Jakarta – Not one of the country's three 2024 presidential candidates has shown any real interest in making the changes necessary to salvage our ailing state-owned enterprises (SOEs), with the firms in the construction sector in the most dire need of a dramatic overhaul.
Experts say the pledges the candidates have made so far are unlikely to do much to fix the problems that have beset these SOEs under President Joko "Jokowi" Widodo's nearly 10 years of leadership, and is it certainly possible that the candidates will repeat the administration's mistakes.
Since President Jokowi assumed power in October 2014, infrastructure SOEs have been racking up debt to meet the demands of his infrastructure drive, which includes extensive toll roads, high-speed railways and airports.
For years, their mounting debt was swept under the rug. Then, the COVID-19 pandemic delivered a solvency wake-up call, and none of the problems could be ignored, especially by investors.
Two construction SOEs have, at least once this year, failed to make coupon payments to investors. One is facing legal action from its creditors that could condemn the company to bankruptcy or provide for a restructuring of its debt, depending on how negotiations proceed and the court's decision.
SOEs in the airport and railway industries have also faced financial pressure following projects such as the new Yogyakarta International Airport and the Jakarta-Bandung high-speed railway, but they are in a moderately better state than their construction peers.
Two of our presidential candidates, Ganjar Pranowo and Anies Baswedan, deserve some amount of credit for offering slightly different plans to tackle SOEs' debt problems, as compared to Prabowo Subianto, who will likely maintain the business-as-usual approach.
Anies has proposed reviewing the liabilities of all SOEs and continuing the debt restructuring processes, while Ganjar says he will have the state step in, either by offering government guarantees or providing state capital injections (PMNs), especially for projects that are not commercially viable.
However, these fixes are unlikely to make much of a difference to the underlying problem, and they cannot guarantee that SOEs' old wounds won't open up under external pressures similar to the COVID-19 pandemic.
The candidates must think very carefully before backing any future infrastructure projects. If a particular project is not truly needed, then it is best to not build it in the first place. Or if the government does not want to support the SOEs working on a commercially infeasible project, then it is best to forget it altogether.
Our SOEs are known for their inability [not] to say no to the government. This compulsion to please has to change. They must be allowed to give honest business perspectives and to reject projects that could jeopardize their balance sheets.
The same goes for feasibility studies and due diligence. These must not be rubber stamps but systematic and impartial assessments that can flag – and lead to the cancellation of – any unviable projects.
SOEs, remember, are responsible for contributing to state revenue. They are not the playthings of popularity-minded policymakers.
As if to add insult to injury, the three candidates have barely signaled any intention to offer private firms a bigger role in the country's SOE-dominant infrastructure sector, as has been suggested by international groups like the World Bank.
While relying on SOEs gives the government more control, it rarely translates well in terms of efficiency and competitiveness.
A failure to address the crisis facing our SOEs will saddle future administrations with constant payments to sustain the firms and the projects they work on.
If the problems persist, we cannot expect Indonesian SOEs to ever match their foreign counterparts or expand to global markets, let alone for these SOEs to contribute to state revenue.