JAKARTA: With the shocking revelation around the Keppel scandal, questions have arisen why such practices persist after decades of anti-corruption movements globally, including in Indonesia, one of Singapore’s closest neighbours.

A local news report in Singapore also asked on Sunday (Jan 7) if a culture of corruption in Indonesia is contributing to Singapore businesses resorting to bribery or turning a blind eye when local partners engage in such practices.

When it comes to fighting corruption, it seems Indonesia can catch no break.

Efforts have been relentless. The slogan of KKN (corruption, collusion and nepotism) has been ringing hard for Indonesians since the fall of the Suharto regime in 1998.

In 2003, Indonesia established the Anti-corruption Commission (KPK). But the Commission has since continuously received resistance, particularly from House members looking to revise the law to curtail its powers.

Corruption remains a challenge. Hardly a day goes by without corruption cases making the news headlines, a likely reason why some observers think efforts have achieved limited results.

Yet where businesses are seen as centres of wealth, with the government and average Indonesians poorer cousins, practices to disseminate cash don’t have the same sinister connotations as acts of corruption often perceived elsewhere as actions to aggrandise one’s wealth in a manner that is morally bankrupt.

It is also not useful to consider many practices lumped together as corruption to be universally harmful, when to some Indonesians, they may be functional – some even consider such acts to be culturally and morally appropriate.

Take for example the practice of giving “tired money”, “cigarette money” or “thank you money” in Indonesia – a common practice by politicians expressing gratitude for voters who support them, and by businesses to those who help them get things done.

The KPK is firm in its position that such acts construe a form of corruption. But my research indicates that such practices are widely adopted and accepted.


Members of government, businesses and anti-corruption organisations describe in their accounts of corruption that people in Indonesia value the preservation of relationships.

Many believe they have an obligation toward people in their network of relations. Those who live with abundance should reach out to those living in less fortunate conditions. Those who receive a service should show gratitude to those who provide the service.

The expressions of bagi-bagi rejeki or “sharing the fortune”, as well as utang budi or “debt of deed” are often used to describe such practices.

Such expressions bear even stronger relevance in the context of Indonesia’s rising inequality today.

At the same time, the salary gap between those in business and those in government remains large, leading companies to consider making unofficial payments to government officials as a way to shouldering their social responsibilities.

High-ranking officials who receive these payments face the same pressures to “share the fortune” which perpetuates the practice of gift-giving and gift-receiving.

On the ground, people even lament that socio-economic circumstances and expectations put pressure on them to continue practices that would be considered a form of corruption.

These findings stand in stark contrast to mainstream media reports by global news outlets which often frame corruption as an issue of moral deficiency.

My research also suggests that practices labelled as corruption arise as a solution to bureaucratic challenges one faces when dealing with public policy and public services. Those practices exist to make a broken system workable.

In the context of political funding for example, analysts have argued that corruption is a result of a complicated party financing system.


All these factors are a recipe for failure so it’s no wonder Indonesia’s anti-corruption campaign has not been very successful in changing people’s behaviour.

Take the KPK’s campaign of berani jujur, hebat (be honest and be great) as an example.

Campaigns calling on people to be everyday heroes by resisting actions labelled as corruption and live up to seemingly universal values of honesty and integrity seem out of touch when many Indonesians consider themselves to be part of a social network and set of practices that not only accept but encourage these actions.

The values espoused by anti-corruption campaigns are just not keeping up with the ingrained social expectations of most Indonesians’ immediate network, making it difficult to change not just deeply seated attitudes but also short-term behaviour.

Even as the KPK continues fierce crackdowns against government officials and company executives who take bribes, such high-profile arrests only go so far to deter money from changing hands in a country where the informal economy has loomed large for a long time.

This is not unique to Indonesia but also found in other countries such as in Russia. Blat, a patronage system with informal agreements, exchanges of services, connections and deals to achieve results, persists despite the creation of an inter-government task force to tackle corruption.

Many consider Indonesia has a long uphill battle to fight when it comes to corruption. Ranked the 90th least corrupt country with a score of 37 out of 100 in the 2016 Corruption Perceptions Index, it may be time to look beyond enforcement and tweak the incentive structure.

Perhaps as government agencies see their pay rise, the incentive to accept bribes will be less attractive. Public servants may also be increasingly seen as equal partners to businesses.

Perhaps structural changes that promote transparency and accountability with more robust government budgeting can further shape mindsets.

A different way of talking about anti-corruption is certainly needed given the vastly different cultural meaning attached to it in Indonesia.

It is high time to review Indonesia’s anti-corruption drive given that longstanding concerns about Indonesia’s corruption levels can dampen its business environment and foreign investment growth.

Maybe it’s time Indonesia itself stops turning the blind eye to corruption.