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One issue that unites all Indonesians is undoubtedly the fight against corruption. But the question is who will cast the first stone that will bring down the hail? Many will be eager to point a finger but will only have more fingers pointed at them in return.
Corruption is widespread and touches all ends of the ideological spectrum, from top elites to the lowest rungs. To a certain extent, we are unconsciously part of the disease and may even perpetuate it.
Indonesia is not the only place where corruption is endemic. However, some uniquely Indonesian socio-cultural conditions and mindsets symbiotic to the ubiquity of corruption are worth identifying. There are important factors beneath the visible problems of corrupt political engines and officials.
In his essay The Indonesian Dilemma, Mochtar Lubis pointed out several traits he deemed as characteristically Indonesian. He mentioned “a feudal mentality”. After independence, new forms of feudalism constantly emerge in Indonesian society. “The feudal spirit permeates all strata of society. Rank and power depend on wealth or one’s position,” he explains.
Nowadays, amid a blast of influence from a globalized world and this entrenched problem from the past, there are developments of a convoluted new “feudal system” serving as an inconspicuous infrastructure predisposing any of us into corrupt practices. A kind of multi-layered societal strata, almost like a caste system that is nearly impenetrable yet permeable.
This “caste system” is impenetrable in the sense that it is nearly impossible for one of the lower strata to move up the ladder. A housemaid would most likely stay a maid the rest of her life. However, it is permeable in the sense that the lure of luxury and prestige touches all strata the same way.
The needs and wants of the lower caste in India would not likely be the same as those of the upper caste there, but it is different in Indonesia. Take smartphones as an example. All strata of society here are peer pressured into using them: housemaids, factory workers and little school children to executives.
This multi-functional gadget is something that about a decade ago was used only by Western professionals.
In Indonesia, fads like gadgets touch all levels of society with a similar intensity. An office boy playing the latest Jason Mraz on his BlackBerry while browsing Facebook is not a strange sight nowadays. This is a luxury, beyond his basic needs and income.
This “caste system” does not simply comprise rich, middle and lower economic levels. Multiple layers of strata are found within each stratum. A businessman in a Mercedes is more prestigious than a professional driving a generic car; a store worker is higher than a cleaning service worker.
One evening, I observed the closing routine of some shops at an electronic mall. The store workers scattered their trash out without putting them into the empty boxes lying around in the alleyway. Only slightly better paid, the store workers take it for granted that the cleaners pick up after them, the “higher caste”.
We adopt the material lifestyle of fast-food chains and gyms from the West in terms of food and equipment, but not its sense of egalitarianism. Fast food restaurants are not serviced restaurants, yet it is uncommon in Indonesia for customers to put away their trays and dump the trash into the bins. Once, the manager of a fast-food restaurant profusely thanked a friend of mine for simply clearing his own table.
In the gym, putting away one’s own weights after use is not a common practice. What are those bulky muscles for when one expects scrawny cleaning service boys to put those weights back in place? We have a feudal expectation of service from the strata below.
However, the permeability of influence between the upper and lower strata also conditions certain expectations before receiving respect or service that otherwise should be unconditional. Having lived overseas, practicality (instead of brand) is my main consideration in buying clothes and accessories. Back home in Jakarta, on a visit to an upscale clothing store, I was introduced to this structure and its expectations. Two salesgirls inside, glancing at my shirt and watch, quipped: “he won’t buy anything”, followed by a sneering chuckle.
But what does all of this have to do with corruption?
This “caste system” entrenches material wealth as the main value and commodity to measure an individual’s worth. All strata in society develop certain expectations of wealth and prestige through this trickledown effect. Respect, service and privileges are abundantly given to those above one’s strata in society. Each strata looks above its own and expects a certain display of wealth and prestige from those above them.
In this “caste system”, upward mobility is rare, downward mobility is plausible and painful. People will do many things to ensure their status of privilege and that they stay serviced by those below them. It is costly to maintain one’s position within the layered strata with all the new accessories and gadgets flooding in.
We may have a universal cognitive disapproval of corruption yet an entirely different sense and interaction when it comes to our daily lives. Corrupt government officials may exasperate us, but we react differently when that official is a business partner or relative who can boost our stature within the structure.
We readily compromise and justify ourselves when our convenience is at stake, like bribing to get out of traffic tickets or accelerating regulatory processes. Downgrading to a simpler lifestyle is painful, thus there is pressure to pursue convenience, respect and service in this structure.
Small or big acts of monetary corruption may very well be a problem beyond just certain individuals’ greed, or a political system perverted. It may have underpinnings where respect and stature in society are measured by material wealth.
The Corruption Eradication Commission (KPK) and our votes for clean politicians, rare as they are, are still important. But it is crucial to tackle the very societal structure that goads people to maintain a certain high level of wealth and a perceived stature within the “caste system”.
The writer is a graduate of Northern Illinois University and a lecturer at Pelita Harapan University, Tangerang.