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Asia: Mulyani rides to Indonesia’s rescue (again)

Recalled from Washington by a reform-minded president struggling to fulfil his election promises, Sri Mulyani Indrawati is pushing through a wholesale reform of Indonesia’s tax system. But it is not just about boosting revenues; for Mulyani it also symbolizes the beginning of a new era for the country.

Mulyani paper plane-600

Illustration: Kevin February

Indonesians well remember the moment when their popular finance minister Sri Mulyani Indrawati unexpectedly resigned her post in 2010, defeated by the country’s venal money politics, her reform work unfinished. It was a dark time, as Indonesians fretted that their most trusted public official had been crushed and, with her demise, so too their hard-fought struggle to reform after generations of kleptocratic dictatorship.

Bruised and, for that moment at least, bowed after losing a brutal battle with the country’s powerful oligarchs, Mulyani responded in time-honoured local style. She sang.

Bound for a consolation job at the World Bank in the US, Mulyani crooned a version of ‘New York, New York’ on her last day at the ministry. But what moved Indonesians most was her heartfelt rendition of a local folk song ‘Ke Jakarta Aku Kan Kembali’ (To Jakarta I will return) that ministry staffers still recall six years on.

So it was fitting that her surprising but widely acclaimed return this July to the centre stage of the Indonesian economic reform agenda for a second stint as finance minister had Indonesians reaching for pop culture references to mark the moment.

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