Mon, 15 Nov 2010

From: The Jakarta Post

By Yasmi Adriansyah, Geneva
Transmitting messages to the general public via the mass media is unquestionably one of most effective measures available to policy makers.

It is even more pertinent for a country such as Indonesia, which has been a fully fledged democracy since the end of the previous century.

By doing so, policy makers can convey their messages and gather feedback from the public. Putting it into more conceptual language, it is a thesis-antithesis-synthesis process toward producing better policies.

On the other hand, policy makers shall also be prepared, in receiving comments or even heated reactions to their messages. Democracy opens wide the door for the public, in expressing ideas they think are better than others. Their thoughts can be purely scientific, politically motivated or just critical views conveyed in simple ways.

Presumably this is what happened in the heated discourse on economic nationalism conveyed recently by Gita Wirjawan, the chairman of the Investment Coordinating Board (BKPM). His op-ed article in Kompas daily of Oct. 7, 2010, titled “Economic Nationalism”, triggered a heated public debate. A number of well-known economists lambasted Gita’s view as being unnationalistic. There is even an opinion stating that Gita’s view is dangerous.

For those who are not following the issue, here is the short chronology (in my own language). Gita tabled his ideas by provoking the meaning of economic nationalism. He argued that nationalism, and particularly economic nationalism, existed a long time ago. Any country in the world will fight for economic nationalism for the sake of their peoples’ welfare. Even a country like the United States is very nationalistic when it comes to the economic protection of its people.

On the other hand, Gita argued that economic nationalism should be interpreted in the correct perspective, particularly in terms of investment.

A developing country like Indonesia certainly needs investment to develop further. Investment will create jobs, revenue from traded goods and other multiplier effects. In the end, investment is intended to gear towards public welfare, a noble goal which is presumably shared by all Indonesian people.

More specifically, Gita argued that economic nationalism in the areas of investment should not be focused too much on ownership structure. This is because when it comes to the issue of ownership structure, Indonesians tend to limit themselves to their own perceptions of nationalism, which argue that any investment should be controlled by Indonesians, whereas foreign investors should be the second layer of controllers.

A number of well-known economists and other observers lambasted Gita’s view as being unnationalistic. It was even regarded as dangerous, since he was perceived to propose selling Indonesian land to foreigners. Kompas and other media published those concerns, which I believe were all well received by Gita and his agency.

I was amazed to see the reaction to Gita’s view. Knowing Gita’s thoughts from his interviews and others, it is hard to say he is unnationalistic.

Of course, he is a graduate from the well-known Harvard University, a university located in a country often considered the center of capitalism, the United States. But there are many Indonesian scientists and public figures who are also graduates of US academic institutions, such as Prof. Amien Rais. None can argue that Amien is a strong critic of capitalist ideologies.

I also believe Harvard University graduates are not brainless enough in their thinking to hold such views. In other words, criticizing Gitas view based on his academic background is illegitimate.

Furthermore, judging Gita’s view as unnationalistic or even dangerous is not appropriate either. Gita’s view was simply trying to convey that in order to invite more investors to Indonesia, Indonesians need to rethink the issue of ownership structure. Perhaps this is one of the serious concerns raised by foreign investors in Indonesia, since they want to see more protection given to their investments. These kinds of concerns are very much in line with the saying, “Money is the biggest coward”.

On the other hand, criticizing Gita’s view by promoting Sukarno’s ideologies is a bit of an overreaction, if not to say misplaced. Some have argued that because Indonesia needs to keep the ideologies of Sukarno, Indonesia’s first president, to protect our national interests, Gita’s view should be rejected.

I am again amazed at this kind of argument. Sukarno was indeed one of Indonesia’s greatest men, and I am one of his fans. His brinkmanship during the fight against colonialism has been unmatched. For this reason, there is nothing Indonesians can say than be proud of him.

Nevertheless, Sukarno is just like any other human being in this world, none of whom is being perfect. And one of Sukarno’s imperfections was his economic ideologies. To cut a long story short, Indonesia’s economy under Sukarno is not a good example to follow since poverty and even hunger at those times were widespread. The fall of Sukarno in the 1960s was considered a result of his failure to manage the Indonesian economy.

Back to Gita’s view, I would assume he is simply trying to open our minds to the concept of “economic nationalism” since Indonesia is in dire need of investment to accelerate economic growth. Gita wants Indonesians to be more creative without any intention to sell land or other type of proprietorship, which I believe he clearly understands is a very sensitive issue for many Indonesians.

To conclude, the heated debate on Gita’s view is indeed a positive dynamism in the context of democracy. Gita has revitalized the need for more open public debate, particularly on important policy issues such as investment. This kind of issue certainly will involve and criss-cross into other important areas such as trade, manpower, education and certainly public welfare.

The next question is: Where do we go from the debate on economic nationalism? The best way to find out is by conducting an independent study or studies. Gita has opened the door for us. Others are certainly most welcome to comment. But criticizing each other is not providing any good solutions for Indonesia’s quest to welfare.

For those who are dreaming for and aiming toward Indonesia’s welfare through investment, the floor is now yours.

The writer is an Indonesian diplomat and a graduate of Oxford University. The opinions expressed are personal.