A Big Step Backward In Indonesia

One of Indonesia's rare successes in curbing corruption is about to be reversed. President Suharto has decided that as of Apr. 1, Indonesian customs agents will again take control over imports into the country. Corruption had become so bad that in 1985 Suharto gave control of the agency to a Swiss company, which succeeded in keeping packages sealed. Letting foreigners run the customs house was a temporary move designed to give Indonesians time to professionalize. But few expected that Societe Generale de Surveillance would be booted out so unceremoniously. The wife of the customs director is a relative of President Suharto--and SGS may have failed to cozy up to the right people. Of course there were allegations of corruption by government officials under SGS as well, but it was nothing like the old days.

At a time when Indonesia should be sending a message of stability and reform as it prepares for the eventual passing of 75-year-old President Suharto, it appears to be playing the old game of dividing the spoils. With control over key lucrative industries falling into the hands of Suharto's family and cronies, Indonesia's ability to peacefully weather the transition smoothly becomes increasingly fragile. Like other tigers in Southeast Asia, Indonesia needs serious economic and political reform.

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