MIGHT it just be that after President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono’s sweeping re-election, the era of Indonesia’s grasping cronies is coming to an end?

These free-wheeling cronies have been a lawless cancer on the Indonesian economy for too long; the reason why so much of Indonesia doesn’t work properly — why its roads are pot-holed, why badly built bridges, buildings and dams collapse, why its technological backbone is dysfunctional, why consumers are abused, why its justice system is corrupt, why the oxygen-sustaining Borneo rainforests are logged to within an inch of their lives.

Cronies are to Indonesia what politically connected oligarchs are to Russia, except they’ve been around longer. Their fathers were to some extent commercial pioneers in the newly independent Indonesia, and there was then a role for them, because the new nation needed to be built, and built fast.

Their contracts and businesses were largely based on proximity to the military and the ruling family, which, save for the last decade of “reformasi”, has been largely the same thing, be it the Soehartos or the Soekarnos before them. Foreign investors quickly figured it out — joint-venture partners were chosen because they were well connected with the palace, not because they were great operators.

Too much was never enough for the cronies, who became some of Asia’s richest men, displaying almost obscene wealth in a country as poor as Indonesia. They should have been banished after the 1997-98 “Asian Contagion” crisis when the Indonesian economy collapsed and Soeharto was ousted. Some did — the Salim/Liem food-to-banking empire for one is a shadow of its former self — but the system was sufficiently politically malleable that many survived, and even prospered.

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