The Culture of Corruption and the Corruption of Culture in Indonesia

With over 300 ethnic groups scattered across more than 17,000 of its islands, Indonesia is justly proud of its extremely diverse cultural heritage. But Indonesia is certainly not proud of a different aspect of its culture: a ”culture of corruption” so pervasive that it is not merely associated with grand corruption in the central government, but also infects the daily lives of the citizens through petty corruption, as well as daily harassment by local officials and governmental departments.

When trying to diagnose the root cause of such pervasive corruption, a common knee-jerk response is to focus on the legal system and law enforcement institutions. Yet Indonesia seems to do fairly well on these dimensions: A well-regarded independent anticorruption agency, the KPK, in cooperation with the police and prosecution spearheads enforcement of a comprehensive Anticorruption Law that both considers domestic needs and incorporates principles enshrined in international materials such as the United Nations Convention Against Corruption. Still, corruption persists. Why?

To answer this question, one must look at not only the legal system, but also the society—the people whose conduct the laws are supposed to regulate. Such observation reveals that the “culture of corruption”— society’s permissive, tolerant, and even accepting attitude toward corruption – is perhaps the main culprit responsible for Indonesia’s incurable corruption.

Indonesia’s culture of corruption is the product of history, and of the particular governance style associated with Soeharto’s New Order regime (1966-1998). Since early colonial times, the Javanese (accounting for about half the country’s population) have been the dominant ethnic community in Indonesia, and this cultural dominance has been reinforced since independence. As with many traditional cultures in many parts of the world, gift-giving, familialism, and patrimonialism were widespread in Javanese culture. Under Soeharto, these practices were woven into governance and society’s everyday life. Thus, rather than sharpening the distinctions between the ethics of the public sphere and the private sphere, Soeharto’s approach to governance contributed to a blurring of the lines between harmless gifts and improper gratuities, between commendable solidarity and illicit ”black” networks, and between legitimate familial bonds and socially corrosive nepotism. These practices crystallized into the infamous culture of corruption that persisted without any check and balance mechanisms even after the end of Soeharto’s iron fist governance.

Despite the persistence of the culture of corruption, it is encouraging that there is still an underlying conviction in Indonesian society that corruption is wrong. Yet the coexisting sense that corruption is unsolvable creates sense of hopelessness, and perpetuates a vicious circle that is difficult to break. Part of the problem is the perception that the powerful enjoy impunity—that the “big fish” swim free. To dispel this notion, government leaders must take real action to punish corrupt actors regardless of their influence or positions. But aggressive law enforcement is not enough. To fight corruption, vigorous efforts to enforce the law should be coupled with similarly vigorous efforts to change attitudes and expectations in other ways. As Sir Jack Cater, the first Commissioner of Hong Kong’s Independent Commission Against Corruption (ICAC), postulated, “There can be no real victory in our fight against corruption unless there are changes of attitude throughout the community.” Indonesia’s government should follow this advice by ensuring that its corruption eradication efforts do not focus only on punishing corrupt actors, but also initiate a cultural shift, by incorporating anticorruption values into education, outreach efforts, and media communication. To do so, the anticorruption agencies must collaborate with all aspects of the society, including educators, religious leader, public figures, media, families, and ordinary citizens.

Furthermore, in effecting a change in cultural attitudes toward corruption, leadership at the top is key—particularly in a country like Indonesia, where the President is commonly perceived as a fatherly and authoritative figure. Much as President Soeharto’s approach to governance amplified undesirable features of traditional Javanese culture, leaders in other countries have found ways to draw on their traditional cultural resources and attitudes to promote cultures of integrity, not corruption. In this department, Singapore’s former Prime Minister Lee Kwan Yew set a good example: Though Singapore’s cultural heritage is not so different from Indonesia’s (with a traditional emphasis on patrimonialism, familism, and gift-giving), Lee Kwan Yew’s approach to governance emphasized different “Asian Values,” like probity, honor, and discipline, all of which prominently helped in directing Singapore’s effort to build a clean and corruption-free government. Indonesia’s President Joko Widodo must not only act firmly against any attempt to jeopardize Indonesia’s effort to combat corruption, but also take affirmative steps to abolish the infamous culture of corruption and establish instead an environment that promotes integrity.

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