Essays - English

Indonesia Corruption Notebook

by Goenawan Mohamad and Laksmi Pamuntjak

In 1987, in a Jakarta courtroom, an angry woman hurled her shoe at the judge.

A photograph of that scene—possibly the most valuable documentation on the people's loss of respect for this ultimate institution of justice—has since hung on a wall at the office of Tempo magazine. The woman concerned, a disappointed plaintiff named Mimi, was annoyed at the toga-clad figure they all called "Bapak Hakim" (Mr. Judge).

Mimi paid a price for that little episode: she was jailed for six months for "contempt of court." She later alleged that she'd bribed the judge 2.5 million rupiah (US$300) to mete out enough punishment to Nina, who Mimi claimed had cheated her out of 76 million rupiah (around US$9,500). But the judge, Mimi said, had reneged on the deal. Nina, she guessed, had paid him a larger bribe.

The story of Mimi and Nina is a symptom of a serious crisis in Indonesia: loss of faith in the authorities who manage justice, at a time when what is accepted as justice is painstakingly hard to come by. Unlike land or property trading, the commodification of authority diminishes its own value; it is still power, but stripped of its aura. This is why corruption is not only punctuated by the fraudulent behavior of one or more civil servants, but by the erosion of "the charisma of authority," a quality which tends to elicit civil society's obedience without coercion. Also, by the gradual loss of a key asset in body politics: the reservoir of common trust, both among citizens and institutions of the state (especially institutions of law), as well as among those working in public offices.

What is commonly understood as "public integrity" does not only involve the morals of civil servants; integrity in this sense can also mean "wholeness" or "consistency," which is what takes place when corruption spreads: the idea of the "public" as an entity becomes something porous and rusty.

In Indonesia, this condition has reached alarming proportions. The case of Mimi and Nina is hardly an exception to the rule. A World Bank and National Planning Board joint report, published in 1999, notes that a justice-seeker must pay a prohibitive bribe even when a complaint is filed. After a verdict is reached and the judge's sentence is passed, the warring parties must fork over more money for a written copy of the sentence. 

In 2002, a law professor at the University of Indonesia published his findings on the hurdle of bribery, which waylays the justice-seeking process from the police station to the judge's office, and everywhere in between. He quoted what people commonly say when reporting a personal loss: "Reporting the loss of our chicken, we end up losing our goat."

Such corruption is not merely a series of isolated incidents. Nowadays, there is imbedded in the judiciary a spider web of power capable of extortion without wielding a single weapon. In Indonesia, local journalists call it "court mafia." In 2002, Indonesia Corruption Watch, an especially active NGO, published a book detailing their investigation into the workings of this "mafia." It is clear from their findings that even the highest court of law, the Supreme Court, is party to the "justice" trade.

In 2001, for example, someone by the name of Endin Wahyudin claimed he had paid three Supreme Court judges 196 million rupiah (US$24,500) to settle a civil case involving a pair of claims over 17,000 square meters of land in the city of Bandung. Wahyudin, naturally, expected a favorable verdict, and he in fact got one. But there was a twist: apparently, the Supreme Court decision was not carried out by the lower-court judges, i.e. those to whom Wahyudin did not pay bribes. As a result, the disputed land remained in the possession of his adversary. And barely a rustle could be heard from the Supreme Court, which did nothing.

Angry and disillusioned, Wahyudin took his case to the Joint Team for the Eradication of Criminal Corruption (TGPTPK—Tim Gabungan Pembrantasan Tindak Pidana Korupsi). But proof against the three judges was hard to obtain, and in no time the prosecutor cleared them of all charges. This proved to be triple jeopardy for Wahyudin—not only had he been defeated twice in court, he also became a target: after Wahyudin went to the TGPTPK, the judges promptly accused him of defamation. It was Wahyudin's turn to take the stand, after which he received a three-month suspended prison sentence and six months of probation. The assurance of the attorney general that anyone reporting criminal corruption to TGPTPK will receive protection was nothing but hot air.

It was over this furor that TGPTPK's chief, Adi Andojo Soetjipto, by most accounts an honest judge, decided to resign. He went on to write about it in a prominent Jakarta newspaper: Wahyudin had been "bulldozed by a power bent on preserving degradation [in the justice system], through tradable court sentences." He might have been right on the mark. But within months of Wahyudin's case, TGPTPK was dissolved by the Supreme Court, which used its right of judicial review over the special team.

Something a senior Indonesian journalist once christened "kleptocracy" has indeed besieged Indonesia: as corrupt officials wield their power to support and protect each other, a dragnet is weaved to keep all efforts to undermine their positions and interests at bay.

Yet it would be fallacious to imagine that the Indonesian people are wont to live in misery and oppression, under a state that continuously exploits them through their tentacles of corruption. The very nature of kleptocracy may explain this. At its core, corruption is a kind of perverted privatization: it is what happens when a certain number of public properties, either in the form of funds or licenses, are broken apart and transformed into the private possessions of officials. When that occurs, what often passes as "public" authority loses its consistency and wholeness. A kleptocracy is indeed made up of a power network of thieves that are protective and supportive of each other, yet at the same time compete with one another.

Perhaps it is for that reason that in a kleptocracy, even an armed power loses its monopoly over violence. Officially, of course, the military and the police are the holders of that monopoly. But in the midst of such extensive corruption, perverted privatization can also take place within those very instruments of the state. It can take a host of guises, extending to the criminal sphere.

In July 2003, a businessman was gunned down in front of a sports center in Jakarta. So was his bodyguard. It was later discovered that the bodyguard was a sergeant in the anti-terror detachment of the Special Forces Command, the army's elite corps. Meanwhile, the police also discovered that the assassins were four marines hired by another businessman for the paltry sum of 4 million rupiah (US$500).

It is widely known that members of the police and the military enjoy a sweet side income as bodyguards, assassins, watchmen in casinos, and suppliers in the "security" trade. In a late August 2002 report, Newsweek International estimated that the Indonesian military receives US$500,000 every month from Exxon Mobil for watching over their liquefied natural gas plant in conflict-torn Aceh.

Tempo magazine once carried a story of how "corruption in security ends up devouring security." For example, the procurement division of the Army Strategic Reserve Command shelled out US$1.15 million for 2,000 bullet-proof vests. It turned out that they were locally made; and, priced at US$575 apiece, much dearer than the U.S.-made ones (US$400 each). They were also not bulletproof.

It is hard, indeed, to think of the Indonesian military as a potent force capable of ensuring safety and territorial integrity for its people. As with the judiciary, the "kleptocracy" that shrouds it is not easily disposed of. This has a lot to do, of course, with the state of the national economy.

Indonesia has the lowest defense budget in Southeast Asia, both as compared to the gross domestic product and the national budget, and the need for additional funding is dire. Juwono Sudarsono, professor of political science at the University of Indonesia and the first civilian to become Minister of Defense, estimated that until now the national budget has only fulfilled a mere 30 percent of the military's total spending needs. But shortfalls have been a chronic problem since the nation's independence, which in turn forced Indonesian leaders to be resourceful. In the late 1950s, for example, President Sukarno, caught in his own furious nationalist and socialist zeal, nationalized all of the country's foreign-owned companies. After being pronounced state assets, nearly all were turned over to military officers to run and do with as they pleased. Those were the years in which Sukarno was preparing the military for the "liberation" of West Papua from Dutch colonization, and for the eventual confrontation with British "neo-colonialism" he would later purport to have come by way of Malaysia.

And therein lies the origin of mass corruption—something that sets Indonesia apart from countries like Thailand, Malaysia, Singapore, and the Philippines, which never experimented with socialism in their economic systems. Those state-owned companies gave senior and retired officers of the Indonesian armed forces access to cushy post-retirement jobs. Another wealth-enhancing avenue has been the establishment of a slew of foundations to act as an umbrella for the military's myriad business ventures. The largest: Yayasan Kartika Eka Paksi, which owns 33 companies spanning banking, forestry, telecommunications, mining, property, aviation, insurance, travel and even higher education.

Yet these companies do little to cover the deficit in the defense budget. According to Indonesia Corruption Watch, in a recent book on the business of the military in Indonesia, the total amount submitted by the business arm of Yayasan Kartika Eka Paksi is a mere 142,331 billion rupiah (around US$18 million)—hardly of value to a meager military budget. An officer in the planning department of the military headquarters once confided that the total contribution of military foundations only amounted to less than 1 percent of the budget needed.

It is entirely possible that the cream has been fobbed off by the top brass. For instance, the chief of the Army Strategic Reserve Command (KOSTRAD—Komando Cadangan Strategis Angkatan Darat) gets 25 million rupiah a month (more than US$3,000), or 14 times his official salary, from the aviation business obligated to fund that particular unit.

There are permutations aplenty. In August 2000, Tempo magazine unearthed yet another scandal. A month earlier, the late Lieutenant General Agus Wirahadikusumah, then new chief of KOSTRAD, detected something off-kilter in the books of KOSTRAD’s business arm, Yayasan Dharma Putra. The funds left for the force barely reached 190 billion rupiah (US$2.37 million). In the course of his probing, he came to believe that his predecessor had illegally withdrawn 135 billion rupiah (US$1.68 million) from the cashbox of one of the foundation's many subsidiaries, an airline company. Predictably, not a single receipt was at hand.

Neither was the fate of such money any clearer. The general in question walked away from the corps practically unscathed; he now lives at his home, unpunished, perhaps in blissful retirement. A Ministry of Defense audit concluded that there had been in those withdrawals “procedural mistakes”, rather than a case of corruption. Wirahadikusumah was relieved from duty. Shortly afterwards, he passed away—reportedly of a sudden heart attack.

In the end, the military, like the courts in Indonesia, would cast away anyone attempting to unearth corruption in its own home, even if it means that good citizens will hurl a shoe, angrily, in its direction. And so corruption is sustained, as civil society bears its stains with—to use a Malay metaphor—the stoicism of "the blind who dreams." In other words, corruption is “felt”, but not spoken. And people continue to live their lives, working and getting by as if there were no such lingering, criminal presence shrouding them.

This curious method of survival may have to do with a common realization that the "state" has become, as mentioned earlier, so porous, and "public" authority has lost both its coherence and solidarity. This is underlined by the following figures: out of 220 million citizens there are, approximately, only 3,500 judges, around a quarter of a million soldiers, and 270,000 policemen. In the end, what may have saved Indonesia from despair is that which is ultimately inexplicable, but almost always does the job: the convenience of forgetting.