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Muslims' morals in doubt in graft-riddled Indonesia

Religion is no obstacle to those with unscrupulous aims and will likely be used corruptly to further political ambitions

Keith Loveard

Keith Loveard

Published: February 21, 2018 07:58 AM GMT

Updated: February 21, 2018 08:04 AM GMT

Muslims' morals in doubt in graft-riddled Indonesia

Indonesia's parliament speaker, Setya Novanto, center, is escorted to the defendant's seat during his trial at a corruption court in Jakarta on Dec 13, 2017. He is accused of taking kickbacks from funds for a government project to issue new identification cards. (Photo by Bay Ismoyo/AFP)

Zumi Zola, the governor of Indonesia's Jambi province, became the latest senior official to be named a suspect by the country's Corruption Eradication Commission (KPK) on Feb. 2. 

Elected in 2015 with just over 60 percent of the vote when he was just 35, his earlier career as a film and television actor helped win him the backing of the electorate.

There were also hopes that, as a representative of a new generation of politicians, he'd set an example for good governance. 

Zola is alleged to have bribed members of the provincial Regional House of Representatives who were drafting the province's revised budget for 2018, presumably to pass questionable expenditure. 

While Zola's case still has to go to court, the high incidence of corruption has some Muslim leaders wondering what happened to morality among the country's politicians and senior officials. 

In 2017, the Corruption Eradication Commission (KPK) prosecuted 94 cases, with 43 of them involving top government officials and local and national lawmakers implicated in 20 more.

The previous year its tally was 67 cases, with 23 involving politicians, 10 involving senior officials and another eight snaring local elected leaders. 

Current cases before the court include the $270 million alleged corruption of a national identity card program, with the former speaker of the House of Representatives, Setya Novanto, currently facing trial. Two officials have already been given jail time, along with a businessman. 

Even the nation's courts aren't immune to the problem. A former chief justice of the Constitutional Court, Akil Mochtar, is serving a life term for selling decisions in election disputes.

Another Constitutional Court judge, Patrialis Akbar, was sentenced to eight years in jail last year for accepting thousands of dollars from a meat importer to influence the outcome of a judicial review of the Animal Husbandry Law.

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It is common knowledge that the courts are riddled with corruption and that verdicts can be bought and sold.

One recent arrest of an official at the South Jakarta District Court was "engineered" by those at the court when it was clear that investigators were closing in on corrupt practices. One member of the "judicial mafia" at the court was sacrificed to save the rest, said a source at the court. 

Some cases involved relatively small amounts of cash, and it is not unusual to see local officials go to jail for terms of a year or 18 months for corrupting sums as small as $30,000. 

Why do so many risk their reputation and their careers for so little money? According to one lawyer, a short jail sentence is no deterrent because the culprits can salt away at least some of the cash.

"People continue to profit from corruption even if they are caught," he said on condition of anonymity. 

"For instance, if you steal Rp5 billion [US$368,710] you will give a friend Rp2 billion to look after and if you get caught, the authorities don't look too hard for that money. So you hand over Rp3 billion and you get put in jail for a year. When you come out you still have Rp2 billion your friend has been looking after."

And, he adds, while the KPK's conviction rate might be impressive, it has done little to return the proceeds of corruption to the state, continuing a remarkable level of oversight that predates the KPK's formation in 2002. 

The lawyer notes that possibly one of the biggest cases of corruption in the world occurred with the Bank Indonesia Liquidity Assistance program, which handed over some $70 billion to banks that were collapsing during the economic crisis of 1997-98.

Most of that money simply disappeared. Yet the authorities have tried, mostly unsuccessfully, to pursue the culprits rather than to seize assets that are clearly visible.

One failed banker is still wanted in connection with the bail-out of his bank but little effort has been spent to sequester the assets of profitable companies now run by his wife. 

"I believe that if people found to have engaged in corruption were stripped of their assets and made poor corruption would stop," said the lawyer.

And, he adds, if you do go to jail, luxurious conditions can be bought and "leave passes" can be negotiated in return for payments to warders. A jail term isn't much of a punishment and felons usually can keep their ill-gotten gains. 

"Systems are not properly implemented so that corruption becomes possible," said the lawyer.

"If you look at any example, just a small business, the books are kept in such a way that it's very hard for the owner to be sure that the money is being used properly. It does not matter how good your accounting system is. You can give people the Koran or the Bible but that doesn't mean they will do what these books say." 

In a country where the Muslim majority is extremely cautious about the halal status of food, drinks and even vaccines — often rumored to use pig enzymes — righteous behavior appears not to be a consideration for many who are subject to financial temptation. 

Some Muslims are speaking out about such double standards. Dahnil Anzar, head of the Muhammadiyah Youth faction of the major religious organization, expressed his concerns at a congress of the youth movement in January.

Corruption, which he pointed out should be the enemy of Islam, in recent times had not seen much resistance from Muslim circles even though it represented an obstacle to improved public welfare and national development. 

"Muhammadiyah Youth are extremely concerned about the issue of corruption because it is one of the main reasons why development is stifled. As young leaders we have to speak out about this," he told the congress. 

He expressed concern about the utilization of religious themes to assist political ambitions, which he implied represented another form of corruption.

"If a politician is prepared to engage in vote-buying he is also likely to use any other tools available to win, including religion, which they turn into a commodity."   

With another round of regional elections this June and national and presidential elections next year, religion is likely to be an issue much talked about, but whether Indonesians become any holier is a different matter. 

Keith Loveard, who has been reporting on Indonesia for nearly three decades, is a Jakarta-based risk analyst. 


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