We saw dozens of kids wearing Premier League football sweaters: Arsenal, Chelsea, Manchester United and so on. As I left the presidential palace a young chap came up to me and said: “I love your Royal family. God save the Queen!” They love the Beatles, sure; but they also love Coldplay and Adele, and modern British pop music is heard endlessly in their vast new shopping malls.
According to a recent survey of Indonesians, 69 per cent have positive feelings about the UK – interesting, when it is not at all obvious that 69 per cent of British people have positive feelings about Britain. Why do they like us? Search me, frankly. It may be that we are seen as a) not American and b) not Australian and c) the possessors of a pretty cool and groovy creative national brand.
At any rate, it is something good to build on. After all, Indonesia is a colossal market, and it’s going to be bigger. It is the powerhouse of the Asean countries, accounting for 40 per cent of the bloc’s economic might. The archipelago is vast – it stretches the same distance as London to Tehran. Indonesia has 242 million inhabitants, and will reach 280 million in the next 15 years, and economic growth has been ticking along at 6 per cent a year. According to the IMF, Indonesia will be the world’s fifth biggest economy by the year 2030. These are the consumers of the future – and they love British brands.
So you would expect British companies to be piling into the place, wouldn’t you? Which is why it is so disappointing to find that Indonesia is only the 46th biggest export market for British companies, and to find that Indonesian investment in Britain is minimal.
Yes, there are some heroic British firms that are out here – and going great guns. The malls are full of British retailers such as Marks & Spencer and Debenhams, and British oil companies, banks and insurers are also doing well.
But the country has a colossal need for new infrastructure, so you would have thought there was more of a market for British engineers and construction firms, for designers and consultants. One would have thought Indonesians would want more and more British luxury goods – from Range Rovers to Jermyn Street suitings.
What is holding us back? People have offered various suggestions. There is the perennial issue of bureaucracy and corruption. I talked to one British dynamo who imported hundreds of tons of potatoes all the way from Scotland – they have an increasing taste for chips – and he explained how the Indonesian phytosanitary inspectors had insisted on being flown all the way to Britain for two weeks, and hadn’t gone anywhere near the potato farm.
Well, if there is a problem with venal officials, then that is exactly the kind of problem that the Jokowi government is pledged to sort out. There is the complaint about lack of direct flights from London – and that will only be really resolved when we do what all the capitals in this region are doing, and build an airport that can cope with the needs of British business. There are complaints about the difficulty Indonesians have in getting visas to visit and study in Britain – and that certainly needs to be addressed.
But the final explanation I have been offered for these modest trade flows is the most disheartening – and one that I frankly refuse to accept. There are some who say that UK business just doesn’t have the same persistence as our rivals in Germany or America; that we have lost the buccaneering Stamford Raffles world view of our Victorian ancestors; that we are not prepared to take the long-term approach.
Can that be so? It is time to recognise that the world is mysteriously full of people who love all things British. We should help them buy British, too.