Cut Red Tape and You Cut Corruption
James Van Zorge
If Indonesians want to be more successful in making real progress in the fight against corruption, there are two things they should do. First, everybody needs to stop making excuses. And second, there needs to be more thought given to policies that can bring some big, quick wins.
We have heard the same arguments over and over again about the root causes of corruption, ad nauseum, most of which, if you take them seriously, would leave you believing there is no solution in sight.
The most popular view nowadays is that because corruption is so pervasive and seemingly impossible to eradicate, the only plausible explanation is that it lies deep within Indonesian culture.
These cultural apologists would, if you gave them any credence, make you believe that somehow demanding bribes has become as natural a habit as reaching for a batik shirt before heading off to a wedding.
If true, the corruption-as-culture theory would be cause for national embarrassment and hurt for everyone’s self-esteem at being Indonesian. But don’t despair, there is another part to this argument that provides one with the ultimate face-saver and neatly shifts the blame elsewhere: If corruption is embedded in the culture, then it is not the fault of Indonesians themselves — rather, it can be paid at the feet of those nasty Dutch colonialists, who, as everybody knows, brought the practice here in the first place.
How convincing it all sounds, and how convenient. Not only does this fable get people off the hook for failing to solve the problem (after all, changing a culture is a massive undertaking), it also absolves the entire nation of guilt because the blame lies elsewhere in a long-distant colonial past.
If I were a corrupt government official, I would be filled with glee — in the final analysis, if it is “cultural,” then everybody is corrupt. The logical extension of such thinking is that society has no right to ostracize a poor government official for taking bribes. You can almost hear them saying as their hands reach into the national coffers: “I didn’t do it. The culture did it!”
Then there are apparent solutions. If you are tasked with changing minds, then improving the educational system seems like a logical place to start. But you have to wonder if a national curriculum that tries to teach youngsters about right and wrong would, in the end, make much of a difference.
Take Western civilizations and their experiences with rotten governments down the road of history. In spite of the Age of Enlightenment with its subsequent troves of moral philosophical treatises, unsurpassed institutions of higher learning and civil education for the masses, corruption in Western governments remained a serious problem as recently as the mid-20th century.
This is not to say that Indonesia couldn’t use an upgrade in education. But let’s not be so naive to believe that debates on moralism in the classroom will solve the problem entirely or even partially make the situation better anytime soon.
There is, however, another solution: Cut in half the number of government regulations.
Don’t fall asleep just yet, folks. Compared to chasing down crooked cops or bent bureaucrats, shredding red tape is relatively unexciting. It also does little for one’s impulse to seek retribution. Putting a live person behind bars is much more satisfying to one’s moral sensibilities than hearing about tens of thousands of regulations being laid to waste. But the fact of the matter is that undertaking a massive downsizing of the nation’s cumbersome and confusing regulatory structure would prove far more effective.
In case you are unaware of how corrupt governments thrive, keep in mind that a public official without regulations at his disposal is like a thug without a gun. Bureaucrats in corrupt systems advocate and erect walls of regulations not for the purpose of serving the public interest, but as a tool for rent-seeking. Once you understand that, then the solution to corruption becomes startling self-evident.
Think about it. Throwing out half the government’s nonsensical red tape would cost practically nothing and involve no gut-wrenching soul searching and questioning of the national psyche. Thankfully, it would not even require any cooperation from the judicial mafia, the latest target of reform. With some commitment from the president, his political party and his trusted ministers, it could easily be achieved within the space of no more than a few years.
And best of all, there are no excuses not to do it.
I would probably not be far off the mark in guessing that more than half the licenses and permits that the government requires of businesses and investors account for the lion’s share of corrupt activities.
And what are these things? In reality, just pieces of paper that serve nobody’s interest — with the exception of government thieves.
Bribery is big business, and not only in Indonesia. According to one recent survey by a international aid agency, bribery alone amounts to $1 trillion a year worldwide, with most of the bribes between government and business taking place in poorer nations.
Not surprisingly, those who are guilty of playing the bribery game love to shift the blame toward multinational corporations. Their argument? If everybody refused to pay bribes, then corruption between government and business would cease to exist.
What utter nonsense. Both local and foreign businesses all pay bribes and face extortion rackets. Indonesians should cease playing the blame game and get to the heart of the matter. Cutting mountains of red tape would be a great place to start.
James Van Zorge is a manager of Van Zorge, Heffernan & Associates, a business consultancy based in Jakarta. He can be reached at email@example.com.