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Becoming “Developed”

I had been in Indonesia for only a very short time when I wrote this for what was at the time the only English language daily newspaper in Jakarta.

It’s no wonder I’m such a hit with government types.

Published in The Jakarta Post (

How RI can be a First World nation
The Jakarta Post , Jakarta Fri, 11/21/2003 10:34 AM Opinion

Patrick Guntensperger

The Republic of Indonesia has everything it needs to take its place among the nations of the First World. There seems to be little reason for Indonesia’s perennial position as a paradigm of Third World backwardness and poverty.

What then, is the reason for a country with the blessings of abundant natural resources, proximity to the world’s largest market for consumer goods and a climate that is envied by the rest of the civilized world, to be so far behind the rest of the world in economic terms? What is preventing a country as blessed as Indonesia from taking its place among such Asian countries as Singapore, Japan and Taiwan?

The facile answer is the endemic corruption that exists throughout every stratum of government. It is common knowledge in Indonesia that any court case can be settled favorably by means of a payment to the judge. Any police matter can be handled by payment of a bribe to the right official. Any paperwork, license, document or permit can be acquired by open bribery. Corruption in government is so completely pervasive that an honest civil servant (were there such a thing) would be looked upon with skepticism and deep suspicion. It is not cynical, merely realistic, to observe that if you want anything done by any level of government, you had best be prepared to pay a bribe to the functionaries responsible.

That is the day-to-day reality of dealing with bureaucracy in Indonesia. And, of course, the reality of rampant corruption is even more blatant at the higher levels of government. Does anyone seriously believe that there is an honest system for the tendering of government contracts? Could anyone in Indonesia say with a straight face that they know of even one significant government contract that was awarded on the basis of an honest and fair bid and was uncorrupted by nepotism, bribery or coercion? Has there ever been a political appointment made on the basis of merit? Even to ask the question is to invite bemused, cynical laughter.

Oddly, this points to the less facile answer to the question. It is not merely the corruption that runs from the very highest levels of government to the cop on the street in Indonesia that holds the country back from progressing into the community of developed nations; it is the tolerance of that corruption. Many countries have a level of corruption that impedes that country’s growth and progress; one thinks immediately of South American countries, for example.
Nonetheless, Indonesia has a long way to go before it achieves even, say, Argentina’s status among the community of nations. That is largely because, although corruption in countries like Argentina is rampant, the population as a whole rejects it. People, when they encounter graphic examples of corruption in public office, may not be surprised, but they are offended, they are outraged and they express their outrage. Indonesians, on the other hand, are not only unoffended by corruption, they embrace it in their own lives.

It is a sad reality that the people of Indonesia expect dishonesty in their day-to-day business transactions. The sale of inferior products masquerading as genuine or originals is so routine as not even to elicit a raised eyebrow. Empty guarantees and meaningless warranties are not the exception, but the rule. An agreed upon price that suddenly changes before the transaction is complete is infuriatingly commonplace. It is a rare tradesman indeed, who doesn’t immediately triple the price asked for his product when he sees a foreigner approaching.

It is a truism that corruption can only be attacked from the top down. That is to say, we all realize that the prosecution of a minor official for routinely accepting gratuities for doing his job would be an empty gesture as long as corruption on a vast scale at the highest levels of government exists. But like all truisms, this one could bear some scrutiny.

In fact, acceptance of that truism is essentially anti-democratic and, in the final analysis, irresponsible. It is founded on a mindset that suggests that Indonesia is a country that is ruled rather than governed. The truth is that for corruption to be eliminated, or even diminished, it is the people themselves who must change their thinking.

If the average person were to be appropriately outraged by the complacent dishonesty that surrounds him, habitual corruption would be unacceptable. Corruption in government exists by the explicit or tacit consent of the governed. There will never be change — at the top or anywhere else — as long as those who elect the government tolerate theft, bribery, nepotism and all other forms of corruption.

As a democratic country, Indonesia has at it its disposal the tools that are required to put an end to the almost comical level of corruption that holds this country back from her rightful place among the mature nations of the world. We must remember that a democratically elected government has a responsibility to carry out our wishes and that, if it fails to do so, a more responsive government will replace it.

Every citizen must not merely expect, he must demand the highest standards of integrity of his elected representatives. Each elected official must constantly feel the pressure of personal accountability to his constituents. And the elected officials must recognize that they will be held accountable for the integrity of the unelected civil services with which they have been entrusted. It must be understood that a breach of the public’s faith is a career-ender.

This kind of accountability in government does not spontaneously develop; a very demanding populace must impose it. As long as corruption is tolerated, as long as dishonesty is accepted as the natural order of things, it will continue to flourish. When the average person decides that he or she deserves better than to be routinely lied to, betrayed and stolen from, the will to change will begin to make itself known. Only then will Indonesia begin to take those steps that will lead to her acceptance among the truly evolved nations of the world.


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