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Indonesia’s promised ‘mental revolution’ for honest governance

One year into Joko Widodo’s presidency, his campaign hope for Indonesians to think differently about corruption needs help – from the people.

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Indonesia President Joko Widodo (C) walks with TNI chief General Gatot Nurmantyo (L) and Environment and Forestry Minister Siti Nurbaya as they review the handling of forest fires in Riau province, Oct. 9, 2015.

REUTERS/FB Anggoro/Antara Foto

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Joko Widodo – popularly known as Jokowi – made a curious promise a year ago when he became president of Indonesia, the world’s fourth most populous nation. The former furniture salesman said all the reforms made since the end of dictatorship in 1998 to bring about clean governance have been in vain. What he proposed instead is a “mental revolution” against corruption.

The curious part isn’t his appeal for a popular rejection of graft but that the people still look to him for the revolution. His popularity ratings have fluctuated with each step and misstep. His ratings went up, for example, when his fisheries minister started to blow up foreign boats caught fishing illegally in Indonesian waters. They went down when he picked someone as national police chief who was under suspicion for graft.

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Jokowi did vow to cut corruption by 70 percent. As the first president not to come from the political elite or security forces – and someone with a record as an honest mayor and governor – he was given a mandate in the 2014 election to change Indonesia. But in a country long accustomed to powerful figures, such as the late Sukarno and Suharto, the people are waiting for reforms in government more than in their own thinking about the long-standing practices of patronage, payoffs, and other dishonest behavior in daily life.

Corruption in Indonesia has been made very visible to its neighbors in Southeast Asia. A massive smog hangs over the region from illegal fires set on large swaths of two big islands, Sumatra and Kalimantan. Anti-burning laws are violated in the breach as farmers and corporations clear forests and peat lands for agriculture, often after paying a bribe. The carbon emissions from the blazes have often exceeded the total emissions of Japan. And the continuous haze deters business in nearby Singapore and Malaysia.

Indonesia does have many anti-corruption watchdog groups. The local head of Transparency International’s office, Teten Masduki, was even chosen by Jokowi as his chief of staff. The seeds of a mental revolution have been planted in this country of 255 million people. But one leader cannot pull it off. Many reforms are already in place to achieve clean governance. The people who voted for Jokowi must do their part with a mental protest for honest and open transactions, from the police all the way up to the presidential palace.