Opinion

Islamic banking: Why
so slow?

The Fifth World Islamic Economic Forum (WIEF) opened on Monday in Jakarta. The global Islamic financing industry has over US$1 trillion in assets. But Indonesian Islamic finance accounts for less than 3 percent of banking assets and lacks the know-how, staff and infrastructure to expand faster.

Indonesia is maintaining economic growth at over 4.5 percent and bank lending growth rates at over 15 percent.

If Indonesian conventional banking is doing quite well amidst a global banking crisis, why is Islamic banking in Indonesia moving so slowly?

The signing at the Forum of Memorandums of Agreement (MoAs) pending final negotiations on four Indonesian projects worth $ 3 billion was encouraging.

But an MoA is maybe half way to a full MoU, and in Indonesia too many MoUs evaporate. The road to nowhere can be paved with good intentions.

The problem in Indonesia and Muslim countries in transition is how to get from intention to im-plementation, as testified by the unfinished concrete pillars of the Jakarta monorail, monuments to lack of capacity, corruption and incompetence.

Now WIEF is five years old. It will be judged in the next five years by Muslim opinion on what is finished and not on what is half agreed.

The long list of Indonesian projects needing financing at the back of the Islamic Forum 2009 agenda highlights Indonesian needs for investment in toll roads, water supply, bridges, ports and power stations as well as biofuel, agriculture and tourism.

Yet performance in "Tapping Islamic funds" has fallen far short of potential, especially in government infrastructure projects and public-private partnerships.

There is a history of low capacity, poor project preparation, bureaucratic delays, slow reform of regulatory frameworks and poor enforcement, corruption, confusion and under-capacity in the implementation of decentralization.

Despite Indonesia*s predominantly Muslim identity there is also a discernable communication gap between the Indonesian bureaucracy and the more modern style of Gulf-based potential investors and developers.

There is a language gap. Many Indonesian officials cannot do business in English or Arabic. Many can recite prayers in Arabic, but cannot use it as a working language.

The Indonesian tendency to engage Arab culture and Arabic only at the level of religious ritual needs to be complemented by a more comprehensive commitment to modern dialogue with the Arab world on economic, social and political partnerships for Muslim modernization, moderation and democracy.

We cannot assume automatic affinity of interest based on the similarity of Muslim rituals, across very diverse cultures, unsupported by greater realities.

These communication gaps may help explain the relative modesty of the flow of resources from the Middle East so far and why in Indonesia there remains a huge gap between declarations of support for sharia banking and reality.

The Deputy Governor of the Bank of Indonesia, Siti Fadjrijah said in Jakarta in January that sharia banking could not reach the national 5 percent target in terms of national banking assets because " It's impossible during these hard economic times ".

Why is it impossible if there is $1.6 trillion of liquid assets in the Gulf States and Saudi Arabia waiting to be invested, despite the recession ?

Indonesian sharia banking reached 3.79 million customers in 2008 via 1,452 bank outlets, compared to 6,500 conventional bank outlets. The latter backed by 97 percent of banking assets, and the former by only 3 percent. Why so little capital ?

Indonesian sharia banking disbursed only 589,000 loans in 2008 compared with 512,000 in 2007. Why so few ? Sharia banking "Loan disbursement is like a walking tortoise" said Siti Fadjrijah.

The sharia banking industry, to reach the 5 percent of banking assets target, would need an estimated 15,000 to 25,000 extra staff.

Given the global economic crisis, this would seem the right time to properly engage Middle Eastern partners, to speak Arabic as a language of business alongside English and Chinese, to invest in the huge Islamic banking potential of Indonesia, to hire the staff, create the jobs, and move more loans. So why doesn't Indonesia do it ?

The Council of Ulema, the Muhammadiah, the Nahdlatul Ulama, the conservatives, the liberals, the sharia banks, the sharia banking training and promotional agencies, the university departments, the NGOs and the little sharia banking lending groups should combine their efforts to bring this about, to deploy the uniqueness of shared profit and loss, one of the great innovations of sharia finance, to finance power and water for the poor and SMEs, to the benefit of the whole society.

The writer is a development economist based in Jakarta.

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