TOKYO — Indonesians are taking to the streets to demand the government heed their complaints. Are they livid about corruption? No. Fed up with poverty? Not really. Angry over political gridlock? Not so much. It’s those damn bikinis.
In recent days, the nation with the world’s largest Muslim population has been consumed by protests against the Miss World pageant finale Sept. 28, originally scheduled to be held near Jakarta. Muslim groups, including radical ones, have threatened violent attacks. The government has responded by moving the event to Bali — the Hindu-majority island popular with Westerners — increasing security, and hoping for the best.
This column isn’t a defense of beauty contests. My question is, why the misplaced anger? Where’s the outrage over obscene levels of graft, which eats up national wealth and forces 115 million Indonesians to live on less than $2 a day? Where are the placards condemning policies that have made the rupiah Asia’s most pathetic currency? Why don’t we hear chants demanding greater accountability from leaders?
It’s great that Indonesians are worked up, but their ire would be more constructive if it were focused on the right target. Investors know the trouble. And that’s the biggest problem of all.
First, let’s all take a deep breath. The risk of Southeast Asia’s biggest economy plummeting into free fall, as it did in 1997, is quite small. Its banks are much healthier. The government is far more transparent, and the central bank is sitting on $93 billion of currency reserves. That might seem like a paltry amount compared with, say, South Korea’s $331 billion, but it’s more than twice the size of the International Monetary Fund-led bailout Indonesia received 16 years ago. Also, short-term foreign-currency debt levels are manageable.
The political stability that President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono has established since 2004 has won investment-grade ratings from Fitch Ratings and Moody’s Investors Service. The former general is now taking aim at Standard & Poor’s, which rates the economy at the highest junk level.
Foreign-direct investment trends, meanwhile, show that Indonesia’s domestic market is still wooing considerable long- term money. The total rose 18.9 percent from a year earlier in the second quarter to $6 billion. Although that’s the slowest pace since 2010, it’s still suggestive of a nation that, for all its warts, has a bright future. Long-term investors remain enthusiastic about Indonesia’s vast store of natural resources and the fact that 26 percent of its 250 million people are younger than 15.
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