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Web-only Exclusives
November 30, 2000

From Our Correspondent: Hirohito and the War
A conversation with biographer Herbert Bix

From Our Correspondent: A Rough Road Ahead
Bad news for the Philippines - and some others

From Our Correspondent: Making Enemies
Indonesia needs friends. So why is it picking fights?

Asiaweek Time Asia Now Asiaweek story

'I DON'T ASK FOR FAVORS'

A pribumi tycoon on the new Indonesia


Activism Pushing a "People's Economy"

Adi Sasono On empowering the masses

Winners The top pribumi companies

Dealmakers An M&A team gets the job done in Jakarta

Politics Factionalism is ripping Indonesia apart

CALL HIM A CRONY - but don't say he gets special favors. "I always fought these kind of things," says businessman ABURIZAL BAKRIE. A member of Indonesia's indigenous population (pribumi), he is a friend and adviser to President B.J. Habibie. Bakrie, 52, has clout in the new Indonesia. He is president of the Indonesia Chamber of Commerce and Industry, and an elected member of the People's Assembly, the body that chooses the country's leader. He is also a stalwart of the ruling Golkar party. The chairman of the Bakrie Group of Companies gave a rare interview to Asiaweek's Salman Wayne Morrison and Cesar Bacani.

Race and business is a hot issue in Indonesia these days.

Let us look at history. Under 350 years of Dutch occupation, it was forbidden for Indonesians to trade. The only ones allowed were the Dutch, Indians and Chinese. So obviously the entrepreneurial spirit of the Indonesian Malays was killed. Suharto had to use whatever entrepreneurs were there, and that meant the Chinese. But if one race that makes up just 3.5% of the population controls 90% of the businesses not [owned] by government companies, then there will be a lot of social discomfort.

So what should the government do?

Affirmative action. Something like Malaysia's. It's not exactly the same, because in Indonesia [people called] Malay consist of Malay Muslims, Christian Malays and Hindu Malays. So we do not say pribumi, but the poor for affirmative action. There are some Chinese poor as well. The state has seized a lot of banks and the assets of their owners because they could not repay their debt to the government. What we would like to see is for perhaps 80% to be sold to foreigners - at the present moment Indonesians do not have the money to buy them. But 20% [of each company] must be sold - in stages, in five years, six years, when the economy picks up again - to the small people. Not to Bakrie. Although when people say pribumi, I'm also pribumi . . .

But you're not poor.

(Laughs.) I'm poor right now because my company is $1.2 billion in debt. But we were the first ones to renegotiate with the banks and we are almost ready to finish. Some of the bigger banks are choosing to take a haircut - they say pay us now at a 50%, 60%, 70% discount and we'll take the loss. Fine. They are strong enough to put the loss on their balance sheet. Others say, I'll give you a 15-year loan at 1% interest rate. That means it's the same as a haircut, but they are not putting the loss all in one year, they can book it in 15 years, every year.

Because you are a pribumi and a friend of President Habibie, there's a perception that you will benefit from these proposals.

I've been very close to [Habibie] for many years. I advise him on what the private sector needs. I like him because he's very open. The biggest achievement of Habibie is that he changed [the way government is run]. It's no longer aristocratic - the king can do no wrong. Now, everybody can speak. The most important thing to me is that the general elections [next year] have to be a success. The next president has to be democratic. I don't care whether it's Habibie or someone else. But he or she cannot be aristocratic anymore.

There are rumors that you are eyeing a takeover of former monopolies, like the grains agency Bulog. How do you react?

This is the first time I will open up [on this subject]. At one point, the government wanted to buy 500,000 tons of rice. I said the price was too expensive. Bulog said it had already signed on for 200,000 tons from Thailand. I said fine. If that's what you want to do, sign for 100,000 tons, cancel the 400,000 and put that out for tender. What did I get [from the September bidding]? My company [in partnership with Malaysia's Petronas] got 100,000 tons - we were the second-lowest bidder. I have cornered the rice market by winning 100,000 tons out of 520,000 tons?

Are you Indonesia's new crony?

I don't mind if you mean by "crony" someone who is close [to the president], someone who gives advice. But I'm not asking for special favors. Look what happened to rice. Did I get it? But if there is opportunity in my line of business, why not? If there is an opportunity for me to get a telephone license, I will do it. I will fight. Even during the Suharto era, I fought. I'm not afraid to be a friend of anybody's. I'm also not afraid to fight anybody as long as I'm right. But to exploit my being close [to the government] is not my style. It's not Habibie's style either. He does not interfere in business.


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