'Who is hiding in the shadows?' That is a question I ask myself every day when I study my historical sources. Corruption is a secret activity – a moral transgression. However, sometimes corrupt actors do not succeed in keeping their acts secret. When corrupt acts get exposed, this may lead – in the right journalistic and political circumstances – to a public scandal. Back to the main question: who or what is hiding in the shadows? Besides the ‘transgressors’ I also encounter glimpses of things that often remain invisible to other scholars: informal bureaucratic or societal networks, along with the often unstated moral assumptions and ethical norms of society, or certain sections thereof. The answer to a scandal often comes in the form of public and political debates, as well as the formulation of anti-corruption policies. These debates and policies shed light on different views of the concept of legitimacy. This makes corruption scandals into a fascinating ‘tool’ for historians and other scholars, enabling them to ask questions about the nature of the ‘state’ (or ideas about the ‘perfect state’) in a certain era or in a certain (sub)culture. What political culture is revealed? What structural prejudices and injustices come to light?
In my opinion, research into the history of corruption is highly relevant for policymakers: the history of corruption is full of stories about successful or less successful forms of anti-corruption policy. Furthermore, the history of corruption holds the potential to shed light on important questions, such as why corruption is often associated with countries with a colonial past. Besides these ‘big questions’ the history of corruption is also relevant to historians who write histories about political processes or (post)colonial societies. In my case, as a historian interested in colonial Indonesia and its relation to the Netherlands, corruption scandals often illuminate the hidden and explicit politics of the ‘colonial state.’ My findings also provide important insights for the other members of my team (for the broader project see: colonial-normativity.com) who investigate the history of corruption in the context of the Dutch-Indonesian relationship during the struggle for independence, the postcolonial era and the period of ‘good governance’ after 1989. We compare our findings in order to reveal continuities and discontinuities in the history of corruption within the broader context of the Dutch-Indonesian relationship. By way of conclusion I would like to emphasise, for the aforementioned reasons, that historical research into corruption is an urgent and important issue that dovetails with Sustainable Development Goal 16: ‘Promote peaceful and inclusive societies for sustainable development, provide access to justice for all and build effective, accountable and inclusive institutions at all levels.’
Author: S.O. Linde (Otto), firstname.lastname@example.org; PhD student examining corruption in colonial Indonesia (c. 1870-1920), supervised by Susan Legêne and Ronald Kroeze, within the framework of the NWO project Colonial Normativity: Corruption and Difference in the Netherlands-Indonesian relationship (1870s-2010s).