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The Indonesian Bureaucracy

Indonesia has no tradition of public service. The notion of democratic government, government for and by the people, is a new one and one with which, at this writing, neither the citizens nor certainly the bureaucrats are comfortable. There has, of course been government in Indonesia, but that has gone from rural, feudalistic village level and regional potentates, through colonial exploiters, through military occupiers, to a series of home-grown dictators, the last of whom holds the distinction of being assessed as the most corrupt national leader in the history of the world.

To be in government in Indonesia has always been a privilege that comes with prestige and perks; those perks have traditionally included a constant flow of gifts and tribute from the lowly citizens and the tacit right to everything an enterprising bureaucrat could steal. Soeharto, for all his venality and the fact that he embezzled more from the Indonesian people than perhaps any other thief has ever before stolen, did something even worse. He institutionalised abuse of power.

He created an enormous, bloated bureaucracy for the primary purpose of giving his family and cronies fiefdoms to milk for profits. Huge useless ministries and staggeringly inefficient government monopolies ensured that his family and friends would enjoy wealth beyond their wildest dreams. The bureaucracies themselves were made up of cronies of his cronies, and they in turn appointed their friends and family members to lucrative positions. The filling of government posts kept going down the food chain until the lower level petty bureaucrats simply lined their pockets and Singaporean bank accounts by selling rank and file positions to anyone who could pass the hat among family members and come up with the price of admission.

That charming tradition still exists. It is no secret that a position as a police cadet, for example, is entirely dependent upon a family's ability to pony up the bribe for admission to the academy. It is, of course, a worthwhile investment; once you are a police officer, or any government employee, you are guaranteed to live very well indeed. The higher you go, the better you'll do. Another part of the tradition, of course, is that the lower levels continue to pay tribute, tokens of respect, to their betters. So, while the positions are provided downwards on the food chain, the real profits just keep rolling in and movin' on up.

The one segment of society that is excluded from this vast black hole into which the fruit of Indonesia's labour disappears is the people of Indonesia. The average, non-bureaucrat exists solely to provide the machine with fuel in the form of graft.

All the cosmetic anti-graft rhetoric aside, the tradition continues to be the Indonesian bureaucratic paradigm. While some infinitesimal steps have been made and a lot of publicity has been given to some high-profile cases, at this moment it continues to be business as usual in Indonesia. The word hasn't filtered down to the street level.

In the minds of bureaucrats, the people of this country are their social inferiors. To request a service from a government employee is to beg a boon, and is expected to be accompanied by a discreet gift; an envelope of cash is standard. Failure to offer one is normally perceived as a personal insult and seen as highly disrespectful...it will almost certainly see your request sent to the bottom of the pile or lost altogether.

The truly unfortunate part of all this is that the people of Indonesia traditionally respect this customary way of being treated. They themselves consider it disrespectful not to offer a gesture of respect to a civil servant who carries out a routine service.

Two examples from personal experience:

Although arranged and paid for in advance, when I went to pick up my marriage license at the local government office, I was met by the regional or facility manager. With a broad smile and a handshake of congratulations he took me around to meet his staff who stood in a line while he generously announced that as a foreigner, the amount requested would be "special". He then handed me a slip of paper with an amount written on it. He assured me that only half was for him, the rest would be distributed among the lower level civil servants. This being the morning of the wedding, I had no choice but to pay him his graft. Needless to say, I found out later that the "special" amount demanded of me as a foreigner was about ten times that normally extorted from locals.

On another occasion, I had the tragic duty of going to a state hospital in an outlying province to take home the body of a six-year-old little girl who had died of cancer. I had to pay a bribe to be allowed to remove the body from the hospital room; again from the hospital itself; again to receive a proper accounting for the hospital bill; and again at the gate of the parking lot. When I finally lost my temper at the "village chief" who demanded bribes to allow the family members and other villagers to attend the desperately poor and grieving parent's home for prayers over the body, I was seen as a barbaric foreigner with no sense of civilised behaviour.

The foregoing is standard and took place, not in Soeharto's reign, but during Susilo's democratic mandate.

While there may be some progress being made, it has not yet become apparent in our day-to-day encounters with bureaucrats.

The things to remember are these: Any function carried out by a civil servant or any bureaucrat is a favour to you and deserves a generous payment. Civil servants do not work; they are occasionally bestirred to accommodate your request, if you are sufficiently deferential, preferably obsequious. It takes far, far, longer than promised or advertised for any simple function to be carried out. There are no standard procedures for anything; requirements and standards are entirely at the discretion of the individual you are speaking to. Virtually any impediment to acquiring what you are asking for exists only in the mind of the bureaucrat and specifically for the purpose of allowing him to remove it in return for a bribe.

When you go to a government office, make no other appointments for that day, stitch a grateful smile to your face, and bring a lot of cash. Enjoy.

Contributors: Patrick Guntensperger Gary Dean


  Marmalade   04 Jan 09 13:57

Ditto for dealings with the police.

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