Scepticism in Indonesia about fight against graft despite recent high-profile busts

Corruption Eradication Commission officers display suitcases confiscated from a raid related to a probe into a bribery case, in Jakarta on Dec 6, 2020.
Corruption Eradication Commission officers display suitcases confiscated from a raid related to a probe into a bribery case, in Jakarta on Dec 6, 2020.PHOTO: EPA-EFE

SINGAPORE - Hopes have risen in Indonesia that corruption is once again being targeted in light of recent high-profile busts but many analysts remain sceptical.

In September last year, violent protests erupted across the country after what many believed to be an effort to cripple the highly-respected Corruption Eradication Commission, better known by its local acronym KPK, which up till then had done a stellar job in putting offenders behind bars.

The government revised the law which, among other things, made it mandatory for the anti-graft body to obtain approval from an oversight body known as the KPK Supervisory Board, appointed by the President. The KPK had to get the green light for arrests, asset seizures as well as wiretaps on potential suspects. Previously, investigators only needed the approval from the the five top officials of the KPK .

All KPK staff were also made part of the civil service, ultimately eroding the independence of the body, which was established in 2003 by then President Megawati Soekarnoputri in the wake of the euphoria for reform following the fall of strongman Suharto in 1998.

Led by former police general Firli Bahuri, who was appointed last December, the KPK has recorded only seven successful sting operations so far. In 2019, it had 20.

Mr Firli himself has courted controversy for flying a private helicopter on a personal trip, which the KPK supervisory board ruled in September as an ethical violation since it displayed a "hedonistic lifestyle". Prior to taking charge of the KPK, he was also entangled in other allegations including for receiving free concert tickets.

Public trust in KPK waned after its wings were clipped. But the recent arrests of senior officials, including two cabinet ministers, have revived hopes about the future for the agency.

Political scientist Arbi Sanit told The Straits Times the arrests were due to the hard work of KPK investigators as well as as an internal turf battle between Mr Firli and prominent KPK investigator Novel Baswedan, who became partially blind in 2017 after an acid attack while he was heading a probe into several major cases, including the roll-out of new ID cards which implicated lawmakers and high-ranking officials.

Mr Novel was key in the Nov 25 arrest of Maritime Affairs and Fisheries Minister Edhy Prabowo, said the political scientist. Mr Edhy has been accused of accepting 3.4 billion rupiah (S$320,800) in bribes in exchange for granting a lobster larvae export permit.

Mr Arbi attributed Sunday's (Dec 6) arrest of Social Affairs Minister Juliari Batubara over alleged bribery in the supply of Covid-19 aid packages to Mr Firli.

"Both Novel and Firli were from the police force, and are now rivals at the KPK. With the arrests of two ministers, now the score is 1 to 1. If the rivalry continues we could see more cases being unearthed which will be good for Indonesia," he said.

Other analysts however cautioned that the recent arrests may not be a sign that the KPK is getting stronger.

Nabbing corrupt suspects is one thing, solving pending cases is another, said Professor Zainal Arifin Mochtar, director of Gadjah Mada University's Centre for Anti-corruption Studies.

He told ST: "We can't form judgments based on a few arrests. Eradicating corruption is not merely unearthing a case, but also subjecting those involved to a legal process and ensuring no repeat of cases.

"KPK is still at the first stage. The recent cases only show KPK is not dead yet, that it still has a pulse, still beeping. But it probably can't sprint or run a marathon."

Mr Adnan Topan Husodo, coordinator of the Indonesian Corruption Watch, noted that the agency had yet to nab Mr Harun Masiku, a politician from President Joko Widodo's Indonesian Democratic Party of Struggle (PDI-P) who is a bribery suspect. He has been on the run since January.

"Was the KPK cherry-picking on who to pursue?" Mr Adnan said.

"There's nothing advanced in the modus operandi of the recent cases such as links to overseas transactions or involvement of many players. The cases were quickly unravelled and linked to ministers. The suspects' recklessness in covering their tracks show that they did not think that they would be caught by the KPK," he added.

Many in Indonesia believe corruption is endemic and particularly rampant among the political elites.

Prof Zainal said the recent arrests served as a warning to President Joko against appointing self-serving politicians into government. While it may be hard to stave off political parties who "force their way" to rule the land, it is his duty "to look after the integrity of the government and the people's trust in it".

Mr Arbi said the public would logically expect Mr Joko to replace "problematic" ministers in a Cabinet reshuffle, but the reality is that he needs the support of all political parties in the ruling coalition.

"Calling for a cabinet reshuffle will only open the door for the different parties to fight for positions, and Jokowi does not want to take that risk," said Mr Arbi, using the President's nickname.

Mr Joko, in a Facebook post on Sunday, said that his government supported the work of the anti-graft body as "transparent, open and professional".

"I respect the ongoing legal process. I will not protect anyone who is involved in corruption," he wrote.