Oct 23, 2012

Indonesia - Clock is Ticking on Time Zone Plan

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The Indonesian government understands that time is money. But the clock is ticking on a pledge to merge Indonesia’s three time zones into one, as the opposition says it’s all a waste of time.

The government has been promoting since May a plan that aims to put all parts of the sprawling archipelago nation into the same time zone as many other Asian countries. Under the plan, all of Indonesia—which stretches 6,400 kilometers between India and Australia—would be eight hours ahead of Greenwich Mean Time, meaning the country’s capital city would shift one hour ahead of its current time.

The government says the move is expected to boost business transactions between Indonesia and the regional financial hubs such as Singapore, China, Hong Kong and Malaysia. Airlines could also profit through simpler flight schedules, increasing their productivity, it says.

But it is increasingly evident that implementation will drag on for a while, if it is done at all. Officials targeted a start date of Oct. 28 to coincide with the 84th anniversary of the declaration of one nation and one language by young Indonesian nationalists. But some residents worry the change could disrupt religious rituals and other daily habits, and have resisted.

“It’s difficult now to start the unification [on Oct.28] because we need more time. It takes at least 90 days to prepare our logistics and transportation system,” said Edib Muslim, spokesman for the Committee for the Acceleration and Expansion of Indonesian Economic Development, an institution established by President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono last year that has been tasked with promoting the time-zone unification idea to the public.

Analysts have become increasingly critical of Mr. Yudhoyono’s government for failing to push through promised changes, including steps to raise fuel prices to better balance the Indonesian budget and upgrade infrastructure to make Indonesia more competitive with other nations. Critics say his government has become too worried about building consensus to push through reforms supported by investors and business leaders.

While the time-zone idea isn’t seen as critical by many investors, it is popular among some who would find it easier to do business in the country. Russia in March reduced its time zones to nine from 11, while Brazil is considering cutting to one from three.

And it isn’t only monetary gains that Jakarta has in mind by abolishing the clock divisions—it also hopes to foster closer ties among the country’s more than 1,128 ethnic groups. With the country split into three zones, the thinking goes, it’s easier for groups to view themselves as part of different regions than as Indonesians first.

Hatta Rajasa, Indonesia’s economy minister, says he isn’t giving up on the plan. Mr. Rajasa initiated a study in 2004, when he was the minister of research and technology, to examine the benefits and costs of putting the country on one time zone. After years of considering the benefits of the idea, there is wide support for it within the government and the business community. Mr. Rajasa says now the government needs to work harder to sell idea to the public.

“There are still some technical and sociological obstacles—many people still don’t understand the benefits of the time-zone unification,” said Mr. Rajasa, who is widely expected to be one of the presidential candidates in Indonesia’s 2014 election.

He said the plan won’t be implemented by the target date and declined to give a new timetable, but he says he’s optimistic it will eventually go through.

But some people wonder if it will ever come together, especially with the country’s attention increasingly shifting toward the presidential election in 2014. Some analysts say reforms could stall further if candidates resist taking a stand on issues that divide parts of the country.

“Indonesia is a multicultural society with so many diverse mentalities, habits and customs,” said Partini, a sociologist at the Gadjah Mada University in Yogyakarta who like many Indonesians goes by only one name. Ms. Partini said she is concerned that merging time zones could spark restlessness within Indonesian society by disrupting daily religious and other practices.

Plenty of locals dismiss that line of thinking, though. Rinza Sandy, director of marketing at the Atjeh Post daily newspaper in Banda Aceh, the westernmost large city in Indonesia, said he wouldn’t mind the idea of waking up one hour earlier if the rule is enacted, nor does he believe it will adversely affect his five-times-a-day praying practice.

“The (Islamic) praying times are not based on the clock time, but with the position of the sun,” he said.

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