Unlearning corruption, the Indonesian way

Mass protests this week by young people to save an anti-corruption agency show one of the world’s most corrupt nations may be seeing a big change in public attitudes.

University students take part in a protest outside the governor's office in Padang, West Sumatra province, Indonesia, Sept. 24.

For the past week, tens of thousands of young people in Indonesia have protested in cities across the world’s fourth most populous country. Their main aim: to block an attempt by lawmakers to weaken the independent Corruption Eradication Commission, or KPK as it is known. The investigative agency is the most trusted state entity for its success in achieving the convictions of hundreds of corrupt officials since 2002. Many current legislators are the targets of the KPK’s probes.

These student demonstrations are the largest since 1998, when similar protests felled a dictator in the Southeast Asian nation and restored democracy. Their sheer size, along with the fact that thousands of the protesters are in high school, is a hint that people in one of the most corrupt nations may finally be unlearning a deeply rooted culture of bribery. Many young Indonesians have taken part in educational programs from the KPK that teach honesty and integrity. One example: A popular book for preteens is called “Aku Anak Jujur,” or “I Am an Honest Child.”

Anti-corruption scholars have long studied how countries can “unlearn” corrupt practices passed down over generations. Indonesia, a country of nearly 270 million people, has the advantage of being close to Singapore and Hong Kong, two places where officials have changed public attitudes within a generation to expect clean governance.

The focus of the protests is President Joko “Jokowi” Widodo, a popular leader who has the power to overturn the new law that would neuter the KPK’s effectiveness. He came into office in 2014 and was reelected last April on the promise of a “mental revolution,” which includes changing attitudes about corruption. He supports the new measure yet claims he can also protect the KPK. Experts on Indonesia are puzzled over his motives.

A recent survey found bribery accounted for 10% of Indonesia’s production costs. Corruption also explains the lax regulation of new palm-oil plantations. Much of Indonesia is currently covered with a smoky haze from the burning of forests to plant new palm trees.

Early in its work, the KPK discovered many Indonesians had no knowledge of the word “integrity” or its meaning. If the protests are any clue, that may be changing. Indonesia might someday be a model of how to unlearn corrupt ways.

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