Whistle-blowers cheer up: someone’s listening
Indonesia needs to 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 grievance first hand – and the importance of exposing wrongs.
Back in the authoritative 1980s school kids knew their place; they muttered privately about their elders’ failings but few dared to comment openly.
Though not 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 important is that he had a strong sense of justice which he ventilated in a student union newsletter.
“I criticized a teacher who’d come to the 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 to better service.
“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 the Professor of Constitutional Law at Sriwijaya University, a private lawyer and a business director. He also continued to write - 800 essays published so far.
All these profitable positions had to be jettisoned in 2016 when he shifted to Jakarta as head of Indonesia’s dispute resolution service. This now has a shiny central city 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 word comes from the Old Norse meaning ‘representative’ and is still not properly understood. Vice President Jusuf Kalla asked Rifai to find a better word in Indonesian but it has defied easy translation – as in other countries.
The idea of having an independent office where aggrieved citizens could complain about the public service and maybe get some resolution is popularly believed to be a Swedish idea from the early 19th century, though a similar system may have existed in China and Korea more than 2,000 years ago.
It started in Indonesia where the public advocate’s office was first opened in 2008, eight years after the first decree signed by the late President Abdurrahman Wahid and more than 30 years after its first introduction in Australia.
It has also spread to big companies which employ their own ombudsmen to handle product or service grievances.
The Komisi Pemberantasan Korupsi (Corruption Eradication Commission) gets headlines most weeks by making high profile arrests of the amoral allegedly slipping fat envelopes to win contracts and favors.
Polls show the KPK, born 2003, is the nation’s most trusted agency and has so far not lost any conviction it initiated.
However the Ombudsman has no powers to catch or charge wrongdoers leading to claims it’s just a docile doggie, chained alongside its kennel. The best it can do is to recommend that government departments polish their performances.
Rifai would not rank the agencies which listen best and take on suggestions for betterment, but did say: “The police are one of the most responsive.”
Have there been satisfaction surveys of clients? “Not yet.”
“Chasing criminals is not our job,” he added. “We’re a dispute resolution service. Our task is to listen to complaints and work through mediation.”
A quick and casual check of everyday Indonesians drew puzzlement when asked about the Ombudsman, but our totally unscientific survey is backed by statistics.
The Ombudsman’s office drew around 10,000 complaints last year, a jump from 6,000 two years earlier. As the public becomes more familiar with their rights, so the workload increases. A further 75 staff are expected to be recruited next year.
However the numbers fall far short of the 41,300 ‘approaches’ made last year to the Ombudsman in Australia, a nation with less than one tenth of the population of Indonesia.
There could be other explanations – Australia fosters a culture of whingeing (complaining, or what the British call ‘grousing’) while Indonesians are more accepting of errors made by civil servants; but 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 complainants are concerned about regional governments handling land ownership certificates and building permits. The other areas are education, particularly school fees levied when public school education is supposed to be free, and health care in hospitals.
Here the Ombudsman has a ‘quick response unit’ to handle worries where a patient or relatives alleges that treatment or non-treatment might threaten a life, but non-urgent complaints seem to take forever.
Rifai defended the system arguing that it needs to be fair to both sides. When a protest is lodged the office which is alleged not to be following the rules has to be given time to respond.
Inevitably the process is long and tedious which means some complainants give up in frustration.
Eventually both sides may end up confronting each other with an Ombudsman officer trying to fix the issue and mediate.
As in ‘he said, she said’ marital rows, reconciliation is not always possible, particularly when one side is unsure of dates and times, or hasn’t kept the necessary paperwork.
“There’s a culture of bureaucracy in this country but it’s changing,” said Rifai. “There has been a distrust of public institution and this must improve. Honesty and 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 the mainstream religions condemn greed, and our culture doesn’t teach us to be greedy.
“Change won’t happen overnight, but having good and honest family values is very important in ensuring we all do the right thing by our fellow citizens and society.”
First published in Indonesian Expat, 23 May, 2019: