Is Indonesia Actually Corrupt?

07.11.09

Categorie: Asia, Politics, Sam Abrams |

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by SAM ABRAMS

Last week Indonesian police arrested two prominent officials from the country’s Corruption Eradication Commission, or KPK, for bribery and extortion. Since its inception in 2002, the KPK has arrested numerous officials and businessmen. Tensions between the KPK and police had risen recently when in July the KPK turned its attention towards the police.

Though this may look like nothing more than a case of an unscrupulous police force looking to preserve its crooked ways, it’s worth thinking about corruption in an Indonesian context.

Like many non-Western countries, patron-client relationships pervade social and political life. Power is measured in terms of one’s clients and one’s ability to provide for them. In his day, Suharto was the nation’s patron in chief– co-opting opponents with money or political prizes like ambassadorships.

The use of public office for non-public gain, the standard Western definition of corruption, is not only common, it is also expected. It is a mutually agreed upon way to navigate society. While undue enrichment of oneself at the expense of one’s clients is frowned upon, limits of acceptability are interpreted liberally and are anyway easy to cross once money enters private hands. In such a system, “corruption” is not a moral failing, nor can it be curbed by educated public officials on its ill-effects.

This does not mean those ill-effects are not real, only that efforts to combat corruption, as the events in Indonesia show, run into reinforced social structures that are bigger than individual depravity.

(Photo: USA Today)

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