Riots and looting: my memories of Asia’s financial crisis

The phone call came in the middle of the night. It was my mother, frantic but trying to inject calmness into her voice.

There were riots in Jakarta, she said. The supermarket down our road had been set on fire, and people were out on the streets looting stores and ransacking homes.

It was May 1998. And Indonesia – my childhood home – was at war with itself.

It wasn’t the only one.

Thailand, the Philippines, South Korea, Hong Kong, Malaysia – even Japan – were all affected by the Asian financial crisis.

Eroding wealth

Almost overnight, the East Asian economic miracle was declared no more.

Growth rates contracted. Millions of families like mine saw their wealth erode over the course of a few months.

The middle class in many of these nations was decimated as housewives sold their jewellery to keep their families afloat, and mothers stormed the streets because they couldn’t afford imported formula for their children.

A number of countries, including Indonesia, had to ask the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank for help.

‘Meant to be invincible’

My sister and I were at university in the UK when the financial crisis struck in 1997.

At the time we felt the impact keenly. Our overseas university fees, which were paid in British pounds, became vastly more expensive to a father who, until that point. had exemplified the middle-class Indonesian success story.

“No one could have seen it coming,” my father tells me today as he looks back. “We were on the verge of becoming one of Asia’s tiger economies. We were meant to be invincible.”

But if there was thing the crisis proved, it was that Asia’s Tigers were extremely vulnerable.

“It was the worst time in my career,” Soedjradjad Djiwandono, Indonesia’s central bank governor at the time told me.

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