News analysis

Jokowi runs out of patience with corrupt officials

Indonesian President warns of zero tolerance for tradition of bribery, plans legal reforms

Stop now or face the sack. That was the unequivocal warning Indonesian President Joko Widodo issued to officials in his government who still think they can get away with corrupt practices.

Those strong words came during a surprise visit to the Transportation Ministry late on Tuesday night after six officials, including two from the ministry, were arrested earlier in the day for soliciting pungli, the local jargon for "illegal fees" or bribes.

More than a billion rupiah ($106,000) was seized during a sting operation which involved the collection of unofficial levies in exchange for the permits of sailors.

In what was a rare show of anger, Mr Joko lambasted the suspects and reminded others that he will not tolerate such acts of corruption, collusion and nepotism at any level of his government.

The warning, which the President reiterated partly in English, came just hours after he led a Cabinet meeting to draw up what he hopes would be sweeping legal reforms. Among the objectives are plans to put an end to the practice of pungli, speed up various licensing processes and improve public services. It also includes the creation of an online whistleblowing platform for people to report on corrupt officials.


Indonesian President Joko Widodo has pledged to do more to put an end to corruption in the country as he approaches his second year in office next Thursday. PHOTO: REUTERS

Wiping out institutional corruption and increasing transparency in his government were key campaign promises when Mr Joko was running for office in 2014. The businessman-turned- politician has always shown a deep disgust for bureaucratic red tape and corrupt officials looking to line their pockets at the expense of citizens and businesses, including foreign investors wanting to set foot in the largest South-east Asian economy.

It has not been lost on him that, as he approaches the end of his second year as head of state next Thursday, more still needs to be done about the menace of corruption. He said as much during Tuesday's Cabinet meeting when he pointed out that Indonesia's goal of being a "state of justice" has not been realised by his administration or society at large. He also referred to Transparency International's Corruption Perception Index where Indonesia ranked 88th out of 167 countries, and cautioned that public distrust in the government as well as the justice system would escalate if reforms were not carried out soon.

There is a practical side to advocating for transparency in a country where shady deals, weak regulatory administration and enforcement as well as other illicit but traditional practices such as pungli have long undermined its growth.

Increasing transparency will pave the way for more private-sector participation in the many infrastructure development projects Mr Joko hopes to deliver to the people of Indonesia. These include a 2,800km toll road, high-speed railways and airports.

The businessman-turned- politician has always shown a deep disgust for bureaucratic red tape and corrupt officials looking to line their pockets at the expense of citizens and businesses... It has not been lost on him that, as he approaches the end of his second year as head of state next Thursday, more still needs to be done about the menace of corruption.

The President has pushed infrastructure spending up by 51 per cent to 209 trillion rupiah between 2014 and last year. But critics have pointed out that it was still below the 63 per cent increase originally planned.

Progress on the projects, most of which are driven by the Transportation Ministry, have been slow due to budget cuts this year.

The ministry, whose 48.5 trillion rupiah budget was reduced by 17 per cent this year, has been struggling to attract private-sector partners to invest in infrastructure projects worth 791 trillion rupiah.

Many public-private partnership projects for tender have not received bids and "strong political will will be a critical factor in driving forward bottlenecked projects", accounting firm PwC said in a report released on Tuesday.

The firm added that while infrastructure continues to be a top priority for the Jokowi administration, "historic obstacles remain to be addressed... by any investor considering the Indonesian market".

Top on the list are the lack of transparency in the pipeline of projects, an uncertain legal or regulatory framework, an unreliable judicial system, and poor coordination between different government agencies among others, said PwC.

The firm's Indonesia infrastructure adviser Julian Smith, however, noted "real progress in these areas in the last year".

"So given the government's focus and progress, Indonesia is a market which international infrastructure companies should not ignore," he added.

The President has his work cut out for him, especially with growth in infrastructure spending expected to slow down due to the global downturn in the months ahead. But the signs are clear that his priority of building a clean government remains.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on October 13, 2016, with the headline 'Jokowi runs out of patience with corrupt officials'. Print Edition | Subscribe