Monday, April 11, 2011

Indonesia’s Culture Of Impunity Offers Too Many Excuses

A scan of recent news offers more evidence, if any were needed, that accountability means little in the upper ranks of politics and business in Indonesia.

Inong Malinda Dee, an employee of Citibank in Jakarta, last week declared that she was not guilty of embezzling millions of dollars from customers’ accounts. A day later, she promised to return the funds, while maintaining that her actions did not cost Citibank a penny. Her excuse for using her clients’ money? They had handed it over for her to manage.

House Speaker Marzuki Alie, when recently faced with heavy public objections over his plan to build a luxurious new building for the legislature, declared that opposing factions were only trying to sully his reputation. This was his latest in a series of gaffes, from his dismissive attitude toward victims of natural disasters in Mentawai — telling island-dwellers “If you’re afraid of waves, don’t live by the shore” — to his declaration that Indonesian migrant workers were hurting the country’s reputation with their bad work ethic and lack of skills (“Some of them can’t iron properly, so it’s natural if the employer ends up landing the hot iron on the migrant worker’s body”).

In refusing to resign from his post as chairman of the Indonesian Football Association (PSSI) this year, Nurdin Halid claimed that special interests and political pressures were working to oust him. He seemed to ignore the fact that under his leadership the PSSI’s reputation had sunk to a new low, dragged down by money politics, manipulation and the inability to control hooliganism at matches.

Arifinto, a Prosperous Justice Party (PKS) lawmaker, was caught on camera watching a pornographic video at a plenary session last week. He feebly claimed that he was checking his e-mail when he accidentally stumbled upon the pornographic material and deleted it immediately. The fact that a Media Indonesia journalist had sufficient time to take several photographs of the lawmaker viewing the material suggests otherwise.

Finally, the hard-line Islamic Defenders Front (FPI) has declared that Ahmadiyah must be disbanded for upsetting social harmony, despite the fact that it is the members of the religious sect who have been harassed, attacked and even killed in past months. Instead of defending the marginalized group, Religious Affairs Minister Suryadharma Ali blamed the Ahmadiyah for being un-Islamic.

In Yiddish English, such an attitude is called chutzpah, the classic tongue-in-cheek definition of which is “killing your parents and then asking the court to have mercy upon you as an orphan.” In Indonesian, it is called tidak tahu diri , or “not knowing oneself.”

Indonesia is not the only country with this kind of problem. The attitude is common throughout the world, from rich countries like Saudi Arabia to poor ones like Zimbabwe, from Western democracies like the United States to the totalitarian regime of North Korea. People say stupid things and deny responsibility for their actions. It’s always somebody else’s fault.

In Indonesia’s case, the difference lies in the frequency and the scale of denial. The more a society demands accountability from elected officials or public figures, the more careful these figures will be. This is generally a feature of mature democracies, where critical citizens demand social equality and competitive elections. In advanced democracies such as Europe, the United States and Japan, there have been many cases of public officials resigning due to gaffes, inadequate contributions and unethical impropriety. The reason is simple: People hold officials accountable for their conduct, and they wield the power to vote them out.

By contrast, in an authoritarian society, or in nations where elections are not competitive due to the dominance of one political party, massive electoral manipulation or a nationwide coalition, politicians and public figures simply do not see themselves as accountable to the people. The higher their rank, the less accountable they feel. Indonesia’s electoral system bolsters such a sense of impunity. Under the representative system, each party has the power to decide which of its members will have a seat in the legislature and government. The reason is simple: Citizens choose parties in the elections, not candidates. As a result, a candidate’s ability to rise to power and enjoy its perks is not controlled by the people.

Even when the Constitutional Court forced a mixed-system under which people could choose either a candidate or a party at the polls, electoral manipulation and lack of familiarity among voters — not to mention confusing ballot sheets full of names — meant that many people still ended up picking parties instead of candidates. At the same time, back-room dealings among political players, coupled with a lack of law enforcement, helped violent groups such as the FPI become important tools for imposing political control.

For people who lack the finesse, familiarity or connections to engage in politics, they can rely on vocal and violent groups to signal to others that they are also key players in politics. Should those in power fail to serve their interests, they can bring out such groups to cause chaos and embarrass the government.
Political backing allows such violent groups to act with impunity, even taking over the regulatory function of the police. Such unchecked erosion in the authority of the police force further fuels the confidence of violent groups, as it signals to them that they are above the law.

With such an attitude of impunity running rampant, it is no wonder that public trust in the government’s ability to maintain order is declining.

There are three main solutions to this problem of accountability.

First, a major overhaul of electoral law is needed, changing the electoral system to purely a district basis of representation. Under this system, politicians will have to compete against each other solely on track records, forcing them to own up to their transgressions.

Second, rule of law must be implemented, under which violent groups will be given no room in the democratic system.

Third, and most important, is constant and insistent public pressure for accountability, demanding the heads of irresponsible public figures. Such pressures are able to force change, even in China, where the “Tiananmen treatment” toward protesters allows the authoritarian regime to stay in power.

Last October, in China, Li Qiming was arrested for seriously injuring two girls while driving under the influence. One of the victims later died in the hospital. When the police came for him Li Qiming yelled, “Arrest me if you dare. My father is Li Gang” — the deputy director of local police. Usually, a culture of nepotism would mean the case would be quietly shelved and the victims’ family pressured to drop the charges. This time, however, the Internet was soon buzzing with outrage — enough that in January Li Qimin was arrested and sentenced to six years a prison. It was a relatively light sentence, and yet, considering his position, it could be seen as progress.

Such popular pressures can force a strong authoritarian government to buckle, compelling it to address injustice. In a democratic Indonesia, we should expect this much and more.

Excerpt from Jakarta Globe By Yohanes Sulaiman lecturer at the Indonesian National Defense University and a researcher at the Global Nexus

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