by Rizal Ramli
Here is a pop quiz on Indonesian politics: What do one-third of the nation’s regents, one-fifth of its governors and one-half of the members of the House of Representatives’ budget commission have in common?
If you guessed they belong to a particular political party, such as Golkar party or Yudhoyono’s Democratic Party, you are only partly right.
Yes, many of these elected officials belong to one of the major parties. But they also happen to share another trait: Serving jail time for having committed felonies related to corruption, spanning the entire spectrum of crimes starting with the embezzlement of public funds and extortion to taking bribes from crony businessmen lobbying for special favors.
This corrupt state of affairs is not only a tale of lax morals. It also carries some heavy economic costs. With the extensive leakage of public funds as a result of corruption, the Indonesian economy still has managed to expand each year at around 6 percent, thanks to a resource boom and high commodity prices.
Many economists, including myself, believe that Indonesia has the potential for reaching higher levels of GDP growth, perhaps even in the double-digit range.
And corruption is, without a doubt, the main impediment to our country achieving these growth rates — which would, in the final analysis, catapult us into a leading position along with China as a place for doing business.
These astonishing statistics are often met with disbelief mixed with disgust and outrage over the level of rotten behavior that has infected the body politic.
Others — more sanguine and wanting to see the bottle half full rather than half empty — like to point out that if so many of our politicians are behind bars, then this must mean that we are making progress in the battle against corruption.
Based on the evidence before us, I would prefer to take sides with the pessimists. If the threat of incarceration were such a potent one and acted as a real deterrent, if we have hordes of politicians staring at four walls in tiny jail cells as penance for their sins (which is not necessarily true when one considers the stories of preferential treatment being dished out to “special prisoners” by our equally corrupt penal authorities), then why hasn’t corruption ebbed over the years?
In fact, the trend line of morality in government is a sobering one. Rather than seeing a real improvement, Indonesia has been consistently ranked as one of the most corrupt countries in the world.
Sure, countries that are classified as failed states or dysfunctional (such as Somalia or Iraq) or run by dictatorships (Myanmar and North Korea being the best examples) rank lower than Indonesia in Transparency International’s annual Corruption Perception Index, but we still manage to languish in the bottom quartile.
Put in different terms and more precisely to the point, although there are more politicians in jail than there ever were during the Soeharto years (a dubious distinction given the fact the latter number approximated to zero), what we have failed to achieve since the demise of the New Order is to effectively break the culture of corruption.
Politicians continue to run roughshod over our laws and steal money from public coffers not only because of the obvious cause, which is their lack of conscience, but also due to something even more fundamental and imbibed in our modern politics: cynicism.
Cynicism, properly defined, means possessing a scornful attitude and mistrust of the integrity or professed motives of others.
Powerful individuals, especially those sitting within the highest echelons of government, can afford to be cynical about anti-corruption agencies and fancy talk about reform when they look at their peers and see them continue to
get away with egregious acts of corruption.
Local government officials and junior legislators might have reason to pause and reflect on the risks before breaking the law, but when it comes to cabinet ministers and other politically gentrified classes, the cost-benefit analysis is dramatically different.
This cynicism, which is part and parcel of the implicit understanding within elite circles that one of the advantages of belonging to their very exclusive gentleman’s club includes impunity from the law, is one of the major reasons for our being subject to what I call a “criminal democracy”.
Which begs the question, is there anything that can be done to break the back of criminal democracy?
Here we can learn a lot from Robert Klitgaard, one of the most respected experts on corruption. Klitgaard, an American academic but also with a wealth of practical experience in working with governments in developing nations, points out that it is necessary to fry the “big fish”, not the small ones.
Tough anticorruption policies are largely ineffective, unless accompanied by legal authorities taking on the powerful and mighty. As the old saying goes, action talks louder than words. Imagine, for example, how much differently our elites would have behaved had former president Soeharto and his family been brought before the courts and prosecuted for their rapacious acquisition of ill-gotten wealth.
Instead, Soeharto spent his years of retirement in a status akin to national hero as opposed to being the poster boy for the country’s most wanted list, and his offspring still remain part of a group that could be classified best as “the untouchables”.
To this day, this ugly precedent of “imperial impunity” certainly has not gone unnoticed by Soeharto’s successors and their inner circles.
In sharp contrast there is the case of South Korea. Once a beehive of corruption and renowned for backroom deals between the political and business elite, the South Korean government now stands tall as one of the cleanest in Asia.
It is instructive to note that the country’s big fish have not been immune from punishment, even their heads of state. To wit, former South Korean president Roh Moo-hyun was charged with corruption in 2009 — his response, rather than lose face before the public was to commit suicide.
Perhaps it is a bit naïve to assume that we will turn toward the South Korean model any time soon. But even if we don’t find the political will to fry the big fish, there are other ways in which we can start cleaning up our democracy.
The best place to start with this seemingly gargantuan task is to reform our election financing laws. The means by which candidates are allowed to raise funds for their campaigns have an indelible impact on how they will behave when they are in office.
Allowing wealthy businessmen to contribute money for campaigns is a Pandora’s Box that should never be opened: Once a politician is beholden to the corporate sector, the impulse to act in ways contrary to the public interest is a strong one.
Depending on the good conscience of an elected official to ignore the wishes of his paymasters should the situation warrant is bound for failure.
Hence we should do what even some US politicians in Washington have been arguing for decades: If you want a clean government, ban private contributions and make it obligatory for the state to cover the costs of all campaigns in a transparent and equal manner. Only then can we harbor realistic expectations that our politicians will be more honest. (The Jakarta Post)
The writer is a former coordinating economic minister