Indonesia pays a high price for its corrupt heart
May 8, 2010
Overcoming the culture of graft is a formidable challenge, writes Tom Allard in
AS NEWS spread of the shock departure of Indonesia's reform icon and finance
minister, Sri Mulyani Indrawati, this week, one senior markets trader in
Jakarta gave an almost despairing view of the country's prospects of overcoming
its entrenched culture of corruption.
''It's just a massive task,'' he said. ''It like brain surgery. No, it's more
difficult. It's like you have to alter Indonesia's DNA.''
The assessment was a touch uncharitable. In everyday interactions, Indonesians
are almost unfailingly honest and gracious. The problem arises when they join
the country's institutions that are beset with corruption.
>From the legislature to the judiciary, and the Tax, Customs and Immigration
>departments - graft and bribes are common.
Those wanting to work in these places will often have to pay up to get an entry
level position and then spend the rest of their careers trying to recoup their
investment, sometimes outlaying more sums as they rise up the career ladder.
The going rate to join the Jakarta police force, for example, can amount to
80-90 million rupiah ($9750 to $11,000), according to Neta Saputra Pane, the
head of Indonesia Police Watch, a non-government group that monitors corruption.
''An Indonesian is a victim of corruption from the day he's born until the day
he dies. When a baby has to be delivered, it is common for Indonesian families
to be told there is not a room available, unless they pay. When someone dies,
they will be told there is no more vacant land to bury the man. Again, when
they pay, suddenly they get a grave for their loved one,'' Pane says.
Ordinary Indonesians are fed up with corruption, collusion and nepotism. Since
the President, Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, asked citizens to send him text
messages outlining instances of graft, he has received more than 3 million of
Yudhoyono was re-elected in large part because of his reputation for probity
and his vow to attack corruption with vigour.
But Indrawati's resignation to join the World Bank has highlighted that the
battle is far from won. The feisty technocrat has attempted to take on some of
the most powerful vested interests in Indonesia, chasing down the tax debts of
business tycoons and removing corrupt officials.
Some of those interests, most notably the business and bureaucratic elites that
make up the Golkar Party, are part of Yudhoyono's ruling coalition.
The backlash has been intense. Indrawati's enemies accused her of illegality
and corruption in the bail-out of a small financial institution Bank Century
during the 2008 financial crisis . No corruption was proven despite months of
Why she chose to leave is unsure. But, as the analyst Kevin O'Rourke says:
''Whether she was pushed or disgusted and walked away probably doesn't matter.
It reflects badly on Yudhoyono.''
Corruption blossomed under Suharto but arguably got worse after he was deposed
in 1998 and power was decentralised to the regions, creating new tiers of
Yudhoyono's anti-corruption efforts have followed the established playbook.
There is an independent Corruption Eradication Commission, and a group of
officials in his office are tasked with cleaning up the ''judicial mafia''.
Under Indrawati, the government targeted the tax office, increasing salaries
and setting up a merit-based promotion and remuneration structure, reasoning
that it would promote honesty and the increased revenue could underpin future
But an extensive syndicate of corrupt tax officials persists, trading rulings
for bribes, often in collusion with law enforcement officials.
The tax revelations followed the acquittal of a junior officer, Gayus Tambunan,
who had $3 million in his bank accounts. The outrage they garnered provided a
new opportunity to clean out corruption and led to new laws giving ministers
the power to sack civil servants.
Defeating corruption requires a change in the behavioural equation. That is,
the risks of making or taking a bribe must outweigh the benefits.
The history of anti-corruption efforts shows that there is no proven path to
success. But there has been one common characteristic for success: strong and
Traditional Javanese values, however, put a premium on harmony and
non-confrontation, and Yudhoyono is the personal epitome of these ideals.
In important respects, these values help him govern an ethnically diverse
nation. But they don't assist in tackling deep-seated corruption.
[Non-text portions of this message have been removed]