Who Wants to Be an Indonesian Civil Servant? Almost Everyone.

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Who Wants to Be an Indonesian Civil Servant? Almost Everyone.

Being a PNS remains one of the most popular ambitions in the country. Here’s why.

Who Wants to Be an Indonesian Civil Servant? Almost Everyone.

Students at Indonesia’s college for future civil servants, the Institute for Public Administration, look at a banner winding through their campus and marked with pro-school comments from other students in Bandung, Indonesia (May 25, 2007).

Credit: AP Photo/Ed Wray

Andre has been busy this week. A couple of days ago he had to visit some government offices to obtain the necessary documents in order to be able to take part in the upcoming life-changing test. With a degree from a reputable university in the U.K., Andre is confident that he can pass the test. The problem is the competition will be quite tough as other highly educated young Indonesians have exactly the same goal: they will all do their very best to turn their childhood dreams of serving the nation into a reality. They are all preparing for the civil servant enrollment test (CPNS); the number of positions offered this year is 238,015, which is the highest ever in Indonesia’s history.

For years, being a civil servant (PNS) has been one of the most desirable professions, if not the most desirable one, in Indonesia. Thus, the enrollment test is always greatly anticipated by many young Indonesians. Why is the civil service so popular? The reason is complicated, but the most common motivation is that being a PNS is more than a job: It’s prestige. Being a PNS can lift one’s social status to the highest level, bringing more respect from society. Thus the civil service is still regarded by many Indonesians as a far better job than any other occupation even though working for a bank, for instance, could be more lucrative.

Another reason is the associated privileges. In Indonesia, PNS equals easy access to various services such as banking, mortgages, and health care. It has been the rule of the game in Indonesia that banks or other financial institutions are much more willing to lend money or give credit to a PNS because civil servants have a magic letter called Surat Keputusan (SK) or a “decree.” This letter guarantees stability as well security, for the simple reason that civil servants are paid by a country, not a corporation.

In addition, being a PNS offers the best job security as firing a civil servant is a complex matter. Unlike corporations, where decisions are made internally, terminating a PNS oftentimes involves several high-level ministries and national institutions, making the process more daunting and longer. In one case of recently fired PNS, for example, termination required three signatures from three different government officials: the minister of home affairs, minister of administrative and bureaucratic reform, and chairman of national civil service agency. And even then the decision does not take effect until December.

Even putting aside these perks, the civil service would still have its attractions. University graduates are burdened with expectations from parents and society of being successful. And in this context, success means earning money from the formal sector. Having children work formal jobs is an obsession for many parents because the informal sector, in which they mostly are employed, is associated with backwardness and being against the spirit of higher education. The problem is that jobs with normal hours and regular wages are not widely available in Indonesia. As a developing country, Indonesia does not provide many job opportunities, particularly in the formal sector. In 2016 for instance, from over 1.4 million Indonesian job seekers only 742,000 individuals were finally employed.

Moreover, formal jobs are even more difficult to find in rural areas. Even though local employers do hire, the salary oftentimes is not promising or is even under the regional minimum wage. With the workforce growing by around 2 million each year, the pace of job creation remaining slow, and jobs provided by the private sector still centered in major cities, it makes sense that being a PNS is a seen as a haven. Besides being an employment solution for job hunters, the civil service also offers the same wages nationwide.

Furthermore, there are certain occupations in Indonesia where being a PNS provides a substantial salary boost. The education sector is one of them. Schools and universities classify their employees into different categories. For schools, there are PNS and non-PNS teachers (guru honorer). Universities are more varied in their classifications: PNS lecturers, non-PNS permanent lecturers (DTNP), contract lecturers, and freelance lecturers (DLB).

All of these categories are extremely different when it comes to income. A PNS teacher can earn as much as 10 million Indonesian rupiahs a month (around $660) whereas a guru honorer is sometimes paid inhumanely, with only 35,000 rupiahs. And while a PNS lecturers’ total monthly income is up to 27 million rupiahs, the other three groups lag way behind.  DTNPs can get around 2.5 million rupiahs a month whereas contract lecturers are usually paid around 1.5 million rupiahs. DLBs do not have a regular salary as they are compensated per semester and the amount they receive depends on the number of classes they teach. One class is generally worth from 60,000 to 800,000 rupiahs. Such a tragic hierarchy inspires almost all university students and graduates majoring in education to strive to become a PNS.

Besides being a good-paying profession, the civil service is considered by many to be a lenient job. This claim is not completely true but not totally wrong either. Overall, as admitted by Minister of Administrative and Bureaucratic Reform Abman Abnur, the performance of many PNS is very poor and they often miss the targets that have been set by their ministry. Nevertheless, being a PNS topped the list of the most satisfying jobs in Indonesia, according to a 2016 survey. It is fair to say that the high level of satisfaction to some extent has a direct link to the comfort of a PNS’s job description.

The high demand for PNS posts, however, has caused problems that mar the reputation of the civil service. According to an anti-corruption poll conducted in 2017, the PNS enrollment system was considered to be one of the two most corrupt sectors, together with police enrollment. The negative view is not unjustified, as PNS recruitment has long been plagued by corrupt practices such as nepotism and bribery, especially before the implementation of the Computer Assisted Test (CAT) system.

The complex issues regarding Indonesia’s civil service have to be addressed. There are several means that can be helpful to resolve the problems. First, the government has to renew its commitment to reviving the farming sector of the country. The negative stigma about agricultural work as a low-level job has to be diminished through persuasive campaigns to lure highly educated Indonesians to farms. A more modern farming scheme, with employment opportunities for other Indonesians, should also be introduced and the newly educated farmers should be assisted financially as well as technologically in implementing the system.

Second, an entrepreneurial spirit needs to be planted into the minds of young Indonesians starting from an early age. While the Indonesian government has been working hard in encouraging its citizens to choose entrepreneurship, few decide to follow that path. The majority are still keen on pursuing a traditional career. That’s partly because the government provides little help, meaning that young entrepreneurs still have to struggle alone with minimal capital and knowledge.

Finally, more industries need to be opened in rural areas of Indonesia. And these industries should prioritize local people, particularly the highly educated ones, when making hiring decisions.

When preparing their applications, Andre and his fellow Indonesians probably remember their idealistic answers to teachers’ questions regarding the future: they wanted to become lecturers, judges, or doctors. But adulthood made them realize that their answers were missing a key ambition: being a PNS. Now that the test date is nearing, they agree with the national consensus that being a PNS is a guarantee of prosperity.

Muhammad Beni Saputra is a writer as well as a lecturer at the State Islamic University Sulthan Thaha Saifuddin Jambi, Indonesia.