Page last updated at 00:10 GMT, Monday, 11 August 2008 01:10 UK

Indonesia corruption drive breeds fear

By Lucy Williamson
BBC News, Jakarta

An Indonesian man counts money
Those taking dirty money are now under new scrutiny
A lawmaker here in Jakarta confided the other day that he no longer admitted what he did for a living.

"If I'm in a taxi," he said, "and the driver asks me what my job is, I tell him I'm a writer."

It was just easier that way, he explained.

"Public opinion now is very bad. If I tell him I'm an MP, I worry he'll get angry or start accusing me of something."

He is probably right to be cautious.

Indonesia's increasing democracy has meant politicians have had to get used to a new level of media scrutiny - from satirical TV shows to live radio phone-ins.

But nothing has battered their image in recent months quite like the country's Corruption Eradication Commission, the KPK.


Rumours of corruption have hung over parliament for years, but the KPK has done something unheard of before: it has moved in and investigated them.

Bribery is still rampant. The [corruption commission] has just scared the mediocre corruptors and made the slick ones slicker
Unnamed MP

In the past few months, it has investigated six MPs, and has just cracked open a corruption scandal which could potentially suck in all 53 former members of the parliament's financial commission, including two cabinet ministers.

That has sent a few shockwaves rattling beneath the green turtle shell-like roof of the parliament building.

"The first reaction was hurt and embarrassment," said MP Eva Kusuma. "It was a very impulsive reaction; people felt the commission had gone beyond what was allowed by law."

But it had not. The KPK has widespread rights to tap phones, block accounts, issue travel bans, order suspension from office and take over investigations from the police and prosecutor-general.

Culture of fear

Rights, in fact, that were authorised by parliament itself. The irony is that few MPs thought they themselves would be the target.

Indonesian parliamentarians
Parliamentarians have been implicated in corruption crackdowns

"It's very funny," said Hajriyanto Thohari, a senior member of Golkar, parliament's main faction. "The KPK was created by parliament; its bill was passed by parliament; its members were elected by parliament. And now they're scared of it!"

He estimates around 20% of MPs are guilty of corruption or abusing power. Others put the figure even higher.

But some parliamentarians say the culture of fear is hampering even the innocent; that lawmakers are scared of simply making mistakes, and are less inclined to seek re-election because of the change in climate.

"Most people are very alert now when using the phone," one MP told me. "We have to be careful; we're frightened to discuss even legitimate issues about money. Most people would rather talk about those things in person than on the phone - in case it's misconstrued by the KPK."

New scrutiny

Some academics dismiss this as laughable - an attempt simply to hide a guilty conscience - and many MPs say in fact they welcome the attempt to clean up parliament.

But a new culture of fear seems to be rippling through other institutions too.

Agus Rahardjo, head of procurement at the National Logistics Agency, said people were now more wary of taking on responsibility for projects and less willing to manage tenders because of the new levels of scrutiny.

He said many employees were finding themselves caught between the KPK and superiors or parliamentarians, who were still pressuring them to break the rules.

Corruption is a huge issue for Indonesia. The country is ranked 143 in Transparency International's Corruption Perception Index - that compares to 72 for India and China, 68 for Colombia and 150 for Zimbabwe.

As one long-term resident of Jakarta quipped, corruption does not interfere with the system here; it is the system here.


So what actually happens to that system when you start blowing holes in it?

Shipping containers at an Indonesian port
Some say corruption oiled the wheels of commerce and trade

According to Indonesia's Association of Entrepreneurs, it means it grinds to a halt.

A major crackdown on bribery among customs officials here, it said, had led to severe delays in getting goods in and out of the country. One entrepreneur said shipments that used to take three days to go through now took several weeks.

The Indonesian Chamber of Commerce recently met with the KPK to talk about the problem - a problem KPK deputy commissioner Haryono Umar put down to low salaries.

For many low-paid state employees, he said, bribery was seen as part of their regular income, and without it there was little incentive to work.

But customs officials here were awarded pay rises shortly before the crackdown - and that did not have nearly as much effect as the KPK operation.

Net widens

Many analysts say that there is little point going after a few corruptors without reforming the rest of the system - but that means more transparent procurement processes and computerised systems, as well as better salaries.

Without a total overhaul, they say, high-profile arrests can only go so far.

Even in parliament, one MP said, "bribery is still rampant. The KPK has just scared the mediocre corruptors and made the slick ones slicker."

But this issue is not going away. The lid has been eased off parliament and there are now calls for the KPK to take on other, tougher bastions of perceived corruption - like the government and the Supreme Court.

Some politicians - the speaker of parliament among them - have even begun calling for the death penalty to be applied in serious cases of corruption.

That may be politically savvy posturing, given the mood of the electorate, but it also shows how much pressure is building over this issue - and how big an issue it is.

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