It was intellectual curiosity about a country few people in the United States knew much about, which brought Seth Soderborg to Indonesia.

Now, the Harvard doctoral researcher is investigating the archipelago’s local politics and fine-tuning a thesis proposal that would compare the village-level governance of the world’s third and fourth largest democracies – Indonesia and Brazil.

“I’m really interested in local politics, in how these patronage systems are formed and maybe also broken,” Soderborg said in an interview in Malaysia. “Most of what has been written about Brazilian politics until very recently, was all about how the vote buying works and how local elites maintain their control over the population. Now the story is about how those old relationships are being broken (and) how much of it is because of different initiatives of the central government. In Indonesia that is a way down the line.”

Soderborg points out that Indonesia and Brazil share a number of similarities – parliamentary elections are run with the same mechanism of proportional representation, the President of each country is elected in the same run-off system, both have gone through significant de-centralisations over the past decade and both have experienced dramatic transitions to democracy – which lend the two countries to comparative study of their political systems.

In Indonesia, Soderborg is focusing on the network of local officials – the lowest level of the state administration – who are responsible for between 30 and 40 households. He estimates there might be as many as three million of these “volunteer bureaucrats” but has found just two books in English on the subject.

“They are the first step in every piece of government paperwork, from marriage licences and identity cards to property deeds,” he explained to students during a lecture at Sunway University. “They’re also supposed to monitor everyone’s comings and goings and organize community service activities. And run polling stations during elections. What are they paid for this? Nothing.”

The system was introduced to Java by the Japanese during the occupation. In the 1970s, it was expanded to the rest of archipelago.

The Jeffrey Cheah Travel Grant has helped support Soderborg’s preliminary research in Indonesia, allowing him to interview neighbourhood leaders in a variety of communities and begin the process of identifying relevant official statistics. He expects to submit his draft plan for his dissertation within a year and hopes that his work will make a significant contribution to the discussion on what holds Indonesia, with more than 17,500 islands and scores of different ethnicities, together. His view at the moment is that everyone has a stake in making the system work.

Soderborg graduated from the University of Michigan with a degree in political science in 2012. He spent nearly two years living in Brazil and worked previously as a Fulbright teaching assistant in Medan.