Tuesday 14 Aug 2018 | 06:55 | SYDNEY
Tuesday 14 Aug 2018 | 06:55 | SYDNEY

Reader riposte: Indonesians tolerated graft until 1998


Sam Roggeveen


6 November 2008 15:11

Rod Brazier from the Asia Foundation comments on the motivating forces behind Indonesia's anti-corruption drive, a debate we revived recently on The Interpreter:

Corruption became a tide-changing issue in Indonesia only in 1998, when the Asian financial crisis swamped Indonesia. Before then, and while the economy generated jobs and full stomachs, anti-corruption campaigns failed to enliven the masses, and thus had no impact. Until the late 1990s, many ordinary Indonesians even regarded corruption as a natural perquisite of power. As long as those in high places kept the peace and delivered jobs, most ordinary Indonesians didn't lose sleep over corruption in Jakarta.

Indonesians' views of corruption were upended by the events of 1998/99. Two things became sharply apparent:

  1. Grand corruption — most notoriously the brazen theft of billions in government-funded bank liquidity credits — persisted in plain sight well after the mighty impact of the crisis sent aspirationals and 'small people'
    (Indonesia's 'battlers') into hunger and poverty. The pact between the New Order and the governed masses was shattered, and a deep cynicism towards politicians set in and endures to this day.
  2. As the dust settled on the crisis, it became widely apparent that New Order corruption, at first seen by some as the innocuous skimming from the top of a successful economy, was far more pernicious. Corruption had distorted markets, hollowed out banks, and emasculated regulators and courts.  Corruption had both contributed to Indonesia's vulnerability and exacerbated the impact of the crisis, especially on ordinary folk.

I put forward this background because the debate on The Interpreter about corruption in Indonesia has been disembodied from historical context. History strongly suggests that in the absence of a robust and motivated domestic constituency, donor-funded projects pushing for reform usually fail. That some reform projects since 1998 have succeeded should be no surprise given the strong support from practically every layer of society.

I didn't hear or read Gerry van Klinken's presentation at the Indonesia Update conference, but if he did say that anti-corruption efforts were the brainchild of foreigners, he's wrong. Before 1998, some brave Indonesian campaigners were jailed or persecuted for highlighting corruption. Since 1998/99, anti-corruption has occupied centre stage in the national political discourse. If foreigners have been involved in recent anti-corruption efforts, their roles have been technical, and in support of broader home-grown efforts.