You Know You're in Indonesia when...

Apr 15, 2010

Political and environmental journalist Patrick Guntensperger goes through the most bizarre bureaucratic nightmare.

It all stems from the adoption of my son, JJ Guntensperger. At this moment the adoption, for the legal purposes of my home country of Canada, is complete; Yolanda and I have a notarised Certificate of Adoption that meets the requirements of my government to apply for Canadian citizenship on behalf of my son. It also suffices, for most purposes, to formalise the adoption within Indonesia. But in Indonesia nothing is either that clear or that simple.

The paper chase, which continues to drag on, exemplifies the Indonesian bureaucrat’s motto: “Why make it easy when you can make it hard?” Although JJ, as the son of a Canadian citizen and an Indonesian citizen, is entitled to dual citizenship until his eighteenth birthday, at which time he will have to choose which citizenship he wishes to maintain, the Indonesian government has determined that we need a judicial order, above and beyond his legal Certificate of Adoption, to permit him to be given his Indonesian documentation. That documentation includes his KTP (national identity card) and an Indonesian passport.

All three of us must personally attend the formal signing of the order. Terrific. We fly back to Ambon to pay a few more million in bribes to attend court. After sitting for hours in an empty courtroom, I see a group of what I think are ojek drivers sitting around a warung drinking coffee and gossiping. After a while, one detaches himself from the group, disappears into the courthouse, and re-emerges a few moments later in a ratty red robe and judicial collar. He walks into the courtroom and all rise.

He looks at all the documentation we produce including the Certificate of Adoption and the birth certificate. He nods wisely and picks up his judicial seal as though he is about to confirm his official sanction; he pauses, looks up and replaces the seal on his desk. For about ten minutes, with great gravitas and ponderous scrutiny he shuffles through the reams of documents the file contains.


 A Canadian journalist is reminded that nothing in Indonesia is either that clear or that simple.

A Canadian journalist is reminded that nothing in Indonesia is either that clear or that simple.

Photo credit: Debby Ng


He looks at certified true copies of the Certificate of Adoption, birth certificates from both of us, our civil marriage certificate, our religious marriage certificate, our passports, our police cards, my KITAS, my blue immigration control book, Yolanda’s KTP, my membership card for the Jakarta Foreign Correspondents Club, Yolanda’s Matahari discount card, my income statements from two universities, countless consulting clients, and a dozen publishing outlets, my Canadian Social Insurance Number card, Yolanda’s university diploma, my university diplomas, letters of recommendation, sworn affidavits from everybody from the village chief who asked us to adopt JJ to the RT of the Jakarta neighbourhood in which we live, and some documents that one might consider irrelevant.

He decides not to sign the order as he doesn’t feel there is enough paperwork to justify such a heavy judicial decision.

I cancel our return flight, rebook the hotel, and try to comfort a very fussy eight month old baby who has just spent about five hours in a stifling courtroom for no discernible reason.

As we leave, his clerk buttonholes us and she asks us to join her in an anteroom to discuss the proceedings today and tomorrow. It’s all a formality, she tells us; tomorrow she can absolutely assure us that the judge will give his approval. We are to get another couple of million Rupiah together to ensure a place on the docket for the quick rubber stamp approval. I tell her (I’m a quick learner) that we’ll bring that money and hand it over when we get our order tomorrow.

The next day is a repeat of the first. Several hours of sitting in the broiling, empty courtroom watching the judge smoke, drink coffee, and gossip with his friends, before he deigns to don his robes of office and ponderously enter the courtroom as we stand in respect. Fifteen minutes of sifting through the papers, he tells us that he is prepared to confirm the already legal adoption. We sigh with relief that ordeal is coming to an end. Then he adds that he will sign the order as soon as we present the following documents. He gives us a list of seventeen separate letters and documents he will require. All are from various agencies and bureaucracies in Jakarta, and even Canada. When I stand and humbly point out that first of all, some of the documents (the hospital and orphanage letters) are impossible to acquire, and that, secondly, bureaucrats in Jakarta take more than two weeks for a firm bowel movement, he simply responds, “You heard my order”. Stunned and hopeless Yolanda and I stare at each other. I’m consumed with rage and she is close to tears. JJ is laughing.

The clerk buttonholes us again and asks us for the money.

Back to the hotel, book a flight, check out, head to the airport.


Patrick Guntensperger is a social and political analyst who lectures at Bina Nusantara University. He also a contributing writer for The Jakarta Globe and The Jakarta Post. Patrick blogs at In my view....