Saturday, October 29, 2005

Business, corruption and the Dutch.

Photo from /

During the October holiday I enjoyed a candlelit dinner with Anne, Bob and Pauline at their house in Menteng. Bob was attired in a business suit, Anne was wearing a white Rita Hayworth-style dress, and Pauline had on a silky blue top and short denim skirt. I felt slightly underdressed in old trousers and open-neck shirt; but, as always, I was made to feel relaxed and welcome.

Our first course was Betawi Beef Soup, which Anne informed me contained shallots, coconut milk, candle nuts, lemon grass, limes, cinnamon, celery, ginger, coriander, cumin, garlic and beef.

"How's business?" I asked Bob, as we supped the racy soup. Bob was looking slightly wan and tired.

"Not good."


"The number one problem is the way staff get employed," said Bob. He always spoke in a gentle manner, with a hint of a smile at his mouth. "They're not taken on because they're good at the job. They're hired because they've got the right religion, the right family connections, the right ethnic background. A Christian woman from Medan, for example, is only likely to hire people from her own tribe, no matter how incompetent they are."

"Can they be trained?" I asked.

"You show them a better way to do things. You explain that it will make their lives easier. It will lead to higher pay. They listen. They smile. Then they obstinately ignore the advice from the foreigner. Productivity stays low. You feel paranoid. You feel they're ganging up on you. You wonder if they've put some strange powder in your tea."

A skinny little maid brought in the second course, which was a spicy chicken stew containing kampung chicken, shrimps, tumeric, tomatoes and lime juice; and hopefully no strange powder.

"So business can be stressful at times," I said to Bob, as he poured me some White Burgundy.

"I was stressed last week," said Bob, trying to supress a yawn. "We were in court. We had a perfect case. We acted against this well connected businessman because he was owing us a fortune. He had no real defence, but he won."

"How come?" I asked.

"The story is that his lawyer contacted the judge and offered a hundred million rupiahs. The offer was accepted and the lawyer handed over a suitcase full of money."

"You were unlucky with your judge," I said.

"Someone told me it's the norm," said Anne.

"Makes it difficult to do business," said Bob.

"Well, I suppose it's more subtle in Europe and America," said Anne. "You know how much a judge earns here, officially? About the same as my driver. You know how much a lawyer can screw out of people in America?"

Anne proceeded to give us the benefit of her knowledge of Indonesian history. She explained that, under Dutch rule, civil servants were paid such low wages that they were forced to supplement their incomes by taking bribes and siphoning off government funds.

Pudding was sweet rice balls flavoured with coconut sugar and pandan leaves. They were so good that we made little conversation while devouring them.

We moved to the living room to enjoy our Java coffee.

"Is it more corrupt here than in Europe or America?" asked Pauline, as she unpeeled a mint. She was sitting on the settee with her knees up to her chin.

"Well, it's corrupt in a different way. Here it's more blatant," said Bob. "Government ministries quite openly give contracts to firms owned by their relatives. Rumour has it that up to 80% of the budgeted funds can end up in the pockets of government officials."

I then proceeded to tell them about my experiences at the Dipo Hospital.