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La plus ca change….

Somebody recently brought this column to my attention. It’s sad, but there is nothing here that isn’t still true today, 5 years later.

Published in The Jakarta Post (

Integrity in government is up to the people
The Jakarta Post , Jakarta Wed, 02/18/2004 3:43 PM Opinion

Patrick Guntensperger

While the idealists among us may feel that the acquittal of Akbar Tandjung on charges of corruption is enough to make one throw one’s hands up in frustration and the cynics just shrug and say, welcome to Indonesia, perhaps some of us can find room for hope. Let’s try.

Corruption in government, in the civil services and in every day business is by far the most significant impediment to this country’s progress. During the course of my work and since I have made Indonesia my home, I have spoken to business people and potential investors; I have had dialogues with foreign entertainers and have consulted with NGOs and charities from abroad, all of whom have considered bringing their money, their talent, their expertise and their goodwill to Indonesia.

In every single one of those categories, the vast majority of those who were considering investing, performing, donating or even just spending money in Indonesia chose not to. And every single one of those lost opportunities was almost entirely due to the rampant corruption that exists in this country.
Investors won’t put their money into enterprises here because of the bribery that is required and the virtual certainty that corrupt officials of every branch of government they come into contact with will extort more and more money. This fiscal disadvantage more than offsets the potential profit to be made.

Many big name entertainers won’t perform here for similar reasons; although they have viable fan bases here and they could easily sell more than enough tickets at high enough prices to make this a profitable stop on a world tour, their business managers reject Indonesia because of the embezzlement they would be subjected to and the impossibility of dealing with an efficient and honest civil service.

Saddest of all, international aid organizations radically restrict their contributions to Indonesian causes because of the (largely accurate) perception that the charitable funds they bring in will disappear into the pockets of corrupt individuals. Make no mistake; people die every day as a direct result of corruption in Indonesia

So where is the cause for hope? Perhaps the fact there have been demonstrations and a passionate denouncement of the Akbar decision tells us something.

Just this week, I was at a public hospital in order to pay the medical bills for a six-year-old child who had just died of cancer. I was there with the child’s grieving and very poor parents and watched in amazement as the hospital staff industriously tried to gouge the mother, to inflate the bill and to obtain bribes in order to do nothing more than produce an honest accounting.

I finally blew up and threatened the staff with criminal charges and legal action of every sort until the dismayed public servants finally produced an accurate accounting. Everyone was profoundly upset at my boorishness, but the bill was accurate. Afterwards I asked the people with me why they tolerated such brutal dishonesty and heartlessness. As usual, the reaction was just a shrug and the “welcome to Indonesia” response.

We have corruption in Indonesia because we tolerate it. We have dishonesty in public affairs and in private business because it is acceptable. Dishonest dealings are the norm because people do not become incensed when they are robbed, extorted and cheated.

There is nothing commendable about standing by and smiling while someone, particularly someone in public service, deliberately and openly solicits a bribe or abuses his authority in order to increase his personal wealth. To tolerate that conduct is to endorse it. To allow it is to encourage it.

When we permit someone to abuse his power to take advantage of us, we demean ourselves and we contribute to the cesspool of corruption that is holding Indonesia back from her rightful place among the evolved nations of the world.

So perhaps the ray of hope that can be found in all the news that surrounds the Akbar decision is, in a very unfortunate way, the vociferous objection that some people of conscience are expressing. Protests against the decision erupted in Jakarta, Yogyakarta, Bandung, Semarang, Kendari and elsewhere throughout the country. That is actually one of the most encouraging signs we have seen in some time. While violent protest is deplorable and should not be tolerated, angry protest should be given a fair hearing.

The public’s expression of dissatisfaction with a court verdict, after all, is a perfectly legitimate response in a democratic society. Indonesia does not yet have a long tradition of democracy and most citizens have never voted in a free election. It is not unreasonable therefore, for the people to want their voices heard. The angry voices are voices of integrity…they are the voices that will, if listened to, help take Indonesia from a neo-feudal anachronism to a respected place at the table shared by the community of nations.


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