Jokowi's handling of AirAsia crash inspires optimism

Indonesian president Joko Widodo speaks to the media after arriving at the crisis centre at Juanda International Airport Terminal 2 in Surabaya to meet with grieving family members on Dec 30, 2014. -- ST PHOTO: KEVIN LIM
Indonesian president Joko Widodo speaks to the media after arriving at the crisis centre at Juanda International Airport Terminal 2 in Surabaya to meet with grieving family members on Dec 30, 2014. -- ST PHOTO: KEVIN LIM

IN HIS run for president last year, Mr Joko Widodo pledged to bring greater openness and accountability to Indonesia.

As his administration faces its first international crisis, the mysterious crash of an Indonesia AirAsia jet, he is proving to be a man of his word.

You can tell a lot about a nation from its response to great tragedy, whether it is Japan's 2011 Fukushima crisis, Malaysia's lost Boeing 777 in March or South Korea's deadly ferry accident in April. So far, Mr Joko has performed admirably.

Since news broke on Sunday that an Airbus A-320 flying from Surabaya, Indonesia, to Singapore vanished with 162 people on board, Mr Joko has coordinated search and rescue efforts, demanded a review of air safety regulations and called on weather agencies to provide timelier information. His government is giving steady updates, and Mr Joko has sought help from Singapore, Malaysia, South Korea, Australia and, remarkably, China and the United States in finding Flight QZ8501.

In contrast, last spring, Malaysia was widely criticised for the secrecy and paranoia that surrounded its search for a Malaysia Airlines flight that disappeared with 239 people aboard.

Welcoming US and Chinese military ships into Indonesia's orbit speaks to Mr Joko's confidence as a leader.

Let's hope this is a harbinger of future competence.

Mr Joko is the fifth president since dictator Suharto was ousted in 1998 but the first true political outsider to run South-east Asia's biggest economy.

Because he is not a member of a dynastic family or the military, he is not beholden to vested interests looking to siphon the benefits of Indonesia's 5 per cent growth.

That gives him latitude to dismantle the kleptocracy that Suharto built during his 32-year reign and raise Indonesia's competitiveness.

As governor of Jakarta, starting in 2012, Mr Joko brought a surprising level of transparency. He moved budget procurement and tax collection processes online.

He is now working to make national government services electronic to reduce opportunities for graft and improve efficiency.

Opening up the process of granting licences for developing infrastructure, mines and plantations alone would do much to clean up the nation's political and business climate.

Indonesia's aviation industry also has long cried out for greater oversight.

Its carriers, air traffic controllers and the skies around the archipelago of 250 million people are notorious for their regulatory laxity.

As recently as 2009, state carrier Garuda was banned from European Union airspace. That laxity is a product of decades of cronyism and institutional neglect.

While Mr Joko's predecessor Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono made inroads against graft, Indonesia still ranks behind Djibouti and Argentina and is a sober 22 rungs below India in Transparency International's latest corruption perceptions index.

The daylight Mr Joko wants to shine on the government is needed to attract more foreign investment and ensure that scarce revenues are spent on education, health care and poverty programmes.

The openness and assertiveness with which Mr Joko has responded to Flight QZ8501 gives me reason to hope that Indonesia will be prepared for whatever comes its way.

BLOOMBERG