08 Oct 2019 13:24 IST

Indonesia can learn from Hong Kong's unrest

It has to get on with structural changes, beginning with lifting investment limits

Hong Kong offers Jakarta a valuable lesson in the cost of inaction. Unpopular legislative changes have brought tens of thousands of demonstrators onto the streets, just as in the former British colony. It is early enough for Indonesian President Joko Widodo to defuse the tension. Stalling will make it harder to tackle important and thorny policy matters.

The protests were triggered by bills hurried through in the final days of the parliamentary session, before a new cabinet is appointed and Widodo gets sworn in for a second term. They included an effort to introduce a criminal code outlawing sex outside marriage, among other things, and changes to limit the powers of the country’s revered anti-corruption commission, known by its Indonesian initials as the KPK.

The president, known as Jokowi, has kept out of the fray since he was reelected in April. He may want to gaze northward for a glimpse of what can happen when discontent is allowed to simmer. Hong Kong’s troubles may run deeper, but Indonesian demands are also spreading to include devastating forest fires and the military presence in Papua. Jakarta, where students helped unseat President Suharto in 1998, hardly needs reminding of the power of crowds.

Jokowi swept in on promises to tackle corruption, clear the way for foreign investment and accelerate economic growth, which has flatlined at near 5 per cent. But after an April ballot that showcased the rising strength of conservative Islam, he has shown a propensity to lose sight of those goals.

He can still act, though. A vote on the criminal code backed by hardliners has already been delayed, making casualties of other more credible proposals. Jokowi can show resolve by repealing the wildly unpopular KPK reforms. He can tackle the anti-graft agency’s shortcomings, such as excessively lengthy probes, but this poorly conceived effort, combined with weak appointments, will hurt at a time when Indonesia needs to reassure overseas companies and fund managers.

Swiftly appointing his cabinet would help, too, ending a protracted period of horse-trading. To spark the economy, Indonesia has to get on with structural changes, beginning with lifting investment limits and tackling a rigid labour market. Pushing those through by the end of the year, as promised this week, would be a better use of Jokowi’s political capital.