JAKARTA, INDONESIA—Its currency and economy decimated by the lingering Asian financial crisis, Indonesia received welcome news Tuesday, when the World Bank announced it would offer the struggling nation totally free checking.
"Indonesia can say goodbye to high checking fees," World Bank president James D. Wolfensohn said. "No monthly service charge, no per-check fee, and free touch-tone balance information are just some of the benefits Indonesia will enjoy with the World Bank's 'Totally Free Checking' program. And there are no strings attached and no hidden fees—that's the World Bank guarantee!"
Wolfensohn added that if Indonesia opens a Totally Free Checking account by Oct. 15, it will receive a free athletic bag.
Indonesia is believed to be seriously interested in the World Bank offer, as the Southeast Asian nation's dissatisfaction with its current bank, Banc One, is well known. For years, Indonesian finance minister Bambang Subianto has been highly critical of Banc One's $2 fee for transactions with a teller, and has openly questioned the bank's commitment to customer service.
"In 1988, when Indonesia first opened its Banc One account," Subianto told reporters, "our personal banker wouldn't even activate the account until we produced three forms of ID, and he put a five-business-day hold on all deposits for the first six months. That was particularly inconvenient if a weekend coincided with the hold period."
Relations between Indonesia and Banc One further deteriorated in July of this year, when an International Monetary Fund check was held by Banc One for over a week.
"Our economy collapsed, the rupiah lost nearly all of its value, thousands of Indonesians lost their jobs, and mass rioting broke out in the streets of Jakarta and elsewhere," said Ginandjar Kartasasmita, Indonesia's top economic minister. "None of this would have happened if Banc One weren't so strict about holding check funds for new accountholders."
At a press conference Tuesday, Kartasasmita said he feels the World Bank has a better grasp of Indonesia's banking needs, praising its "hassle-free, customer-friendly policies." A number of other top Indonesian officials at the press conference, however, expressed skepticism over the World Bank offer.
"Contrary to the World Bank's claim of 'no strings attached,' some hidden costs do indeed exist," Indonesian deputy finance minister Malang Payaheislam said. "The World Bank charges an annual $12 non-refundable fee for its ATM card, regardless of what type of checking account you have. Free checking accounts do not pay interest, and there are penalties if the balance in your Investors Plus money-market account drops below $1,000. Furthermore, the insufficient-funds penalty is $5 more per check than at Banc One. Not that we intend to bounce any checks, but still."
Payaheislam also pointed out that while Banc One has a branch in Jakarta, conveniently located just a block from the Presidential Palace, the nearest World Bank branch is in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia.
"The World Bank branch in Kuala Lumpur is five hours away by plane and only open from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m., Monday to Friday," Payaheislam said. "Someone would have to skip an entire day of work just to travel there to make a deposit."
Inside sources also confirm that several high-ranking officials dislike the check styles offered by the World Bank, which include Maxfield Parrish, classic muscle cars and The Family Circus. And Defense Minister Ujung Bukit, reportedly among the most reluctant to part ways with Banc One, has gone on record as saying that the Looney Tunes checks Indonesia currently uses are "just adorable."
Responding to the criticisms levied by top Indonesian officials, World Bank personal-account representative Mary Probert insisted that the World Bank is the best choice for Indonesia.
"Since 1945, the World Bank has been proudly serving the needs of its developing Third World customers," Probert said. "Whether you're looking to consolidate a debt to Japan or need $3 billion to rebuild a city destroyed by a tsunami, the World Bank has the answers to your questions."
Probert added that the problem of location could be solved if Indonesia arranged to have its paychecks deposited electronically. She also said that the World Bank would be willing to waive the ATM service fee for the first year, as well as give Indonesia a complimentary "Playful Kittens And Puppies" 1999 desk calendar.
"No other bank can match our low-interest loan rates, our friendly, professional staff, and our convenient drive-thru access," Probert said. "Give us a try, Indonesia. You'll like what you see!"