Thursday, June 16, 2011

I've Got the KPK on Speed-Dial!

I knew it was just a matter of time before it happened. One of the people I encountered in my dealings with the state apparatus here asked me for a bribe! I’m not going to say who it was or what department was involved, but the experience provides the opportunity to address probably the most important issue facing Indonesia: official corruption. Normally I try not to dwell on the negative aspects of Indonesia because there are so many positive things to focus on, but being here in Jakarta brings out the worst in me.

Corruption in Indonesia is a fact of life. The country routinely ranks near the bottom of corruption surveys. From what I’ve seen, though, not all corruption is created equal. The most pernicious form of corruption is that afflicting the highest levels of government. This includes rigging the bidding process for government contracts, siphoning money from the treasury, and tampering with elections. This type of high-level corruption has been a feature of governance in the archipelago even before there was such a thing as Indonesia., but it really took hold during the last part of the 20th century (see below).

On the other hand, everyday corruption affects the average Dewi and Joko on an almost daily basis. This takes the form of bribes (suap) and unofficial taxes and fees or pungli (short for pungutan liar). I call this structural corruption. Much of this type of corruption stems from the early days of Indonesia, when the future of the nation was all but certain. In an effort to gain support the government dramatically increased the number of people employed in the civil service. The ranks of the bureaucracy swelled faster than the ability of the government to pay, and so enterprising government officials began to pad their incomes by accepting bribes (2). Thus this type of corruption has to be understood as a type of payment for services, and although it is damaging to public trust and the overall health of the nation, it is at least partially rooted in exigency.


In an effort to combat the problem, the government established the Corruption Eradication Commission (Komisi Pemberantas Korupsi, KPK) as an independent body with enforcement and adjudication powers. The ambit of powers granted to the KPK is really astonishing; they pretty much exist outside the existing legal and political framework and can do just about anything they want. They can recruit officers from any branch of government, they can seize assets, and they can initiate electronic surveillance.

The KPK has experienced a 100% success rate in the cases it has taken to trial. Between 2004 and 2009, the KPK prosecuted a number of high-level government officials, including
  • 17 members of parliament
  • 5 ministers and other cabinet level officers
  • 5 provincial governors
  • 18 mayors and district heads
  • 3 ambassadors and 4 consul generals
Opinions are mixed as to the efficacy of the KPK. Many people think that the whole organization is window dressing and aims at middle level corruptors. These folks feel that corruption is such a large part of the political culture here that there is no way to address it. Part of this is due to the sheer scale of the problem. The KPK has limited staff and limited budget, but the complaints are limitless. The KPK also goes after very powerful people; one high-level police official investigated by the KPK likened the agency’s crusade to “a gecko fighting a crocodile” (1). Several plots including very high-level government officials aimed at undermining the credibility of the KPK have been uncovered, and president Susilo Bambang Yudhayono (SBY) has even claimed to have received anonymous messages on his personal cell phone demanding he end the crusade against corruption.

Most foreigners I meet are very pessimistic about corruption here. It’s easy to be gloomy about it when …. However, I have a different view. The rapacious corruption I alluded to earlier really blossomed during the 30-year “New Order” (Orde Baru) rule of strongman president Suharto. Between 1965 and 1998 Suharto used his position to channel money and contracts to his family and close friends, creating a nepotistic oligarchy that essentially controlled the nation’s economy. Because of the authoritarian character of the regime, most people were afraid to speak out, and those that did were quickly silenced or marginalized. Suharto resigned in 1998 amidst social unrest triggered by the Asian Financial Crisis. Now, little more than a decade after Suharto’s fall, it seems to me that people are starting to recover. People are free to speak their minds and civil society is growing rapidly. In my mind all this bodes well for the struggle against corruption here; not only are people waking up but a non-governmental institutional structure is developing. Thus I think it’s just a matter of time before people start challenging structural corruption, and once that process starts I believe it will rapidly gain momentum. All it takes is for one person to stand up in the government office and announce that they refuse to pay the bribe, and others will follow. People are tired of corruption here their willingness to passively accept it is ending.

And there are efforts to clean up government apart from the KPK as well. Solo and Jogja in Central Java are good examples. Jogja's squeaky-clean mayor Herry Zudianto has introduced one-stop shops for business permits the streamlines the process and eliminates opportunities for small-scale graft. Solo mayor Joko Widodo has followed this example and has further changed the relationship between bureaucrats and citizens; previously customers at government offices would meet with officials in private booths, which provides an easy environment for the taking of bribes. Now, though, clerks serve customers from open counters in full view, which literally improves transparency. When interviewed by the Economist, mayor Widodo said that the cost (with bribes) of getting an id card used to range between 25,000-100,000 rupiah ($3-$12); now it's 5,000 rupiah. But more remains to be done. Indonesia needs to increase salaries for civil servants so they aren't under pressure to pad their incomes. The recruiting process also needs to be reformed so that the best and brightest rather than those most willing and able to pay make the ranks.

(1) The police official was denigrating the KPK with this remark, but KPK supporters turned the slogan around, using the Indonesian word for gecko (cicak) as an acronym for "Love Indonesia, Love the KPK" (cinta Indonesia, cinta KPK).

(2) In addition to this, the poor economic policies of the Sukarno regime (Sukarno was president before Suharto) spurred a high rate of inflation while the national debt spiraled. Under these circumstances, the real wages of government employees were no where near the level required to meet household needs.

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