When Indonesians ask me what I find so special about their country, I often throw the question back at them. There’s usually much head-scratching and no clear answer. So then I ask: OK, what do you think defines Indonesia, then? Again, rarely a clear answer. The other day, though, a random unemployed guy I met on a boat came out with this: “Indonesia is a country based on the rule of law”. I nearly fell into the Banda sea (the deepest in the world, apparently). Indonesia is a country based on many things: the avarice of the Dutch, the populist nationalism of the founding fathers and the stubborn tenacity of the military are all candidates. But the rule of law would not appear in my top ten. Or even top ten thousand.
The rule of lawS perhaps, as in: one law for the rich and one for the poor. Benny made his surprising comment just around the time a court in Sulawesi was considering sentencing a 15 year-old to five years in prison for stealing a pair of sandals. It wasn’t smart of the kid to try and steal flip-flops from a policeman, but it probably wasn’t smart of the policeman to retaliate by beating the shit out of the kid, either. When his parents filed a complaint against the police for brutality the cops dragged the teenager in to court with the threat of a five year sentence. There was a bit of a national uproar; even normally judgmental religious leaders protested at the harshness of this prospective sentence. The press rushed to contrast the potential sentence with the lenient treatment of politicians and businesspeople accused of corruption. People convicted of stealing millions of dollars often spend just a few months in jails kitted out with gyms, spas and private dining rooms. In the end the kid was indeed convicted, but was sent home to lick his police-inflicted wounds with nothing more than stern warnings as punishment.
When Indonesians talking of siphoning millions out of the public purse they don’t call it theft, any more than Americans call their multi-squillion dollar lobbying industry “corruption”, though giving donations to politicians in return for legislation that profits your business smells a lot like corruption to me. In Indonesia, corruption is so deeply entrenched that it has it’s own set of time-saving initials: KKN (for Korupsi, Kolusi, Nepotism). And attempts to cut it off at the roots seem only to underline the hopelessness of the task. I read about one such in Kompas this week. “I’ll stop cheating when I know my stuff,” declared a 15 year-old middle-school student. This was considered a success of an anti-corruption programme which hopes to get schoolchildren to set themselves time-bound goals for going clean. The premise, apparently supported by survey data, is that all students cheat some of the time, and most of them cheat most of the time. Teachers do little about this because they are under severe pressure to produce “results” for the school (something that will sound familiar to anyone who teaches in an inner London school). Teachers in the wonderful Indonesia Mengajar programme, which sends graduates from the best universities to the most neglected parts of Indonesia to teach in primary schools for a year, say they feel the same pressure from a different source. “If I fail a student, the parents take it as an insult and just stop sending the kid to school” a teacher in the north of Tanimbar told me.
So cheating becomes a norm. And from cheating to lying, and from lying to not telling the whole truth about the distribution of funds, and from there to 100 th place on Transparency International’s list of least corrupt countries. In fact, Transparency International is one of the groups behind the programme to reduce cheating in schools. Its slogan: “Dare to be honest. That’s cool!” (“Berani jujur: hebat!“). Maybe it was just because I still had sea-legs after stepping off a 48-hour boat journey at dawn, but I was also pretty baffled by the large banner across the office of the harbour-master in Ternate (an island famed for perfidious double-crossing by greedy colonists and overbearing Sultans alike). The banner, which translates roughly as: “Don’t justify your habits, make a habit out of justice!” (Jangan benarkan yang biasa, biasakan yang benar!) is apparently a rallying cry for honesty in the workplace.
It seems to me it’s a long road between those sorts of slogans and a country based on the rule of law.