Less talk, more action: Battling Indonesia’s ‘corruption culture’

Raising awareness of the extent of corruption in Indonesia.

Fay Edwards

Politics, Development, Economics | Southeast Asia

30 May 2014

Fay Edwards argues that despite being lauded as one of corruption’s biggest enemies, the efforts of civil society have failed to reduce corruption in Indonesia.

Corruption is nothing new. It exists in the upper levels of the international market (arguably facilitated through our trusted international banks) right down to the daily life of many of the world’s population. In many countries, corruption is so pervasive that it is ingrained in daily life.

Indonesia is one such country. A smile and a few rupiah will get you out of a speeding fine, and a financial investment combined with a handy political connection will get you a contract for illegal logging. Corruption is damaging Indonesia’s international reputation and is a serious parasite that is arguably impacting upon Indonesia’s society, economy, and political networks.

Networks of patronage linger from the Sukarno and Suharto eras and, despite efforts to fight corruption (at least publically), the Indonesian government has thus far failed to make a serious dent in Indonesia’s deep-rooted corruption culture. In 2013 Transparency International gave Indonesia a score of 32 out of 100 (zero being most corrupt, one hundred being the least) in the Corruptions Perceptions Index. The Indonesian Corruption Eradication Commission (KPK) itself has been embroiled in corruption on a number of occasions.

As an Australian student studying in Indonesia, trying to understand the somewhat contradictory attitudes towards corruption is quite challenging. My conversations with Indonesian students during the recent election have revealed that many young people have a complete distrust of the candidates. The candidates all claim to be able to eradicate corruption, but my classmates insist that the public fight against corruption is in complete contrast to the embedded culture of corruption which is a reality in Indonesia.

You might think that this evident distrust would produce public anger but instead most of Indonesia’s population just shrug their shoulders. It almost seems that corruption is an ongoing joke – everything from my lecturers’ stories to graffiti on city walls suggests to me that corruption is an inescapable but nonetheless accepted daily inconvenience.

But what explains the daily rants and protests against political corruption that flood Indonesian media? If my fellow students don’t see the point of fighting it, and the politicians are all corrupt, who is driving anti-corruption in Indonesia?

Arguably, it is Indonesia’s civil society. Because whilst my student friends aren’t active, there ARE strong sectors of Indonesia’s vibrant, diverse society that are trying to lead the way to a less corrupt Indonesia. Non-Governmental Organisations such as GeRAK (Gerakan Rakyat Antikorupsi Indonesia) and small-scale social campaigns such as ‘Kita vs Korupsi’ have contributed to raising awareness of the extent of corruption in Indonesia.

Today, it seems almost every newspaper in Indonesia contains at least one article on a newly exposed corrupt official. And it’s clear that as a result of increasing awareness, politicians feel at least somewhat obliged to make a commitment to anti-corruption. But is raising awareness enough?

Awareness of Indonesia’s corruption is undoubtedly important but excessive exposure of corruption cases has arguably normalized corruption in Indonesia. News of corruption is so mainstream that it rarely provokes outrage or concern – life just goes on. Despite the efforts of civil society to expose corruption, evidence suggests that the rate is not declining, with some organisations such as the Political Economic Risk Consultancy (PERC) even indicating that it is on the rise. Despite the important efforts of civil society to expose corruption, the unfortunate reality is that the tangible benefits of simply exposing corruption are minimal.

The answer to addressing corruption in Indonesia is far more complex. It is a problem that combines issues of cultural values and a tumultuous history that have shaped the unique nature of corruption in Indonesia today. Understanding these factors, and how they contribute to the current rate of corruption in Indonesia, is essential.

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