Wednesday, August 3, 2011

Latest Graft Allegations Provide a Journey into Indonesia’s Heart of Darkness

Last week, House of Representatives Speaker Marzuki Alie barged into the headlines, displacing Muhammad Nazaruddin’s allegations of corruption within the Democratic Party.

This time he made many people groan with his suggestion that the Corruption Eradication Commission should be disbanded and that, in the spirit of forgiveness, the country should give a free pass to corruptors living abroad, allowing them to return unpunished to Indonesia after they pay some taxes and promise not to commit any more crimes.

Not surprisingly, his suggestions were met with outrage. People were complaining that the Speaker of the House lacked a sense of justice, that he was willing to allow major crimes by well-connected people to go unpunished while at the same time the little people who steal a bit of food due to their desperate conditions are thrown in jail with no mercy.

The call to get rid of the commission, known as the KPK, was the cherry on top of this messy cake: Marzuki was in essence condoning corruption among the elites who would be the primary beneficiary of this policy of forgiveness. There were even outraged calls to report Marzuki to the Honor Council of the House for disciplining.

Yet, maybe this time Marzuki is not that far off. One cannot help but reflect on Joseph Conrad’s masterpiece, “Heart of Darkness,” in looking at the Indonesian political landscape today, especially after listening to Nazaruddin’s long-distance threats and confessions from some undisclosed wilderness.

In the book, Conrad explored the darkness of the human heart and how the lure of power corrupts both the well-placed and the lowly. Using Charles Marlow, the protagonist of the novel, as a first-person narrator, he described how Belgium’s cruel and inhuman colonization of the Congo in pursuit of profit corrupted everyone in the system.

Driven by the desire to enrich Belgium, King Leopold gave a free hand to his administrators, allowing them unlimited power to do anything they wanted, both to the territory and the natives, as long as they gave him a lion’s share of the earnings from the production of rubber and other plantation crops. The era was so brutal that in today’s Mongo language, the literal meaning of “to send someone to harvest rubber” is “to tyrannize.”

In “Heart of Darkness,” Marlow reacts against the figure of Mr. Kurtz, an ivory trader who has built an empire at a trading post upriver. On one hand, Kurtz is portrayed as something of a genius who sought to bring civilization to the natives. On the other hand, isolated in his lair, unbridled by law and the rules of the outside world, Kurtz was soon transformed from an idealist of sorts into a tyrant who sees himself as god and demands that the locals worship him.

I thought of this book as I listened in recent weeks to both Marzuki and Nazaruddin. I think many of us are reminded of the starry eyed idealists of the early days of the reformation movement and how they have fallen into the heart of darkness of Indonesian politics. The pursuit of power and wealth has corrupted many of them, turning them into modern Indonesian Kurtzes.

The temptations abound. When former President Suharto resigned in 1998, he left a gaping void in the Indonesian political scene that nobody could hope to fill. His rule had eliminated professionalism in every segment of society, replacing it with cronyism and a “yes man” mentality. Honesty was thrown aside in favor of boot-licking.

With the fall of Suharto, the political elites coalesced into two loose groups: the old entrenched political elites who benefited greatly from the old regime, and the incoming political activists, who had ambition and a stated desire for change but no significant resources.

Thanks to Suharto’s system, the latter group found they could not get ahead solely on their ability and ideals. Many of the early reformers ended up being absorbed by the first group, benefitting from the connections and financial advantages that came from being allied with an entrenched power base. At the same time, having been integrated into the old group, the aspiring new politicians also ended up protecting the old ones in order to ensure their political survival, thus perpetuating the cycle of corruption.

The connections extended into the entire system. In a personal interview, a seasoned political strategist remarked that Indonesia’s political scene today has become profitable due to its very close similarities to old Chicago-style politics in the United States, where it was once the rule to “vote early and vote often” under the direction of ward bosses, and entrenched city leaders used the municipal treasury as a personal campaign war chest. Inside such a closed system there is a complete lack of accountability due to the close connections between powerful politicians and law enforcement officials.

The contents of Nazaruddin’s confessions and allegations so far are the logical outcome of such a web. Those in positions of influence and authority, especially senior law enforcement figures, are inevitably tainted by money, creating both a sense of gratitude and of shared blame that makes ending the cycle of corruption virtually impossible. Those who don’t play ball either find they cannot move forward within the system, or get thrown out, which happened to former President Abdurrahman Wahid.

It was hardly surprising that a succession of scandals followed from Nazaruddin’s confessions, from revelations of alleged electoral manipulation and fraud at the General Elections Commission to charges of money politics tainting the KPK’s Chandra Hamzah and his candidacy to become the next head of the body. Corruption is so ingrained within the system that nobody seems able to avoid it. Unrestrained by the rule of law, it is a free-for-all. It is the “Heart of Darkness.”

Which brings us to Marzuki’s proposal last week: let the corruptors pay a small sin tax and then live off their ill-gotten gains. This only confirms the status quo. Like it or not, corruption is too embedded and it touches everyone, including the KPK. As previous cases have shown, there is no political will to seriously punish the guilty. Most of those convicted are set free after spending a short time in prison — and even while in prison they pay bribes to obtain lengthy passes to travel and do as they like.

Few people want to upset this applecart unless the person has an ax to grind, such as Nazaruddin. Such is the impact of power and the absence of legal constraint. Conrad summed it up in the immortal words uttered by Kurtz with his last breath, “the Horror, the Horror.”

By Yohanes Sulaiman lecturer at the National Defense University. (Jakarta Globe)

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