Trimming the Fat

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In an excellent article in The Jakarta Post, Mario Masaya cited Peter B. Evans1, stressing the importance of reducing resources allocated to bureaucracy, because he considered bureaucratic apparatuses to be predatory. As an alien living in Belgium, I have experienced first-hand what he meant.

Even in a developed country such as Belgium, government bodies are far from ideal. While they function as intended, delays and blunders resulting from unnecessary bureaucracy often lead to frustration and other—dire—consequences. For example, I recently had to go back to my country of origin, Indonesia, because they lost my dossier. They said I had to apply for a new visum altogether, and that I wasn’t allowed to do so on Belgian soil. I’ll spare you the details.

I found one sentence in Masaya’s article particularly interesting, because it may apply to any government.

There is a pressing need to trim the fat from the bureaucracy in order to shape an effective government.

Having spent the first eighteen years of my life in Indonesia, I have learned much from the years I spent abroad. The Belgian government is not the thinnest, but Indonesia needs to go on a serious diet even to weigh twice as much.

For example, I have had to obtain a certificate of good conduct from both countries—in case you’re unfamiliar with its purpose, it simply states that one doesn’t have a criminal record. The procedures, however, differed greatly. In Belgium, I could simply go to the local municipality, show my ID, wait a bit and finally receive the document on the same day. In Indonesia, it was much more complicated. I felt like I had to go through an endless—and pointless—chain. The next paragraph is a summary. Feel free to skip it.

I had to pass precisely seven officials to get my certificate. Person A wrote a recommendation, which I passed on to person B, who signed it. The next day I went to person C, who refused to see me because I was wearing shorts and flip-flops—silly me. When that was settled, he wrote another recommendation, which I passed on to D. D signed the letter, which I then brought to E. At that point I had to fill in a form—three pages long. Let’s call it Form X. After that I went to F for fingerprints. He asked me to pay an ‘unofficial fee’. I gave him my sincere thanks instead. I went back to E and paid the official fee, and received a letter of recommendation, which I finally brought to G. G asked me to fill in Form X all over again. Had they not heard of the word database? I paid the official fee although he seemed upset I didn’t give him more.

As you can see, in Indonesia the procedure was seven times as long as the Belgian one. This observation is not only valid for this particular case. You need letters of recommendation for almost everything. The lack of a central database doesn’t help. It’s the main reason why the Belgian government is able to do things more quickly.

Moreover, some officials asked for an ‘unofficial fee’. Just like I tweeted the other day, I always refused to pay. What, then, did I get in return for this idealistic behavior? Sour faces and pouted lips, or some low-pitched, inaudible mumble-jumble. I would feel bad and guilty afterwards, as if I was the one taking advantage of them.

Don’t get me wrong. I don’t have any problems with governments imposing a fee upon their citizens for whatever services the latter require. After all, a developing country such as Indonesia needs every source of income—even if it often goes directly into the pocket of some beer-bellied bureaucrat. What I do have problems with, are officials who think they can abuse their position, with the excuse that their wages are too low. Or anybody in general, who acts friendly only because they expect to receive some compensation.

When I confided in my dad, he supported my decision not to give those officials anything. He said, “If we don’t start doing everything the ‘clean’ way right now, when will this country [Indonesia] improve?” My mom, however—being the kindest person I know, had a different opinion, saying that I should pity them and consider these ‘fees’ as a tip, not unlike the one we give waiters after a meal.

My question is: Which one trims the fat?

1Evans, P., 1989, Predatory, Development, and Other Apparatuses: A Comparative Political Economy Perspective on the Third World StateBACK TO POST

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2 thoughts on “Trimming the Fat

  1. First of all, that was a well-written response to the Jakarta Post article. Having experienced analogous situation as an Indonesian citizen myself, I personally consider that what your father has mentioned – about starting the ‘clean’ way as soon as possible – is more suitable to put into action in order to trim the extra fat.
    In my judgement, being kind (read: tipping) will simply just flourish the nature of corruption in the bureaucracy. Moreover, it does not only feed the corrupt institution/officials, but it will also act as a sustainer to the endless circle of dirty practices.
    For people who have enough resources at their disposal, probably this will not pose a significant problem to their lives. However – as the Jakarta Post article has stressed – that only 0.17 percent of Indonesia’s population controls 45 percent of GDP, we definitely have to open our eyes and leave our comfort zones behind.

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