Jakarta’s cold hand of protectionism

Bahasa! Expat lawyers in Indonesia may have to take ethics exam in local language

Unlike its neighbour Malaysia, which is slowly opening up its legal market, Indonesia is going in the opposite direction.

Since the end of last year the 50-odd expat lawyers based in Jakarta have been wondering if they are really welcome. 

Indonesia’s bar association, Peradi, is proposing to impose an ethics exam on foreign lawyers wanting to work in the country. It will be done in the Indonesian native language of Bahasa.

Foreign lawyers are already required to fulfil demanding requirements to stay in the country, while they remain barred from practising Indonesian law. For example, they have to contribute 120 hours annually in pro bono work, and visas and work permits must be reviewed once a year. Some have complained it is difficult to secure a working visa.

The ethics exam would create another hurdle for the expats. It is deemed to be challenging for any foreign counsel without a native proficiency in local language.

Some foreign lawyers are considering relocating to Singapore, where Indonesia-related legal work is increasingly handled. 

“It’s a step too far,” said one. “This will push more international work offshore and force more lawyers to work on Indonesian deals on a fly-in, fly-out basis.”

Protectionism will do more harm than good. Not only will Indonesia’s local lawyers have fewer connections with their international counterparts, but it will also have economic implications.