Friday, October 15, 2010

Thuggery in Indonesia: A Case for Order and Survival in Jakarta

A public outcry erupted not long ago over allegations of sexual harassment among the Jakarta flag-raising team for Independence Day celebrations. Several candidates for the team were allegedly forced to repeatedly run naked in front of their female seniors. In this otherwise orderly and honorable undertaking for promising students, we see an example of the thug mentality that permeates our lives in Jakarta.

For long thuggery has run amok in the name of religion. Recent mob attacks on Christian worshipers in Bekasi mark an increasing tide of religious violence in the country. It was a mockery indeed; the incidents came just a day after Jakarta Governor Fauzi Bowo drew criticism for attending the anniversary of hard-line the Islamic Defenders Front (FPI).

In the political arena, we recall the Bank Century inquiry that descended into a bizarre yet riveting spectacle of political thuggery. Investigating lawmakers asked questions without bothering to listen to the answers, and even used spectators to intimidate witnesses.

Now the saga of that inquiry has faded and people only remember the behavior of their elected representatives, not the substance of the bailout scandal. The recent imprisonment of politicians and members of the House for accepting illicit perks only adds to the stench of the so-called Senayan cowboys.

Navigating traffic in Jakarta today reveals another kind of thuggishness. While a driver is maneuvering, other motorists without warning cut in as they wish. Bus drivers feel they own the streets, and terrorize other motorists.

The thug mentality is pervasive in our society and is not confined to the uneducated or the lower classes. This essentially represents our transitory society and the failure of government to provide public order. This is also manifested strongly in many of our marginalized groups.

One of the key characteristics of developing economies such as ours is the pervasiveness of the underground economy. Indonesia has a labor force of about 110 million people, about 60 percent of whom are in the informal sector.

By simply watching Jakarta’s streets, one can see shadow economic activities with street vendors selling pirated CDs, DVDs or software; there is even drug dealing and organized gambling.

By their nature, underground economies border on lawlessness. Their activities remain off the books and in many cases are in violation of the laws. While they largely do not pay taxes, they are coerced to make illicit payments — known as extortion — to private thugs. To survive in this environment, people have to be tough, befriend the thugs or become thugs themselves.

In some cases, ironically, such thuggery is allowed by authorities, supposedly to enhance public order. The FPI has been known for its association with law-enforcement agencies in the past. In other settings, government officials work with local thugs to maintain order in traditional markets, street parking, seaports and highways.

Operators of traditional markets have for long employed thugs. PD Pasar Jaya, a local government-owned company that manages about 110 traditional markets, is known to use thugs to control traders in the market. Apart from the official rent, traders have to pay “protection money” of Rp 5,000 to Rp 10,000 per trader each day.

Traders themselves are pragmatic and see illicit payments as a necessary evil, an extra fee to maintain order in the market. Obviously, to make it work, the level of the illicit payment has to be set relatively low so it is affordable for the traders .

More telling is the operation of street parking in Jakarta. There are some 600 locations of designated on-street parking that are controlled by thugs in cahoots with officials. An informal survey estimates that of the money collected, about 50 percent goes to thugs, 30 percent to the parking attendants and just under 20 percent to l government coffers . It is no wonder that Jakarta collected a mere Rp 19.4 billion ($2.2 million) in 2009 from on-street parking, compared with about Rp 139 billion from the more organized off-street parking.

For some people, illicit payments represent the necessary cost of order and services. For the thugs and related officials, the “private tax” is pure profit. But for the government, such illicit payments mean lost revenue.

Yet thuggery persists and does its best to fight change. No wonder many efforts to revamp on-street parking or introduce parking meters have failed.

In any society, a key role of the government is to provide law and order, and to structure societal endeavors to achieve common ends. In the above examples, local authorities simply fail to enforce the law, providing opportunities for thugs to fill the gap — and their pockets.

Thug mentality is not the monopoly of developing nations. Even in advanced economies such as the United States there are pockets within the society where thuggery blossoms.

American pop culture has always had the propensity to romanticize hoodlums, whether Al Capone, Tony Soprano, “The Godfather” Vito Corleone or “Wall Street’s” Gordon Gekko. The worst influence on youth, particularly among black Americans, can be found in the celebration of violence, criminality and educational failure, all drummed loudly by gangster rap.

In our own backyard, too many people are marginalized — uneducated, unemployed and even imprisoned. Behind the beautiful office of the mayor of Depok, for example, there is a neighborhood that organizes the supply of panhandlers and babies-for-rent for the streets of Jakarta. They are the victims of a fratricidal cycle of violence; predator and prey. Many street children are products of dysfunctional families, where parents provide neither material support nor moral guidance.

Thuggery persists in these kinds of environment. Becoming a thug or surrendering to them provides an escape for marginalized youth. This has become a way of life and in many cases is the only means of survival. Thuggery provides a structure for order and a source of income.

With an average of about eight years of schooling and a high level of unemployment, many communities are prone to marginalization and are forced to embrace thuggery as a way of life.

At a very different level, our political system post-Suharto is also still in its infancy. The combination of a weak presidency and political parties jockeying for power and position for the 2014 elections will dominate our political life in the short term.

In such a fluid environment, the rules of the game are changing and so too the propensity to impose one’s own preferred rules on those of others. This is the genesis of political thuggery.

If thuggery is symptomatic of our adolescent civil society, it will diminish as we mature. Oddly enough, thuggery provides order to our otherwise chaotic life, just as in the case of traditional markets and on-street parking.

It is well noted that such order also incurs high costs. Policy makers are held hostage and there is loss of government revenue due to rampant thuggery and corruption. This is what economists refer to as low equilibrium, a sub-optimal equilibrium with lower payoff for all.

A good gauge for our ability to survive thuggery and move from low-equilibrium to high-equilibrium levels is our resolve to manage traffic jams in Jakarta. This requires concerted efforts to execute good ideas on decent public transport. But with bureaucratic quagmire and weak leadership, these good ideas are simply lost in translation.

In the absence of smart and brave-hearted policy drivers to navigate Jakarta’s political traffic, potholes and over-ambitious politicians, we simply have to accept low equilibrium and attendant thuggery as our way of life.

What a thuggish fate.

Farid Harianto is a contributing editor for GlobeAsia.

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