Nation’s Graft Battle Has Descended into Farce

By Novar Caine

Ahead of his verdict next week, the country’s most vilified figure, taxman Gayus Tambunan, a corpulent individual who epitomises the greasy greed that is destroying Indonesia, announced that he would like to lead the fight against corruption and clean up the country.

It is astounding, blind arrogance from a man who allegedly has used his low-level position to amass millions of dollars from firms bent on skirting tax laws and not paying their share, a related crime for which he was tried last year but acquitted. Now the chief judge in that trial is himself before the courts, accused of taking money from Gayus, who after his re-arrest in Singapore managed to bribe his way out detention and fly to Bali and countries in the region, and China – on a fake passport bearing a disguised and bespectacled photograph when passport rules do not allow for glasses.

There is likely much more to be revealed in the Gayus saga, including whether he did meet with an Indonesian business tycoon overseas or stash his cash in bank accounts in a string of countries. The story thus far is one that would be out of bounds in fiction-telling: it is too ridiculous, so bizarre as to be non-believable: this man in his 30s running rings around the country and holding its laws and regulations to hostage because he has apparently a lot of backhander money.   

Speaking before a panel of judges on Monday at the South Jakarta District Court, Gayus pleaded for leniency in his verdict, due next Wednesday, after prosecutors called for 20 years in prison. “Make me an expert assistant to the National Police chief, the attorney or the KPK (Corruption Eradication Commission) chairman, and I promise within two years Indonesia will be clean,” he declared, seeming to assume he will be judged guilty amid widespread public anger. 

Wealthy Gayus, who earned a pittance of a salary, wishes to use his knowledge of corruption, it seems, for the national good. How noble. “I will help net the big fish,” he told the judges.

It must all be deeply embarrassing for President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, returned to office for a second term in 2009 because he has talked tough on graft. The people are sick of it, and they are increasingly turning sour on the head of state. Indonesia gets enough bad press without state employees adding to the morass. The way things are in this country, it is safe to assume that Gayus is a small player in a very big pond; the fish he speaks of are kings of this fetid ocean. The Australian media this week was calling Gayus’ extra-detention excursions “brazen.” What might they make of the antics of those higher up the food chain?

President Yudhoyono listed his corruption-eradication theme this week as part of his agenda for 2011, but his reference was fleeting. “We need to continue reforms in all law enforcement agencies. Of course, the eradication of corruption is not something that will just fall from the sky; we must be committed to this goal.”

Is this not pie-in-the-sky, when no senior tax officials have been investigated since the Gayus affair was uncovered? Is it not reasonable to assume there are more corruptors in that institution than just a lone operator? And just what has the judicial taskforce achieved since the president established it last year in the wake of revelations that case brokers were winning court cases for clients, an apparent widespread practice throughout the courts of the land?

The weakened Corruption Eradication Commission, until recently the sole hope for cleaning up this country, will need to act tough as its new boss, former Judicial Commission chairman Busyro Muqudas, gets to grips with his arduous task while his disgraced predecessor serves an 18-year jail term for murder.

As part of his plan for the year, President Yudhoyono should also address a fundamental flaw in this country, one that opens up a seam of corruption and makes it almost impossible to close: salaries. If you do not earn enough to live, you must look elsewhere; that’s the reality of Indonesia. Badung regency in Bali, the island’s richest, has this year raised the minimum monthly salary to Rp1,221,000 (US$135) but it is still wholly inadequate.

Only when people are properly paid will temptation to corrupt be drastically reduced. And maybe then a sense of pride, instead of the current shambles, will be imbued in this land.

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