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Fatal payback from a culture of official corruption

12 December 2011

Another bridge fell down in Indonesia yesterday.

This one was still under construction, so fortunately, no one was injured. In another incident, last month at least 21 people died (more are still missing) when the Kutai Kartanegara bridge collapsed in East Kalimantan. A brand-new bridge in South Sulawesi fell down on Dec. 6. Other bridges of various ages have also fallen.

The Indonesian press reports on these events quite openly, and various official sources are quoted, saying there will be investigations. The newspapers point out that faulty construction, or poor maintenance, or both, may be what caused the bridge failures. In other words, here we can see a free press at work, asking questions and publishing responses — not offering excuses or hiding the truth.

Each time I see one of these reports, I think about the rampant corruption in Indonesia. Everyone knows about it. Everyone talks about it. The activities of the government’s official Corruption Eradication Commission (KPK) appear in the news every day — both elected and appointed officials are being investigated and charged all the time.

The problem, however, continues — and failing bridges are only one example of how illegal payments and skimming of funds are holding this country back.

Bridges fall down in my country too, and there are continuing problems there with maintaining older bridges as state and local budgets shrink along with the tough economic situation. The difference that rampant corruption makes, however, is that in a developing country such as Indonesia, there is a large and complicated tangle of inter-dependent factors that keep corruption moving along, like a big lava flow sliding down a mountainside, seemingly impossible to stop.

One factor is that many people in any position of power here are likely to exploit weaker people for personal gain. The police are the most obvious example. On any day in a city such as Bandung, where I live, you are likely to see a big crowd of police officers on some side street, stopping all motorbikes (which outnumber cars here by an order of magnitude). Talk to any Indonesian and he or she will frankly tell you what the police are doing: demanding money. They ask for license and registration, and if these are produced, they tell the motorbike rider that something is wrong with the bike. The typical charge is that the headlight was not on, or is not bright enough.

If you give the police officer cash (about $10, which would buy you at least two nice lunches here), you are released. But if you don’t, they take your license and issue a citation, and you must go to court (and pay anyway) to get your license back.

The average citizen here hates the police. The otherwise mild and friendly Indonesians of my acquaintance say so with a steely tone that I rarely hear otherwise — and I can’t blame them.

Another common practice I’ve been told about by several average citizens is that if you apply for a factory job, or various other types of regular work, you must pay the person who interviews you, or else you will not be hired. The amount might be $100 for a job that pays $150/month in wages. The “fee” is paid in cash. No fee, no job.

I think bridges are going to keep on falling down in this country — until this pervasive culture of corruption is punished, regularly and consistently, using the laws that do exist.

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