Sat, 21 Feb 2004

Islands of Excellence W. Scott Thompson Gianyar, Bali

There is often almost a sense of despair in the analyses of Indonesian writers in these pages. Their country's corruption, collusion and nepotism (KKN), traffic, pollution, terrorism, sectarian violence -- you name it, it's been here in the past few years -- at least in newspaper reports.

The country most like Indonesia, the Philippines, has had all of the same problems, but it is surprising how little the two countries try to learn from each other's experience. Both sprawling multi-ethnic archipelagos of mostly Malay blood, they both had long experience with rapacious leaderships who left a terrible heritage of mismanagement and inequality.

Amazingly, both countries now are led by daughters of former presidents -- both of whom lost power in the same year, almost four decades ago.

But one thing the Philippines has had that Indonesia has not, is a professional, competent managerial and incorruptible president -- one who to boot was (and is) a self-taught economist. Gen. Fidel V. Ramos was president 1992-1998, and was limited -- and self-limited -- from further terms by a constitution that was itself a reaction to the unconstitutionality of Ferdinand Marcos.

But with or without a leader of Ramos's world-class leadership capability, there are lessons from the Ramos presidency. One of the first that comes to mind was his creation of "islands of excellence." The point was that the problems overall seemed so monumental as to be unsolvable -- and so dispiriting as to discourage reform.

So why not take the very worst areas within the system of governance and clean them up totally -- making them beacons, from which "spill-over benefits" could come, as the economists would say. The first one chosen was -- this should not surprise an Indonesian -- the bureau of Customs, almost always the most irredeemably corrupt arena for presidential cronies and political hacks.

Ramos stunned even his own circle by appointing to the bureau his very closest associate, the renowned and formidable Gen. Jose Almonte, one of Asia's foremost political strategists -- but also, as one of the key organizers of the People Power revolution of 1986, a man of street smarts.

He then send Almonte a formal presidential letter, giving him the full names of his wife and five daughters, with the instructions that, were any of these to go to him for special intercession at the bureau, he was not to come to him, the president, but to "go to the police." At that point everyone in Manila knew Ramos was what the French call homme serieux -- or man of awesome seriousness.

Of course Almonte soon moved on to run Ramos's national security establishment, but not until he had set in motion a transparent system in which the steps required for customs processing had been reduced nine-fold. A subsequent World Bank report gave the customs bureau one of the highest marks in the world.

It was all undone -- like so much else -- by the pitiful presidency of the now-jailed successor, "Erap" Estrada. The bureau became once again a place where the cronies imported their slick merchandise duty-free and where the computer-driven system was replaced by the old hands-on (and pocket-replenishing) system of old.

But Filipinos came to see, and to believe, that reform was possible, necessary, and inevitable. It became almost fashionable for cabinet ministers to compare notes on how they had turned down implicit or explicit bribes.

Ramos had taught them, in any case, that they had far more to gain from an economically vibrant Philippines, and took most of them on his several-dozen foreign trips: And these were not pleasure junkets but highly-organized investment-search ventures, in which the president held nightly reviews with his entourage to see how much new money had been promised that day. The way to the presidential heart was finding new investment -- which soared during his presidency.

So reform occurred in virtually every area of Philippines governance. Tax collection soared, land reform was essentially completed, and infrastructural projects spread across the archipelago. Exports in computer parts and other high-end manufactures were growing sometimes by 45 percent a year. Small wonder that it was the only large Southeast Asian economy that didn't even briefly go under during the 1997 catastrophe. The Philippines economy actually grew slightly in 1997 -- thanks to shrewd and cautious management by the palace and department of finance.

Of course the differences between these two countries are substantial and no serious analyst would try to market identical processes. For one thing, the economic crisis hit when Soeharto was still in power -- but all but moribund. It has made recovery so very much more difficult. And there never was the positive effect of a "clean sweep" -- the picture of Ferdinand Marcos climbing aboard a Huey helicopter into permanent exile, a revolution from the streets removing all fear of lingering Marcos influence.

But still, does anyone seriously believe Indonesia lacks talented and competent reformers, capable -- if given the chance -- of instituting the kind of reforms Ramos achieved in six years in the Philippines? Does anyone believe that Filipinos are more capable than Indonesians? Surely not. The question is not competence or even experience. It is political will, and belief that it is possible.

One huge difference between the two archipelagos is that Indonesians as a whole are far more self-confident in their nationalism and national identity than Filipinos. This alone should make it easier to achieve here what the Philippines managed to do so magnificently in six short years.

Dr. W. Scott Thompson, D. Phil. is Adjunct Professor of International Politics, Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy, Tufts University, Medford, MA. He is also former Assistant Secretary of State in Washington and he is the author of a forthcoming biography of Gen. Fidel V. Ramos.