Posts Tagged ‘indonesia’

Easter viewing

March 25, 2016

I have meant for some time to recommend Joshua Oppenheimer’s two documentaries about the deaths of more than 1 million people in Indonesia in 1965-6, at the time when Suharto came to power. It wasn’t a genocide, I think, because lots of different racial groups were targeted (though ethnic Chinese suffered greatly). Rather, it was a ‘politicide’, if such a word exists, an attack on all those deemed to be enemies of the new regime, including anyone deemed to be a communist.

If you have not seen these films, you should. They can be rented cheaply from Amazon. Here is the download from for the first documentary (£3.49 to rent), The Act of Killing, and here is the download from for the second documentary, The Look of Silence.

The Act of Killing received rave reviews partly because of Oppenheimer’s extraordinary methodology. He showed up in Sumatra saying he was interested in learning about the 1965-6 killings, and a bunch of semi-retired preman (gang members/thugs) said: ‘Hey, that’s us. How can we help?’ He then convinced them to act out their memories of murder for his movie. This makes for some very weird and utterly compelling footage.


Personally, however, I like The Look of Silence more. In this second documentary, Oppenheimer follows one of the victim families, as a surviving brother gently begins to confront the murderers who butchered his sibling and chucked his body in the local river. The Look of Silence gets much closer to the political and social story underlying the politicide. It is not so visually freakish, but it makes you think more. I note that on Amazon, individual viewers rank it higher than The Act of Killing, so other people may have had the same reaction as me. Really, tho, you need to watch both docs.


Finally, here are Werner Herzog and Errol Morris talking about The Act of Killing, just in case the trailer hasn’t convinced you to watch it:




Sounds like my book

October 31, 2013

A long trip through Malaysia, Indonesia and China leaves me more convinced than ever that east Asia has two distinct destinies in economic development terms, and that the south-east Asian states are on the wrong side of the tracks.

I start off in Malaysia, where the United Malays National Organisation (UMNO) holds power despite winning a slightly smaller vote share than the opposition in May’s elections. The effect has been a skittish, neurotic administration confronted with deep-seated developmental problems it has no desire or capacity to address. The government commissions reports from the likes of McKinsey as if believing foreign management consultants are likely to come up with some brilliant idea to solve the nation’s problems. In reality, locals know all too well what the issues are — a coddled plantation sector and ignored smallholders in agriculture, low levels of indigenous industrial competitiveness, an untamed army of oligarchs that does almost nothing to promote national economic development and recycles its cash flows offshore, a financial system that pushes out consumer debt rather than supporting industrial development, and resurgent speculation in high-end real estate. Despite oil and gas revenues that cover around two-fifths of the national budget, the government still runs a budget deficit of 5 percent of GDP as it strives to buy off discontent.

In Malaysia today, there is a general sense of malaise, compounded by a recently much increased crime rate — particularly theft, burglary and violent crime. This was never a country that you associated with crime (other than expropriation by godfathers), but that seems to have changed.

On 9 October, a nearly 90-year-old Mahathir was kind enough to grant me a meeting. After corresponding with him during the writing of How Asia Works, I was looking forward to sitting down with him. However the experience did nothing to change the conclusions I had already reached.

Here are the highlights: On agriculture, Mahathir insisted that plantations always produce better yields than smallholders. On Malaysia’s tycoons staying out of manufacturing and not contributing to industrialisation, he commented: ‘They do what they think they can do best. We don’t direct them.’ On the future of economic development, he said he never did, and does not now, see ASEAN as a vehicle for economic policy cooperation and joint development. ‘Economic cooperation is secondary in ASEAN,’ he said. Instead Mahathir talked of the tourism potential of millions of Chinese visitors and of China as a source of cheap manufactured products for Malaysia; he favours buying a Chinese high-speed rail line to run the length of the country.

For me, the takeaway was that Mahathir doesn’t think a country like Malaysia ‘ought’ to be able to compete with a country like China. His parting shot was to say that it was unfair of me to compare the manufacturing development of Malaysia and Korea in How Asia Works: ‘We are not a single ethnic country. We are a multi-ethnic country. That makes it more difficult. They [Malaysia’s ethnic groups] are not at the same level.’ It was the race-based outlook that I describe in How Asia Works as having been so devisive and detrimental to effective policy in every south-east Asian country.

Would Indonesia be any different? I spoke at an event generously hosted by Trade Minister Gita Wirjawan, who read How Asia Works soon after it was published and announced himself ‘a fan’. However, while he might agree with the analysis of south-east Asia’s problems, at the event he offered no clear statements as to policy changes he believes are required if Indonesia is to improve its development prospects. All I picked up in Jakarta was the same, general sense of discontent after 15 post-Asian crisis years of partial economic recovery based on commodity trade (principally with China) and zero industrial progress.

On this topic, I spent the day before the Trade Ministry event at what used to be called IPTN in Bandung, now known as Indonesian Aerospace. People I asked in Jakarta assumed that the aircraft-building industrial policy adventure sponsored by BJ Habibie — which the IMF insisted be cut off from further state funding as a condition of providing credit to Indonesia in 1998 — is long dead.

But not so. IPTN/IAe lends a little support to my assertion in the book that even failed industrial policy will produce some tangible benefits (just very expensive ones compared with well organised industrial policy). Up in Bandung, IPTN had 15,600 employees, including 3,500 engineers, before the Asian crisis hit. The firm was receiving monthly government remittances to cover development costs for Indonesia’s indigenous N-250, 50-seat turbo-prop aircraft. With almost no cash reserves, when the cash was cut off the firm went into freefall. Management did not stabilise the business until the headcount had been cut by more than 12,000, to just 3,000. They did so by turning what had been an aircraft building business into a low-cost parts supplier, particularly to Airbus.

Today, the two N-250 prototypes sit disconsolate in a parking area of the 80 hectare site (the one at the bottom is three metres longer and can seat 70, so was really the N-270, as in two engines, 70 seats). Suharto himself launched the first prototype in 1995, naming it Gatotkoco after a character in Hindu-Javanese legend. Something of the order of US$1 billion had been pumped into the N-250 programme by 1998. The renamed Indonesian Aerospace kept flying its prototypes — racking up 1,200 test hours — until 2007 in the vain hope of finding cash to finish the project. The outside technical reviews were generally positive, but the will and capacity of the government to back the project were gone.

IPTN N250 GatotkocoIPTN N250IPTN N270

After the state cash flow was cut, Indonesian Aerospace first obtained work making wing ribs for the Airbus A380. Then it obtained contracts for the A320, and for Boeing and other aircraft. There was no way for the firm itself to invest in development projects because residual government debt made it unbankable. Only in 2011 did the government agree to a debt write-off (technically a debt-equity swap). This was followed in 2012 by a Rupiah1.2 trillion (circa US$100m) ‘goodbye’ capital injection from the state.

Indonesian Aerospace continued to assemble small aircraft after the crisis that it had assembled before 1998 in a joint venture with a Spanish firm — now owned by Airbus Military. Gradually it has managed improve the terms of its cooperation with Airbus, moving, for instance, to profit sharing on the most popular model it builds. Critically, the post-crisis era focused Indonesian Aerospace on selling aircraft as well as making them. It currently exports around one-fifth of the small aircraft it assembles — to Thailand for rain-seeding, to South Korea for coastal surveillance, to Malaysia, Pakistan and Turkey. Exports, however, are still nowhere near as strong as they were in Embraer’s formative stages in Brazil, before that firm went on to be truly globally competitive. Indonesian non-weaponized defence procurement is the current backbone of Indonesian Aerospace’s order backlog, which stands at US$1 billion.

Perhaps most interesting is that the firm, after conducting five years of market studies (what would have been an unthinkably long period of analysis in the pre-crisis era when it was rushing straight from the N250 to the N2130, a 130-seat jet aircraft), has committed to develop a new civilian aircraft of its own. Indonesian Aerospace managers say they have 150 non-binding commitments for a very small, 19-seat passenger aircraft designed for low-cost travel between second-tier cities in the provinces. Indonesia, like the rest of south-east Asia, already has a booming low-cost sector between key cities based on Boeing and Airbus aircraft. This is an attempt to grab a bit of market share below the radar of the big boys. The aircraft will work off short landing strips, be able to carry substantial amounts of freight relative to passengers, and is designed for use with minimal air traffic control; a prototype will fly in 2015.

Indonesia’s industrial policy was badly conceived, with too little competition, no involvement of leading entrepreneurs, and almost zero export orientation. Even today Indonesian Aerospace has failed to build a supplier cluster around Bandung. But it looks like the firm may in the end produce a marketable aircraft worthy of the name of indigenous technological capacity.

The big point of contemporary comparison, of course, is China. Earlier in 2013 there was a mild panic among foreign observers that that country’s accumulation of bad debt — largely a result of the aggressive industrial policy orientation of its financial sector — could lead to imminent financial melt-down. But not so. Unlike Indonesia, which had no capital controls in 1997, China is protected from changes of sentiment about its banks by capital controls that trap money in the country and keep the system liquid. China’s capacity to grow away from debt is declining as its growth rate gradually falls, but the basic fact of capital controls still meant that this year’s panic was a storm in a teacup. There is always a lot of waste involved in industrial policy, but control of the domestic financial system allows a government to socialise the cost.

Riding the high-speed rail system (HSR) from Shanghai to Suzhou to Xuzhou to Beijing, visiting firms, I also reflected how massively greater is China’s technological capacity today than was Indonesia’s when that country hit the skids in 1997-8. The entire Chinese economy makes stuff that the world economy is willing to pay for. Manufacturing activity is not confined to one or two bellwether projects like IPTN or Malaysia’s Proton. If crisis struck China today, the country would be way more competitive, in more value-added activities, once the crisis abated than was Indonesia after 1998. And China doesn’t face a crisis today because it has not been dumb enough to abandon capital controls. I suspect the country only has one more economic cycle to go before its control over capital is insufficient to escape crisis — the irony of its present stage of development is that China must begin to deregulate finance in order to waste less capital in an era of slowing growth. But by the time crisis does strike, China’s technological competitiveness and its roster of globally competitive large firms will be substantially higher again that it is today.

So what I came back to England thinking is that there is just a lack of political will and political self-belief in south-east Asia to do things differently. I am not sure it was ever really any different. Even Mahathir, who talked the best game in the region in terms of promising a shift to a Japanese-Korean model when he was premier, says that Malaysians cannot really follow the model because they are not racially up to it. On that view, you have lost before you start.

Is Indonesia different?

August 2, 2013

Below is a critique of How Asia Works with specific reference to Indonesia. Indeed there is a second part of the critique that you can track down via the Lowy site. I am just posting the first part and, underneath it, rejoinders to the main points it makes.


Indonesia’s development formula

by Stephen Grenville – 25 July 2013 11:10AM

I share Sam Roggeveen’s enthusiasm for the iconoclastic approach of Joe Studwell’s How Asia Works (his previous book on Asian Godfathers was a great read too). I also share Studwell’s scepticism about the ‘magic of the market’, his views on the IMF, and his admiration for the achievements of the South Koreans.

But I’m unconvinced by Studwell’s three-step development prescription, not because it is intrinsically wrong but because it is too hard to implement successfully.

The Koreans might have done so, but the strategy requires a level of sustained administrative competence, single-minded toughness and luck which are rare. Just as important, there are alternative development strategies, less demanding of skilled policy-making and administrative competence. The growth outcome won’t match Korea’s, but will be more feasible for countries like Indonesia (which Studwell sees as a development failure).

Let’s go through the three elements of the Studwell strategy. The first stage requires land reform and a boost to agricultural productivity.

It’s an old and sensible idea that agriculture has to provide the investable surplus which will propel the rest of the economy along the path of development. Fifty years ago, Clifford Geertz (Agricultural Involution) despaired about Indonesia’s failure to follow the example of Japan, which shifted surplus agricultural labour into factory work to create a modern urban/manufacturing sector. This failure would lead the excess population to atrophy, farming progressively more Lilliputian plots.

But things turned out better. With the average size of farms on Java around half a hectare, the opportunity for land reform couldn’t play the key role that Studwell advocates. But Soeharto, with his roots in agriculture, gave rice production high priority (extension services, high-yield seeds, fertilizer, pesticides and attractive terms-of-trade between agriculture and urban consumers via an active price stabilisation authority). Not very free-market, but big yield increases and self-sufficiency were speedily achieved.

What about a vigorous industry policy, the second Studwell requirement? Despite inheriting the usual disaster story of failed prestige projects from Sukarno, Soeharto was ready to have a go at ‘picking winners’.

Cement, fertilizer, textiles, paper production, food processing and petroleum refining all fitted Indonesia’s comparative advantage and made sense. Others were less defensible: Krakatau Steel,Tommy Soeharto’s national car and Ibnu Sutowo’s tankers. Habibie‘s IPTN aeroplane fits the Studwell strategy and might have succeeded if it hadn’t been stopped by the Asian crisis: ex-aeronautical engineer Habibie was well-qualified to lead this project, plane construction is quite labour-intensive (all those rivets) and the Indonesian archipelago needs lots of them (one airline recently ordered several hundred in one hit).

Whether IPTN would have succeeded is not the issue here: the point is that Indonesia, for better or worse, did try the sort of hot-house industrialisation Studwell advocates, and the IMF wasn’t able to stop this, at least until the 1997 crisis. Planning retained a central role, just as Studwell wants, and state-owned enterprises did the government’s bidding. Where Indonesia had comparative advantage, this often worked out well, and where the industry didn’t suit Indonesia’s attributes, generally it was a failure.

Indonesia’s development experience doesn’t fit the Studwell formula. Java’s rice production has done well without relying on his key element of land reform, and industry policy based on domestic entrepreneurship has been tried without much success.

Governments attempting to steer the process of development need effective administrative capacity; in a follow-up post, I’ll expand on the idea that market failure is common enough, but so too is government failure.

Joe Studwell’s response:

1. I doubt, contra Mr Grenville, that there is some arbitrary minimum land holding that makes land reform unworkable. If this were the case, then the micro-plots of a few tens of square metres championed by groups like Landesa would make no sense, when historical evidence around the world shows that privately-held micro-plots produce very high yields.

I am presently up my hill in Italy, and using a very slow Internet connection, and so cannot readily check the average Javan landholding. I assume Mr Grenville means that the average Javan landholding is half a hectare now, and would therefore be less after land reform. (The average land holding in most parts of China, Japan, ROK, and Taiwan after land reform was roughly half a hectare.) If my understanding is correct, my response is that Java has some of the best soil and climate conditions in the whole of east Asia, and so even smaller plots should be more than viable — if indeed size matters at all in a downward direction, a question which I think deserves real scrutiny.

Mr Grenville is correct that yields on Java are high by south-east Asian standards. The rice yield is over five tonnes per hectare. However this is still less than the average in north-east Asia. Given its soil and climate, it would not surprise me if north-east Asian style household farming could produce as much as 9 tonnes per hectare on Java — about as high as has been managed anywhere, because the growing conditions are so favourable.

Mr Grenville is correct that Suharto invested heavily (if patchily) in agricultural extension services and (eventually) used minimum price guarantees to promote higher yields. However he is wrong to say that self-sufficiency was achieved ‘quickly’. Rice self-sufficiency was not achieved until the mid-1980s, 40 years after independence, and wheat self-sufficiency never was. So I maintain my position that Indonesia is a real relative failure in agriculture.

2. On industry, much of my criticism of policy in south-east Asia focuses on politicians’ efforts to ‘pick winners’ rather than run industrial policy that periodically culls losers. I also talk at length about the need for ‘export discipline’ to anchor industrial policy. And I avoid traditional discussions of what is or is not a society’s comparative advantage because, to my mind, development is about changing (within reason) your comparative advantage. Economic development is about investing in a learning process in order to reap higher future returns.

Mr Grenville’s points about industry in Indonesia therefore seem to me to be based on a misreading, or mere scanning, of How Asia Works. He highlights industrial projects that were picked as ‘winners’, were not subjected to sufficient competition or pressure to export, and which consequently produced a poor return on industrial policy investment. His observations are essentially supportive of the policy requisites I highlight.

The one thing I think is truly misplaced in Mr Grenville’s comments is the argument in the third paragraph that, essentially, Indonesians are politically and administratively ‘not up to’ the task of accelerated economic development, particularly compared to people like the Koreans. Is this true? In 1945, South Korea was the rural backwater of a brutally colonised state in which Koreans had been allowed to play perhaps the most restricted administrative and economic role in any east Asian colony. I cannot see that the Koreans had much political, administrative or educational capital. Elite Indonesians, by contrast, held senior civil service positions under the Dutch, could win scholarships to study in Europe, and had much greater (formal) political, administrative and educational resources. The difference was not the endowments, but the change politicians wrought over 60 years of independent government.

Why was the peasant Park Chung Hee able to achieve so much more than the superbly educated Sukarno? Probably, I think, because Park focused on the basics and got them right.

Singapore reaps what it sowed

June 22, 2013

Sing smog 1 Sing smog 2



Sing smog 3


See the 22 April AFP story below about the life-threatening smog enveloping Singapore. It comes (largely) from deliberately set fires on and around oil palm plantations in Sumatra, fires illegally set to facilitate land clearance.

You need additional information to read the story properly. Here it is. The story identifies two firms as largely responsible for the fires:

1. APP (Asia Pulp & Paper). The tale is too long to tell in detail here. Look it up in Asian Godfathers. Controlled by the Widjaya family, who defaulted on US$14 billion of debt (no, that is not a typing error) during the Asian crisis and then set out to buy the debt back at cents on the dollar. They did this by the most extraordinary acts of financial subterfuge, many of which were run through Singapore-based and Singapore-‘regulated’ institutions. A 2002 petition by creditors to the Singapore courts to have APP taken over and run by a local administrator was rejected. The Widjayas are serial law breakers. Where is their business run from? Singapore. Where did they hole up, and who protected them, after the Asian crisis? Singapore.

2. APRIL (Asia Pacific Resources International Holdings Ltd). Controlled by Sukanto Tanoto, who in the wake of the Asian crisis in 2006 was listed by Indonesian state bank Mandiri as one of its six biggest delinquent debtors. He owed Rupiah5.4 trillion. Tanoto was also under investigation for fraud at his own bank, Unibank, which after the Asian crisis was reported by regulators to have extended 51% of its loans to Tanoto firms; the maximum legal limit for loans to related parties was 20%. Tanoto is a serial law breaker. Where is his business run from? Singapore. Where did he hole up, and who protected him, after the Asian crisis? Singapore.

Finally, what is the east Asian market where it has been least possible to distribute Asian Godfathers since its publication in 2007 (way more difficult than in ‘authoritarian’ China). That’s right. Singapore!

Palm oil companies behind Singapore smog: Greenpeace

Fires on Indonesia’s Sumatra, which have cloaked Singapore in record-breaking smog, are raging on palm oil plantations owned by Indonesian, Malaysian and Singaporean companies, environmental activist group Greenpeace International said.

“NASA hotspot data in Sumatra over the past 10 days (11-21 June) has revealed hundreds of fire hotspots in palm oil concessions that are owned by Indonesian, Malaysian and Singaporean companies,” the group said in a statement received by AFP.

Singapore’s smog index hit the critical 400 level on Friday, making it potentially life-threatening to the ill and elderly, a government monitoring site said. On Saturday morning, the reading was at 323, still in the “hazardous” zone.

Parts of Malaysia close to Singapore have also been severely affected by the smog this week.

“Fires across Sumatra are wreaking havoc for millions of people in the region and destroying the climate. Palm oil producers must immediately deploy fire crews to extinguish these fires. But really cleaning up their act starts with adopting a zero deforestation policy,” said Bustar Maitar, head of Greenpeace Indonesia’s forest campaign.

The Indonesian environment minister Balthasar Kambuaya said Friday that a team has investigated eight companies suspected to be behind the fires and promised to reveal the companies’ names after the probe.

A senior presidential aide Kuntoro Mangkusubroto said Friday that the fires happened in concession areas belonging to Asia Pulp & Paper (APP) and Asia Pacific Resources International (APRIL).

“It is very clear that the fires are in APP concessions and APRIL. We need to settle this matter,” he told reporters while showing the distribution of fires from 1 to 18 June in concession areas in Riau.

APP, the world’s third-largest paper producer said in a statement late Friday that “ground verification” detected “only 7 points that are actually forest fire, affecting around 200 hectares of land”.

“They are under and being controlled by approximately a thousand fire fighting crews and their team. Our team’s preliminary investigation found that 5 of the fires were set by the community to clear land for crops and 2 cases are still under investigation”, APP added.

APRIL could not be reached for comment.

Indonesia stepped up its fire-fighting efforts Friday by deploying aircraft to artificially create rain and to water bomb the blaze.

The haze crisis has caused a dramatic escalation in tensions between tiny Singapore and its vast neighbour, with the city-state repeatedly demanding that Jakarta steps up its efforts to put out the fires.



Sunny places for shady people.


January 12, 2011

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.’

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