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Indonesia's response to AirAsia inspires optimism

A search and rescue officer points to a

A search and rescue officer points to a co-ordination map of Indonesia at the crisis center set up by local authorities in search of the missing AirAsia flight QZ8501 at Juanda International Airport in Surabaya, East Java, Indonesia, Monday, Dec. 29, 2014. Photo Credit: AP / Trisnadi Marjan

In his run for president this year, Joko Widodo pledged to bring greater openness and accountability to Indonesia. As his administration faces its first international crisis, the mysterious crash of an AirAsia jet, he's proving to be a man of his word.

You can tell a lot about a nation from its response to great tragedy, whether it's Japan's 2011 Fukushima crisis, Malaysia's lost Boeing 777 in March or South Korea's deadly ferry accident in April. So far, Widodo has performed admirably.

Since news broke on Sunday that an Airbus A320 flying from Surabaya, Indonesia, to Singapore vanished with 162 people on board, Widodo has coordinated search-and-rescue efforts, demanded a review of air safety regulations and called on weather agencies to provide timelier information. His government is giving steady updates, and Widodo has sought help from Singapore, Malaysia, South Korea, Australia and, remarkably, China and the United States in finding Flight QZ8501.

In contrast, last spring, Malaysia was widely criticized for the secrecy and paranoia that surrounded its search for a Malaysia Airlines flight that disappeared with 239 people aboard. Welcoming U.S. and Chinese military ships into Indonesia's orbit speaks to Widodo's confidence as a leader.

Let's hope this is a harbinger of future competence. Widodo is the fifth president since dictator Suharto was ousted in 1998 but the first true political outsider to run Southeast Asia's biggest economy. Because he's not a member of a dynastic family or the military, he isn't beholden to vested interests looking to siphon the benefits of Indonesia's 5 percent growth. That gives him latitude to dismantle the kleptocracy that Suharto built during his 32-year reign and raise Indonesia's competitiveness.

As governor of Jakarta, starting in 2012, Widodo brought a surprising level of transparency. He moved budget procurement and tax collection processes online. He's now working to make national government services electronic to reduce opportunities for graft and improve efficiency. Opening up the process of granting licenses for developing infrastructure, mines and plantations alone would do much to clean up the nation's political and business climate.

Indonesia's aviation industry also has long cried out for greater oversight. Its carriers, air traffic controllers and the skies around the archipelago of 250 million people are notorious for their regulatory laxity. As recently as 2009, state carrier Garuda was banned from European Union airspace. That laxity is a product of decades of cronyism and institutional neglect.

While Widodo's predecessor Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono made inroads against graft, Indonesia's still ranks behind Djibouti and Argentina and a sober 22 rungs below India in Transparency International's latest corruption perceptions index. The daylight Widodo wants to shine on the government is needed to attract more foreign investment and ensure that scarce revenues are spent on education, health care and poverty programs.

The openness and assertiveness with which Widodo has responded to Flight QZ8501 gives me reason to hope that Indonesia will be prepared for whatever comes its way.

William Pesek, a Bloomberg View columnist based in Tokyo, writes on economics, markets and politics throughout the Asia-Pacific region.

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