Jakarta is open for business

“New York City is open for business”, declared the city’s then-mayor Rudy Giuliani at the end of September 2001, only a few weeks after the attacks planned by terrorists operating internationally, but also from within the United States. Americans were united in their determination to prevent the terrorists from diminishing their prosperity.

Over year later, the Indonesian island of Bali was the site of the largest terrorist attack since 9/11. But reactions to the fate of the Indonesians have not been similar. Much of the international outpouring of sympathy has rightly been devoted to the Australians, who may make up the largest single group of victims. Colin Powell even stated that “This was Australia’s September 11″. But the Indonesians have met with a lot of told-you-so finger pointing, not just sympathy. While the attack in Bali is not quite interpreted as proof that Indonesia “harbors terrorists”, world leaders – first and foremost Australia’s Prime Minister John Howard – are openly saying that Indonesia has not been doing enough to rein terrorists in. And the US ambassador to Indonesia has called for “serious and decisive action” by Indonesia.

Granted, criticism of the Indonesian government is probably warranted. But no criticism of the US government or the FBI was entertained in the USA for any reason in the weeks after September 11th.Now imagine that Indonesian President Megawati had come out exclaiming that Indonesia was again “open for business” and asking people to fight the terrorists by spending vacation in one of Indonesia’s many tourist resorts…

Even before the attack in Bali, tourism was a suffering industry in Indonesia, especially outside of Bali. In August 2002, when I visited Carita, a pristine beach a few hours west of Jakarta overlooking the famous volcano Krakatau, the sands were swept clean of any tourists other than the carload I came with. The beautiful row of hotels on the seashore stretching several hundred meters was reminiscent of buildings from colonial days, not colorless concrete high-rises. But the colonists left long ago, and their descendants must have been spending vacation elsewhere, for only two rooms in the whole hotel complex were rented.

The tourism situation was similar in Jakarta. While tourists have become fewer in Jakarta since September 11, 2001, the downward trend began before then and has nothing to do with terrorism. It all started in late 1997, when the economies of Southeast Asia took a dive. First, local corruption and bad management were said to be the reason why stock markets dropped by a double-digit percentage. But gradually, foreign investors panicked and pulled out their money, leaving the currencies of SE Asia in free fall.

The dominant economic theory today holds that when a currency loses value, products and services from that country become cheaper, while imports become more expensive. This theory may explain why Germany’s export-heavy economy did fairly well when the Euro lost around 30% of its value over the dollar a few years ago. But the exchange rate of the Rupiah to the US dollar fell from Rp 2500 in 1997 to Rp 17,000 to one US dollar in 1998.This made products and services from Indonesia almost 7 times cheaper. A bargain for tourists! The only problem was, Indonesia had already been cheap before the devaluation of the Rupiah. The Rupiah has since rebounded to around 9000 to the dollar, making the country “only” 3 ½ times cheaper than before devaluation, but Indonesia’s import-heavy economy is still not booming.

The attack in Bali has only worsened the situation, with tourism down 80% on the island since the attack. Tourists must be thinking that Indonesia is a dangerous place. In fact, Indonesians are so friendly, one of the first phrases foreigners learn is “hati-hati” – be careful. Indeed, I met a marketing student in Jakarta named Bani who was surprised that I was not afraid when walking around Jakarta during the day. I suggested it might be because violence is also rampant where I come from. Yes, he pleaded, but in Jakarta gangs come up to your car at red lights and bust your windows with axes just to take your cell phone. I answered that when I lived in New Orleans, they attacked with guns, not axes, and they took the whole car, not just your phone – that is, if there were not just joy-killing (in which case they took nothing, which was not unheard of in the late 1980s). Bani seemed genuinely surprised to hear this.

Then, he asked me if I knew how corrupt the Indonesian state was. He told me of Tommy, the son of Indonesia’s former ruler Suharto, who was found guilty of corruption in 2000 but continued to live quietly in his mansion in Jakarta after his conviction. When he was taken to court again in 2002 for having the judge who sentenced him murdered, he openly boasted in the courtroom that security forces had helped him escape his sentencing for corruption. I then asked Bani if he had heard of how Germany’s former chancellor Helmut Kohl, who embezzled millions onto accounts in Switzerland while in office, had refused to say who had given him the money, even though he himself had passed the law he was guilty of breaking – and to this day, no German prosecutor has seen fit to press charges. And, of course, Jacques Chirac is so corrupt that his political opponents on the left called on the French to vote for him in the 2002 run-off under the slogan “votez l’escroc”: vote for the crook.

We agreed that while Tommy’s case was much harsher, corruption was not unknown in Europe. But Indonesian corruption, Bani continued, was scaring away legitimate foreign companies who wanted to invest in the country. Indonesian courts, he explained, had declared Canadian insurance firm Manulife bankrupt because its Indonesian partners were not getting bribed enough. But before I could go into the details of Enron & Co., he shook his head and said he already knew about it.

So Indonesia is dangerous and corrupt; it has something in common with the USA and Europe. But, you may think over a delicious plate of fried rice and a frozen melon drink in a downtown Jakarta restaurant with pink chairs and tables, everything else is a bit different. Mostly, visiting Indonesia is an enriching experience. I would wholeheartedly recommend it for purely personal reasons.

But now, your trip to Indonesia can even have a more important purpose: you, too, can fight the terrorists behind the attack in Bali! Don’t let the terrorists inhibit your freedom of movement – or diminish the standard of living in Indonesia. Go shopping in Indonesia! And when shopping, show the radical terrorists that you can be just as radical: don’t try to bargain for lower prices. Jakarta is open for business! Shop till you drop! And tell them Rudy Giuliani sent you.

Craig Morris is Translations Director at Petite Planète and director of Petite Planète’s Pasar Ikan Project. Visit www.petiteplanete.org to see more about the project, including photos of the Pasar Ikan area of Jakarta.

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