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Beating one’s head against a wall

Written around the same time as the last one, this opinion piece sparked enough interest that some television current affairs show (I can’t remember which one) invited me to discuss the corruption-as-cancer theme with their host on air. I recall that the interview went well, but despite all the exposure and discussion of the topic, little seems to have changed in the last five years.

Published in The Jakarta Post (
There is a solution to corruption and it lies in our own hands

The Jakarta Post, Jakarta
Patrick Guntensperger

In this space there have appeared a number of articles on the subject of the endemic corruption that is rampant in Indonesian government, civil service and business. More than once I have argued that the acceptance and toleration of the corruption is a contributing factor to its existence and can be blamed for its continued existence. But to point to a cause is a long way from offering a solution to the problem.

When corruption is discovered to exist in a department or branch of government, it is critical that it is rooted out and destroyed. It is like a cancer. Once detected, it must be cut out completely; if any small malignant bit remains, it will soon regenerate and spread. But also like a cancer, the smaller and more localized the malignancy, the better the chances of a successful excision.

Once it has spread throughout the organism and can be detected in tissue of every organ and system, the patient is generally considered to be terminal. There is no question that corruption exists in every part of the body politic in this country. Is Indonesia’s then a terminal case?

Perhaps not. Let’s not forget that while apt, the cancer analogy is after all, only a metaphor. In fact we are dealing with corrupt individual human beings, each one of whom has his own reasons, motivations and justifications for preying upon those he is entrusted to serve. There are some general observations that can be made, though, in our search for a solution to this social malignancy.
First of all, it is probably true that most people would consider themselves to be more honest than dishonest, more moral than immoral, more good than evil. While few candid people would claim that they never lie, cheat or steal, the majority of people genuinely feel that, on the whole, they could be considered more virtuous than not.

Indonesians are no different from anyone else in this regard. So how does the general feeling that one is a virtuous person tally with the reality that corruption exists to such an overwhelming degree that it is nearly impossible to find a public servant who refuses to accept gratuities beyond his salary for showing special consideration?

The obvious answer is that minor corruption, or entry-level theft, is not considered to be wrong by the people who engage in it or by the people who are its victims. From there to high-level, big ticket extortion and big-profit corruption is a very easy road to travel; without the obvious disapproval and censure of the general population it is possible to be a completely corrupt official and still maintain one’s self-image as a model citizen and even as a religious person.

When we smile and pay an outrageous and illegal bribe, we are telling the official that he is not dishonest in our eyes and that we approve of his actions; we are placing his criminal behavior in the category of the merely technically proscribed. When we continue to treat that corrupt betrayer of our trust with respect we are elevating his dishonesty to a level of honor.

Official to programs to uncover and punish corruption will have an effect. The effect of a token program on its own, however, will be negligible without the political will to persevere in the face of the depth and breadth of the problem. And the political will cannot exist without our insistence that the problem is serious and must be dealt with.

The key, therefore, to address the issue of Indonesia’s poisonous corruption is in generating the political will to do something about it. And that political will is not going to come about as the result of a few pre-election polls that place government corruption somewhere on the list of citizens’ concerns.

That political will can only be the result of a constant flow of complaints and objections to corrupt behavior. That, combined with a clear message being sent to the corrupt officials that their wickedness is not acceptable and that they do not have the respect of the people from whom they are stealing, will eventually have an impact.

Contrary to the cynical view that there is nothing the average person can do about a problem of this enormous extent, we must recognize that the solution is right there…in the hands of the average person. We must become outraged when a bribe is demanded. We must express our outrage when we are extorted by a public servant. We must stand up and say NO! in a loud, clear voice. We must ensure that everyone around us can hear that an official is engaged in a criminal act.

And then we must follow up. Write a letter to the department responsible, naming that person and describing in detail his actions. Send that person’s name and a description of the circumstances to a newspaper so that he may be publicly shamed by his corruption. Keep a constant glare of publicity on this behavior. Officials will think twice before they abuse their power and the constant publicity will ensure that the politicians start to develop the political will to do something about this outrage.

They certainly won’t as long as we continue to send out the clear message that corruption, bribery, nepotism, and theft are all right with us.


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