I have good reason NOT to trust the government.

It stole something from me.

It did it in such a brazen manner that even now – 20 years later – I get mad whenever I think of it.

It involved a public bid. A big tank cleaning job. My company, based in Jakarta, had been eyeing it for a while.

We won the bid – a good feeling. The story should have ended there.

In most countries, it would have.

But Indonesia isn’t most countries.

Its economy is run according to a set of unwritten rules that can be summed up this way…

If you’re not taking a bribe, you should be giving one.

It’s rated 96 out of 180 countries in Transparency International’s Corruption Perceptions Index.

Fifteen years ago it was much worse. I’m sure it rated well above 100.

So let me tell you what happened.

Gone, Contract, Gone

After winning this project, we received a signed, sealed and stamped letter from the government agency whose project it was.

And that happened to be Pertamina, Indonesia’s big, bloated and corrupt state agency involved in the country’s oil production and trading.

The vice president who ran our Jakarta office – James T. – was summoned to a meeting by a Pertamina official. This is how he described it to me…

I entered this enormous boardroom at Pertamina headquarters. At the far end of a long table sat an official whom I had met once or twice but did not know very well. He greeted me like we were old friends.

He then told me there was a small problem. He had found a small error in the approval letter sent to us. He asked for the letter, explaining he’ll fix it and return it in five minutes. He returned 20 minutes later and said he found a couple more errors. He said he needed to keep the letter and I could pick it up the next day. As I left the room, he said he’d call me in the morning.

James never saw or heard from him again.

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