Corruption is a blight on many nations. But there are few nations where corruption is so deeply entrenched and habitual as Indonesia. Years of venal dictatorship made it so. Under President Suharto an elaborate patronage system channeled much of the nation's wealth to its power holders. By paying bribes to certain members of the ruling circle and to military men, officials, judges, and police, Indonesians learned that just about anything "could be arranged." This culture of corruption has flourished anew in Indonesia's post-Suharto era of reform and democratization. As coordinator of Indonesia Corruption Watch (ICW), Teten Masduki knows the degree to which, in Indonesia today, corruption is a fact of life. But he wants Indonesians to know that corruption need not be their country's way of life.
Born into a family of farmers in 1963, Teten studied chemistry in college and became a high school teacher. In 1985, he joined a demonstration by local farmers whose land had been stolen. After that, he says, "I plunged into the activist world." By 1990, he had joined the Indonesian Legal Aid Foundation (Lembaga Bantuan Hukum Indonesia or LBHI). As head of its labor rights section, Teten came face-to-face with Indonesia's huge "corruption tax." Thirty percent of manufacturers' operating expenses went to pay off officials, far less to workers' wages. In 1998, Teten volunteered to head Indonesia Corruption Watch, a new LBHI program, and two years later established it as an independent organization.
Under Teten, the ICW became a public clearinghouse for information about corruption, collusion, and nepotism. It solicited reports from the public, investigated them, publicized them, and passed them on to the authorities for action. The press became Teten's ally in campaigning for public integrity and exposing flagrant irregularities: the attorney general who received large anomalous bank deposits; the provincial governor who pocketed a US$20 million markup for a local power plant; the military procurers who charged Indonesia US$2.5 million for a tank that Thailand bought for US$1 million; the officials who paid themselves some US$4 million for a nonexistent river-dredging project; and countless other irregularities in projects of the World Bank, the state oil company, the national airline, the tsunami relief agency, plus sundry ministries, courts, banks, utility companies, and local governments. In 2004, ICW examined 432 such cases causing an estimated loss to Indonesia of some US$580 million.
Corruption on this scale, says Teten, "generates poverty, environmental destruction, uncertainty of law, and bad public services." It also threatens Indonesia's burgeoning democracy. During last year's parliamentary election, Teten launched the National Movement for Not Electing Rotten Politicians, and lately he has been raising the alarm about vote buying and other forms of "money politics."
Teten and his ICW staff of fifteen are assisted by a team of loyal volunteer accountants, lawyers, and economists and a network of regional partner organizations. He practices transparency and has made his own income public. The work is dangerous. Threats to Teten's life are not idle: Munir, a fellow activist and ICW Ethics Board member, was murdered last year.
Teten confesses frustration at how few of Indonesia's corrupt leaders have been prosecuted and convicted. The problem, he says, is that the country's political and business elites are linked by patronage and unchecked by the law. They act with impunity. Even so, Teten says, "I don't agree with the idea that corruption rules our culture." He dreams of a more democratic Indonesia where empowered citizens will insist upon honest government and "clean up the political elite." This will take stamina and lots of time, he says, adding hopefully: "I think my children and grandchildren will perhaps benefit from our work."
In electing Teten Masduki to receive the 2005 Ramon Magsaysay Award for Public Service, the board of trustees recognizes his challenging Indonesians to expose corruption and claim their right to clean government.