Blog | Phallus folly and fraud in Indonesia

By Taufiq Hanafi

The phallus, or lingga, is a prominent symbol in Indonesian culture. It can be found in various artifacts and sites – from the 15th-century Javanese-Hindu temple Sukuh in Central Java to the Monas (National Monument) in Jakarta, which was initiated by President Sukarno in 1961.

For many Indonesians, the lingga holds deep philosophical significance and represents the unmanifested form of the powerful deity Shiva. It is a pillar of light and the seed of all existence in the universe. Erecting a lingga can be seen as a symbolic act of great importance, as written in the Canggal inscription (dated to 732) where King Sanjaya the universal ruler of Mataram Kingdom is said to have erected a lingga on Sthirangga Hill ‘to create peace for the people’.

However, in the most recent case of lingga, which blends politics, power, money, and absurdity, such peace is absent.

Few stories blend the comic with the tragic as seamlessly as the recent scandal involving Syahrul Yasin Limpo, Indonesia’s former Minister of Agriculture. Charged with misappropriating a staggering 45 billion rupiahs, Limpo’s case unfolds like a modern morality play, but with a twist that can only emerge from bureaucratic absurdities of contemporary governance.

At the heart of Limpo’s extravagant list of expenses, ranging from pilgrimages to Mecca to facial skincare, is an item so personal that it almost defies belief: the circumcision of his grandson. Public funds were diverted to pay for what might delicately be termed ‘phallic preservation’.

The phallus morphs into a metaphor for unchecked authority and the penetrative reach of corruption into the domain of public resources. The former minister’s decision to fund a familial circumcision through his ministry turned this private part into a public matter.

We are presented with a case study of the intersection between personal gratification and public office. The ease with which funds were redirected suggests a systemic absence of supervision and checks, creating a gap through which greed freely flows. It epitomizes the failure of governance mechanisms that are supposed to prevent such abuses and to safeguard state officials against the misuse of power.

However, when those at the helm treat public coffers as their personal bank account, it indicates a breakdown in ethical governance. This leads to the sobering realization that the government, much like the misguided appropriation for the said circumcision, needs a serious trim to cut away the excesses of corruption.

In a twist of irony, two years before the scandal was brought to light, Limpo tweeted: ‘The world would be a better place without corruption. This anti-corruption attitude must start with oneself, one’s immediate environment, and eventually become a culture.’ The tweet, accompanied by a picture of Limpo striking a confident pose, with his index finger raised instructively, was captioned, “Building an anti-corruption culture must start with oneself. Maintain your dignity to prevent corrupt acts.” To make it even more ironic, this tweet was posted in commemoration of International Anti-Corruption Day.

A classic case of a Freudian slip perhaps? He might have meant to say: ‘This corrupt attitude must start with oneself, one’s immediate environment.’ And, in this context, what could be more immediate than family matters of an intimate nature?

This private affair highlights the audacity of the act and signifies broader issues within Indonesian governance. It shows the reality of patronage democracy, where politics and governance become personalized. Political power is used to fulfil personal needs. Poor personal conduct contributes to poor governance. And politicians undermine governmental integrity. Moreover, corruption becomes even more institutionalized and relies on various social relationships and exchanges. As a result, everyone behaves clientelistically, as shown by Limpo’s subordinates who complied with his request to divert corruption funds for his grandson’s circumcision under threat of dismissal if they refused to fulfil his demands. In short, they sought to secure their positions.

It is fitting to note that the state now inadvertently owns the result of this circumcision, symbolically at least. But unlike the lingga, which is a pillar of light in the traditional sense, this one is a corrupted pillar of which nobody, absolutely nobody, wants a part. The phallus in Limpo’s case, or rather, the expenses it engendered, remains a costly reminder of the price of poor governance – a joke paid for in billions, prompting not a laugh, but somewhere therein a valuable lesson.

Taufiq Hanafi is a guest researcher at KITLV. His research interest is in cultural politics, especially in regards to the production, regulation, supervision and distribution of (literary) texts. He has recently completed his PhD thesis that looks into knowledge production in Indonesia under the New Order authoritarian regime and the state censorship that surrounds it.

Photos: Ministry of Agriculture of the Republic of Indonesia.

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