Shameless Meets Gotcha In Indonesia
By Aubrey BelfordMay 24, 2012
A viral Internet video in Indonesia is one sign of a public increasingly fed up with its embarrassing elite.
There's probably no person of this earth harder to embarrass than an Indonesian politician caught with his hand in the public till.
Take Sofyan Usman, an Islamist former Member of Parliament sentenced to 14 months jail in January for soliciting 1 billion rupiah (AUD110,000) in bribes from government funds. Nothing wrong with that, he argued in court — the bribe money was going to pay for a mosque.
Or take Muhammad Nazaruddin, a former treasurer of President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono's Democrat Party. After being accused of involvement in a massive embezzlement scandal last year, he slipped out of the country, keeping the public guessing just where he was with a series of bombastic media interviews from around the world, in which he blamed everyone but himself for his plight. In one Skype interview, a smiling Nazaruddin seemed to offer a clue to his location by showing up in natty resort wear, complete with a straw hat. When the authorities finally caught up with him, he was hiding out with his family in the Colombian beach town of Cartagena.
The list goes on, but you get the point: Indonesia is a massively corrupt country, and its often-dirty elite has a lot of chutzpah. According to the watchdog Transparency International, the country of roughly 240 million is one of the most graft-ridden on the planet, on an equal pegging with Mexico and Burkina Faso. Surveys consistently place politicians among the country's most corrupt groups, along with the police and the courts.
In a country where common folk are almost pathologically polite, and where orang besar (big people) are used to getting their way, it's a rare thing indeed to see any shame from politicians caught ripping off the country, or just acting the fool.
But in late April, something out of the ordinary happened. A group of Indonesian students in Germany confronted and videotaped lawmakers allegedly slacking off on an overseas working trip — an expensive perk of office that cost Indonesia 170 billion rupiah (about AUD18 million) last year, according to Indonesia Corruption Watch. And — finally — these students made some politicians squirm.
The video — which went viral on YouTube in Indonesia, with over 200,000 views in a matter of days — along with a series of photos released to the media show snippets of two days in which the students stalked 11 members of parliament's Commission I around Berlin. Arriving at Berlin's Tegel airport, the parliamentarians were recorded travelling with family members. Next they were snapped shopping at boutiques around town.
Then, at a meeting with the lawmakers at the Indonesian embassy, the students let rip. Standing up in front of the seated lawmakers, they demanded the politicians tell them what the trip was about and how much it was costing. At one stage, student Hariz Adenan compared politicians to "country folk" agog in the big city and "little kids with new toys". The politicians squirmed awkwardly in their seats, and the students walked out before their representatives could come up with a response.
By Western standards it's tame stuff, but for Indonesia, the action was a mini-phenomenon. Aided by Indonesia's massive base of more than 42 million Facebook users and the world's highest penetration of Twitter among Internet users, the video became a celebrated and rare example of a protest that hit home, causing a spasm of coverage in the mainstream Indonesian media. People loved it.
It's all about killing off Indonesians' polite streak, a legacy of its traditional culture and the 32-year Suharto dictatorship, which collapsed in 1998. Thanks to technology and a rising young generation, there may be glimmers of hope that this corruption in the face of a "be nice" culture is finally facing challenge.
"We actually said we wanted to give them shock therapy — we wanted to shock them so they feel like they've been scolded," explains Hartono Sugih, the general secretary of the Indonesian Students' Association in Germany, via Skype. "Up to now, talk has always been polite. But we want to be honest. We're tired, we're sick of what they've been doing."
It's not that Indonesians don't scream about corruption. The country's press is filled daily with the latest twists in a complex web of scandals, including accusations of serious graft in Yudhoyono's Democratic party. Journalists keep a near constant vigil outside Jakarta's Corruption Eradication Commission, known by its Indonesian acronym, KPK.
But there's also a deep sense of fatigue and confusion. Protests are so frequent in Jakarta — and about such a huge array of issues — that few people pay much attention. This isn't helped by the fact that many protests are populated with teenage boys and middle-aged women bussed in from the slums, dressed in matching T-shirts, and given a takeaway lunch and the equivalent of a few dollars for their trouble. This includes rallies denouncing particular political players for graft, too.
And on top of it all, even this rowdiness seems to run out of steam once people get face-to-face with those in power. As in many Asian cultures, Indonesians, and in particular Javanese, put a high value on showing deference and keeping cool.
"In general Asians are soft-mannered, especially when it comes to giving criticism," Sugih says. "As students we also look to them as older people, and from when we're young we've been taught to be polite, to never speak rudely with them."
But as anyone who has been involved in an online comment war can tell you, the Internet is a great place to let loose your anger. The Twitter account of Tifatul Sembiring, Indonesia's conservative Islamic communications and information minister (@tifsembiring, about 380,000 followers) has for years been one fine example. Tifatul is globally famous for appearing to happily shake Michelle Obama's hand during a 2010 visit, despite earlier claiming such behavior is un-Islamic, and then claiming on Twitter that she forced him into it. This, and a series of other bizarre gaffes (including an exceptionally creepy Adolf Hitler quote and a comment seeming to compare an Indonesian celebrity sex tape to the crucifixion of Jesus Christ) have prompted torrents of online derision.
Likewise there was scorn when Arifinto, a member of Tifatul's Islam-based Prosperous Justice Party, which was key in pushing through a draconian anti-pornography law in 2008, was photographed watching porn on a tablet device during a parliamentary sitting last year. (The party, while baying for the prosecution of others caught in porn scandals, was strangely forgiving of Arifinto — who eventually, reluctantly, resigned.)
What sets the student protest in Germany apart was the fact that they crossed the wall from cyber anger to the real world, and back again.
According to Sugih, the idea popped up in online discussion among members of the Indonesian Students' Association in North America and Europe. Earlier efforts to confront politicians and start a discussion with them had proved a dead end; that just gave politicians a chance to waffle, he says. This time, the students decided to walk out and have the last word.
That the sight of a few wordless, red-faced politicians spread virally has prompted talk already among students about making this a routine act as politicians travel the world. And copying this sort of action is exactly what Indonesia needs, says Abdullah Dahlan, a researcher with the watchdog Indonesian Corruption Watch.
The problem is down to a political culture where nearly every position — from low to high office — has its price. An aspiring politician usually pays something to party heavies to secure nomination, then must use his or her time in office recouping that payment and raising more for the party, Abdullah says.
"This is a big cultural problem. A lot of perpetrators of corruption don't feel like they're criminals. Corruption is criminal, they should be embarrassed, but lots don't feel like they're committing a crime so they have no feeling of shame," Abdullah says.
"I think our people understand that corruption is a crime, but they're not yet treating corruptors like criminals. Often there's a permissive element towards corruption."
Parliamentary trips are some of the most visible political excesses, and hence some of the easiest to criticise. Even if every expense is accounted for — and if the family members that come along pay their own way — the trips are undoubtedly wasteful junkets, Abdullah says.
"There's no need to actually travel overseas to get information [politicians claim to be gathering overseas]. With technology getting more and more advanced, it's pretty likely you can get it using that," Abdullah says.
In other words, Google is free.
The man who headed the Berlin trip, Hayono Isman, says the students who confronted his delegation treated him unfairly. Yes, of course many parliamentary trips are "less than optimal", he says. But one key difference is that the group he headed hailed from the House of Representatives, Commission I, which deals with foreign, defence and intelligence issues, and so actually has an excuse to talk to foreigners. Part of the trip's agenda was to discuss the purchase of tanks for Indonesia's military, he says.
What about members bringing their families?
"I can't speak for the members that brought their families," says Hayono, who hails from the president's Democratic Party. Admittedly Hayono did bring his wife along for the trip, he says, but did so at personal expense. They had relatives to visit in Germany and an investment property to pay tax on in the United Kingdom.
What about the shopping? Again, Hayono can't speak for the others, but he says with exasperation that he was snapped by the students after a meeting with Indonesian state intelligence as he quickly browsed for a tie. Next up was a meeting with German parliamentarians, and Hayono says he was looking for something in the Indonesian national colours of red and white, no less.
"I only bought one tie," he says. "They didn't have to hide. If they wanted to cover what I was doing, they're welcome. I only bought one tie."
One demand from the students did get through, in a way. The parliamentary commission, a couple of weeks after their trip, released a report on what exactly they were doing and how much it cost. The seven-day trip, which cost USD114,873 for the 11 members of parliament that participated, was worth it, according to Hayono.
The students had demanded they be emailed a copy of the reports, but Hayono says he won't reward their directness.
"With all due respect, if you ask me, their actions were arrogant," he says.