The last working week before Christmas is spent in Jakarta. Outside the five-star hotels where the elite congregate, the doormen and cab-boys are under a collective instruction to don Santa Claus hats. They do look quaint. But in a country where Islamic terrorists’ preferred bombing site is the five-star hotel, I wonder if this is not a tad provocative and lacking in concern for employee welfare.
At the end of the trip, in my role as billionaire agony aunt, I spend half a Sunday listening to one of the richest men in Indonesia lament the condition of his country. The China-driven commodity boom, he says, masks a qualitative economic slide back into the ranks of Third Worldism. Or, as he puts it: ‘The real value-added here is practically nil… You cannot just keep digging from the ground.’ We stare morosely at his 50-metre swimming pool as liveried retainers refill our coffee cups. Coming from a guy who, personally, cleaned up roughly two thousand million dollars on mineral investments in the past few years, his testimony is striking. And the point is simple: the asset trading game which passes for economic activity may yield a billion bucks for each of 15 or 20 people, but it is facile, puerile and beneath the dignity of a nation of more than 200 million people. Indonesia no longer has any industrial policy, any manufacturing ambition beyond luring multi-nationals’ processing ops, any sense of developmental destiny.
I heard exactly the same story from another billionaire in Malaysia in the summer. But since he has been down a few quid in recent years, I suspected the tale might be sour grapes. Not so. Even those who have made out like bandits of late say that south-east Asia is going down the tubes. Philippines, Thailand, Malaysia, Indonesia is the presently apparent order of keeling over. In sum, the region has decided, for want of a better expression (I have watched more than one series of The Wire of late), that the best it can hope for is to be China’s bitch. The interesting geo-political takeaway is that these countries in recent decades set themselves up as rather slavish US allies and they are failing. Meanwhile the state which is challenging the US in an increasingly aggressive and frightening manner — China — looks relatively rather successful. They told us in school that economic development was a win-win game, but I think this may have been a simplification. ‘Please Miss.’