With its eye-catching title, Tidey’s monograph Ethics or The Right Thing: Corruption and Care in the Age of Good Governance evokes questions before you even open the book. Most would assume ethics and ‘doing the right thing’ to be generally synonymous or that engaging in corruption is somehow antithetical to caring for others. Upon reading the introduction, it is clear that Tidey intends to disrupt these conceptions and examine the failure of ‘good governance’ programs in Indonesia through a critical lens that embraces nuance and complexity. The book poses the questions: ‘what if anti-corruption efforts actually make governance worse? What shapes can good governance take and how does corruption figure within it?’
Tidey’s study is situated within the city of Kupang, drawing upon the experiences of local civil servants in navigating and negotiating how to do the right thing. The book opens with the corruption trial of Daniel Adoe, the former mayor of Kupang (2007—2012). We find that his campaign promises centred around eradicating corruption and cleaning up Kupang’s bureaucracy. However, in 2014, he was found guilty of embezzlement and sentenced to 2.5 years in prison and a Rp50 million fine. This fall from grace makes another starting point for interrogation—why would a popular mayor engage in such behaviour and were Adoe’s actions greed-driven? Or are there other, perhaps more sympathetic and care-centred, explanations that explain the situation? At the end of the introduction Tidey introduces a fundamental premise of the book—humans care about each other, with bonds drawn through all manner of social networks and relationships. If anti-corruption measures promote technocratic reforms that ignore these relationships, then they are likely to fail.
The five substantive chapters of the book offer a logical sequence of discussions, beginning with a chapter that places the case study in context. Kupang city’s motto is ‘Kupang Kota Kasih’ (Kupang, the giving city). Priding itself on serving, protecting and supporting citizens is one thing, but Tidey’s empirical examples of how the city ‘gives’, demonstrates a misalignment with global conceptualisations of ‘good governance’. The offer of government jobs through personal connections, honorer, and local contracts serves a fundamental role in caring for the community of Kupang, albeit perhaps in illicit ways. Tidey deftly shows how these illicit activities can contribute to networks of care through a series of local examples. Missing, though, is a consideration of who is excluded from this care and whether it might further embed structural inequalities between those with connections and those without.
Chapter Two turns to the more intimate nature of family and kinship networks and how expectations of support and/or reciprocity shape behaviour within Kupang. Tidey emphasises, through an annotated collection of personal stories, that grand notions about corruption and its impact on public interest are not necessarily at the forefront of people minds when they make decisions about actions that could constitute corruption. Instead, they are focused on their own responsibilities within their kinship networks and how normalised behaviours, such as paying to attend ‘kumpul keluarga’ (similar events are described here) they can care for others through their actions, including acts that may be defined as ‘corrupt’ under the law.
The cultural significance of gift-giving is further explored in Chapter Three, which highlights that giving/receiving gifts exist in certain circumstances but are ‘voluntary’ in the sense that they are not mandatory. What Tidey discusses here is how conceptualisations of gifts as an embedded aspect of care and the expectations that come with gift-giving, translate fluidly from the personal realm to the government realm. Such expectations can determine entry into certain positions, promotions, or for receiving other benefits. Similarly, nepotism is discussed as a trait that, in fact, sits very comfortably within concept of ‘familyism’ that was heavily promoted throughout the New Order. The idea that the state has a responsibility to protect citizens as members of the greater Indonesian family could easily elide with the idea that family members should do whatever they can to protect and support each other. In this sense, acts of nepotism, for example, can be easily rationalised. That the government has since decided that nepotism constitutes illegal behaviour has little bearing on the expectations that family members will help each other whenever possible. Through this, and other example, the author focuses in on the concept that understandings of what is ‘ethical’ and what is ‘right’ may depend on the context, and that Indonesia’s past has played a pivotal role in this disconnect.
Chapter Four turns to issues of how knowledge, positionality and understandings of the inner workings of things shapes access. Based a number of short case studies, including the author’s own experience of visa renewal, Tidey demonstrates how being on the inside affords opportunities that do not exist to outsiders who are not familiar with local power dynamics and norms. It also discusses the performative aspects of being clean (something I covered in my own book in relation to electoral campaigns), which sits at odds with the ‘public secrets’ (rahasia umum) of the pervasiveness of illicit activity across government bodies in Kupang. Tidey describes the circumstances of Elsie, who wishes to see her son Yongki enter the police academy. Elsie has heard, as part of the network of ‘public secrets’, that entry into the police college requires a bribe, but she was unsure how to actually pay the bribe given that doing so publicly could also scuttle her son’s chances of getting into the academy. There is a line to be toed—how to pay, but make it seem like you haven’t paid?
Unpacking the rich ethnographic information leads to more consideration of the role of transparency in improving government processes, particularly when they have an overarching reputation for being corrupt. Tidey points to the idea that ‘transparency’ is premised on there being one truth, one answer, which describes the situations that many civil servants (or aspiring civil servants) find themselves in. But of course, the data presented underscores that knowing something does not necessarily mean that processes will become less corrupt.
The idea of transparency as a performance is further explored in the final substantive chapter, where Tidey outlines her findings after reviewing tender documents for the Department of Public Works in Kupang. Unsurprisingly, the number of tenders ‘received’, noted neatly in books for reference and accountability, do not tell the full story of how decisions were made, who was competitive and why one tenderer was chosen over another. Formal bookkeeping and data collection is sometimes presented as a possible remedy for corruption, but here we see how little this type of information can tell us about the way government decisions are made.
It is impossible not to be impressed by the depth of ethnographic data and cases that make up this book. While the author does touch upon theoretical debates and to relationship between global ideals and local contexts, these do not leave the same lasting impression as the anecdotes and case studies, told with empathy and an eye for understanding, rather than judging, the circumstances and actions of Tidey’s associates in Kupang. Chapters 2-5 of this book bring to life the real-world experiences of people in Kupang and the decisions that they make as government employees and citizens engaging with government institutions. Highly recommended for those interested in anthropological studies of Indonesia, the inner working of bureaucracy and the relationship between culture and corruption. What is more, the book is available to the public via open access (and can be downloaded here), making this an accessible resource for researchers in Indonesia and around the world.
Tidey, Sylvia. Ethics Or the Right Thing?: Corruption and Care in the Age of Good Governance. Hau Books, 2022.
Elisabeth Kramer is DECRA and Scientia Fellow in the School of Social Sciences at UNSW. She is author of The Candidate's Dilemma: Anticorruptionism and Money Politics in Indonesian Election Campaigns, Cornell University Press, Ithaca, N.Y., 2022.