Friday, October 28, 2011

When Government Corruption Becomes Part of the Scenery, Beware

On Monday, Nyoman Minta became Indonesia’s most famous gardener after he managed to bypass three security perimeters and walk within five meters of President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono with his vintage bicycle and a bag full of coconuts.

Even though many found it perplexing and a bit amusing that such a major breach of security could occur at the Association of Southeast Asian Nations Fair, it is doubtful that the soldiers and police officers present lacked training or diligence. Instead, it was likely due to the ubiquity of gardeners themselves. The more common a sight, the less we tend to pay attention to it.

Our society is replete with examples of people getting used to something that ultimately can present itself in a dangerous form. Corruption, for example, is so common in Indonesia that people did not even feign surprise when Yudhoyono declared that a massive robbery on the state budget had occurred.

People were more surprised that Yudhoyono had the temerity to declare his outrage over the waste, considering that it is an open secret that it often takes a lot “grease money” to get anything done in Indonesia. It was also an open secret that graft remains rife regardless of all the election slogans of “saying no to corruption.” In fact, considering how many scandal-tainted ministers still retain their posts in the reshuffled cabinet, many people are simply resigned to the idea that corruption eradication has never been a top priority of this administration.

It is not that people no longer care about corruption. They despise it, especially when it comes in the form of blatant misconduct tinged with arrogance. The public uproar over the construction of a new legislative building — and the graft seen as part and parcel of its planning — ultimately forced its cancelation. Now people are demanding an accounting on what happened with the Rp 118 billion ($13 million) spent on the project — money that House Speaker Marzuki Alie has declared non-refundable.

The problem is that the major cases that attracted public attention are only just a drop in a bucket compared with the systemic corruption that occurs within the bureaucracy. In fact, systemic corruption is so prevalent in Indonesia that many people have given up fighting it and joined the bacchanal. In good times, the private sector could shrug off the cost of corruption as just another way to grease the wheel. It was just another cost of business in Indonesia.

At the same time, left unchecked, corruption has the potential to bankrupt and plunge the country into chaos. In tough times, when every rupiah matters, corruption will prevent economic recovery and plunge the country further into the abyss of chaos. Witness the turmoil in Greece, Italy and various other states, including Indonesia itself back in 1998, which was caused by economic meltdown thanks to the highly inefficient and corrupt state bureaucracy that strangled economic growth.

Recent violence in Papua was the canary in the coal mine, the five-meter perimeter that Minta passed in his misadventure. Corruption is a major cause of poverty and violence in Papua. In April, Tempo reported that Priyo Budi Santoso, a Golkar Party legislator, estimated that trillions of rupiahs were siphoned from the budgets for education, health, and infrastructure.

With most of this money ending up in the pockets of corrupt politicians and bureaucrats, it is no wonder that resentment grows among local Papuans toward what they see as unjust exploitation. With local troublemakers stirring for independence and the overreaction by the police force to the minuscule pro-independence demonstration, the scene was set for recent violence in Papua.

There are many ways to pacify Papua. The government could send more police officers to Papua. It could provide better training to the officers to prevent another public relations disaster, such as police brutality on a peaceful demonstration. It could raise the level of alertness of the province to the military emergency in order to bring in the military personnel to quash the separatist movement. I don’t doubt that the Indonesian military is capable of pulling it off to again impose order and secure peace in Papua. I know they can do it if the government orders them to pacify the entire island.

Still, without tackling the root of the problems, which is the pervasiveness of corruption among Papuan politicians and bureaucrats, any peace will only be temporary. The government would not be able to pacify the land in a long run. Papua will remain a troubled province should Yudhoyono’s government remain hesitant in completely quashing corruption in Papua.

Today Indonesia celebrates the anniversary of the “Youth Pledge” of 1928 that declared the unity of Indonesia. Maybe we should devote the day to fighting corruption too. By Yohanes Sulaiman lecturer at the Indonesian National Defense University. Jakarta Globe

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