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Indonesia is managing the global recession better than most

Indonesia is managing the global recession better than most, thanks to its tough finance minister.

Solenn Honorine and George Wehrfritz

From the magazine issue dated Jan 19, 2009

Last month a financial tidal wave washed over Indonesia, but not the one kicked up by the global credit crisis. Money flooded into government coffers from individuals and corporations eager to avail themselves of Jakarta's "sunset policy" on tax delinquency, which forgave past evasions in exchange for good behavior going forward. The exact size of the surge isn't yet known, but economists estimate that tax receipts were up more than 50 percent for the year. "We saw quite a big jump" in revenue in December from "taxpayers who never existed [on the tax rolls] or want to correct mistakes made in the past," says the plan's creator, Finance Minister Sri Mulyani Indrawati. Indonesians, she adds, are honoring their tax obligations "in a much more accurate way."

The influx marks a major triumph for Indonesia's current government and, in particular, for the woman who put Jakarta's financial house in order. Over the past four years, Mulyani has helped dismantle the financial architecture of the crony capitalism built by strongman Suharto before his 32-year reign ended in 1998. She has pressed hard to slash debt, both public and private; pushed through a rollback of budget-busting fuel subsidies; and overseen sweeping reforms of the customs and tax authorities—position ing Indonesia to post the world's best (or at least the least bad) emerging-market growth story in 2009. Unnoticed until recently, Jakarta's conservatism is now the envy of the developing world, and Mulyani is being hailed as a model regulator. "She could be the finance minister anywhere in the world," says James Castle, founder of the consultancy CastleAsia. "She's that good."

Largely to Mulyani's credit, the country's balance sheet is now among the most conservative in the world; government debt now sits at just 30 percent of GDP, down from more than 100 percent a decade ago, while Indonesia Inc. is far less leveraged than its peers elsewhere in Asia. Despite that relative austerity, growth is being driven both by commodities—Indonesia's traditional mainstay—and by strong domestic consumption from a population approaching 240 million. And neither the commodity bust (which has also driven down the price of the imported energy on which Indonesia depends) nor tighter global credit looks set to hobble a country that, from the household to the boardroom and cabinet chambers, is all but debt-free.

Indeed, Indonesia is one of just three major emerging economies forecast to grow faster than 4 percent in 2009. The other two—China and India—have decelerated more rapidly in recent months and face tougher policy challenges. Mulyani says Indonesia could expand by as much as 5.5 percent this year, which is barely slower than the 6 percent it clocked in 2008, and perhaps enough to pip one of its two Asian counterparts in this year's growth race. Not bad, considering that the country's economy collapsed in 1998, shrinking 18 percent in a single year. Wolfgang Fengler, a senior economist at the World Bank, says Jakarta's macroeconomic management is now "as good as it gets."

Indonesia owes its turnaround to an ensemble cast. President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono has provided the political stability and pro-globalization vision that underpin today's successes. Boediono (who goes by one name) was a deft coordinating minister for economics until he handed the brief to Mulyani last May to head Indonesia's central bank, and Trade Minister Mari Pangestu deserves plaudits for kick-starting Indonesia's export economy. Yet Mulyani stands out for her toughness. She says her staff had to "swallow a lot of very bitter reality" during her first six months on the job. After landing there, for example, she confronted senior staff: "How can you send your daughter or your son to study abroad when you earn only this kind of salary? Where did you get the money?" To which she added: "You have to admit: we are all committing this crime." Her staffers still work evenings and weekends to meet her expectations, and she's been known to tangle with colleagues. Last year she lobbied intensively to ram through a deeply unpopular reduction in fuel subsidies that President Yudhoyono initially opposed. "She got her way because she is capable of playing politics," says Anton Gunawan, chief economist at Bank Danamon in Jakarta.

Yet by raising pay for bureaucrats, and not demonizing those who previously took payoffs to make ends meet, she has raised standards and steeled a reputation as an incorruptible reformer. Her message to her staff is simple and positive: "I only have one goal: I want the Indonesian people to trust us, this department, because this country will go nowhere if the people don't start to trust their own government." Though nobody would yet describe Indonesia as a model of transparency, the changes in its taxation and customs administrations have been profound, and in turn have enhanced Indonesia's growth potential to the point that "the world needs to update the way it thinks about the country," wrote Nicholas Cashmore, CLSA investment bank's Indonesia analyst, in mid-2008, declaring: "Southeast Asia's largest economy is in great shape." And thanks to Mulyani, Indonesia is garnering more respect by the day.


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