Thu, 23 Nov 2000

Sale of the century: Indonesia

By Donna K. Woodward

MEDAN, North Sumatra (JP): "For Sale: A group of tropical islands. Rich variety of natural resources. Large reserves of mineral, oil and natural gas deposits. Tropical rainforests, botanical and zoological species, and maritime resources with immeasurable untapped potential."

"Land areas of varying sizes and varying degrees of urbanization. Large, eager-to-work population that values education. No external military or political enemies.

"Liabilities include: approximately US$80 billion in public debt; lack of supporting infrastructure; and several regions with populations suffering a high frequency of Human-Rights-Abuse syndrome.

"Population with freehold interests eagerly seeking new management team with a demonstrated respect for ethnic and religious differences and success in initiating labor-intensive, environmentally friendly development programs in the context of fair labor practices."

The idea that Indonesia might be touted for sale like a used car is one that would outrage any Indonesian. A country is more than a commodity.

But if President Abdurrahman Wahid's administration does not soon get its act together, for all practical purposes, Indonesia may cease to belong to Indonesians. National policy will be dictated by the International Monetary Fund (IMF).

Factories and businesses will be owned by foreign investors or foreign financial institutions. Future domestic income will be owed to international lenders. Aceh and West Papua will belong to themselves. And Indonesia's greatest intangible asset, her human talent, may be lost to the international brain drain toward Singapore, Australia and the United States.

Indonesia's assets far outweigh her liabilities, as is obvious from the hypothetical advertisement above. But this could change.

If the nation's trustees -- led by the President -- do not take steps to minimize human, environmental and financial losses and optimize orderly development of the country's assets, they might be better off preparing to sell the country to the Sultan of Brunei or Singapore or George Soros before the country's assets are squandered.

The environment is being depleted daily, workers are being wasted, the young are growing up malnourished and undereducated and the national debt grows.

Yet Abdurrahman seems insensitive to the country's state of crisis. Instead of facing the problems at home, he continues to indulge in expensive foreign escapism.

Meanwhile, subordinate branches of government ignore his directives. Either the President is unable to formulate and communicate his objectives effectively, or people no longer take him seriously.

Run-amok militia and criminal soldiers. Non-performing IBRA directors. Ineffectual police. Confused prosecutors. Raging corruption. Absence of investor confidence. The Soehartos. No president could be expected to solve all these problems quickly.

But President Abdurrahman Wahid has been not even been able to set a course for the country. The President is not a stupid man. He is not deficient in intelligence or character. He loves his country. He is not greedily corrupt like some officials. Yet he is failing. A descent into lawlessness and reversion to authoritarianism are specters on the horizon.

Indonesia is clearly a nation in crisis.

Like a woman contemplating the life-saving removal of a cancerous breast, or a man facing the amputation of a mangled, useless limb, Indonesia's leaders no longer have the luxury of refusing elective surgery. Indonesia is critically ill.

No one likes to contemplate drastic action, but President Abdurrahman Wahid must now take extreme nation-saving steps.

The President has been quite daring in proposing creative but unpopular measures such as trade relations with Israel, when he believed these to be in the national interest. Let him be similarly courageous in taking reform steps to save the economy, the legal system and political institutions -- however unpopular these steps may be at first among the political elite.

The President cannot afford to let his instincts for creative leadership be sabotaged by a fear of pseudo-nationalistic reactions from political opportunists who lie in wait to replace him.

There are numerous national crises that have not responded to status-quo oriented solutions. Problems like separatist violence, corruption and debt, call for new and possibly extreme curative measures.

As an example, consider separatism and regional violence. If the President continues to intone the old, ineffectual prohibitions -- "No demands for independence allowed!" -- these incantations are likely to remain as background noises to the ongoing killings that fuel the fires of separatism.

Regional autonomy, union within a unitary state and independence are not the only models for cooperation; federalism, confederation, a commonwealth form or some hybrid of these might be considered.

The President and the country need to begin to "think outside the boxes" and not fear unconventional treatments for the problems that face the country. The longer the President waits to take decisive reform action, the more critical the problems become and the more extreme the remedial actions will need to be.

If the President waits too long, tomorrow's remedies could become as debilitating to the country as today's problems are.

The writer, an attorney and former American diplomat at the U.S. Consulate General in Medan, is president director of PT Far Horizons management consultancy.