World-Class Bali Is Just Dying for Development

By Novar Caine

It is a rare beast indeed, and when it comes galloping through the gates, it’s most welcome. On our small island that sells itself as world class, we’re lacking in so many facilities that developed nations deem basic. Services like efficient public transportation – imagine that – instead of haggling with brutish taxi drivers who turn on each other like animals; sparkling and accommodating ports of entry; smooth roads, even.

It’s such a shame that while Bali – southern Bali, at least – is dotted with the finest establishments you’d find anywhere, the facade is ripped apart a short step outside your door.

There’s really no need for it. We have a multimillion-dollar cruise port on the east coast that somehow ended up shrink-sized and cannot yet be used. There’s a road plan to ease the congestion around the airport but each week brings fresh revelations that it’s underground, overground, round and round – and going nowhere. There’s a stumbling revamp of the airport, long since unable to cope with 2.5 million foreign tourists a year, never mind the millions more coming from other parts of the country.

If it crossed your mind that the development plan was being enacted by bumbling mismanagement that had no place in the public (or any) sector, you’d be on the mark. On an island that is crying out for development, it is a sad story of negligence and abandon.

So there was every reason to perk up this week at news that one of the world’s foremost sovereign wealth funds is reportedly planning to invest in Bali and help develop – to its own ends, of course, but naturally benefiting us – infrastructure here. The Government of Singapore Investment Corp is a wildly successful investment medium whose assets around the world total US$247.5 billion, according to the Sovereign Wealth Fund Institute, an American entity that tracks such things.

For the most part, this Singapore behemoth knows a safe – and exceptionally profitable – bet when it sees one. And right now it’s eyeing up Indonesia, where it envisions huge prospects albeit with a decided lack of essentials. Its deputy chairman is Tony Tan, and he has told The Straits Times, Singapore’s government-owned daily, that the corporation is keen to plough money into infrastructure developments in this country.

“We would be interested in it because [the corporation] has quite a lot of experience in investing in infrastructure, (although) so far mainly in developed countries,” he was quoted as saying. It is understood that the investment firm will work with partners in Indonesia to identify what needs building up, and that among the projects that may come under discussion is a cruise-liner port in Bali.

Tan extended his reach by saying that “other companies would be very interested given Indonesia’s good fundamentals and obvious need for infrastructure investment.”

That Indonesia is the largest economy in Southeast Asia, was robust enough to withstand the global financial meltdown, in large part due to buoyant consumer spending, but lags far behind its near neighbours Singapore, Thailand and Malaysia, is something that must be urgently rectified by President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono. The capital itself is psychically paralysed because there are no networks to ferry people around. This perennial gridlock costs the country billions of dollars yearly in lost business. People just won’t attend meetings in the mid-afternoon, for instance, because they know they either won’t get there in time or they’ll end up choked in traffic for hours and lose out.  

Then there’s the whole issue of accountability, along with its cousin transparency and that detestable relation corruption. Funds appear and disappear at will. Work is started and soon stopped, as seen in pillars around Jakarta that are all that remain of the long-discussed monorail system. In other areas of the country projects are completed only to fall victim to official negligence and public theft – as in the impressive Suramadu Bridge connecting Surabaya and the island of Madura that had its lights pilfered immediately after it opened in June 2009.

Will the famously efficient Singaporeans do it any differently? Will they be a match for the vortex of Indonesian bureaucracy? With some luck, time will soon tell. If our foreign friends are willing to pour large sums of money into this country, we should invest some belief in them.

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