JAKARTA (Reuters) - When Indonesia’s president delivered his independence day speech to parliament, stressing the need to eradicate corruption, it was clear to many onlookers that the biggest problem was staring him in the face.
In Indonesia, members of parliament top the charts when it comes to corrupt practices.
They’re known in the media as “kucing garong” — tomcats, who prowl the neighborhood in search of something to steal — and the public here is treated to an almost daily diet of news about corrupt officials who skim, steal, or extort.
For decades, corruption has been a way of life in Southeast Asia’s biggest economy.
It permeates almost every level of society, reducing the country’s appeal to a wide array of foreign investors, and curbing Indonesia’s potential for growth and development so that it lags far behind its Asian rivals, such as China and Malaysia.
With the fall of former president Suharto in 1998, and the move toward greater democracy and regional autonomy, the situation grew even worse, according to some business people, because with more potential decision-makers, that often meant that more officials had to be paid off.
True, Indonesia has pushed through a host of political, economic and social reforms in the past decade, but it’s only quite recently that it has made more progress in tackling corruption.
Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono won Indonesia’s first direct election for president in 2004 on pledges to crack down on corruption. By tackling graft, he expected to attract foreign investment, boost economic growth and create more jobs.
In the past couple of years, Indonesia’s anti-corruption agency has taken on scores of officials, from central bankers to ministers, procurement officials to prosecutors.
Even Yudhoyono’s relatives are considered fair game: his eldest son’s father-in-law was detained as part of a corruption investigation involving the central bank. The fact that Yudhoyono expressed regret but did not interfere in the case has been widely praised and may have won him some political support.
Officials at the agency, known by its Indonesian acronym KPK, have won plenty of media attention with their James Bond-like exploits.
They have tapped suspects’ phones and gone under cover to catch their prey, nailing businessmen in hotel lifts while they were in the act of handing over briefcases stuffed with cash, or in luxury hotel rooms with their accomplices.
The taped conversations between prosecutors and businessmen or women discussing pay-offs have been played in court, with one recording even making the rounds as a ringtone for mobile phones.
Yudhoyono’s finance minister, Sri Mulyani Indrawati, has taken on two notoriously corrupt departments — tax and customs — increasing officials’ pay in an attempt to reduce the temptation to steal and reinforcing the message that corruption won’t be tolerated.
These measures have paid off. Indonesia’s ranking in Transparency International’s corruption index has improved slightly.
But there is still plenty to do, particularly in parliament where Indonesia’s newfound democracy has been tarnished and a tradition of cash-for-votes raises serious questions about the kind of legislation or regulations that are passed.
CASH & CAVIAR
That practice was highlighted by a member of parliament called Agus Condro Prayitno earlier this year.
A member of Megawati Sukarnoputri’s Indonesian Democratic Party of Struggle (or PDI-P), Agus admitted he had been given cash after voting in favor of the appointment of senior central banker Miranda Goeltom.
Goeltom, a respected economist, has denied any knowledge of the payments, which according to local media reports may have been instigated by local business groups.
Agus, who admitted to taking the cash and named several others who also took payment, has been expelled from his party.
Members of parliament like Agus are obliged to make donations to their political parties: some have to resort to graft to raise sufficient funds, receiving travelers cheques in exchange for their votes (although one is apparently famously fond of caviar).
Sutan Bhatoegana, another member of parliament, told Reuters that soliciting bribes wasn’t common practice among parliamentarians, but does take place.
Such venality puts parliament and legislature at the top of the league tables for corruption in Indonesia, ahead of political parties, police, and customs, according to Transparency International’s 2008 Bribe Payers Survey.
The authorities are still working on ways to deal with corruption, including special uniforms for those charged with graft in a bid to shame them when they appear in court.
But some fear that won’t be enough to stamp out the practice. Little wonder perhaps that the hardliners are putting up posters on the streets of Jakarta calling for the death penalty for the corrupt.
Additional reporting by Telly Nathalia in Jakarta; Editing by Bill Tarrant