It’s no surprise that Indonesia is awash with corruption. What is surprising is the lack of anger at this state of affairs among ordinary Indonesians, many of whom have come to accept the indiscretions of the ruling elite with barely a hint of frustration.

During May the allegedly corrupt official of the moment has been Muhammad Nazaruddin, until last week the treasurer of President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono’s Democratic Party.

Nazaruddin has resigned amid the growing stench of the allegation he accepted 25 billion rupiah ($A2.7 million) from a company that won a major contract for athlete housing at the South East Asian Games, being hosted by Indonesia in November. The chief of the Constitutional Court later alleged that Nazaruddin had offered an unsolicited payment of $S120,000 ($A91,000) to the court’s secretary general last September.

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Finally forced from office by the weight of the accusations against him, Nazaruddin launched a swingeing attack, suggesting that government figures — among them the Sports Minister Andi Mallarangeng and the secretary of the Democratic Party’s ethics committee, Amir Syamsuddin — themselves had  conducted shady deals. “I know it all and will reveal it publicly,” Naharuddin said ominously. “It’s just like a thief calling someone else a thief.”

Then to top it all off, it emerged that Nazaruddin has flown to Singapore. A medical appointment was given as the reason for the visit to the city state, but he has yet to be sighted in Indonesia. Authorities have thrown their hands up, admitting his departure has stalled the investigation but there is little they can do.

Cases such as this are hardly novel. The most recent Corruption Perception Index prepared by Transparency International ranked the country 110 out of 178 assessed, placing it significantly behind other developing nations Egypt, Brazil, India and China.

The parade of politicians, judicial figures and bureaucrats accused or convicted of corruption are treated as celebrities, holding press conferences and making public appearances at which they laugh and joke with their supporters.

Far from being an occurrence likely to end a career, an accusation of corruption is merely an inconvenience to be sorted out before the merry business of life can continue.

Shame is not attached to allegations of corruption. Indeed, if there is any shame at all, it is at the indignity of getting caught. And so cocky are many at their ability to beat the system, those being pursued for corruption are often willing to try to bribe their way into the clear.

Another tried-and-true tactic of those facing corruption allegations is to launch a smear campaign against those making the allegations, an approach taken in the Nazaruddin case. The subsequent allegations — true or not — further entrench cynicism in the minds of ordinary Indonesians.

Consider the case of finance ministry official Gayus Halomoan Tambunan, a relatively junior official who “resolved” tax issues on behalf of “clients”, some of them major companies, in exchange for cash under the table. Subsequent to his convicting and sentencing of seven years in prison — recently extended to 10 years — Gayus proclaimed he was merely a minnow and that there were much larger fish in the finance ministry to be caught, prompting the Indonesian media and regulators to probe into “tax mafia” operating within the ministry.

And in a sign that when the time is right, the bribe receiver is willing to be the bribe payer, it later emerged that Gayus had slipped money to his jailers to allow him to come and go at will, allowing him to last year watch tennis in Bali and jetset to Kuala Lumpur and Singapore.

For ordinary Indonesians, this is nothing new. The spectre of corruption was there through much of the Suharto rule, and generations have now grown up knowing little other way. Reluctant to talk about it openly, many Indonesians whisper darkly about the mafia that dominated that era, in which business and political leaders divvied up power and wealth between them.

Allegations of corruption are now neither surprising nor upsetting.

But there are some reasons for hope. The Corruptions Eradications Commission (KPK) is a body that has significant powers for investigation and prosecution, and operates independently of the country’s often erratic police force. The KPK seems to be doing some good — visiting FBI official Gary Johnson was quoted in Tempo magazine last week describing it as “exceptional, dedicated and highly motivated”. “They are doing their best,” he said. “For a relatively young institution, they have achieved a great deal.”

There is also a growing group of non-government organisations who have made anti-corruption monitoring their main or sole reason for existence, among them Indonesia Corruption Watch.

The Minister for Justice, Patrialis Akbar, recently confirmed he was backing a plan for people convicted of corruption to be treated similarly to those convicted of terror.  This would prevent them from leaving the country, but somewhat confusingly comes at the same time as a government push to abolish the death penalty for corruption. A recent online poll on the issue by Tempo found some public ambivalence, with nearly 60% opposed to the move to treat corrupt officials in the same fashion as terrorists.

Following one recent forum on corruption in Jakarta, a long-term expat admitted that he had attended a similar event a decade ago. The goodwill at that event had failed to yield results, and he fully expected the same discussion this time around to end the same way.

Of course, the consequences of corruption go far beyond offending an innate sense of justice. Corruption keeps people poor, allows government budgets to be ransacked by an elite few and puts at risk people’s health and safety.

These very real consequences appear largely absent from public debate over corruption. This is a shame, because they are the sorts of consequences likely to inspire the public anger needed to shift the mental calculus of those considering paying bribes, or receiving them.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
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