What do gangster tattoos and the sheer, comic incompetence of the TBI Mafia have in common? Not much you would think. However, I recently read a review of a book called Codes of the Underworld: How Criminals Communicate which made me reconsider my opinion. I now see that gangster tats and the incompetence of the Lilies Agustines and Scott Martins of TBI have a great deal in common. Why is this? It is because gangster tats and comical impotence both, paradoxically, signal trustworthiness to the criminal ringleaders. Let’s explore how this works in a little more depth.
How Gangster Tattoos Convey Trustworthiness
In a traditional, highly religious society such as Indonesia, tattoos are still very much frowned upon in most areas of society. I have heard of employers who check potential employees for tattoos before hiring them. If they find a single tat on your body, that will disqualify you from employment. That perversely makes them valuable to leaders of criminal gangs. Just how does this work? Best to consult the book by Gambetta here. He writes as follows:
In a criminal subculture where dishonesty is the norm and participants have no recourse to mediation by the state, it is especially difficult to communicate trustworthiness and reliability to one’s potential peers or clients. Therefore, tattoos can be strangely useful to criminals. By making it harder for them to ‘go legit’, tattoos signal to fellow mafioso that they are committed to the criminal underworld for life. A forehead tattoo might even be viewed as a sign of ambition.
Interesting enough, but how does this is similar to incompetence at TBI?
The Importance of Incompetence in the TBI Mafia
Gambetta makes an ingenious comparison between the Mafia and academia in Italy, which is reported to have the most corrupt academic institutions in all of Europe. Promotions in Italian universities are often divvied up among a cabal of cronies, without merit having anything to do with it. In this world, being incompetent at your job is actually viewed as a positive sign, just as gangster tattoos are viewed positively by fellow Mafioso. As Gambetta writes:
“Being incompetent and displaying it,” he writes, “conveys the message I will not run away, for I have no strong legs to run anywhere else.” In a corrupt academic market, being good at and interested in one’s own research, by contrast, signal a potential for a career independent of corrupt reciprocity.
This beautifully encapsulates what went wrong with TBI a few years ago as well. The only people who survived the mass-cull of expat managers in 2011 were the corrupt cronies of Luke Preece, a serial liar and bully who “did not notice” when Rp 2 billion was embezzled from TBI Dago under his management and who was known for delivering student payments to Pak Reza in a suitcase! After this point, every capable manager with good sales figures from TBI Kuningan to TBI Bogor was fired or forced out with threats. The only expats who survived in any sort of supervisory role were Jodi Shiek and Scott Martin. Many of the Indonesians who thrived in this new environment were also comically incompetent or dishonest. Lilies was known for sending out promotional materials weeks or even months late and Atika had agreed to spy for Luke Preece. Scott didn’t even have a degree and couldn’t get a work visa for Indonesia without bribes being paid to Immigration.
We have long surmised that the reason why the people we named as the TBI Mafia, a dishonest bunch including Scott, Luke and Lilies, were accepted in the group was because they were all so incompetent or unqualified that they had no hope of obtaining a good-paying job elsewhere. With no prospects if they ‘go legit’ outside of TBI, they are perversely trustworthy to Mariam, the TBI Director and ringleader of the whole corrupt circus. Who else would hire a twit like Lilies or a TEFL ‘manager’ without a university such as Scott? Their very incompetence and lack of options makes them trustworthy to the visa-scammers who run this criminal organization.