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Corruption:The beast within

The Minotaur
Manado, NorthSulawesi, Indonesia
Two front page stories in the leading Jakarta Englishlanguage daily (The Jakarta Globe) onceagain make it clear that the pervasive culture of corruption is Indonesia’s most profound problem. It is the most profound because it is the underlying cause of virtually every tribulation with which Indonesia is beset.
Every country has its difficulties; Europe is in crisis, the US is fraying at the edges and crumbling in its core…Indonesia is far from unique in facing challenges.
The European Union is near the breaking point because a marvelous notion for unity was implemented in a way that demands homogeneity ina sublimely diverse region. Europe’s underlying problem can be described as cultural dissonance. The manner in which the E.U. was designed fails to take into account the profound cultural differences among its component nations; their common currency makes it necessary for fiscally responsible countries like Germany to bail out more profligate ones like Greece. This inevitablyleads to friction and, at the moment, looks like it may precipitate the dissolution of the union.
Meanwhile, across the pond, the underlying cause of the current crisis in the economy and political scene in the United States can be identified as unbridled greed. The US has long revered its own self-identifying myth – the myth of the rugged individualist hacking an existence out of the wilderness and prevailing against all challengers by dint of a superior moral character. In support of this narrative is the belief that by sheer pragmatism and a take-no-prisoners business model, every backwoods kid can grow up to be a billionaire. That fundamentally erroneous and deeply flawed mythology has led to the current malaise in the economic sphere and the dysfunctionality of their system of government.
But here in Indonesia, where there are more problems thancould be enumerated in any conceivable list, there is a different fundamental cause. At the base of virtually every soluble problem Indonesia faces is quite simply corruption, and its enabler, the toleration of corruption. At the centre of the maze is the Minotaur.
Eating all that is good in Indonesia
The first story concerns an investigation into the collapseof a bridge in East Kalimantan (Indonesian Borneo) that left, at last count, four dead and 30 injured. When the story first broke a few days ago, my instinctive reaction (and probably anyone who knows Indonesia fairly well) was to wonder how much money changed hands in the construction contract and who got rich supplying and buying sub-standard materials and work. Sure enough, that’s where the investigation is leading. Now the instinctive reaction is to wonder how much it will cost and who will get rich when the investigation gets derailed, buried, or simply dies of attrition with nobody found culpable.
The second story on the front page concerns a controversial 4 billion Rupiah project to supply Indonesia’s parliament with fingerprint readers. In the latest development, it has been discovered that a company owned by a close friend of House Speaker Marzuki Alie was given a special dispensation to bid on the contract. One can only sigh and turn the page; there is little point in reading on. Business as usual in Indonesian politics.
One could pick any day of any year and any front page to find similar stories. For all of the hot air and empty rhetoric being blown around the archipelago, the culture of corruption in Indonesia persists and is utterly endemic. No World Bank or IMF fact-finding tour of corporate headquarters, embassies, and 5 star hotels in Jakarta would make that as manifestly clear as a simple visit to any civil service office in the country.
Yolanda pays one of my bribes;
I can’t keep the required smile on my face
As a tiny example and only for the sake of anecdotal evidence, let me offer the following: I have been acquiring the documentation I need to reside here in Indonesia for a year while we complete the adoption of my son. To get my KITAS (a supplementary document to a residency visa, which I already had), I was required to pay a bribe of exactly ten times the legal fee for the document, as well as the fee itself. Nothing hidden about it, just a flat out demand for a bribe. Refusal to pay would simply result in a refusal to issue the document.
This bribe was for having my fingerprints taken.
He was too busy counting the money
to see the one finger I was holding up for  inspection.
Next stop: police headquarters. I needed a “police certificate”…simply a document stating that I had had no problems with thepolice in the past. The only requirements for that are the provision offingerprints (which are checked against nothing whatsoever) and the further provision of a bribe, this time amounting to 15 times the published fee for the documents. This of course is not to mention the bribe paid to the clerk to take the fingerprints in the first place. Once again, no attempts to hide or disguise the corruption; the graft was simply demanded at each step of the process and was so open and commonplace that the people accepting the bribes didn’t even voice any objection to my photographing them as the deals were sealed.
Even among the most honest people in the country, there is no question that the social consensus is that it is far more offensive to object to this systemic abuse of power than the abuse of power itself is. One is considered inexcusably bad mannered if one even fails to smile broadly and thank effusively the corrupt officials who routinely fleece the people they are are supposed to serve.
Pick your problem in Indonesia. Pollution and environmental degradation? Corruption. Pass all the laws controlling emissions that you want, and whatever enforcement agency is set up will simply become a receptacle for corporate bribes to look the other way. Deforestation?  It’s common knowledge that forestry companies pay off politicians to avoid prosecution for failing to meet reforestation requirements and that pirate loggers work hand in hand with environmental enforcement officers.
Poverty? Even the country’s graft-busting president, who disclosed personal wealth of less than 1 million dollars (US) when he was a candidate, was able to spend over 4 million dollars on his son’s wedding last week. SBY must be a wizard at saving; presumably he uses coupons, shops the specials, and invests his approximately $75,000 annual pay wisely.
Yolanda has a university educated uncle who has worked as a manager at the same food distributor for ten years. He has never received a raise on his salary and allowances that give him an income of about $150.00 (CDN) per month. In fact, when his boss found out that he had saved enough for a downpayment on a motorbike to get to work, he cut off his travel allowance. This of course, is all in absolutely contemptuous contravention of minimum wage legislation; no matter, the enforcement officers in the department of labour had been pieced off. Problem here? Corruption.
(Just for the record, I intervened and persuaded his boss, a wealthy investor, that my uncle needed the allowance to make payments on the bike. He relented and behind his back I paid the outstanding balance as a birthday gift.)
One can’t help but speculate on what an earthly paradise this most fortunately situated country could be if somebody, preferablyeverybody, were to follow the thread of problems to the centre of the labyrinth and slay once and for all the beast that dwells there. The beast eats the best and brightest of this country and destroys its potential, perpetuallyrelegating Indonesia to the ranks of the 3rd World. It doesn’t haveto be there if the beast of corruption were confronted.
It is long since timethat the people of Indonesia evolved a collective spine and stood up for themselves. The government won’t do it; its members are far too preoccupied with ensuring that their snouts are too deeply buried in the public trough to see beyond the gold encrusted rim.

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