People wear masks of  Anti-Corruption Commission (KPK) investigator Novel Baswedan's face to show their support for him after suffering a debilitating acid attack, Jakarta, February 22, 2018. Photo: Andalou Agency via AFP Forum/Eko Siswono Toyudho
People wear masks in support of KPK investigator Novel Baswedan's face to show support after he suffered a debilitating acid attack, Jakarta, February 22, 2018. Photo: Andalou Agency via AFP Forum / Eko Siswono Toyudho

JAKARTA – Fifty-one senior members of Indonesia’s Anti-Corruption Commission (KPK) have been dismissed for failing a verbal civil service examination as part of their transition to employee status in bureaucracy, a move critics see as the latest bid to weaken the graft-fighting body.

Sources familiar with the transition say it will give the national police vastly more influence over the KPK and make it more vulnerable to political manipulation, something past commissions have managed to avoid since it was formed as a quasi-independent agency in 2003.

For anti-graft activists, that will make what was once Indonesia’s most-admired and effective institution little different from the police or the Attorney General’s Office (AGO), both of which score as poorly as Parliament in corruption perception surveys.

The KPK became subject to National Civil Service Agency (BKN) screening after the passage of the amended 2019 Anti-Corruption Law, which nullified the independence of the KPK’s 1,300 employees and brought them under the rules-laden umbrella of the civil service.

Steamrolled through Parliament in the final days of President Joko Widodo’s first term, the law also created a new supervisory board to sign off on all wiretaps, searches and seizures, tools the KPK has used to expose and nab scores of wayward politicians and officials.

Civil society efforts to seek a review of the more contentious aspects of the law failed in the Constitutional Court, with only one of the nine judges on the country’s highest legal panel taking a dissenting view.

KPK’s leadership ignored a presidential directive that the examination should be used for the betterment of the KPK at both institutional and individual levels and not as a pretext to dismiss employees who were given a failing grade.

“It’s very disappointing,” says one former commissioner. “Let’s wait and see, but simple logic tells us that if the KPK comes under the police it will be less effective because there will be less integrity and credibility.”

Activists and supporters of the Anti-Corruption Commission (KPK) hold a rally of support at the KPK’s headquarters in Jakarta. Photo: Agencies

Analysts claim that weakening the commission will make it easier for political parties to raise money through suspect means for the 2024 presidential and general elections and leave it exposed to political machinations in the longer term. 

Officials say the civil service test measures “integrity, neutrality and anti-radicalism,” but the latter appears to have taken precedence with the National Intelligence Agency (BIN), the National Counter-Terrorism Agency (BNPT) and the Armed Forces Intelligence Agency (BAIS) all acting as partners in the exercise.

Initiated by President Joko Widodo in the wake of the 2019 presidential election, the religious-related screening was introduced in response to growing concern among nationalist leaders over the growth of extremism across a broad swathe of society.

Widodo has often cautioned about a rise in intolerance, radicalism and terrorism and at one gathering of the ruling Indonesian Democratic Party for Struggle (PDI-P) last year he warned of moves to replace the state and its inclusive Pancasila ideology with a religious caliphate.

The exam issue is now likely to go as far as the Supreme Court, with lawyers arguing that the sacked KPK employees are victims of discrimination and claiming that other law enforcement agencies have not had to answer what they say are sexist and unethical questions. 

Female employees, for example, were asked whether they were prepared to take off their jilbab (Islamic head covering) and even whether they would be willing to become a second wife, a question designed to test their views on polygamy, which is still widely practiced in Indonesia.

Other questions sought the views of the staffers on homosexuality, skin color, corporal punishment for convicts, the death sentence for religious “traitors,” whether Western culture was destroying the morality of Indonesians and even if they would consider emigrating to improve their welfare.

Human rights groups said many of the questions had nothing to do with their duties and violated privacy rights. The amended law denies KPK employees the right to unionize and therefore their ability to take collective action apart from seeking relief through the vagaries of the court system.

Insiders say it was widely understood the test would not be a mechanism to sack employees who were deemed to have failed, but merely a mapping exercise that might result in them being moved to different and more appropriate jobs.

Indonesian President Joko Widodo has had a hand in emasculating the KPK. Photo: AFP Forum via Anadolu Agency /Anton Raharjo

Many of those dismissed had been with the KPK since the first commission in 2003-2007, which initially concentrated more on creating a culture of professionalism and personal and institutional integrity than building headline-grabbing graft cases.

One of the main targets appears to have been senior investigator Novel Baswedan, reputedly a conservative Islamist in an organization that at one point felt compelled to bring in moderate Muslim clerics to lecture employees on the danger of extremism.

But he has also long been at odds with senior police generals, one of whom is widely suspected of ordering two off-duty policemen to carry out a 2017 acid attack on the investigator that blinded him in one eye.

Baswedan was one of 20 police officers who resigned from the force to pursue a career with the KPK, but most of those who have joined since then have only been seconded to the commission, which means their loyalty remains with the police.

“This is a systematic attempt to get rid of them,” Baswedan said of his colleagues’ dismissal, calling it an effort by KPK leaders to frighten a younger generation who were passionate about eradicating corruption. “I believe there is a conspiracy behind it.”

Among the other sacked officials are Herry Muryanto, director for internal monitoring and public complaints, Giri Suprapdiono, director for education and public service, Sujanarko, director of  networking, Candra Reksoprodjo, head of the human resources bureau, and coordinating secretary Arien Winiasih.

All held strategic posts which KPK chairman Firli Bahuri, still an active police general himself, apparently wants to be filled by his own appointees in what activists allege is an effort to tighten the police hold on the KPK’s day-to-day functions.

KPK chairman Firli Bahuri stands accused of living a ‘hedonistic’ lifestyle. Photo: Twitter

Muryanto last year initiated an ethics inquiry into Bahuri, who was subsequently found guilty by the supervisory council of displaying a “hedonistic lifestyle” for using a private helicopter to take a personal 200-kilometer trip to his Sumatran hometown.

The council later handed down a written reprimand to Bahuri, the first KPK chairman to be convicted of an ethics violation. He had, in fact, faced a similar ethics inquiry when he was a KPK investigator, one of the reasons why his appointment was so controversial.

Promoted by the previous commission in 2019, Reksoprodjo had faced constant pressure to hire investigators and other personnel who did not meet the KPK’s strict criteria, according to sources close to him.

Some observers believe Bahuri may be engaging in empire-building on his own accord, using the civil service test to stretch the borders of what he can and cannot do.

Certainly, he has shown none of the interest previous commissioners had in building ties with civil society, which partly explains why the current KPK is not seen in the same positive light.