from The Jakarta Post, Sunday 13 Nov. 2005


Better dead than red
by Simon Pitchforth

When I was a child, my first experience with the law occurred when I was riding my bicycle home one evening. It was already dark and I had no lights on my bike. A policeman stopped me, told me I was breaking the law and endangering people and ordered me to dismount and push it home. Fast-forward 20 years and I'm sitting on my Honda at a red light in Jakarta, near my office, watching rider after rider steam past me, straight over the crossroads paying no heed whatsoever to the traffic lights in front of them.

So what links these two stories together, aside from a predilection for two-wheeled thrills? Well, it's revealing of cultural attitudes to the law. In our first bicycle light related encounter with the law, a common rite of passage in one's dealing with the police in the West, our hero's (me in short trousers) respect for rules and laws is reinforced and he learns that a sanction will be imposed if they are broken. It would have been inconceivable for me to try and give the officer who stopped me 50 pence (about US$1) from my pocket money in order to let me continue my ride home. You just don't do that. A policeman enforces the law.

Our second example, however, shows just how futile local attempts to crackdown on corrupt judges and politicians and to get high-profile tax dodgers to cough up, are. If you can't even get people to stop at a red traffic light, then what's the point? You'll never eradicate corruption from the top-down if such disrespect for even the most basic of laws is buried deep within the Indonesian psyche. Respect for the law and rules are inculcated in a person's character when they are a child. When you leave school at 16, 17 or 18, your body has stopped growing but your brain is also pretty much hardwired. That sponge-like capacity for learning that you have in your formative years diminishes, the neural pathways in the brain solidify and the underlying prejudices, assumptions and attitudes that one carries for a lifetime are set in place.

So what assumptions have many people here picked up in their childhood and adolescence? basically, they have learned to try it on from an early age. They have learned that justice can be bought and that the processes of law are corrupt from the bottom all the way to the top. Their utter contempt for the police partly mutates into an unconscious contempt for the law itself. Of course children here are told to be good and to follow the rules but it's often just empty admonishment of the "Do as I say not as I do" variety.

When they finally get around the holding the policeman's ball here it should be an awesome event, what with the amount of tickets that get bought for it every day by itinerant motorists. But of course, weak and selective law-enforcement runs all the way to the top of the police and judiciary. As we have seen once again this week, when an act of corruption is actually made public, it's the briber who suffers; the bribee, to wit the judge or senior policeman who demanded and then accepted the bribe, remains curiously free from censure. Such selective readings of the law are often reinforced by selective interpretations of Islam which conveniently play up to the fatalistic, "God willing" side of the religion at the expense of religious entreaties to a person's sense of social responsibility. It was God's will that a person was given power and ultimately it's God will that a person is corrupt.

But in a sense it is not the corruptors' fault, they were brought up to inherit the same dishonest dogmas and attitudes as the previous generation. No policeman ever told them to get off their bike and push it home. I sometimes think that those countries, such as Indonesia, that lie at the bottom of the corruption index table have reached a certain level of culturally ingrained sleaze from which there is no return. The usual proposed solution to endemic corruption here is to create more laws, however this totally and deliberately misses the point. Indonesia has as many laws as any other country; the point is they are only selectively enforced.

I've been reading The Jakarta Post for years now but in a sense, you can glean everything you need to know about Indonesia's dark side from reading about one month's worth of newspapers. The same old stories just keep revolving around like a broken record. Only the names change. Let's take a cursory look at today's Post (Wednesday, Nov. 9). In the investigation into the shocking beheading of three schoolgirls in Poso, one of the suspects turns out to be a former officer in the military police. Hmm... outrageous, yes, surprising, no. What else can we find? Ah yes, there are apparently no funds available with which to fight a possible bird flu pandemic in the country. Well I never. Ah, here's a good one, Pertamina officials have been accused of mixing aircraft fuel with water in a scenario that could have ended in a terrible tragedy. Round and round we go. I also learned from today's Post that Indonesians enjoy sex a lowly 77 times per year compared with randy Greece's 138 romps per annum, however, perhaps this isn't strictly relevant to the central thesis of this week's Metro Mad.

But to conclude, what chance is there of a fix here, short of Indonesia outsourcing all of its judicial and law-enforcement processes, to, say, Japan for a period of not less than 30 years? It's been nearly seven years since Soeharto was booted out and the laws here seem more meaningless than ever. There are many bright young things in Indonesia now working to change these inherited attitudes but they must feel like they are beating their heads against a brick wall of cultural intransigence. Until people rise up and demand their human rights en masse then the feudal system of palm grease and patronage will never be broken. Unfortunately, it's hard to break the chains of one's upbringing and conditioning though. If you can't even stop at a bloody red light, then what hope is there?

Simon Pitchforth
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