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If we are asked about the biggest failure of the reform agenda in Indonesia after 14 years, the answer will probably be common: corruption eradication.
It is astonishing when we recall that the start of the reform movement in 1998 was triggered by public discontent with the corrupt government. Having been initially lauded as the “new” government in the late-1960s, the Soeharto regime subsequently let corruption take root in a broad range of sectors, such as extractive industries. The leakage of state budget funds, according to senior economist Soemitro Djojohadikusumo, reached 30 percent.
There was no mass protest against the corrupt practices then, as Soeharto cleverly used his strong government legitimacy in the form of economic stability and the fulfillment of basic needs. Once that legitimacy was destroyed by financial and economic crisis, public outrage was widespread and demanded Soeharto’s ouster. The long-time ruler stepped down on May 21, 1998.
As reforms got underway, efforts to eradicate corruption were initiated. Yet still, corruption is like a mystery that is not really understood. Why do reforms seem to fail to uproot corruption?
It seems the current antigraft movement has failed to address its root causes. Corruption appears on TV on a daily basis and directly affects the livelihoods of citizens through illegal fees charged for ID cards and birth certificates.
The corruption eradication measures, though necessary, remain insufficient. Salary increases for civil servants is unlikely to be effective in curbing corrupt practices for a variety of reasons. First, salary improvements do not change the character of corrupt government officials. Second, the amount of state money embezzled far surpasses the amount available for salary improvements.
Anticorruption education from elementary school to university is not enough either, as it is taught in “isolated” classrooms instead of the real world. Worse, law enforcement has to “select” certain high-profile cases due to limits in budget art and human resources.
Indeed, we have to identify the more fundamental situations underlying the vicious cycle of corruption.
First, it is a fact that there is an imbalance of power between state, civil society and private sector. While at least superficially, political power is already distributed but the state remains too powerful vis-a-vis civil society and the private sector. As a result, civil society and the private sector cannot effectively exercise control over corrupt practices at the national and subnational levels.
This situation is related to the limited reach of civil society organizations (CSOs). CSOs cannot deliver public education in a big coverage of areas and, at the same time, articluate public aspirations to the government. It can be said that many CSOs in Indonesia tend to be content to carry out projects and work in their small enclaves.
Another challenge for CSOs — including religious organizations — is independence vis-a-vis the government. In reality, many of them remain dependent on the government’s budget allocation either through projects or donations. Sometimes CSO figures are also recruited to become government officials.
Businesspeople normally are in favor of a clean government due to the efficiency it brings to their business operations. However, a broad range of big businesses are related to government and state-owned enterprise projects. Others are concession-based business, such as in the forestry, plantation and mining sectors.
Under these circumstances, CSOs and the private sector barely contribute to corruption eradication. If under Soeharto regime they were oppressed by the government for fighting corruption, now they do so for the sake of their interests.
Second, there is a special characteristic of corruption that has been weakening the fight against graft. The practices of corruption benefit those involved personally, while in many cases, adverse implications affect citizens collectively of often in ways that are not immediately visible.
Political cartels, where politicians from different political parties work together as partners in crime, is a part of Indonesia’s political culture. On the other side, citizens hardly unite around common interests in their fight against corruption. Even amid public resentment against corrupt practices, there is no nationwide movement to galvanize the sentiment into collective action.
Third, a huge portion of Indonesians are uneducated, quit school or have low level of education. This is exacerbated by a weak system of civic education that should explain to citizens their rights and their obligations to their country. As a resut, we lack a critical mass of enlightened citizens to initiate and support the fight against corruption.
There are several steps we can take to effectively root out graft. First, support can be focused on strengthening civil society to fight corruption. One of the groups with the most potential is youth. Historically, youth played central roles in Indonesia’s independence movement and in political reform movements that followed.
Demographically, youths make up a big share of the Indonesian population. Their voices will be heard and taken into account by political parties and business entities. Politically, youth groups are relatively free from any vested interests. A new model of advocacy and campaign can be developed, for instance, through hobby-based groups.
Second, young businesspeople can spearhead the fight against corruption. The effort can start from citizenship education and advocacy efforts to increase resist to business-related corruption, such as simplifying the process to obtain business permits and licenses.
The ultimate goal is to build a critical mass of young middle-class individuals who do not tolerate corruption. The functioning of this group is vital to bringing about change. While the current situation is quite frustrating for many, positive contagion will spread as the critical mass takes shape and initiates various movements to fight corruption.
As a critical mass forms, corruption in Indonesia will no longer be a mistery, but a part of the history of this nation.
The writer is a public policy analyst and member of VisiIndonesia 2033.