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Indonesia is one of the world’s most corrupt countries. Here’s why there’s new hope

AP Photo/Achmad Ibrahim
Young Indonesians speak out against corruption. The status quo is starting to listen.
By Naomi Rovnick
Published Last updated This article is more than 2 years old.

Things are not so bad in the capital, Jakarta. But drive around a smaller Indonesian city such as Medan in North Sumatra or Bandung in West Java during the midday rush, and traffic police might issue a fine for perceived infractions such as not having your headlights on during the day. For foreigners, the fines tend to be set at between $3 and $5. Annoying, but certainly not enough money to spend an afternoon in the police station arguing about. The traffic cops do not provide a receipt.

This is a low-level example of a huge, endemic problem Indonesia has with corruption. Further up the official food chain, senior immigration officers are sometimes arrested for taking bribes. In a recent scandal that has captivated the nation, judges are allegedly holding “drug parties.” And right at the top of society, close associates of President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono have been embroiled in graft scandals themselves.

That’s typical for an emerging market. Corruption is just a natural stage of economic growth, and investors know the risks. But what is exciting about Indonesia is that the country has a growing, grass roots anti-corruption movement swelling up from the streets and rising to near the top of the government. A lot still must change. Indonesia ranked 100th out of 183 nations on Transparency International’s most recent corruption perceptions index (pdf). But as well-respected Indonesian lawyer Todong Mulya Lubis says, “change is inevitable.”

He adds: “It will take a long time. There is corruption at every level of government. There is a reform movement within politics, and then there are the old school politicians who are powerful, well connected and who resist change.”

Still, these are the shards of hope:

A prominent anti-graft campaigner has entered a gubernatorial race. Indonesia’s main opposition party, the bizarrely named ”Indonesian Democratic Party-Struggle,” has named Teten Masduki, who formerly ran the Indonesian branch of Transparency International, as the running mate for its gubernatorial candidate in West Java ahead of state elections next February. This decision is receiving a lot of good press. And in a country where press freedom is very weak, that signals the central government in Jakarta does not mind Teten.  And while many Indonesian politicians including the current president have run on anti-graft tickets, Teten has real anti-corruption credentials. He is a career activist, not a career politician.

The lack of a clampdown by the central government is encouraging. Teten is hugely popular and has high public visibility. He has been a thorn in the central government’s side for over a decade. He founded the nongovernmental organization, Indonesia Corruption Watch, in 1998. Earlier this year he founded a website named (Indonesian) that publicizes court judgments against corrupt individuals including government officials.  He has high public visibility too. Rather sweetly, street children in the city of Bandung have been collecting coins for  Teten and recently raised $3.80 toward his campaign. The media had expected him to run as the main candidate for a smaller party, but in the end he chose to be a smaller fish in a bigger pond.

Jakarta’s new governor won the race on an anti-corruption ticket, and he looks clean. “Jokowi,” as new Jakarta governor Joko Widodo is nicknamed, has been embraced by the world’s media as the personification of all that is changing for the better in Indonesia. Like Teten, he was endorsed by Indonesian Democratic Party-Struggle. Bloomberg just named him ”Indonesia’s most promising politician.” He won the gubernatorial race last month by appealing to voters who are sick of the Indonesian capital’s biggest problems—bribery and gridlocked traffic, as well as the administration’s lack of ability to deal with regular flooding. When he ran Solo, a small city in Java, Jokowi became known for helping small businesses procure licenses and permits without having to pay bribes. In appealing to grass roots merchants, he has been likened to former Thai prime minister Thaksin Shiniwatra. But unlike Thaksin, who was toppled in a corruption scandal, “Jokowi appears to have no shady links with the world of big business,” according to a Bloomberg report.

Corrupt lawmakers are being named, shamed, and jailed.  State-owned enterprises minister Dahlan Iskan says he has given the names of several lawmakers he believes have been extorting cash and goods from government-owned companies to the House of Representatives ethics committee. This comes amid a steady stream of graft convictions for lawmakers that has been ongoing all year. Miranda Goeltom, former deputy governor of the Bank of Indonesia, was just sentenced to three years imprisonment for bribing lawmakers to elect her to the central bank position in 2004. The same case has seen 28 House of Representatives lawmakers jailed for taking bribes. And now the nation’s top anti-corruption agency, the Corruption Eradication Commission (known locally as the KPK) is gunning for high-level targets close to the president.

Indonesia’s anti-corruption watchdog is under attack by entrenched interests who want it to back down. And that’s a good thing. One sign Indonesian could be changing for the better is that the police appear rattled by the KPK’s boldness. The anti-graft agency has caused the ire of police by investigating Indonesia’s National Police Traffic Corps. for accepting bribes in an equipment tender process. The two sides are now embroiled in a legal dispute over the way KPK staff seized evidence in a raid. The fight has led to police officers arresting some of their colleagues who were seconded to the KPK and then ignored orders to leave the anti-graft body.

But Indonesian society is changing. Nowadays, young people are not shy about demonstrating.  Indonesia’s consumer economy has developed nicely in the last few years and there has been much written on the spending potential of the young. In Indonesia, 60% of the population is under 35 and people aged 30-34 earn the highest incomes. This group also has the potential to transform politics. Traditional Indonesian society is intensely hierarchical. Corruption thrives because people tend not to question the behavior of those they consider their superiors, meaning official accountability is low. But young people are challenging the social order. Despite Indonesia being an Islamic society,  young women now feel emboldened enough to speak out against lawmakers who want to ban female judges from wearing short skirts.  And in recent weeks, organizing themselves on Twitter thousands of youngsters have taken to the streets to demonstrate against the police and in support of the KPK.

Of course, to gain mass support, the anti-graft body astutely targeted the traffic police. The speed cops are not too popular around here.

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