Until seven years ago, most of my knowledge of law came from American movies and television shows. Not all were as obvious as the old “Perry Mason”— always ending with a previously unsuspected witness jumping up to yell “Yes, I admit it! I killed him! And I’m glad, I tell you, I’m glad!”—but still the message was the same: good trumps evil, truth wins over lies, the purpose of the law is to deliver justice.
Then I ran into the law myself, and not just any law, but Indonesian law, a “dark and tangled jungle of law,” perhaps one of the world’s most complex, incomplete, and chaotic systems of law.
So I came at it a bit differently than most law professionals. I had no law theory or lectures to go on. I was more in the position of the dazed accident victim who picks himself up out of the roadway and wonders at the distinct impression of elephant tracks on his chest.
Clues that something might be wrong began to come fast and furious in 2005: false marriage documents were entered to the court, my children and my business were stripped from me, the court reporter falsified my witnesses’ testimonies, and the police refused to investigate.
In my life as a bule living over twenty years in Indonesia, trying to obey Indonesian law, taking advice from a loving spouse and trusted advisors, it seems I had overlooked some important points.
It all became much more clear when my children and I received a death threat and were forced to flee Indonesia.
So from the safety of California, I began trying to put together some missing facts. I soon encountered a new term and began to wonder how, after twenty years in Indonesia, I had missed it: Mafia Hukum. Few Mafia Hukum in Indonesia seem to know the term. I knew about corruption, of course, everyone does, but the systematic organization of the Mafia Hukum was beyond my understanding.
It turns out, however, that the Mafia Hukum is far from an adequate explanation of the state of Indonesian law. Here are a few other points I had missed:
- The term “system” of law as applied to Indonesia is probably a misnomer, if by “system” we mean—as in the dictionary—“a regularly interacting or interdependent group of items forming a unified whole.” Indonesian law is a random grab bag, nothing is unified, descriptions of Indonesian law by professionals tends to be aspirational rather than descriptive of actual practice.
But wait a minute, never mind the rest of the points, let me back up. ‘Descriptions of Indonesian law are aspirational.’ I had an Assistant Attorney General—a Wakajati—clearly tell my attorneys in my presence that “lawyers are to work for the goals of the Kejaksaan, not try to protect bule clients! Your relationship with the Kejaksaan is for your career!” Isn’t that a statement of aspiration?
If the purpose of Indonesia’s institutions of law, started by the Dutch, extended under dictatorship, was to deliver control to the elite, and they did so, and those institutions are largely unchanged today, isn’t that a “system”? And in that case, shouldn’t we say not that the system of law is “broken,” but that the system of law is “perfect”?
It may not be a “system” that meets the current aspirations of the great majority of the Indonesian people, but the road to a different system, one with an aspiration for “rule of law,” is going to be a long one.
I’ve had some experience now with California law as well. I’m not so sure that the old television view that “good trumps evil, truth wins over lies, the purpose of the law is to deliver justice” really applies anywhere. But as my children and I trudge from komisi to biro to departmen to kantor, we are still looking for it. And we are accompanied on all sides by millions and millions of Indonesians.
It’s an interesting journey, and I am a writer. With one story, I find I speak for millions.