Cracking Asia's Cozy Ways

Indonesia reform post-Suharto is latest example of making business more accountable.

By , Staff writers of The Christian Science Monitor

Rosalind squints into the distance, looking for a bus home on a busy Jakarta boulevard. Inside her worn, imitation-leather purse is an envelope full of cash, the contents of the account she has just closed at a bank she no longer trusts.

Her action is a strike against the old ways of doing business in Asia. From Seoul to Jakarta, from the International Monetary Fund to workaday Indonesians, demands for open accountability are changing economies long used to cozy ties and mercantile strategies.

In Indonesia, some strikes have been primitive. Jagged holes scar the mirrored-glass buildings that house many of the city's banks, the handiwork of rioters angered by a business culture known for corruption, collusion, and nepotism. Putting a rock through a window is one way to achieve transparency, although perhaps not the one economists think best.

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Indonesia's recent turmoil has been the most violent expression of Asia's economic crisis, which hit US markets last year and continues to slow Japan's recovery.

To prevent a recurrence, experts and regulators are calling for an end to closed-door deals based on personal connections and increases in information that companies and governments release.

This week in Indonesia, the new energy minister said he would review contracts between the state-owned oil company, Pertamina, and suppliers owned by the Suharto family. The Jakarta city government cancelled contracts for drinking water with two firms tied to the former first family and will seek the return of money already made under the deals.

"This is the beginning of transparency in Indonesia," says a former economic minister who insisted on anonymity. Until now, he adds, "we were not allowed to expose the activities of certain companies with links to the Suharto family."

This former official, now in private business, says he hopes that companies and government institutions will be forced to report their activities accurately and regularly, that firms will be prevented from hiding their problems behind a screen of subsidiaries or holding companies, and that the press will be able to investigate corruption.

Throughout the region, the push for clarity is complicated by the resistance of entrenched interests and a suspicion that the West is promoting its model of capitalism inappropriately. And some observers say the region's woes aren't the result of a lack of transparency.

"Asia's current crisis is not generated by Asian values or a lack of transparency, but rather ... an excess of money that flowed in and led to bad investment decisions," says Donald Hanna, director of Asian economic research at Goldman, Sachs in Hong Kong. "Poor investment decisions get made in the most transparent economies."

HISTORY and culture shape Asian business and economic practices. Among Chinese, the extended family is a natural means of organizing a business network. Japan's government has guided individual companies and entire industries. In Indonesia and the Philippines - not the only examples - dictatorship and corruption gave rise to murky business practices.

Broadly speaking, the corporate shareholder does not rule in Asia, where companies are nowhere near as subject to those who own their stock as those in the West. Instead, Asian managers say they are interested in serving the interests of workers, managers, and society as they try to turn profits for investors.

The focus on transparency, says James Abegglen, a Tokyo-based author and business consultant, is part of a system that values shareholder interests above all. "To the extent that transparency is a synonym for the Anglo-American concept of capitalism, then it doesn't fit in Asia," he argues. "To the extent it's imposed, it will be counterproductive."

The International Monetary Fund, now rescuing Indonesia, South Korea, and Thailand, insists that countries promote transparency in exchange for its loans. Robert Alan Feldman, chief economist for Japan at Morgan Stanley's Tokyo branch, says the urge to become more transparent is market driven. Big Asian companies need increasing amounts of foreign investment and must heed international standards to attract it. "The clubby ways of doing business are simply not adequate [to raise] the amounts of capital required."

South Korea is pushing deregulation and transparency, but these moves are meeting resistance. Kim Woo Choong, chairman of the Daewoo industrial group, said official attempts to split up such groups reflect the interests of foreign corporations seeking market share in Korea.

The Japanese are moving haltingly toward transparency. In earnings reports this week, the country's banks reported the bad loans they hold with greater honesty than ever. At the same time, reports said that Katsuhiko Kumazaki, a Tokyo prosecutor who exposed corruption and back-room tipoffs by government officials, has been "promoted" to regional obscurity. "There are definitely people who think he went too far," political commentator Hisayuki Miyake told Reuters.

A few experts argue that the lack of transparency was not the major cause of Asia's crisis. "The real problem is what to do with stupid and greedy investors who don't know what they're doing," says Richard Koo, chief economist at Nomura Research Institute in Tokyo.

Indonesia, Thailand, and South Korea were all flooded with short-term loans from outside investors who bolted in last summer's crisis of confidence, say Mr. Koo. He notes that Chile has safeguards against the panicky flight of capital - reserve requirements with the central bank - and suggests that Asia do the same.

* Michael Baker in Seoul contributed to this report.

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