The Year of Living Venally

That Indonesia has a bit of a problem with corruption should not come as news to anybody. By the time former president Soeharto resigned to make way for the transition to democracy, corruption didn’t merely pervert the system–it was the system. During and after the transition to democracy, Indonesia has been treated to a never-ending stream of scandals and trials as the authorities try to clean out graft-ridden public institutions. You would think that by now nothing would shock an already jaded nation, but a recent scandal has further infuriated and demoralised the Indonesian public.

Meet Gayus Tambunan, a middling official at the national tax office. Mr. Tambunan was discovered to have accepted more than US$11 million in bribes to reduce the tax liabilities of 151 companies, resulting in an as yet unknown loss to the state. This in itself raised eyebrows, but it has been subsequent twists in the story which have truly inspired awe and outrage.

Last October a journalist covering a tennis match at the Bali Westin photographed a man, sitting in the bleachers at a tennis tournament featuring Maria Sharapova, who looked suspiciously like Mr. Tambunan.

TV news networks went wild, calling in facial recognition experts to confirm that the character was, in fact, Gayus Tambunan wearing a comical wig and false glasses. Mr. Tambunan soon thereafter tearfully confessed in court to bribing his way out of gaol to see the game. He’s reportedly a big fan of Maria Sharapova.

Mr. Tambunan, it now seems, bought his way out of prison on 68 known occasions, sometimes travelling as far as Singapore, Malaysia, Hong Kong and Macau, where investigators think he was stashing his assets.

This is not unprecedented: many stories have emerged of ‘luxury’ cells given to high-profile or wealthy convicts who paid for them. Tommy Soeharto, gaoled for conspiring to murder the Supreme Court judge who convicted him of corruption, maintained a private staff in his well-appointed cell, and is said to have been picked up by helicopter to go on day trips outside.

The scandal has again drawn attention to the corruption endemic in Indonesia’s public institutions. Investigations are in the process of uncovering a passport falsification syndicate operating out of the immigration office. It is alleged Mr. Tambunan obtained false Indonesian and Guyanese passports from this office.

The case has already had serious political implications, with three of the companies supposed to have bribed Mr. Tambunan being owned by tycoon Aburizal Bakrie, who is also the chairman of Soeharto’s Golkar party which forms part of President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono’s coalition government.

Mr. Bakrie also is a co-owner of one of the most influential news networks, TV One, whose coverage of the scandal has been somewhat awkward. Mr Bakrie is likely to run for president in 2014, and this does not help his chances.

Another likely contender for the presidency in 2014 is Surya Paloh, owner of rival Metro TV, whom Bakrie defeated for the chairmanship election of Golkar in 2009. Metro, predictably, has had a field day with the links between Mr. Bakrie’s companies and Mr. Tambunan.

Nobody comes out of this looking very good. Not least of all SBY, who was re-elected in 2009 promising to get tough on corruption. Instead, there is a feeling in the public and amongst the commentariat that the President has prioritised good relations with often-shonky coalition politicians and law enforcement officials above the anti-corruption drive.

This suspicion was not allayed by his failure to defend former finance minister Sri Mulyani Indrawati, a brave reformist who resigned after being pursued by a parliamentary inquiry initiated by Golkar into the bailout of a dodgy bank at the height of the Global Financial Crisis. The inquiry was widely seen outside Indonesia as payback for Sri Mulyani’s attempts to purse an estimated US$1 billion in unpaid taxes owed by Bakrie’s companies and refusing to shut down the Jakarta Stock Exchange when Bakrie group stocks plummeted during the GFC.

There also seems to be no end to the criminality inside the national police force, courts and Attorney-General’s office, with a variety of ad hoc investigations keeping the bad news coming.

This all inspires a sense of frustration, impatience as well as hopelessness in the public, who have less and less faith in their government and politicians every day. Everybody openly acknowledges the damage corruption does to Indonesia’s government, society and economy. Yet many people with the power to make changes have themselves a lot to lose if their own criminality is exposed, and even honest reformists must operate through compromised institutions, eroding their credibility.

It will be years before we know if Indonesia can make real and lasting progress in eradicating corruption, but it’s clear right now that the one thing that Indonesian political leaders need to understand is that the people they’re supposed to be serving are very, very angry. And now they can vote.