Saturday, October 16, 2010

Living In Malaysia: When Duit Kopi Is A Way Of Life

If you look at the world map, there are precious few countries that can be described as "clean".  In most of the world, corruption is flourishing.

I grew up in the Netherlands and Scotland where corruption is the province of politicians and big business (remember the British MP expenses scandal earlier this year?) My first brush with everyday corruption was in the late 1980s when I went to live in Jakarta, Indonesia.

If you broke the speed limit, made wrong turn, or committed some other minor crime, the policeman would ask you for a bribe, rather than give you a ticket.  Often it didn't matter what you were doing either; they once demanded money because I stopped at red traffic lights! 

In those days fines for locals were 2000 rupiah and for us foreigners it was 5000 rupiah.  And if you didn't have exact money, they'd give you change.

I asked for a ticket every now and again, just to hear the guys explain why paying a bribe was so much easier for everyone.  But most of the time, I did what everyone else did and paid up.  In fact, I got so used to police demanding their money that payoffs became second nature. 

So when I went back to visit my mum in Spain, and I was stopped by a guardia civil, a member of the Spanish military style police force who are considered the heavyweights of law enforcement, I handed him some money without thinking about it.

The second I did it I could hear the clang of cell doors closing. 

Luckily I had two things working for me: I am rubia (light haired) and I speak horrible but comprehensible Spanish. I showed him my Indonesian driver's license along with my international one, and the guardia civil  turned all fraternal. "Don't do it again," he said, "You could get into terrible trouble."  And then we had a nice gossip about life in Indonesia versus life in Spain.

The guardia aren't particularly liked in Spain, especially by the older people who remember the days when they were the enforcers for the dictator of Spain, General Franco, so I think my newly made friend got a kick out of being nice to me, and a bonus frisson from feeling a little bit superior to his tropical colleagues. 



As i said, bribery is pretty common worldwide.  In the 2008 Transparency International bribery perception study, where a score of 1 is "Not at all corrupt" and 6 is "extremely corrupt", Indonesia was rated at 3.9 along with Argentina and the Czech Republic while Malaysia, Russia, Senegal, and South Africa were rated at 4. 

Malay slang for bribe is duit kopi or coffee money.  Police here wear button badges with the words Saya anti-rasuah (I'm against graft) inscribed.  You can read an old Star article about it here. The campaign is still ongoing.

Sometimes I wonder: if I ever go live in one of the few countries where the police are generally speaking squeaky clean, will I be able to adjust, or will I find myself behind bars before you can say, duit kopi?

12 comments:

Katnip Lounge said...

I think I'd rather pay the bribe money...here in Nevada the cops shoot first, and never ask questions. They shot an Ice Cream Truck lady a few years ago, and got away with it! Crooked.

Khyra And Sometimes Her Mom said...

Very interesting!

Thanks for sharing that -

I loved the translation of the word - makes so much sense - or is that cents?

Brian said...

I would likely get in trouble for possession of catnip in large quantities!

BeadedTail said...

So interesting! There's no way cops here could get away with that - not that they wouldn't like to try to!

Keiko said...

I'm finally starting to understand this concept of 'bribery' after 2 months in Malaysia. I was born in Japan and grew up in Australia so nobody ever thinks of doing such a thing!

I think I would rather pay the bribe as well. On the other hand, I have been told by friends here that even if you get caught drink driving, you can pay a bribe and off you go... I just can't accept that.
Another friend was stopped but he couldn't pay the 300RM (hardly coffee money, I say) - he didn't know to ask for a ticket, so that police officer followed him to the ATM and made him pay up.

I feel very fortunate to have grown up in squeaky clean places like Japan and Australia, but I feel vulnerable every day that I would be somehow taken advantage of here! Taxis are another example... sighs...

I don't know what this is meant to teach me personally - I don't want to learn to be 'dirty'!

Kitikata-san said...

Where is the USA on the scale? How about France? Canada? Yes, it seems that much of the world works on Baksheesh.

Now, how do I get my humans to give me some baksheesh cat treats for when I do not scratch up their fine carpet?

Sharon Wagner said...

Oh my. I learned a lesson about life in Indonesia. I'm glad they understood in Spain and let you off the hook!

lupie said...

That was a close one in Spain eh?

Duit Kopi - one time my hubby tried with RM 20 (as his van was not registered for goods) and "guy" had the cheek to say "minum kopi pun tak cukup" (not enough for coffee!) - OMG - are they talking Starbucks and Coffee Bean nowadays??

Reuben Wee said...

I've heard other comments from settlers in Malaysia, citing the custom as being part of a "dynamic" and evolving culture. An exciting place to be.

Like the active volcanoes of a young island. These "working" cops will one day be promoted to a position where they can further define the nation and eventually rise to be a proper crooked politician where even more vibrant and exciting world awaits.

Maybe hook up with big organisations to push billion dollar mega projects trough and end up with hundreds of modern buildings with no occupants inside... Sigh... the aspirations of a "working" man is great indeed.

Wyatt said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Wyatt said...

Wonderful story, I have never been to Malaysia, Spain, or Indonesia but my Mom and Dad love traveling...I hope they get to go and tell me about it.

Brian....be careful! I heard catnip laws are very tough in Asia because of historical opium problems.

~Covert_Operations'78~ said...

If Malaysia did that, there'd be no one left on the streets. No drivers, no hawkers, no petty traders, no shopkeepers, no migrant workers, no civil servants, no judges, no nothing. Everyone would be behind bars. The streets would be quiet and empty but for a few expatriates and people like you and me. And that would be a very good thing, except I hope they won't have to tax us extra to keep everyone else well-fed and alive.