Indonesia Expat
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Mad as Hell? Someone’s Listening

Expats that have been angered by bad bureaucracy are often tempted to cut their losses and move on.

They might know how to right the wrongs in their home country, but in Indonesia things get done differently. Yet, there’s one service foreigners would understand, even though they don’t know it’s here. Duncan Graham reports:

Indonesia can thank a long-gone guru for not expelling a cheeky student: the teacher’s reluctance to punish means the Republic has an Ombudsman who understands the importance of airing wrongs.

Back in the authoritative 1980s, school kids knew their place; they muttered privately about their elders’ failings but few dared to comment openly. An exception was Amzulian Rifai, then at the Lubuk Linggau State High School in South Sumatra.

The teenager liked to write and originally wanted to become a journalist. More importantly, he could always sniff out an injustice, which would air out in a student union newsletter.

“I criticised a teacher who’d come to class, pass around books, tell us to read, and then go out to drink coffee,” Rifai said. “That could have got me into real trouble, but I was defended by others and survived – perhaps because I had an outstanding student award. But I had no idea of becoming an advocate for people’s rights.”

“Even later, when studying law in Australia, and where I first encountered the Ombudsman during fieldwork, I had no ambition of starting a similar service in my homeland.”

So, did he criticize his tutors at Melbourne and Monash Universities? “No, everything was good. In any case, I was too busy. My scholarship wasn’t enough – I had to wash dishes and deliver newspapers to survive.”

Rifai earned a doctorate and returned home to eventually become a Professor of Constitutional Law at Sriwijaya University, a private lawyer and a business director. He also continued to write – he has had 800 essays published so far.

All these profitable positions had to be jettisoned in 2016 when he shifted to Jakarta to take the position of head of Indonesia’s dispute resolution service. This organisation now has a shiny, city centre office with walk-in facilities for the dissatisfied, and branches in 34 provinces. It employs 600 staff and eight specialist ombudsmen to handle different parts of the nation’s vast bureaucracy.

The roots of “Ombudsman” are Old Norse and mean “representative.” Vice President Jusuf Kalla was nonplussed so asked Rifai to find a better term in Indonesian; but it has defied easy translation – as in other countries.

The idea of having an independent office where the aggrieved can complain about public services, and maybe get some resolution, is popularly believed to be a Swedish idea from the early 19th century; however, a similar system may have existed in China and Korea more than 2,000 years ago.

Getting the idea to Indonesia took a while; the Ombudsman’s office opened in 2008, eight years after the first decree was signed by the late President Abdurrahman Wahid and more than 30 years since it was first introduced in Australia. It’s also spread to big companies, which employ their own ombudsmen to handle product and service grievances.

The Komisi Pemberantasan Korupsi (Corruption Eradication Commission) makes the headlines most weeks through high profile arrests of crooks slipping fat envelopes to win contracts and favours. Polls show the KPK, founded in 2003, is the nation’s most trusted agency and has so far not lost any prosecution it has initiated.

However, the Ombudsman has no powers to snare or charge wrongdoers, leading to claims it’s just a docile doggie, securely kenneled. The best it can do is recommend that government departments polish their performances.

Rifai would not rank the agencies which listen best and absorb suggestions for betterment, but did say: “The police are one of the most responsive.”

“Chasing criminals is not our job,” he added. “We’re a dispute resolution service. Our task is to hear people’s worries and work through mediation.”

A quick and casual check with everyday Indonesians drew puzzlement when asked about the Ombudsman, but Indonesia Expat’s totally unscientific survey is backed by statistics. The office drew only around 10,000 complaints last year, a jump from 6,000 two years earlier. As citizens become more familiar with their rights, so the workload increases. A further 75 staff may be recruited this year.

However, the numbers fall far short of the 41,300 ‘approaches’ made in 2017 to the Ombudsman in Australia, a nation with less than one tenth of the Republic’s population. Maybe Australia fosters a culture of whinging, while Indonesians are more accepting of civil servants’ failings; however, the more likely reason is that the Ombudsman Down Under is well known and receptive.

When consumers win, their stories often get media coverage. Rifai says his officers don’t just wait for the angry and annoyed, but send out mobile units to smaller towns where they run clinics.

Most gripes are about regional governments handling land ownership certificates and building permits. Next comes education, particularly school fees levied when public schools are supposed to be free.

Third is hospital health care. Here, the Ombudsman has a “quick response unit” to handle worries where a patient or relative alleges that treatment or non-treatment might threaten a life, but non-urgent issues take time.

Rifai defended the system arguing that it needs to be fair to both sides. When a protest is lodged, the allegedly naughty department is given about a month to respond. Inevitably, the ping-pong gets tedious; in this business frustration is a flaw, tenacity a virtue. Eventually both sides may end up confronting each other with an Ombudsman officer trying to mediate. As in “he said, she said” marital rows, reconciliation can collapse, particularly when one side is unsure of dates and times, or hasn’t kept the necessary paperwork.

Have there been satisfaction surveys of clients? “Not yet,” said Rifai. “The culture of bureaucracy in this country is changing. There’s been a distrust of public institutions and this must improve. Trust in government and the way it deals with citizens is essential for democracy.”

“Corruption isn’t just a crime, it’s morally wrong. All mainstream religions condemn greed, and our culture doesn’t teach us to be greedy. Reform won’t happen overnight. Having good and honest family values is very important in ensuring we all do the right thing by our fellow citizens and society.”

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