Jakarta Keeps Street-Level Integrity amid Indonesia's Colossal Kickback Scandal

REUTERS/Beawiharta
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Indonesia is in the grips of a kickback scandal that reaches into the pocket of almost every single Indonesian.

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Rounding the circular drive to my apartment building on my scooter recently, two members of the building’s small army of security sprinted out the sliding glass doors toward me. As one stood athwart my path, arms waving overhead, the other with the urgency of a medieval messenger boy thrust into my hands a receipt stapled to some rupiah notes.

Drinking water, prepaid to the tune of about US$7, had been delivered earlier in the day, and the amount returned to me, enough to buy a modest lunch, was the balance: US$1.34.

In many places the money may have been conveniently forgotten to be pocketed later. As I expressed amazement at their honesty, one of the youngish men, who might make about US$15 per day, indignantly replied: “Of course we’re honest! This is our job.”

At street level in Indonesia, integrity, like food stalls, skinny cats and motorcycle taxies, is thick on the ground. I’ve forgotten the key in the ignition of my scooter so often I’ve wondered if I have early onset dementia (and I still have the scooter). Honesty, though, thins out as one scales the food chain.

Indonesia is in the grips of a kickback scandal that reaches into the pocket of almost every single Indonesian. Back in 2009 parliament budgeted about US$380 million to devise a system that could scan biometric data like a fingerprint for the new improved electronic version of the ubiquitous KTP – the blue resident identity card or “kartu tanda penduduk” – that lives in virtually every wallet in Indonesia.

Renewing them can be a colossal pain, involving a trip back to the owner’s hometown, if he’s moved to Jakarta, say, for work. Run-ins with government workers demanding bribes are par for the course.

But e-KTP, since mothballed, was going to change all that, to make life just a little easier for the guy on the street.

Instead, according to charges laid by the country’s corruption watchdog, the KPK, the plan was a feeding frenzy for entitled elites.

Suspects include the country’s law minister, the governor of Central Java, and even the speaker of the house. Some 35 others also face charges. Potentially twice as many will be brought up on charges in the months ahead.

There have been eye-watering scandals before but nothing on this potential scale. Akil Mochtar, the former chief justice of the country’s highest court was sentenced to life in prison in 2014 for accepting the equivalent of US$4.5m bribes in exchange for favorable ruling on 15 disputed local elections.

For the country’s corruption-fighting president, Joko “Jokowi” Widodo, the charges are a rare black mark on his administration. His cabinet had been remarkably free of sleaze.

But the affair is also a circuit breaker. Media attention has swung away from the surge in religious conservatism toward the issue of clean government, Jokowi’s strong suit, just as his administration reaches its midway point. Elections are due in mid-2019.

The affair bodes well, too, for Jakarta’s governor, Basuki Purnama, who hopes to keep his job after the second round of voting next month. Purnama, better known as Ahok, has been campaigning, in part, on his record as a graft buster. So far he’s not caught up in the allegations and he says he opposed the entire project, which has since been canceled.

Dogging Ahok, though, though have been baseless blasphemy charges that he had insulted the Quran while campaigning in September. The affair has cost him was should have been a first round win.

Whether the incumbents can fully capitalize on the scandal is unclear. Ahok is not a smooth politician. The blasphemy charges owe to his penchant to wander off message. Still, there’s everything to play for. For the regular guys on the street -- the majority – blasphemy is a touchy subject. But being seen to be doing the right thing like delivering every last rupiah of change even to someone who would easily miss it is important, too. After a tricky few months, Ahok is in with a chance.

Editor: Edward White

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