Rajika Jayatilake notes how the longstanding plunder in Indonesia is being challenged by new state laws

When corruption becomes a way of life, people consider robbery to be the new normal. As French economist and writer Claude-Frédéric Bastiat once said, “when plunder becomes a way of life for a group of men in society, over the course of time they create for themselves a legal system that authorises it and a moral code that glorifies it.”

This was Indonesia’s story even before independence in August 1945 with widespread corruption at government and bureaucratic levels. Corruption became more blatant during the Suharto presidency from 1967 to 1998 and over decades, such practices transformed into a culture of corruption that persisted even after he was forced out of power for his dishonourable rule.

For more than 30 years, Suharto robbed about US$ 35 billion from the nation’s coffers for his family’s personal gain. But even when he was out of power, the authorities didn’t bring him or his family members to justice and the culture of corruption persisted. Even today, corruption rages through the offices of the executive, legislature and judiciary, and citizens are caught in the middle – they’re compelled to pay bribes for government services.

However, there appears to be a glimpse of a silver lining on the bleak horizon. Last year, Transparency International ranked Indonesia No. 89 out of 180 countries – the first time it came into the first half of a list of ascending corruption. It may not be where Denmark (which is the least corrupt nation in the world) is but it’s also nowhere near Somalia, the most corrupt country on the planet.

When the IMF rescued Indonesia from economic collapse in 1998,  it required the state to pass legislation to create an anticorruption commission. The Komisi Pemberantasan Korupsi (KPK), which was eventually established in 2003, was set up to work in parallel with the police department and attorney general’s office. The commission has the authority to investigate as well as prosecute any public official for any form of corruption.

During its first 13 years of existence, KPK has established an enviable reputation for impeccably thorough investigations, research and trying high profile individuals on allegations of corruption – and it has achieved an incredible 100 percent rate of conviction. More than 1,000 corrupt public officials were successfully prosecuted by the KPK.

Although much of its work involves poring over boring balance sheets, the commission has been able to arrest uncontrolled corruption at various levels. Its victories include several former ministers, the former governor of Indonesia’s Central Bank and an ex-chief of police. A former Sumatran governor and his wife were caught accepting US$ 75,000 (one billion Indonesian Rupiah) in cash as bribes in a roadwork project.

By the end of 2017, KPK had tried and convicted 119 parliamentarians, as well as 17 governors. The former Speaker of the Indonesian Parliament Setya Novanto was sentenced to 15 years in prison in April last year for embezzling close upon 170 million dollars from a national e-ID project. He had allowed about 100 public officials to make money while pocketing US$ 7.4 million himself.

The court fined the former speaker US$ 36,000 (500 million rupiah) and barred him from public office for five years after serving his sentence. This was a triumphant milestone for the KPK.

Moving forward, the Komisi Pemberantasan Korupsi is currently investigating allegations of bribery at the state owned utility company Perusahaan Listrik Negara (PLN) in connection with a consortium that includes China Huadian Engineering. According to
the commission, PLN Chief Executive Sofyan Basir is a suspect in the bribery case and faces a maximum sentence of life in prison and a fine of up to US$ 71,000 if he’s found guilty.

As anticorruption experts explain, under Indonesia’s corruption laws, it’s a crime for an executive of a state owned enterprise (SOE) to accept any kind of gift. However, employees in the private sector can receive tokens of gratification since it is not considered a criminal act.

Deputy Chairman of KPK Laode Syarif notes: “Everything must be done according to existing regulations in Indonesia. We should also have anti-bribery management in place. We welcome investors as long as they don’t try to bribe people and strive for transparency instead.”

The KPK is effective because it’s totally independent of political influence and arm-twisting, and able to hold even the most powerful politicians accountable. And in the process, it prompts the Indonesian public to hold politicians to higher ethical standards.

However, this is by no means a total victory in the war against corruption in Indonesia.

There will inevitably be reactive measures by the wrongdoers – in particular, the corrupt will try their best to weaken the power of the KPK. Anticorruption experts maintain that the public must provide the moral support needed for the commission to continue to stand up to corrupt officials and demand that they behave honourably.

As American novelist William Gaddis observed, “power doesn’t corrupt people; people corrupt power.”