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 
anti-corruption efforts.

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 
uncompromising leadership.

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.

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