Corruption in Indonesia : Slow to Shame

SOME societies are controlled by guilt, others by shame. Then there’s Indonesia, which is rarely controlled by either. At least among the political elite, there is an insuperable ability to avoid accepting responsibility for one’s actions. While American politicians step down quickly enough over sex or corruption scandals (Europeans even faster), and an Indian railways minister will fall on his sword after a horrific train crash, Indonesian leaders have a long record of refusing to resign no matter how serious the allegations against them, no matter how high the level of public pressure.

In 2000 General Wiranto refused to resign his post as security minister despite accusations that he was responsible for war crimes committed in East Timor the year before, when he had been commander of the armed forces. Two years later the speaker of parliament, Akbar Tanjung, kept on banging the gavel even after he was found guilty of corruption. (Happily for him, the conviction was overturned on appeal.) More recently, a conservative Islamic lawmaker, Arifinto, kept on showing up for work even after being forced to resign: in April he was busted watching pornography on his tablet computer in the middle of a parliamentary session.

Last week however there were signs that shame might yet rear its ugly head. At least among the party brass, if not yet among the wrongdoers themselves. The president’s own Democratic Party sacked its treasurer, Muhammad Nazaruddin, on May 23rd. Mr Nazaruddin was implicated in a scandal involving the construction of athletes’ dormitories for the upcoming South-East Asia Games, to which Indonesia is playing host. On May 20th, the constitutional court’s chief justice reported that Mr Nazaruddin had offered a court official an unsolicited payment of $100,000 last year as a “gift”. Mr Nazaruddin was also accused of using his influence as a party boss and member of parliament to have one of his former business partners thrown in jail. As if for good measure, he stands alleged of raping a young woman last year during the Democrats’ national congress in Bandung.

As the allegations piled up the Democrats, who initially denied that their treasurer had any involvement in the dormitory-corruption scandal, perhaps had little choice but to fire Mr Nazaruddin. After all, Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono won the presidency in 2004 and was re-elected handily in 2009 on a platform of zero tolerance for corruption; Mr Nazaruddin’s scandals were becoming too much to ignore. Mr Yudhoyono’s squeaky-clean image has already taken a scuffing over the past two years. He was seen to have allowed the national police to frame two independent anti-corruption commission officials for bribery amid a power struggle right after his re-election. Mr Yudhoyono came off looking the worse when his cabinet’s leading reformer, the finance minister Sri Mulyani Indrawati, bolted to the World Bank a year ago. Upon her departure Ms Mulyani claimed that members of the powerful Golkar party, led by Aburizal Bakrie–who happens to be Mr Yudhoyono’s chief political ally–hounded her out of the cabinet as part of a selfish attempt to hijack the country’s economy.

For his part, Mr Nazaruddin, possibly in disbelief that he was actually being held to account in South-East Asia’s most corrupt nation, didn’t take his sacking lightly. The next day he lashed out at his own party, claiming that other Democrats, including a cabinet minister, had violated its code of ethics and that they were involved in corruption. Mr Yudhoyono has tried to remain above the fray in all of this. It is an open question whether he can retain any of his good reputation without taking the axe to other members of his party in coming weeks.


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