Ever wondered why, despite all the infrastructure to combat corruption, it continues to erode every attempt at nation-building? Could it be because corruption has embedded itself in the culture and become collective in nature? At least that’s what it looks like in some Southeast Asian countries.

Over the past decade or so, many innovative ways have been found to prevent and crack down on all forms of graft and illegal levies. Indonesia’s Anti-Corruption Commission (KPK), for example, has a broad mandate to investigate, arrest and prosecute corruption suspects.

Although the KPK is funded by the state, the law decrees it  to be independent from any government intervention.  Indonesia also has an Office of the Ombudsman and has enacted legislation to ensure access to information, in addition to a separate law guaranteeing freedom of speech.  All that in an effort to establish an open and accountable government, the very basis of a true working democracy.

Yet, over the years, a parade of mayors, governors, parliamentarians and bureaucrats have passed through the nation’s courts accused of bribery and stealing from the public purse. Nothing, however, has quite matched the case of Setya Novanto, the speaker of the House of Representatives, who was indicted last November for embezzling Rp2.5 trillion (US$170 million) in state funds earmarked for electronic ID cards.

What is interesting to observe is the public’s reaction to all this corruption. Predictably, the outrage has been appropriately reflected in the media. But with the public at large, there seems to be a ‘so what’ attitude, as if corruption is a common occurrence to be tolerated.

Even the usually calm and collected Indonesian President Joko Widodo, showed his frustration over the lack of seriousness towards corruption in a recent speech marking Anti-Corruption Day. “Indonesia is one of the countries with the largest number of corruption cases,” he exclaimed. “Since 2004, 12 governors and 64 regents have been arrested.”

The problem seems to center on the general understanding of how corruption as a criminal offense is defined. Skimming funds, accepting commissions or gratuities in exchange for favors is not generally seen as violating the law.

The perception is if you are not stealing money outright, you aren’t liable. Indeed, when the salaries of public officials tend to be just enough to cover basic needs, people turn a blind eye to the practice.

Another aspect of corruption is the misconception that up to now, only officials who accept bribes should be prosecuted, not the actual giver of bribes. This is slowly changing, however, with legal moves under way to render the private sector and other third parties equally liable.

The culture of corruption in Indonesia, like in many countries once ruled by authoritarian and corrupt regimes, has taken root so deeply that it will still take generations and the right kind of education and awareness campaign to radically change mindsets.  So, although many Indonesians may privately find corruption to be unacceptable, they may not be serious or committed enough to do something about it.

In other words, they may not be guilty of abetting the crime, but their passivity makes them part of a collective corruption.