Sat, 21 Feb 2004

Steal often and steal big: It pays

Endy M Bayuni Deputy editor The Jakarta Post Cambridge, Massachusetts

I overheard recently the following conversation at an adjacent table in a Cambridge Starbucks cafe. I was minding my own business, but could not help being attracted to what they were saying. I was so thankful that it had not happened in my country: It couldn't.

"What's the latest news from home? My Internet access has been down this past week."

"Well, I hear stealing is OK now."

"What? Are you serious?"

"Well, yes. Stealing is condoned, certainly by the highest court of the land."

"You mean, it's OK for anyone to steal?"

"Well, not just anyone. Some of us still have morals, you know."

"Tell me more."

"Well. First you have to make yourself look respectable."

"How d'you do that?"

"Well, rather than steal, you embezzle. You take money from the government or from the public."

"That's corruption, right? It's still stealing to me. How is that more respectable?"

"Well, it's all relative you see. You look more respectable if you do it in a sophisticated way. It's called white-collar crime."

"You're talking race now. Stealing is stealing, whatever color your collar is."

"Well, one is more respectable than the other, that's for sure."

"So tell me. How do you go about it then? Not that I intend to steal, you know."

"Well, what's the worst that can happen to you if you steal?"

"You tell me."

"Well, you get caught."

"And getting caught isn't bad?"

"Well, you give the money back."

"That's it? Just give the money back?"

"Well. That's all it takes."

"No prosecution?"

"Well, there will be. But the court tends to look upon you favorably if you restore the money. After all, some religious leaders will tell you that if God is all-forgiving, then we should be, too. And those who steal deserve our forgiveness if he restores the money."

"You mean all thieves, I mean all corruptors, get away with stealing?"

"Well, not every one. That is the tricky part."

"I knew there was a catch somewhere. What do you have to do, not that I intend to ..."

"Well, there are two conditions. The first is that if you're going to steal, steal really big."

"Hmm. This is getting more interesting."

"Well, the court has punished people for small-time corruption. If you steal your neighbor's chicken, you'll get street justice. You'll be beaten black and blue, and they'll probably even incinerate you."

"That sounds horrible for a country that boasts respect for the rule of law."

"Well, you see. There are two kinds of law in the country. One for ordinary thieves and another for privileged crooks."

"OK. Now you steal big, and you get caught, and you're prosecuted. What happens next? And will you stop saying 'well' at the start of every sentence!"

"Well, I'll try. You hire the most expensive lawyers in the country to defend you in court ..."

"How can you afford that after giving back all the money you stole?"

"Well, that's the second condition. You steal as frequently as you can. You'd probably get caught once, but by then, you could pay your way out."

"You still have to pay your way out? I thought you're already paying enormous sums for your top-notch lawyers."

"Well, you pay off the judges, you give huge sums to charity, and you might have to pay the religious leaders to be on your side, at least to speak for you. You pay the lawyers to argue the fine legal points."

"What about the bad publicity you're going to get from the free media?"

"Well, you pay a bunch of reporters and their editors. Free media also means that the media is free to take your money. They will wage the propaganda war for you.

"Anything else I should know? Not that I intend to ... , you know."

"Well, it helps if you hold a position of influence in government, like the speaker of parliament or something."

"Now, that's hard isn't it? Not everyone can become the speaker."

"Well, there is the general election coming up. That job, along with those of other elected positions, will soon be up for grabs."


"Yes. Well indeed."

The writer is currently studying at Harvard University under fellowships jointly provided by the Nieman Foundation, the Ford Foundation and the Asia Foundation.