Asian Contagion Redux

November 24, 2008

    The Indonesian rupiah has lost more than a fifth of its value against the dollar so far this year and on Friday hit its weakest point since August 1998. Authorities swooped in to take over an
insolvent Bank Century, the first such takeover since the Asian financial crisis a decade ago.

   Are things in Southeast Asia’s biggest economy really that dire to prompt comparisons with the chaotic events of a decade ago? Today’s financial crisis is draining liquidity from many banks across the world, including in Indonesia.  And as was the case a decade ago, domestic capital is swarming hot on the heels of foreign capital in fleeing Indonesia.

    It is the kind of vicious circle that characterised the”Asian Contagion” crisis of 1997/98. Currencies depreciate. Foreign investors liquidate their portfolios and swarm to the exits. Creditors call in loans, plunging institutions into insolvency. More people take their money and run, further undermining institutions and weakeninging the currency … And so it goes.

    Ten years ago, I was covering South Korea’s fraught journey into near national bankruptcy. (More echoes of the Asian Contagion crisis: The South Korean won hit lows not seen in a
decade on Friday
and analysts forecast the economy will shrink next year for the first time since 1997). 

    My brother and sister-in-law were in Jakarta, where the financial crisis had morphed into a populist movement aimed at overturning the autocratic regime of the late president Suharto.
I had lived in Indonesia in the 1980s and I could hardly believe what was happening in Suharto’s Indonesia.  Food riots swept across Indonesia as the rupiah halved in value in the second half of 1997 — and then halved again in January alone. Panic-buying stripped supermarkets and other
stores of their wares.  ”An army of perfectly coiffed Indonesian matrons stormed the
supermarkets this week and bought out all the rice, flour, sugar and cooking oil,” my sister-in-law Cynthia Mackie wrote in her diary in mid-January 1998. “The foreigners smelled the panic and
got very excited at the idea of their dollars being four times as strong as in July.”

    Suharto was sworn-in for a seventh five-year term after his Golkar party won an incredulous 70 percent of the vote in yet another rigged election of his New Order period.  For years, Indonesians had accepted limits on their political freedoms in exchange for prosperity and growth. Now they had
neither. They turned their rage on ethnic Chinese, who though comprising just 5 percent of the population controlled well over half of the domestic economy.

    The killings of students in pro-democracy demonstrations in May 1998 spawned an orgy of rioting that convulsed Jakarta for two days. Chinatown was gutted. Around 1,200 people died, many of them trapped in burning buildings. Anarchy descended on the capital. Foreign embassies ordered a
mandatory evacuation of their nationals.
Convoys of foreigners streamed past burning cars and buildings to the airport, leaving pets and belongings behind, including my brother and his wife.
They would not return for months.

    Indonesia is an altogether different place a decade later, at least politically. The world’s fourth-largest nation arguably has the most liberal democracy in Southeast Asia, a free-wheeling
press, and a legacy of reforms that has decentralised power.  Corruption is still a problem, and an elite class with old ties to the New Order — President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono was the
head of the armed forces political faction at the time of Suharto’s resignation — dominates politics.     

    But Indonesia has improved its ranking in the corruption tables and people can vent
their frustrations in free and fair elections, due next year.  As John Milton famously said: “Anarchy is the sure consequence of tyranny”. Indonesia is heading into turbulent economic waters,
but don’t expect to see a reign of terror again in the streets.

One comment

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Of even greater concern to me is that the investment industry there will lose an entire generation of investors between the age of 25-30. If credit in these markets are not adequately applied to key growth markets like export, finance and manufacturing; what will manifest in its place is greater government control over these sectors and as a result, protectionist barriers. Without adequate capitalization, an entire generation may very well end up as disenfranchised as they were in the 90′s. I share in your hopes for that area but am still skeptical about its ability to not regress to social turmoil. This was a great piece, thank you.