Tag Archives: Language

Vocab lessons for expat lawyers in Indonesia

Anti-corruption poster in Indonesia

So Indonesia is going to require expatriate lawyers to take an ethics test, in Indonesian. I think this is a splendid idea; though they are not actually allowed to practice law in Indonesia, foreigners certainly have a lot to learn from Indonesian lawyers when it comes to ethics. Here’s some essential vocab to get them started:

“Salary supplementation”. It literally means “to spoonfeed” and some cynics translate it as “bribe”, but they haven’t studied legal ethics in Indonesia.

Cuci uang
To “wash money”. Indonesians are very concerned with personal hygiene. Many Indonesian lawyers feel they have an ethical obligation to ensure that money stays clean.

Itu biasa
“Tax compliance” This is best understood through a recent quote from a lawyer explaining why the head of the Constitutional Court registered his Mercedes in the name of his driver. “Itu biasa, dalam satu orang namanya ada pajak progresif, dia coba untuk pakai nama orang lain. Ya itu kan biasa, Indonesia itu kan semua ini begitu kan.” A literal translation for people not familiar with Indonesian legal ethics would be: “That’s normal, if a person is subject to progressive taxes, it’s normal that they would try and use someone else’s name. In Indonesia, it’s all like that, right?”

“Bank account”. Derived from the word for “suitcase”, this word describes the mechanism through which most Indonesian lawyers get paid.

In common usage, this means foreign. To the Indonesian legal establishment, however, it means “Guilty”

A contraction for Korupsi, Kolusi, Nepotisme, this translates as “Business as Usual”

In the interests of enriching the ethical understanding of foreign lawyers in Indonesia, I offer the Golden Loophole Award for the best additions to this list.

The FPI is (half) right: they must be more responsible thugs


With a first draft of Indonesia Etc: Exploring the Improbable Nation now sitting on my editor’s desk, I finally have time to get back to musing on this blog about Indonesia’s delights and contradictions.

In writing the book, I’ve had a lot of time to think about the way language and culture mirror one another. And I’ve also found myself inadvertently agreeing with the leadership of the ever-more-thuggish Islamic Defenders Front (FPI), though not in a good way.

Back in July, when the Islamic warriors were defending the morality of the people of Kendal by trying to smash up those bars that hadn’t paid enough protection money, the good people of Kendal fought back. Dashing to get away, the FPI ran over and killed a member of the very public whose soul they had hoped to protect through their violence.

FPI leaders have spouted a great deal of nonsense since then. But as FPI Chairman Munarman sought to blame everyone but the organisation he heads for the senseless violence and death that his follower caused, he said something that struck a chord with me. How come when a member of the FPI does something bad the whole organisation gets blamed, he asked, while in any other institution in Indonesia, that person is immediately labelled an “oknum”?

He’s got a point.

The dictionary will tell you that “oknum” means “individual”. Let’s plug that in to some newspaper headlines:

[Minister] Dahlan explains how parliamentary individuals squeeze state companies (Dahlan ungkap cara oknum DPR peras BUMN, Antara 31/10/13)

Three Police Individuals Suspected of Protecting Illegal Mining
(Tiga Oknum Polisi di Duga Beking Tambang Liar, (Sinar Harapan, 13/10/2012))

Army Individual Beats Up Journalist in Ambon
(Oknum TNI Aniaya Jurnalis di Ambon, Suara Merdeka, 01/01/2013)

Oknum does not just mean individual, it means “person in an official position who is doing something naughty”. It is most often used of policemen and soldiers but also of MPs, judges and government officials who have been caught with their hand in the till or on some starlet’s bum. The implication, of course, is that if you are a servant of the state and have been caught doing something you shouldn’t do, you are no longer a member of the armed forces, or the judiciary, or the government; you are disowned.

In other words, the organs of state accept no responsibility for the conduct of their staff; in Indonesia, the State can do no wrong. No-one ever seems to question this side-stepping of responsibility. With the government setting endless examples of bad behaviour by “oknum”, which almost never have repercussions for the institutions to which they belong, it is hardly surprising that bully-boys who like to put on white dresses and orchestrate mass violence are reluctant to stand up and take the heat for the actions of the rabbles that they have roused.

Indonesian President signs off on semen

Placard urging Indonesians to use the national language
“Use good and correct Indonesian” urges this placard. Though perhaps not overseas.

In the windswept west of Ireland, I’m struggling with notebooks written in “Bahasa Gado Gado” — a mixture of English and Indonesian which at times catches me by surprise. This bit, for example: “Local rich people count their capital in hewan, dan dengan ratusan ekor pun tidak bisa beli semen”. Which translates as: “Local rich people count their capital in cattle, and even with hundreds of cattle you can’t buy semen.” Oh wait, no, you can’t buy cement.

The moment of confusion when reading my own notes explains why Semen Gresik, a large Indonesian cement producer that wants to buff up its image internationally, is planning to change its name. That shows that the country is beginning to think more about its place on the world stage, beginning to consider how outsiders perceive it. This is so important that even Indonesia’s president, Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, has signed off on the new name, according to the Jakarta Globe.

And what’s the new name? Drumroll, please: Semen Indonesia. You couldn’t make it up, could you?

I am pleased to note that this gem is deemed worthy of Unspun’s coveted Shit-for-Brains award. A gold medal to the marketing team, please.