BEIJING–In his maiden speech at an annual Pacific Rim economic forum as Indonesia’s new leader, President Joko Widodo pitched his country as a prime investment destination to regional business leaders, pledging to slash fuel subsidies that have crimped the government’s ability to spend on social and infrastructural development.
Describing the $27 billion Jakarta spends annually to hold down fuel prices as “huge,” Mr. Widodo said “we want to channel our fuel subsidy from consumption to productive activity.
The savings would be used to build much-needed ports, railways and other infrastructure for the sprawling archipelago nation, home to some 250 million people across more than 17,000 islands, and help improve livelihoods for rural residents, the president told the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation CEO Summit in Beijing.
“In five years, we want to build 24 seaports and deep seaports,” on the islands of Sumatra, Kalimantan, Java, Sulawesi, Maluku and Papua, Mr. Widodo said. He also outlined plans to expand Indonesia’s railway network and develop mass-transportation networks in six major cities, including Jakarta, Bandung and Surabaya.
Other key infrastructure projects would include power plants, to help develop Indonesia’s manufacturing and industrial sectors. “This is your opportunity,” the president told the audience in halting English, in a refrain he would use repeatedly in his roughly 13-minute speech.
Savings from reduced fuel subsidies would also go toward improving livelihoods for farmers, fishermen and micro and small enterprises in rural Indonesia, giving them access to capital, better equipment and infrastructure, Mr. Widodo said.
“We want to build the dams — 25 dams in five years — from our fuel subsidy, to maintain the water supply to the farming area,” he said. “Some subsidy we want to channel to the fishermen, to give them good engine, to give them refrigerator. We want to increase the income of the fishermen.”
Mr. Widodo’s comments underscore his intention to tackle costly fuel subsidies — a legacy of the more than 30-year rule of former President Suharto and a drain on fiscal resources that the new leader hopes to redirect toward improving infrastructure and social spending. In calling for more investment, he also acknowledged the constraints he faces freeing up the budget for development if the fuel subsidies are not addressed.
“This is your opportunity, because you know our national budget is limited,” he said.
Mr. Widodo sought to reassure his audience about the risks of doing business in Indonesia, recognizing that the country has previously ranked low on ease of doing business surveys. “A lot of investors, when they come to me, almost all of them, they always complain about land acquisition,” he said. “I will push my ministers, my governors, my mayors, to help clearing this problem.”
The president cited his experience in dealing with land disputes during his stint as governor of Jakarta, including some related to the construction of toll roads in the Indonesian capital. He also reminded his audience of his background in business, assuring them that Indonesian authorities would assist foreign investors in securing business permits in a speedy manner.
“I’m very happy to be among with you, because you know I was a businessman [many] years ago,” Mr. Widodo said. “So this morning I am very happy because we can talk about business, about investment with all of you.”