Tax evasion is rife in Indonesia. Photo: Twitter

JAKARTA – Once regarded as an icon in the war against corruption, the shock arrest of South Sulawesi Governor Nurdin Abdullah on bribery charges has shown yet again how Indonesian leaders struggle to retain their integrity as they rise from district to provincial and national level. 

The Anti-Corruption Commission (KPK) investigators roused the 58-year-old academic-turned-politician from bed in the early hours of February 27 after his subordinates were allegedly caught accepting as much as 5.4 billion rupiah (US$382,000) in bribes from local contractors.

KPK deputy chairman Alexander Marwata said while investigators were still tracing the flow of money, it appeared Abdullah may have been seeking money-for-favors to pay back debts incurred in his 2018 election, which he won with 43.8% of the vote.

Backed by the ruling Indonesian Democratic Party for Struggle (PDI-P), the National Mandate Party (PAN) and two other unlikely bedfellows in the Sharia-based Justice and Prosperity Party (PKS) and the pluralist Indonesian Solidarity Party (PSI), Abdullah’s victory was notable for the fact that he ran as an independent.

Abdullah won the Bung Hatta Anti-Corruption Award in 2017 while he was still regent of his home district of Bantaeng, where he was socially respected and did not have to deal with the same political pressures that came with the move to Makassar, the provincial capital.

“I’m absolutely disappointed,” says Natalia Soebagjo, a member of the committee which chose Abdullah for the prestigious award. “I really believed he was a good guy doing the right thing. Then he became governor and it appears to have been a slippery slope after that.”

South Sulawesi Governor Nurdin Abdullah in a file photo. Image: Facebook

Indonesian politics is replete with public figures, including a slate of ministers, who started out on a pedestal and then got pulled into the meat-grinder either because of simple temptation or because they felt compelled to raise money for their party’s war-chest.

Other senior officials have fallen afoul of a provision in the Anti-Corruption Law that criminalizes business decisions, holding them responsible for causing “losses to the state” – a catch-all offense that doesn’t require any evidence of a bribe or personal enrichment.

Among its victims: 2020 Bung Hatta award winner, former Perusahaan Listrik Negara (PLN) utility chief Nur Pamudji, 59, who was jailed for six years last July for allegedly inflating the purchase price of diesel. Significantly, one judge offered a dissenting opinion.

Former Pertamina state oil company president-director Karen Agustiawan, 62, was sentenced to nine years’ jail in 2019 for violating investment procedures and causing state losses of $40 million, but the Supreme Court acquitted her on appeal the following year.

In an enlightened judgment which legal analysts hope may serve as a precedent in future cases, the three judges declared that Agustiawan’s decision to invest in an oil block in Australia was a normal business transaction and did not constitute a crime.

Abdullah served two terms as Bantaeng regent after a distinguished academic career, obtaining his doctorate in agricultural science at Japan’s Kyushu University before starting a business producing wooden Buddhist altars for the Japanese market.   

“It shows you how hard it is to maintain your integrity when you are in this game,” says one of Abdullah’s long-time friends. “The basic feeling in Makassar is not so much anger as sadness. The temptations keep getting bigger as you climb the ladder.”

“He never came across as being politically ambitious,” notes Soebagjo, an anti-graft campaigner who was formerly an international board member of Transparency International. “He was an intellectual who wanted to do things, but we never saw him as a political animal at all.”

The governor’s personal popularity allowed him to win the election at a massive premium to the votes of the four parties who supported him, but he did quietly join PDI-P in time for its May 2020 Bali convention, becoming part of the party’s policy platform team.

Indonesian President Joko Widodo (L) and PDI-P leader Megawati Sukarnoputri (R) in a file photo. Photo: Facebook

Political observers note that early in his term he did have problems with the Golkar-dominated provincial parliament, where his four-party coalition controls only a quarter of the 85 seats.  

Abdullah becomes the KPK’s biggest scalp since the arrest in quick succession late last year of fisheries minister Edhy Prabowo, 48, a close associate of Defence Minister Prabowo Subianto, and social affairs minister Juliari Batubara, 48, a PDI-P politician. 

Edhy was accused of taking bribes from some of the 31 companies awarded export licenses after he had controversially scrapped predecessor Susi Pudjiastiti’s 2016 ban on shipping lobster seed to Vietnam, which she had introduced after a sharp decline in domestic production.

Batubara, an American-educated businessman, could become the first Indonesian to face the death penalty for corruption if he is found guilty of accepting $1.4 million in kickbacks in the distribution of coronavirus social assistance funds.

Appointed in 2019, the new five-strong commission has been under a cloud since the outgoing House of Representatives rushed through a series of amendments to the 2002 KPK Law which appeared to water down many of its powers.

Although some changes were justified and fell into line with the rules governing anti-graft agencies of other countries, the lack of consultation and public discussion raised suspicions about the political motives behind the changes.

Activists and supporters of the Corruption Eradication Commission (KPK) hold a rally of support at the KPK's headquarters in Jakarta January 23, 2015. Indonesian police on Friday detained the deputy chief of the anti-graft agency over a false testimony case in 2010, raising tensions between two law enforcement bodies that have long had strained relations.REUTERS/Darren Whiteside (INDONESIA - Tags: POLITICS CRIME LAW)
Activists and supporters of the Corruption Eradication Commission (KPK) hold a rally of support at the KPK’s headquarters in Jakarta January 23, 2015. Photo: Agencies

The legislation nullified the independence of the KPK’s 1,000 employees, bringing them under the rules-laden umbrella of the bloated civil service, and, more crucially, requiring a supervisory board to sign off on all wiretaps, searches and seizures.

Anti-corruption activists have been critical since then of the manner in which it has gone about its investigative work and say there is now a disturbing level of mistrust in what on what was once Indonesia’s most admired and effective institutions.

Critics say it has been difficult to judge the performance of the five supervisors, but there were widely-held fears at the outset that their oversight of covert wiretaps, a key weapon in the commission armory, would lead to leaks which could compromise an ongoing investigation. 

“I agree with the oversight concept, but it doesn’t mean the committee should be involving itself in day-to-day operations,” says Erry Hardjapamekas, who served as a deputy chairman of the first KPK between 2003 and 2007. “It should be dealing with ethical questions, reviewing past cases and handling complaints.”

The law revision has not been the only worry. Activists lack any degree of confidence in commission chairman Firli Bahuri, a former South Sumatra police chief whom the KPK accused of committing ethical violations when he worked as a graft investigator between 2017 and 2018.

This week, Bahuri and his team may have taken a further step towards redeeming themselves by announcing what news service Katadata reports may turn out to be Indonesia’s “biggest and most systematic” corruption case involving serving and former tax officials, conglomerates and tax consultants.