Corruption in Indonesia: Ants after sugar

Dec 9, 2020

Corruption is heavy stuff so let’s lighten with an old Indonesian joke:  A farmer’s goat is stolen so he reports to the police.  They’ll investigate if he pays.  The fee is a cow.  The theft is neither solved nor the bovines returned. 

Transparency International’s just released Global Corruption Barometer checked 17 countries, including the world’s third largest democracy.  It came up with little that’s newsworthy.  As usual cops came tops.  Panting close behind were civil licensing and education services.

The mid-2020 survey canvassed 1,000 Indonesians.  A third reported they’d bribed bureaucrats to get permits.

Grand Theft Moolah is making headlines as the Komisi Pemberantasan Korupsi (KPK – Corruption Eradication Commission) pounces on suspects.  The crime busters don’t need forensic investigation skills. Their targets expose themselves with lavish lifestyles posted on social media. In one swoop the KPK collected Louis Vuitton bags and other luxury goods among bundles of notes.

This month the KPK alleged Social Affairs Minister Juliari Batubara had taken at least AUD $1.5 million ‘for personal needs’. The money had been earmarked as Covid-19 food aid for the poor.

A fortnight earlier Fisheries Minister Edhy Prabowo, his wife Rosita Dewi and 17 others were arrested for allegedly pocketing bribes of Rp 9.8 billion (AUD 933,000) to issue export licences for juvenile lobsters.

During the 1999 economic crisis Rp 904 billion (AUD 87 million) was owed by three banks to the Indonesian Bank Restructuring Agency.  The cash vanished.

So did company director Djoko Tjandra aka Joe Chan on the eve of being sentenced.  Even though on an Interpol red list he came and went with the help of senior officers in the police and army, and was only snared this year.

Former vice president Jusuf Kalla told The Jakarta Post: ‘Corruption is mostly the result of the power of a signature. When you have the authority to sign anything, it will be like ants going after sugar… now people are not afraid of engaging in corruption. They just think that it is just an accident when they get caught.’

It’s easy but unwise to sneer at our neighbour holding position 85 on TI’s Corruption Perception Index ranking of 198 countries.  NZ and Denmark vie for the top spot in cleanliness – we’re 12th.  The lack of a national anti-corruption commission doesn’t help.  As school reports say:  Could do better.

Perth media have reported a case involving a senior public servant who allegedly embezzled a few million.  The charges could blow out to AUD 40 million.  In Adelaide, a former magistrate is behind bars for lying over motoring fines.

Here’s the difference: We’re still shocked while Indonesians yawn.  It’s the way business is always done. TI researcher Alvin Nicola reportedly said: ‘The culture of giving gifts, the culture of gratification, is considered normal and is made natural by many Indonesians’. President Joko Widodo huffs and puffs but the House of Graft doesn’t tumble.

Departments are unofficially classified ‘wet’ or ‘dry’.  Young bureaucrats vie to get into the first category.  This includes the police, immigration, customs and any agency which issues permits

It’s possible to do business honestly for those with excess time to kill.  Intimidating banners outside government offices warn against fraud, so the naive might assume it’s safe to enter with a wallet and exit unharmed.

Apart from the lady’s name this yarn is true: Last month citizen ‘Sri’ was told to visit her distant birthplace to get a certificate authenticated. This disquieting news was delivered in an office where customers must present documents in foolscap folders.  The covers are stamped with an official message forbidding the payment of bribes.

Faced with a costly and near-impossible task as Covid-19 is restricting domestic travel, ‘Sri’ scribbled a note wondering if there might be another solution?  The official said nothing.  She read his body language, went to the toilet to avoid CCTV, and put two Rp 100,000 (AUD 20) bills in the folder.

He said nothing and retuned the folder with the authorised papers though not the money.  This saved her around Rp 10 million (AUD 1,000) for a round trip.

At the next office she presented staff with a cake to keep a counter open when the place was closing for an early lunch.

It’s illegal for Australians overseas to bribe public officials, a law not in place for many foreigners doing business in Indonesia.  One way round this problem is to use agents.  I met mine in the police driving licence centre under a poster warning agents to keep out.

I was escorted straight to the boss (‘my friend’) who immediately authorised a five-year renewal.  The queue outside had hardly moved.  The cost was Rp 75,000 (AUD 8) plus the standard licence fee.

Investors impressed by Indonesian government urgings to try their luck should understand the law is also gamed.

Jakarta-based Australian lawyer and business consultant Bill Sullivan told Perth think-tank Future Directions International: ‘It is in the interests of too many people to keep the legal and court systems opaque and non-transparent, as well as overtly favourable to Indonesians and overtly disinclined to help foreigners, for the government to be too keen to take on that challenge.’

Indonesia’s place in the World Index of Ease of Doing Business (73) isn’t a statistical glitch about to be corrected.  Civil servants fear reform knowing reskilling will follow and maybe dismissals for those who don’t make the grade.

Better to keep demanding more photocopies, extra signatures, original documents, certificates, letters of recommendation and whatever else can be used to drive citizens to reach for their purses,

There are close to 4.5 million public servants in the country according to Badan Pusat Statistik (Central Statistics Agency).  About 80 per cent work in regional governments – the rest in Jakarta’s ministries and departments.

A job in the public service means a regular income, tenure, a pension and a uniform which wearers believe commands respect – though only to their faces.  Mordant humour is the way Indonesians cope, so here’s a closer:

The Republic is full of honest cops. They’re on the roads everywhere.   

‘Polisi tidur’ – sleeping policeman – is the term for road speed bumps.

Footnote: Australia is lending Indonesia $1.5 billion to help its economy bounce back from the plague.  Jakarta diplomats might care to check Facebook to see who’s flaunting high-end handbags and ensure it has the KPK on speed-dial.

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