The turbulence and controversies of Indonesia’s corruption eradication commission - transcript

Opener  (00.00:02) 

This is the Nordic Asia podcast.


Kenneth Bo Nielsen (00.00:09) 

Welcome to the Nordic Asia Podcast, a collaboration sharing expertise on Asia across the Nordic Region. My name is Kenneth Bo Nielsen. I'm a social anthropologist based in Oslo, and also the coordinator of the Norwegian network for Asian Studies. In this episode, we'll be discussing Indonesia's corruption eradication commission, known as the KPK. The KPK has widely been considered one of the most powerful and successful anti corruption agencies in the region, if not in the entire world. Yet, over the past years it has been systematically undermined from above. It culminated earlier this summer when a number of key investigators were purged from the KPK something which led one analysts to conclude that the KPK had been well and truly destroyed. To discuss this assault on Indonesia's anti corruption agency, were joined by Sofie Schütte, a senior researcher at the Christian Michelsen Institute in Norway, Sofie used to work as an integrated expert for the Indonesian corruption eradication committee, and later went on to do her PhD on the same topic at the University of Melbourne, some 10 years ago, and later, she joined the CMI in Bergen. Welcome Sofie Schütte, and thank you so much for joining us.


Sofie Schütte  (00.01:29) 

Thank you for having invited me. I love listening to podcasts and I'm excited to finally be contributing to one.


Kenneth Bo Nielsen  (00.01:36) 

Welcome. Please tell us what lies behind these recent attacks on the KPK?



Sofie Schütte  (00.01:45) 

So what we've been witnessing the summer, or the dry season in Jakarta is in a way the culmination of a process that started much earlier, at least two years ago. Really the Indonesian corruption eradication commission or Komisi Pemberantasan Korupsi, KPK has faced different forms of resistance from the beginning. And that's not uncommon for anti corruption agencies. The KPK was established by law in December 2002. Towards the end of the major reforms that Indonesia underwent after President Soeharto resigned at the peak of a financial and political crisis in 1997. During the first five years after the Soeharto regime, democratic checks and balances were reintroduced. The judiciary was separated from the Ministry of Justice. Constitutional Court was established. There has been a devolution of powers to the regional and the local level, and additional oversight bodies were created, of which the KPK then turned out to be the most powerful and popular one. It started operating in 2004. And its law gave it a broad ranging mandate, including prevention, awareness raising, investigation and prosecution of corruption cases. And that is corruption cases that involve senior state officials raise considerable public concern and or are above a certain monetary threshold equivalent of about 100,000 US dollar. So no small one-off bribe payments. And its investigation and prosecution mandate came with strong unprecedented powers, including, for example, interception or wiretapping and house searches without a prior court warrant. But with a log and an audit process afterwards. While these powers have certainly been quite useful, it is not what I actually think is the main reason behind KPK success and bringing about 800 high ranking officials and business people behind bar by the end of 2020. But anyhow, just to say here that the KPK was considered quite successful, if not yet at bringing corruption itself down, but at least doing away with what had been de facto impunity of high level white collar crime. These are very well connected people among the many national and local parliamentarians across the party spectrum. And they did not like what was happening to them. So there has been considerable resistance of KPK and repeated attempts to make changes to its legislation, in particular, its investigative and prosecutorial powers. And the most impactful and potentially devastating development was the revision of the law on the KPK. So the main law in september two years ago, the new law was pushed through by the legislature in less than two weeks. I think this is record time, without input from the public or the KPK itself. And this new law effectively stripped the KPK off its autonomy and important investigative functions, and in its human resources management. Under this new law, the KPK must be integrated into the state apparatus by September this year, and its employees must become regular civil servants. So I think it's quite useful to understand that the KPK's autonomy and managing its own officers, the so called pegawai KPK, has allowed it to shield itself against the malpractices and distort of incentives that still inflict the general civil service system. The KPK system had a simple and transparent structure and performance orientation, rigorous recruitment processes, internal monitoring, and an office culture that holds integrity high. And it's this human resources system that really laid the foundation for KPK success in investigating large scale corruption cases impartially. And then last year, the government regulation following up on that new law, the government regulation to integrate KPK staff into the civil service was enacted. And a lot of its previous autonomy has been taken away from the KPK. Some of the former civil servants seconded to the KPK, including several police officers actually gave up civil service status to join the KPK permanently. And now they have to return to the civil service. And as part of this transfer into the civil service, the government then required all KPK officials to take a specially concocted national vision exam. Not so easy to translate is called ‘test wawasan kebangsaan’. We also see it referred to as being a civic test. And this happened earlier this year, even though neither the new KPK law from 2019 nor its implementing regulation from last year actually explicitly require such a test. And this test also differs fundamentally from the standard civil service exam entrance test that all civil servants must take. This special test was developed by the National Civil Service Agency in collaboration with the Indonesian armed forces and the intelligence service. And specifically to determine which KPK officers were politically radical and lacked neutrality and integrity, and therefore, presumably unfit for future civil service. And then this May, it was announced that 75 KPK employees actually failed the special exam, that might not seem like a big deal, both because 75 people amongst less than 6% of KPK's current staff of over 1300. And also because maybe failing a civil service exam is a reasonable ground for dismissal. But then the names of those who failed the test became public and more details about the test itself. And that's when public criticism started. And this is also when I started following the news very, very closely on this. Even before the test was administered, the KPK's union, which by the way will now cease to exist with the transfer into the regular civil service. The Union warned that such a test could be misused to marginalize or dismiss KPK officers that handle strategic cases or hold strategic positions in the agency. In fact, several of those who failed the test, and therefore face a very uncertain future now, have been in managerial positions with the KPK since it began operations back in 2004. And several others who joined later have been at the forefront of KPK most prominent investigations. All of them had previously undergone a rigorous multi tiered selection process to join the KPK in the first place. And as I said, Some had been regular civil servants even before joining the KPK, meaning that they had already passed the regular civil servants entry exam. And they have also pledged to abide by the KPK's code of ethics. If there had been any concrete reasons to suspect improper behavior by any of these officers. This could have and would have been investigated by the KPK's internal oversight body. So this is about the people that are facing dismissal. As for the test itself, the questions as they became public, they're really bizarre. For instance, respondents had to state how much they agreed with a series of statements that would seem to have very little to do with KPK's core business in eradicating corruption. So these statements they had to agree or disagree with statements like 'I have a bleak future', 'I live to atone for past sins', 'religion as the result of human thought', 'I believe in the unseen and the practice of teaching without questioning', 'homosexuals should be given corporal punishment'. And some questions may have been designed to identify those who have racial prejudice; 'all Chinese are the same', 'all Japanese are cruel', 'blasphemers must be put to death'. To find out whether they're religious extremist. And this must be seen in the context of an increasingly heavy handed approach by the Jokowi government towards illiberal Islamist groups. But it seems that nationalism in this case, was used as a very clumsy pretense to purge some inconvenient staff of the KPK. What I can do is, I can highly recommend a documentary with interviews of some of those facing dismissal, and how they dealt with some of these questions. It was released on YouTube in June, and today have almost three and a half million views. It's very moving, it's a personal account of individuals committed to the anti corruption cause. The film is called the endgame, and it can be found by just googling the endgame and KPK. It's been put together by a production company called watchdog that is known in Indonesia for its critical social political features. And we at U4 we also planning to add it to our anti-corruption agency side.


Kenneth Bo Nielsen  (00.11:08) 

The end game is indeed highly recommended, and I encourage all listeners of this episode to please Google it. We'll return to the KPK shortly. But on a more personal note, I'm a bit curious to know about your own interest in the KPK, which we heard a little bit about in the introduction. You are a German who now lives and works in Norway with a PhD from Australia, on an Indonesian anti corruption commission. Could you tell us a bit about this academic side of your journey, and maybe especially what initially drew your attention to the issue of anti corruption in Indonesia, and how you as a scholar have been able to work on this issue.


Sofie Schütte  (00.11:48) 

So that story actually started quite early in my life. Indonesia and my fate cross path in 1994, still under the Soeharto regime, when I ticked a small box and was selected to be an exchange student for one year with an Indonesian host family in Jakarta. And so I went to Indonesian high school in a year when I just turned 17. And that experience provided me with a lot of food for thought. To better digest it, I actually decided to major in Southeast Asian Studies after I completed high school in Germany. And my first year at university, the Asian financial crisis hit Indonesia full on, and Soeharto resigned. So that was a 1997. By the time I had to pick a topic for my master thesis, Soeharto's son, Tommy Soeharto, was on the run for having masterminded the murder of a judge in his corruption case. And a friend of mine said, why don't you write about corruption in Indonesia? Because corruption may not have caused the financial crisis, but it aggravated it, and anti. So 'anti-KKN' - corruption, collusion, and nepotism was one of the most read and hurt slogans by reform activists at the time. In practice this actually meant several new pieces of legislation and new accountability bodies such as a wealth declaration commission - KPKPN, the National Ombudsman commission. And then the crowning piece, and the most powerful of them all was the KPK. Although it was not yet operational when I wrote my master thesis about the new legislation and its implementation. And my master thesis was entirely based on a review of the legislation, the literature and media, I lived in Jakarta at the time, but I didn't conduct any interviews yet. Still, I think it was a pretty solid master thesis and then gave me then a good foundation for my first job that I landed at the Partnership for governance reform in Indonesia, after I graduated in early 2004. And as an international anti corruption advisor at the partnership, I had to review grant proposals from the growing civil society community, but also from some government agencies. I also had to advise on the implementation of projects and organize smaller scale initiatives myself, always in conjunction with a national advisor. And they later became executive director of Transparency International Indonesia chapter - Dadang Trisasongko, or Bambang Widjojanto also one of my co advisors. He was later appointed KPK Commissioner. So in other words, the partnership brought together a group of really interesting and highly motivated group of people. And it also happened to provide one of the first grants to the newly appointed KPK commissioners who were just sworn in, and in the beginning, they didn't even have an office to work in or any staff to work with. So I was very lucky in my ignorance that 26 years old to observe the development of such an organization close up. To cut a long story short, two and a half years later, I actually switched over to KPK, I was to seconded under a so called integrated expert scheme that subsidizes the placement of international experts in foreign institutions. So that's the German scheme for experts in foreign institutions. And back then, in 2006, the KPK had about 350 staff and just moved from its old premises near the presidential palace to an old bank tower, and the business district. And it's the building that is actually now considered the old KPK building. And I spent about one and a half years working for the KPK, mostly helping with donor coordination and collaboration with international community. The KPK is headed by a leadership of five commissioners, and these commissioners undergo a multi tiered selection process, after which the President presents Parliament with a shortlist with double the number of candidates that are needed. And the terms of the first KPK leadership that I had worked for, their first term came to an end and late 2007. It was then that I had my first hands on lesson in politics, because my boss, Amien Sunaryadi, he was the strategic mind behind a lot of the good design within KPK. He actually applied for a second term, but he was really ridiculed by commission three in Parliament. At the time, I was there watching from the balcony, together with some activists, journalists, colleagues, observing the hearings of all candidates. And it was a bit traumatizing for me was a wake up call, that he was not re-elected. He simply had been too good at his job, and parliamentarians felt threatened. So when I got a scholarship shortly after to undertake a PhD at the University of Melbourne, I left Jakarta, and then spent the next four years trying to document and analyse the genesis of the KPK: How it came to be, why it was starting to make any difference. I have, by the way, have written a whole chapter that also has been published as an article in the bulletin of Indonesian Economic Studies, about the appointment process of the KPK leadership appointment, just to make sense of what I had experienced a couple of years earlier. In 2009, I went back to Jakarta to conduct interviews with my former colleagues, but also many others from various justice sector institutions. And as it happened, a week after my arrival, Antasari Azhar, who had been appointed the chair of the KPK just before I left, he was arrested by the police for masterminding the murder of a witness in a KPK case. It was a very bizarre case that was brought against him. But he was actually convicted to 18 years imprisonment. So he was the prosecutor in charge of the arrest of Tommy Soeharto when he absconded for murdering the judge of his corruption case. And he therefore was not particularly popular within the KPK itself. There wasn't much support for him. However, when the police then started taking after two other and more popular commissioners, and faked evidence and conspired with the attorney general's office, the civil society started standing up for KPK and its commissioners. In 2009 there were mass demonstrations and Facebook petitions. And back then President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, he actually set up a special and commission to investigate the charges. And as it also became a constitutional matter as to whether the two commissioners were to be suspended or not. Ultimately, it was the Constitutional Court who sorted things out. And what it did is it allowed the airing of recordings that prove the conspiracy against the two commissioners. And all that drama happened while I was conducting interviews about the institution building of the KPK. So when you ask about how, as a scholar, I can work on this issue, I just stick to the rules. I got a proper research permit. And I was very careful not to get involved in the ongoing drama. The one thing I did not do back then, for example, was to conduct interviews with the police, the atmosphere was just just too hostile and I was too inexperienced. Also, I've never been particularly interested in an individual corruption case, per se. I'm more interested in patterns and what actually works and why, and the institutional design and processes. And this is why I ultimately joined the U4 Anti-Corruption Resource Center at the Christian Michelsen Institute in Bergen eight years ago. And we conduct and share research and evidence to increase donors understanding of corruption, the problem and possible solutions.


Kenneth Bo Nielsen  (00.19:51) 

As you mentioned, the KPK has been widely considered to be among the most powerful and also most successful anti corruption agencies in the world, and it's been in existence as we hear now for close to 20 years. Yet corruption still appears to be rampant in Indonesia. How do we explain this coexistence between rampant corruption and a very successful anti corruption agency?


Sofie Schütte  (00.20:17) 

Yeah, this is a very important question that many anti corruption agencies struggle with and less successful anti corruption agencies also struggle with. How do you define the success or effectiveness of an anti corruption agency? Do you base it on the level of corruption in the country? And how do you measure that? And is it by improving scores on Transparency International's corruption perception index, the CPI? Is it based on the survey of actual experience with bribe payments for particular public service? Is it case statistics? There is no one perfect measure. And the problem also is that information is not collected or categorized the same way over time. That makes it difficult to compare from one year to the next. But if we leave the actual levels of corruption aside, what has shaped the reputation of the KPK, its reputation of success foremostly, is it's near 100% conviction record in the more than 800 cases it's handled, demonstrating that no one is untouchable. And this together with a sense of integrity of its staff has made it to one of the most trusted institutions in Indonesia. Also the fact that it has weathered various kinds of attacks, even some less strategic thinking on some of its own leaders. It has also achieved some successes in prevention and helping state agencies improve their accountability and service delivery, though that is typically less reported about. But some of the systemic governance problems and key institutions such as Parliament and the party and campaign finance system, and other law enforcement agencies, they remain unresolved. And so where the KPK has indicted some police officers and parliamentarians this has not been accompanied with the necessary forms within those institutions. This is I mean, this is not something KPK can be blamed for alone. There are also broader political dynamics at play here.





Kenneth Bo Nielsen  (00.22:22) 

We began earlier by talking about some of the more recent pushback that the KPK has experienced. I'm curious to know, given these seemingly far reaching powers that the KPK at least has had. How is it possible that some of these perhaps most experienced KPK staffers are now facing dismissal?


Sofie Schütte  (00.22:43) 

So yeah, it's actually quite common that anti corruption bodies experience pushback, the moment they're doing their job well. Might be a bit cynical, but the number of judicial reviews could be considered an indicator that the agency is hitting some nerves. And it's usually quite well resource nerves that don't need to resort to mere violence. Other than judicial hostility, we can observe orchestrated demonstrations, threats, personal attacks on members of the organization, the stalling of the agency's budget, but also attempts to curtail its authority through legislation, through that law of 2019. And the general political context in Indonesia has changed too. Experts of Indonesian politics have been observing a democratic decline, state capture by elites, controversial populists from the opposition are now part of the cabinet. And Indonesia still holds regular and free elections, but in its application, this democracy has become increasingly illiberal. Its Freedom House score last year was only 61. So partly free, and the reasons given for this downgrading are systemic corruption, discrimination and violence against minority groups, separatist tensions in regions, and politicized use of defamation and blasphemy laws.


Kenneth Bo Nielsen  (00.24:06) 

But how have other actors in Indonesia reacted to these threats to the KPK what have been the reactions by civil society for example, or by other government entities?


Sofie Schütte  (00.24:17) 

Civil society has been KPK's main ally and supporter. And this is partly the result of KPK's own outreach and awareness raising programs, and a general openness towards NGOs and journalists, and a youthful image that the KPK has portrayed, for example, by having famous rock bands at events, but also because the average age of the staff of the organization is lower than for example, in the general civil service, a lot of young people there. And some of KPK commissioners actually stem from civil society organizations. But most importantly, a larger number of people have been willing to mobilize and take to the streets when KPK was under threat, because they trust the organization more than others. And this has been documented in various opinion polls over time, especially President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, he kept an eye on these public opinion polls, the current president Jokowi seemingly less so. And then then, of course, KPK has regular and institutionalized relations with other state bodies and ministries, for example the state audit institutions, the Ministry of Finance, the Ministry of administrative and bureaucratic reform. And there are the other post Suharto accountability and oversight institutions, such as the financial investigative unit, the Ombudsman, the National Human Rights Commission, the judicial commission. The Human Rights Commission actually already existed under Soeharto. They are mostly staffed with the same kind of reform minded people, many of whom have an academic or civil society background. And there is the Constitutional Court which has played a decisive role mostly positive towards the KPK. And as I mentioned, also in screening, crucial evidence as part of a proceeding. KPK has prosecuted the occasional Commissioner, even head of the Constitutional Court of these organizations, but there generally seems to be a basic common understanding about principles of rule of law, accountability and human rights among them. Right now, the Ombudsman office and the Human Rights Commission, they play an important role after having received reports, and having scrutinized these reports and the process that led to the pending dismissal of the 75 KPK officers. And both Commission's have found considerable shortcomings, and issued recommendations to the KPK leadership and the government as how to proceed, most importantly, to properly reinstall the 75 in their positions, as they currently continue to be suspended, and still facing permanent dismissal. And it's really in the hands of the president right now to decide on what to do with these recommendations from these two Commission's.


Kenneth Bo Nielsen  (00.27:10) 

Sofie Schütte we're reaching the end of this episode and of the conversation today. I think I'd like to conclude by maybe posing what is arguably the million dollar question, Is this the end of the KPK? Or to put it differently: does this mean that Indonesia's efforts to combat corruption and impunity are now more or less a lost cause?


Sofie Schütte  (00.27:30) 

The KPK is an organization with more than 1300 employees or civil servants by now. And a bureaucracy of that size is unlikely to just be abolished, at least not suddenly, we know that from experience with bureaucracies, by the looks of it, there is still a chance that the outspoken 75 will not be dismissed, but considerable damage has been done. It's been an administrative Civil War within an organization. And even if the KPK leadership is trying to shift some of their responsibility to other state bodies, like the civil service agency, and even if all stuff are retained the underlying tensions they have not been resolved. So rather than being abolished, it's more likely that it's being rendered more and more ineffective by undermining its internal integrity. And the morale of the stuff further, and incisions into its autonomy and possibly a long term readjustment of it's mandate to corruption prevention only and no longer investigations and prosecutions. And don't get me wrong, prevention is incredibly important. But Indonesia also needs the capacity to investigate and prosecute complex, huge financial crime cases with impartiality. And there is no indication that the national police or the public prosecutor's office are ready for that. So no, it's not the end of the KPK. But a major incision and possibly the end of the KPK as we know it. Indonesia still has a strong supreme audit institution, and internal control as well as the National Ombudsman, the National Human Rights Commission's and they are supported by a well organized and outspoken civil society and media outlets with some investigative capacity. But of course, not the same powers as government agencies. And we can hope that cases that are not picked up by law enforcement agencies will be detected and experienced some scrutiny in the future. So it's also not going to be the end of efforts to reduce corruption in Indonesia. Maybe there will also be some good in anti corruption no longer having just one shining warrior, the KPK leading the fight, it will disperse or spread the responsibility, however you want to see it. But also having worked with so many committed people and committed to reduce corruption and uphold democratic principles, I cannot help but continue to be optimistic that they will find a new smart way to navigate this.


Kenneth Bo Nielsen  (00.30:02) 

And so we conclude on a somewhat optimistic note. Sofie Schütte, thank you for being with us today to discuss the turbulence and controversy surrounding Indonesia's anti corruption commission the KPK. My name is Kenneth Bo Nielsen and thank you for joining the Nordic Asia podcast showcasing Nordic collaboration in studying Asia.


Closer  (00.30:26) 

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