avoid past mistakes regarding the BKPM and the bureaucratic machinery for investment licensing.
The new investment law, which will replace the 1967 Foreign Investment Law and the 1968 Domestic Investment Law, stipulates that technical details on the implementation of the one-stop licensing and service center for investors, and on the division of public administration authority in the management of investment, shall be governed by presidential regulations.
Hence, like most other laws in the country, the key to the efficacy of the new investment law will depend on the provisions in the presidential regulations which, according to Trade Minister Mari Elka Pangestu, will be issued next month.