Monday, May 13, 2013

See no evil, hear no evil: Rationalizing corruption in Indonesia

Recently, Transparency International Indonesia (TII) published a report called the Youth Integrity Survey. The survey examined the integrity of the youth of Jakarta. Similar surveys were conducted in Fiji, Sri Lanka and South Korea.

As a major national problem, one way corruption can be diminished is by removing its “healing factor” so as to prevent it from regenerating over time. According to the TII report, corrupt officials appear to be getting younger by the day, which indicates the vulnerability of our younger generation to the influence of corruption.

The Youth Integrity Survey produced some interesting results; among them is the fact that around half of the surveyed youths believed that lying and cheating for getting out of tight situations or for helping family was acceptable conduct. The survey also revealed that the education system is seen as the most influential factor that shapes the younger generation’s view on integrity. Mass media, according to the survey, is also very influential.

The fact that the survey shows that some young people tolerate corrupt behavior as long as it is for the right cause deserves our attention. Criminologist Donald R. Cressey, over a half decade ago, defined three causal factors that need to be present for a person to commit fraud: motivation, opportunity and rationalization.

Rationalization is particularly important. Rationalization is essentially justification of one’s immoral behavior so as to avoid guilt. It is through rationalization that in most, if not all, cases corruptors still see themselves as men of integrity even after conviction.

Reasons such as “everyone is doing it”, “this is how business is done here”, “I’m just helping my friends and family” are among the most common forms of rationalization for dishonesty.

Contrary to common belief, fraud rationalization does not occur in a short period of time: it is a lifelong process. Studies on fraud rationalization suggest that students who often cheat at schools and college, for example, have a higher probability of doing it again at their workplaces in the future.

Despite the function of schools and universities to build students’ skills and character (including integrity), ironically the three fraud causal factors (motivation, opportunity and rationalization) exist in these institutions corrupting young minds even before they jump into the workforce.

Various cases of plagiarism and other academic crimes by students or, in more than a few cases, by reputable academic staff, have created a fertile environment for fraud rationalization in education institutions. It is hard to imagine how we could produce honest and accountable professionals through our education system.

Regardless of how simple it might seem, fraud rationalization is a complex psychological process. Psychologists believe that fraud and its rationalization is similar in some ways to drug addiction. As evidenced in many fraud cases, offenders often start their careers with unethical conduct that is legally acceptable.

When the first offense is successfully perpetrated the offender feels the joy and satisfaction from it, then it is only a matter of time until the next fraud is committed. Generally, after his or her first offense a fraudster will experience what psychologists called as “cognitive dissonance” which is basically the feeling of discomfort (e.g. from guilt and disappointment) from holding two or more inconsistent ideas, or when behavior is inconsistent with an idea.

Fraud rationalization is a way fraud offenders try to reduce their cognitive dissonance. Experts believe that a fraud offender’s “cognitive dissonance management” will get better with each offence, up to the point where the process will happen automatically, without even thinking.

In criminogenic environments (e.g. corrupt organizations or nations), fraud rationalization may begin to develop in early childhood by various means, one of which is the mass media. The Youth Integrity Survey shows that television is the most likely medium to influence young people’s perceptions of integrity.

When children see news about white-collar crime on TV on a daily basis without proper supervision, for example, they will grow up believing that such misconduct is permissible in his or her society. Comparing the results of the Transparency International’s survey with Ernst & Young’s 2012 Global Fraud Survey, we see the link between the young generation’s perception and that of presumably older generation (the respondents for Ernst & Young’s survey were senior decision makers from large companies in 43 countries including Indonesia).

Ernst & Young’s survey revealed 60 percent of Indonesian respondents believed it was acceptable to pay cash to secure new business opportunities, whereas 44 percent believed providing entertainment to decision makers to win
new business was also acceptable. Is this corruption-tolerant attitude is the fruit of lifelong exposure to unethical and unlawful conduct through the education system and mass media?

In conclusion, tolerating corruption can be seen as the earliest stage to becoming a corruptor in the future. It is important for young people to see corruption as evil regardless of its causes. Many argue that to maintain their integrity, young people, especially children must always be protected from bad influences that may impair their sense of “right and wrong”. To achieve this, as suggested by the TII survey, family and education systems can serve as catalysts for nurturing integrity so that today’s youth may one day become the honest and accountable people that our country deserves. By Hendi Yogi Prabowo, Yogyakarta  director of the Center for Forensic Accounting Studies at the Accounting Program of the Islamic University of Indonesia, Yogyakarta. He obtained his Master’s and PhD in forensic accounting from the University of
Wollongong Australia.

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