Can board games tackle corruption in Indonesia?

A group of women are educating bureaucrats, school children and police about the wrongs of corruption.

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A teacher engages her pupils during a 5th grade social studies class at their school in Jakarta, Indonesia [Ed Wray/Getty Images]

Makassar, South Sulawesi – At the Al-Ashiri junior high school in Makassar, 40 youngsters, split evenly into groups of boys and girls, pour over scenarios that put their scruples to the test.

“Arun is using the school’s only computer and there is no wi-fi, but he won’t share,” reads one boy into a microphone – unperturbed by the occasional ear splitting feedback. “What value is he lacking?”

Children playing Semai [Jeffrey Hutton/Al Jazeera]
Children playing Semai [Jeffrey Hutton/Al Jazeera]

The children are playing Semai – the name of a board game that telescopes into one the Indonesian words for “nine” and “values”.

Their goal is to match the scenarios with nine characteristics that are thought to be key to stamping out corruption, including honesty and empathy. The answer for the scenario above? Fairness.

Semai is the brainchild of a fast growing group of activists called Saya Perempuan Anti-Korupsi (SPAK), which translates as I am a woman against corruption. It’s one of a series of simple board games the group is hoping will get not only schoolchildren but adults talking about corruption in their daily lives.

Is it all right to give your daughter’s teacher a gift, for example? Or what if you pay off a traffic officer to let you off for running a red light?

For many, handouts like these are innocent transactions of daily life in Indonesia. But SPAK’s founder says those payouts show that when it comes to corruption everyone has a role to play.

“Reform comes from changing people’s behaviour,” says Judhi Kristantini, who founded the group two years ago under the auspices of the Australia-Indonesia Partnership for Justice, a bilateral effort aimed at helping reform Indonesia’s prisons and courts and curbing corruption.

“If people stop giving money to the police, the police will stop expecting it.”

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Indonesians think corruption is something the elites do’ 

Transparency International ranked Indonesia 90th out of 176 countries in its corruption perception index last year – worse than India and China, though better than neighbouring Thailand and Cambodia.

Securing good jobs in government, getting into top schools or even securing business permits generally requires good connections. President Joko Widodo swept to power in 2014 on promises to clean up corruption. But progress has been slow.

A survey of 3,900 respondents conducted by the Centre for Strategic and International Studies in Jakarta, which has served as a think-tank for the government, last year found that two thirds of those surveyed felt that the problem of corruption has become worse.

They don't teach people to share responsibility for how corruption happens. Indonesians think corruption is something the elites do and blame the system. But the system is us

by Judhi Kristantini

Despite this, or perhaps because of it, SPAK is winning powerful allies. The country’s newly installed reformist police chief, Tito Karnavian, wants the group to run workshops at police stations across the country.

Local officials are eager to get the games into schools to help cultivate a new generation more allergic to corruption than their parents may be. SPAK says it now has agents who can provide the games and anti-corruption workshops in all 34 provinces.

“The corruption watchdogs like Transparency International are useful but they are limited,” says Kristantini, taking time out of a training session for policewomen at a station in Makassar.

“They don’t teach people to share responsibility for how corruption happens. Indonesians think corruption is something the elites do and blame the system. But the system is us.”

To understand how the games work, it helps to think of them as if they are viruses. They expose participants to ideas that the participants can then spread to others. In fact SPAK says the number of Indonesians “exposed” to any of the five games geared for those aged 10 and above – is about a million so far. The vector of this virus is women – just over a thousand of them – who are trained to facilitate the games to work colleagues, their neighbours, and of course schoolchildren.

‘Women are more strategic’ 


Indonesian women can have an advantage here. They tend to be more social than their male counterparts. Neighbouring women may gather at regular times in groups called Arisan to gossip, snack on sweets and pool money for a lucky draw that one of their number will win.

They also tend to run their households – not only with respect to child rearing but also budgeting. In many families the men are not even trusted with ATM cards.

“Women are more strategic,” says Husaimah Husain, SPAK’s east Indonesia coordinator, adding that SPAK was founded on the birthday – April 21 – of Raden Kartini, widely considered Indonesia’s first feminist.

“If you can get to a woman, you can get to their families and their neighbours.”

It’s a steep task. The games are decidedly low tech. They look like a cross between monopoly and snakes and ladders and are printed on sheets of blue waterproof material that feels like a heavy-duty raincoat.

Even so, they have been wildly successful, in part because they are unassuming and encourage discussion in a country that loves chit-chat.

For schoolchildren the game represents a reprieve from rote learning that typifies lessons here. With help from the vice governor of South Sulawesi, Husain marshalled 1,300 schoolchildren from 62 junior high schools in June 2014 to play Semai, setting a national record for the number of pupils performing a single task at one time, SPAK says.

“We teach children about ethics and values as part of the curriculum,” says Sukma, a Grade Four teacher who, like many Indonesians, uses one name.

“This is the first time we’ve connected it to the idea of corruption.”


In a windowless ballroom at the Harper Hotel, in Makassar, Professor Gandjar Bonoprapta energetically spells out the finer points of corruption law for more than 60 female police officers. Their lesson on a recent afternoon focuses on payouts and gifts made to superiors.

In Indonesia this practice is so common that it has its own term: Gratifikasi or gratification. But these are big no-no’s, the professor explains, because Gratifikasi is intended to secure favourable treatment. That can dim prospects for more qualified applicants who don’t have the means to pay.

'We teach children about ethics and values as part of the curriculum,' Sukma, a teacher says [Jeffrey Hutton/Al Jazeera]
‘We teach children about ethics and values as part of the curriculum,’ Sukma, a teacher says [Jeffrey Hutton/Al Jazeera]

“So try to remember it like this,” Bonoprapta explains to the brown uniform-clad Polwan – Indonesian shorthand for female police officers.

“Gratifikasi goes up and gravity comes down.”

The seminar is a preamble before the women are exposed to one of the more advanced games the next day. One, Majo, requires players to identify cases of bribery, kickbacks, and money laundering as well as Gratifikasi. It’s a big step for SPAK, which is hoping to piggyback on the policewomen to help infiltrate the ranks of the police.

“I am very surprised with the success we’ve had so far,” Kristantini says. “It wouldn’t have been possible without support from senior levels like Pak Tito,” she adds, referring to police chief Karnavian.

In 2015, President Widodo was forced to withdraw his then-nominee for police chief amid bribery allegations. A year earlier the chief justice of the country’s top court was jailed for accepting bribes in return for favourable rulings on local government elections.

But if the experience of Andi Ulva, an adjunct inspector in Makassar, is any guide, the workshop and rounds of Majo will have an impact. Civilians used to routinely gave her gifts.

“I used to teach my juniors how to get more money by smiling more,” she recalls. “[But now] I saw that to fight corruption we have to change ourselves.”

Some male officers baulked Ulva recalls: “They asked ‘Are we supposed to be angels now? We all need money in this world'”

Eventually the inspector prevailed. Her police station removed the drawers from their desks – traditionally used to deposit the bribes paid by those reporting stolen goods or seeking permits.

The trouble, though, is that Inspector Ulva is effectively now out of pocket. The bribes and gifts she received, such as mobile phone credits, amounted to a third of her monthly $350 base salary. Pay rises are reportedly on the way but for Ulva they can’t come soon enough.

“It’s so tough. My salary is not enough,” she says.

For Kristantini, her ambition to push back at Indonesia’s corruption problem has a personal element. Both of her children have left to study and work overseas in part because they believed they lacked the connections to get into good schools and start fulfilling careers in Indonesia.

“I believe this is happening all over Indonesia not just [to] me,” Kristantini says. “If we can do something on this, then we won’t lose our children.”

Source: Al Jazeera