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Why Are So Many Indonesians Obsessed With Becoming Civil Servants?

There's a whole ministry devoted to reforming the country's bureaucracy. We asked an expert how the reform efforts are working.

Arzia Tivany Wargadiredja

Arzia Tivany Wargadiredja

Photo courtesy Korps Pegawai Republik Indonesia

I could tell instantly that my mom wanted to gossip. "Did you know that Bu Yuli's son lost Rp 70 million ($5,215 USD) in a Civil Servant Enrollment Test (CPNS) scam?" Now, my mom knew full well that I had little interest in this topic. I didn't want to be a civil servant, and I had little interest in neighborhood gossip. 

But months earlier, Bu Yuli was trying to convince me to take the CPNS right after graduation like her son. Turns out he got pulled into a scam that was so common at the time that a friend of mine lost Rp 50 million ($3,749 USD) in a similar scam. The next year, the central government had to temporarily suspend the CPNS amid allegations that the test was corrupted by widespread fraud and scams. 

In 2015, the government went further, limiting the number of people eligible to take the CPNS in the first place. The issue? Indonesia has way too many civil servants. The ideal ratio for civil servants to citizens is 1.5 percent of the total population, or 3.5 million people, according to Yuddy Chrisnandi, a former minister for administrative and bureaucratic reform. But today, the country has an estimated 4.5 million civil servants. The bloated civil servant sector costs Indonesia about 33.8 percent of the state budget. It's enough to leave some questioning the whether civil servants were becoming a drag on the economy on-par with Greece's budget woes.

In 2014, there were some 2.6 million applicants for 100,000 open civil servant positions. Why do so many Indonesians want to become civil servants? It's got a lot to do with prestige, according to Medrial Alamsyah, the director of the Study for Indonesia Government Indepth (SIGI) and an expert on efforts to reform Indonesian bureaucracy. 

VICE Indonesia: Fresh graduates seem so focused on becoming a civil servant that they are wiling to spend money on it. 
Medrial Alamsyah:
 If we look at this from an anthropological view, it looks like it's a product of the 'feudalism' that's stuck with the Indonesian people. People see PNS as a feudal community, as elites who are respected by the people and have a prestigious standing in society. 

This is nothing but the continuation of the concept of Raden [the Indonesian traditional title of nobles] and abdi dalem [courtier in the royal court]. The PNS fell into this structure as soon as education was available to everyone. Even today, we still have Indonesians who get mad when they aren't referred to by their titles even when it's irrelevant in day-to-day interactions. 

The second draw is the fact that PNS have an easy job. You're just an employee who comes to work every day and receives a salary. It doesn't matter if your sense of entrepreneurship is low. Civil servants prefer easy money instead of hard work and innovation. 

The third point is perhaps our government has gotten so accustomed to the feudal system that it enjoys receiving commands from institutions and it never really assesses how they can expand employment. The Indonesian government, down to the provincial level, has never really thought about how to create jobs. They see PNS as an easy way out, to expand the bureaucracy as if PNS is the only employment opportunity in the country. The easiest thing to do is to increase the number of PNS since they have no effective programs when it comes to creating more jobs. 

But it costs the state so much money, right?
Well, with the budget that they have, if they were bold enough to do something out-of-the-box, they could cut down bureaucratic costs [by reducing the number of civil servants] who are unnecessary. If you halve the number of PNS, society wouldn't be affected whatsoever. You could probably keep only 30 percent of the civil servant and we would be just fine. 

Imagine, if we cut the numbers in half. About 60-70 percent of local government budgets are spent on bureaucracy: on salaries, building maintenance, electricity, vehicles, and drivers. If we cut it in half, we could have an extra 35 percent of the national budget we could allocate on something else. You could use this money to create other job opportunities. 

So why hasn't the government created more jobs outside government work?
The government always thinks about investment. But It's all very theoretical. They think that by letting investors come and build factories, that it automatically creates new job opportunities. It's a very simplistic way of looking at the problem. 

In industrial areas, people always end up poor. Look at what happened in Lhokseumawe [in Aceh province]. The New Order government built factories under the idea that when investment comes, people will get a chance to work. What happened? Outsiders [transmigrants] ended up working there because local people didn't have the skills needed for those jobs. The local government should've trained locals so when an investment arrived they were ready for work. But when jobs aren't available and the government only cares about investments that are irrelevant to local development, it creates unemployment. 

Why is there this stigma that civil servants are corrupt or lazy?
Imagine, if someone wants to become a civil servant to gain respect and prestige. In theory, PNS are civil servants, they serve the people. It's a problem when people instead try to become PNS so they are respected and served by the citizens. We don't have a system to break through all of this. 

What about merit-based systems in the government's work culture?
Well, if we go by the merit system when hiring an employee, we don't only hire someone based on the results of an open test. We need to hire someone based on the criteria of the job opening To know exactly what these criteria are, the system needs to be run properly. 

When we apply a merit-based system, it means we are open to this possibility. The problem is that we don't have a proper system to implement a merit-based system yet. If we talk about performance-based management, the officials and bureaucrats just say, 'yes, we have already implemented that.' And, on paper, they're right. You would find the Laporan Akuntabilitas Kinerja Instansi Pemerintah (LAKIP). It's nomenclature are performance measures. However, these performance measures are misguided. Every year, the LAKIP was filled arbitrarily since the system design doesn't allow people to use it properly. 

So how do we fix this? Indonesia has so many PNS already. Has the moratorium been effective?
It will keep being a problem until the government has the courage to radically cut down the number of bureaucrats. Like I said, the number needs to be cut in half. They could do this gradually, not by cutting down the number of employees, but by cutting down the number of available positions. This needs to be done from the top actually, from the cabinet. This all starts because of the cabinet's large numbers. If President Jokowi wanted to, he could cut 30 percent of the cabinet since it would directly impact the number of civil servants needed. Local governments tend to follow the numbers of the cabinet 

I mean, does society actually get affected by a lower number of civil servants? If they aren't, then it means there are redundant workers. That's why every time Menpan RB [the Ministry of Administrative and Bureaucratic Reform] talks about how there are less PNS who skip work after Lebaran [Idul Fitri] I feel like he's barking up the wrong tree. 

So how would you rate the performance of the Ministry of Administrative and Bureaucratic Reform? Do efforts to reform bureaucracy make a difference? 
It does. It's worse now. The previous ministers used to make a big deal about PNS skipping work, about Lebaran holidays, et cetera. Are they ministers or attendance clerks? The current minister talked about giving overtime pay to PNS who work later. Is he a minister or an overtime clerk? And, like I said, if we are overstaffed, then why do PNS even need to work overtime when there are way too many workers?