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SBY, corruption and the 2009 campaign

As the 2009 Indonesian presidential elections were getting closer, I worked with Shawn Crispin, the Southeast Asia editor of Asia Times (Online) to put together a piece on the role corruption played in the campaign. The result was an analysis that was published at on July 1, 2009

Below is another piece on that issue that I wrote at the same time on much the same subject.

SBY’s fight against corruption
Patrick Guntensperger,

Jakarta, Indonesia

On the morning of the June 18th Indonesian presidential candidates’ debate, the headlines in Indonesian newspapers announced that former Bank of Indonesia deputy governor Aulia Pohan was convicted and sentenced to 4 ½ years imprisonment on embezzlement charges. Pohan is the father in-law of incumbent President (SBY) Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono’s son.

Indonesia’s current president, and candidate in the election slated for July was first swept into power on the strongest democratic mandate of any head of state in recent memory. His powerful victory in Indonesia’s first direct election of a president has been widely attributed to his campaign’s anti-corruption stance, not an insignificant posture to assume when confronting the electorate of one of the most corrupt countries on earth.

Not surprisingly, the topic of corruption is once again a major election issue. To be sure, it is a subject dwelt upon more consistently by SBY himself, who has notched an impressive tally of big wins in his drive, than the other candidates; nevertheless for any candidate to avoid discussion of the subject would be to ignore the elephant in the living room.

Early in his five year-term, SBY stick handled the institution of the Corruption Eradication Commission (KPK), a new investigative body, largely autonomous, which, in principle, reports directly to the president. The KPK is tasked with investigating major cases of corruption and will normally only look into cases that have resulted in losses to the state in excess of Rp. 1 billion It was critical that the KPK remain squeaky clean, and thoroughly professional; as an institution, they have not let anyone down in this respect.

So concerned about their image are the members of the KPK, that when invited to address a luncheon hosted by the Jakarta Foreign Correspondents Club last month, they declined and counter-offered a lunch hosted by the Commission at their headquarters, lest the five star luncheon be seen as a gratuity.

From the outset, the KPK did a sterling job of nailing some bigger fish. They targeted mid and high-level corrupt officials and successfully prosecuted bureaucrats and elected representatives previously considered to be, for all intents and purposes, above the law.

Cynics would say, of course, that the rate of corruption is so high in Indonesia, that if you were to spit out any office window in Jakarta, you would get at least one indictable official wet. That there is some truth to this suggestion is borne out by the numbers. By 2008, 16,200 cases had been reported to the KPK; in 2007, due to limited resources, only 17 were investigated and fewer were expected in 2008.

Nevertheless, the KPK has been doing some deadly accurate expectorating. Their investigations were so thorough and professionally conducted that they maintain a 100% conviction rate in the Corruption Court.

The strongest criticism of the KPK’s carrying out of its mission to catch and fry “big fish”, although rarely heard domestically, is that it neglected to go after the biggest one of them all; former dictator Suharto. Even now that he has gone on to meet his reward, his family enjoys freedom to enjoy the vast wealth stolen from the people by the man historians describe as the most corrupt head of state in modern history. Nevertheless, the KPK has not shown any enthusiasm for taking on Suharto’s legacy or his progeny.

Given the influence that the Suharto clan and loyalists still exert in Indonesia, any focused attempt to repatriate the billions of dollars they still control would likely be quixotic at best. Not only would such an investigation probably result in failure, it would divert the KPK from going after softer but more winnable targets. Somebody has clearly decided that a 100% conviction rate is worth protecting, whether as a matter of pride or as a deterrent to further corruption; whether the decision to address only sure things was made by the KPK or the president is moot.

As an institution, there is little with which to find fault in the KPK; the human beings who constitute the Commission, on the other hand, are fair game. This year, as the elections were approaching, KPK chairman Azhar Antassari found himself caught up in a staggeringly sordid scandal involving murder, adultery, secret lives, and female golf caddies. Antassari was been named a suspect (roughly equivalent to being indicted) for allegedly having arranged the drive-by shooting death of a rival for the affections of a young golf caddy who may or may not have been the second wife of the victim. How the melodrama will play out is anybody’s guess, although Antassari is firm in maintaining his absolute innocence of all charges and allegations.

When Antassari stepped down to enter detention, the KPK formed a committee of five deputies who would act as rotating chair of the Commission. This crack in the edifice seemed an ideal opportunity for the soon-to-be-departing members of the DPR.

Since the national legislative elections were just around the corner, many of the honorable members would be losing their perks and privileges and therefore needed some freedom to ratchet up their efforts to secure comfortable retirements. Accordingly, the DPR demanded that the KPK be shut down and all activities cease until the disposition of the Antassari case. Their justification was that the charter of the KPK required that the Commission have a chairman and says nothing about a committee sharing the duties.

The demand seemed to die a death of attrition as the howls of derisive laughter echoed around the shameless attempt by the mice to send the cat on vacation. The proposal that the KPK be shut down revived theories that the entire Antassari affair was a setup intended to hamstring the KPK, or at least to tarnish its image as Indonesia’s Untouchables.

Meanwhile, the work of the KPK proceeds.

SBY has a clear advantage in the struggle for the ethical high ground. On the morning of the July 18th presidential candidates’ debate, the headlines in Indonesian newspapers announced the conviction and sentencing to 4 and a half years imprisonment on embezzlement charges, former Bank of Indonesia deputy governor Aulia Pohan. Pohan is the father in-law of SBY’s son. Deeper in the papers one could find reports on the charges laid against former DPR Commission V member Abdul Hadi Djamal with graft associated with the granting of infrastructure contracts. The former legislator faces a possible 20 years imprisonment if convicted.

Even those who routinely lament the snail’s pace progress of SBY’s clean-up program have to acknowledge that before his mandate, such cases, let alone such convictions, would have been unthinkable.

SBY consistently returns to his bureaucratic reform mantra – a clear euphemism for graft-busting – on the hustings and in debates, putting his opponents in the race for the palace in an awkward position. Kalla can hardly criticize even the slow pace of reform, as he was noticeably absent from the field of play when the highest profile anti-corruption measures were being deployed. Megawati is obliged to steer clear of the subject as much as possible, as it was under her watch that corruption, initially instituted by Suharto, became as systemic and firmly entrenched as it was when SBY rode in on a wave of anti-corruption sentiment.

The upshot is that bureaucratic reform, clean government, corruption eradication, and all the variations on the theme, have become the central issues in the elections. While this is a good thing, there has been little of substance added to the recipe. Beyond the promises to continue the forward movement and to stay the course, there have been no assurances of the creation of additional initiatives, or even of increasing the meager budget of the wildly successful KPK.

Also on the negative side of the ledger is the fact that education, foreign policy, human rights, religious freedom and dozens of other pressing problems in Indonesia have received scant attention from the candidates.

But even that neglect of other pressing issues plays to SBYs strengths; he has frequently pointed out that at the root of every problem facing the country, from environmental degradation to Jakarta’s endemic traffic problems, one can find corruption impeding reform. Solve the corruption problem, and virtually every other problem facing the country will be easier to address. Of the three candidates in this election, only SBY has the credentials, the history, or, apparently, the political will to take even the most elementary steps to address Indonesia’s culture of corruption in any systematic way.


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  1. I wonder if the voting populace should read anything into PD's and by default SBY's support of the current bill in this area as undermining SBY's anti-corruption credentials?

    The bill does seem to want to change the rules of play at the corruption court quite significantly. For example, removing the ability of the KPK in certain areas and changing the balance of career and ad hoc judges.

    Never really understood the SBY love fest as the man never really addressed any of the skeletons in his military closet. Very much the teflon man.

  2. Absolutely. Adjutant to Wiranto at the time the crimes against humanity were committed; SBY walks away.

    In truth, SBY's record against corruption is average at best, given the number of targets available.

    Where are the indictments of Soeharto and his family?

    How come, if the KPK is an independent body, not needing presidential approval for an investigation or prosecution, SBY gets credit for their successes?

    The list goes on.

    We finally arrive at the sixty four thousand dollar question, though. If we don't want SBY, whom do we support? Kalla/Wiranto? or Megawati/Prabowo?

    If I had a vote, I'd have to pinch my nose, do the deed and pray for forgiveness in any afterlife. And hope that there is a real choice next time around.

  3. Just a thought, while it is true that KPK doesn't need presidential approval for investigation or prosecution, SBY could have done something to make life hard for KPK in doing its job.

    Issuing an uncooperative presidential decree or whatever, you name it; he is living in Indonesian politics after all, where anything is ridiculously possible.

    So I guess due to the fact that (still need research, but I'm pretty sure of it) he didn't, deserves at least some credit.

  4. Sure, Ghian. In fact, in the piece I wrote on this subject for Asia Times ( ) I made exactly that point. I give credit to Susilo.

    But, if the best we can say for him is that he didn't interfere when he could have, that's still pretty lame, isn't it?

    Nevertheless, what's out alternative? Megawati/Prabowo ? Please! Kalla/Wiranto ? Wow! Pick your favourite war criminal.

  5. I know. The thing that confuses me most is that how people seem to have forgotten almost completely that there are two 'war criminals' fighting for the second highest office in the country.

  6. I had lunch with Prabowo just a month ago and he's quite cheerful about it. He says,"I take full responsibility, my conscience is clear, now let's move on."


  7. Wow. Really? Have you written an article about him? That should be (really) interesting.

  8. Jesus, you had lunch with him?

  9. Charming fellow!

  10. Simon Pitchforth says:

    he didn't attach electrodes to your giggle stick then?

  11. Not on a first date. I'm sure we could work something out if he ever calls back. Meanwhile I'll sit here by the window and sigh.

  12. hi Patrick.

    On the Soeharto stuff – i don't think the KPK mandates could go that far (the KPK is a fairly recent institution and more geared towards the future). Also the fact that Soeharto had already been previously handled by the AGO office precludes the KPK of claiming jurisdiction i'm sure Rob can explain better.

    Frankly, i don't really understand why the educated people – particularly those who writes for the media – would even advocate any candidate, based on the idea that he was least bad among the alternatives. Even more so when we don't vote (I don't).

    I see it the whole move against KPK to be a severe step back to democracy and really, too hard to ignore to be leaning in any ways favorable for the SBY government. At this point, i can't see him being any more sincere or truthful about his campaign promises than any of the other candidates and to be fair, the others haven't really got a chance.

    I've written a lot about both Mega and Prabowo so views are on record for both candidates. With Kalla, however, i fail to see any coherent argument as to why he won't make a good candidate (the whole Wiranto thing aside – tho I completely agree, it's pretty fatal really).

    I'm curious of the strong feelings against Kalla, i'm not sure if he really deserves it.

  13. Also, you had lunch with both Megawati and Prabowo last month, must be interesting. I find Prabowo to be a pleasant and interesting gentleman (and very smart) though Megawati could be sleep inducing with the right meals.

    Nice blog anyway 🙂

  14. Thanks tree.

    Prabowo cheerfully acknowledges full responsibility for kidnapping and torturing student activists. He's never been punished, never been charged and was completely exonerated by his own military tribunal. So, without feeling the slightest bit accountable, he feels we ought to get over it and move on.

    Yes he is charming and even charismatic. That's a perfect description in psychological terms of a psychopath.

    Kalla. This guy has said in China, as a vice president on government business, that he doesn't really feel that democracy is appropriate for Indonesia. He advocated improving the economy of the Puncak by having the young girls there sell themselves into temporary marriages with Arab tourists; the list of idiocies goes on and on.

    He would be a huge embarassment to a country that already garners a fairly low level of respect internationally.

    As to advocating a vote for SBY, it's political commentary and opinion; that's what I do. Whether I have a vote or not isn't germain. I have an opinion and I get paid to express it.

    I see no alternative to SBY. By international standards, he's useless. Nevertheless; the game may be crooked, but it's the only game in town.

    As I said, I'd pinch my nose and do the deed. Then I'd take a shower and have a huge drink.

    I can't advocate not voting. I'd advocate instead that those who have a piece of the franchise here in Indonesia get involved and offer workable alternatives. I can only root from the sidelines.

    Thanks for the input, Tree!

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