Editorial: A Worse Indonesia

Editorial Omong-Omong

6 min read

A recent torture case in which a tax officer’s son was beating up a teenager to coma has open a Pandora box, unveiling flaws in President Joko “Jokowi” Widodo’s administration and showing failure of Finance Minister Sri Mulyani Indrawati in reforming her office, and further confirming suggestion that Indonesia is actually in worse condition by most standards now than before he took office in 2014.

When a 20-year-old tax officer’s son, Mario Dandy Satrio, whose father’s money was apparent in the fact that he rode a 2-billion-rupiah (USD130,000) Rubicon jeep, tortured to a coma a 17-year-old boy just for a fun, there was no doubt that the case would have hit a dead-end whenever it reached the police’s office.

That’s just what happens in Indonesia. Those with money, like Mario and his friends, can almost always buy their way out. Well, almost.

It was supposed to be just another case of youth violence attack out of jealousy. Nobody would have thought that it would grow to shatter the mighty Tax Office, panicking its heads and officers, while threatening the credibility of the powerful Ministry of Finance with globally respectable Sri Mulyani Indrawati as the boss, let alone exposing flaws in the crucial parts of President Joko “Jokowi” Widodo’s administration and threatening to destroy the myths he has been trying to build.

Only this time, David Latumahina, the teen boy who was tortured, is the son of an official at the Indonesia’s biggest Islamic organization. Certainly, his family and his organization, Ansor, a youth wing of Nahdlatul Ulama, could not and would not want to be silenced. Furthermore, a video clip of the torture becomes viral in the social media, unveiling not only inhumane and sadistic behavior of these young brats but also suspicion of corruption against the father, Rafael Alun Trisambodo, a mid-level employee at the Tax Office, while opening pandora box of demonstrating Jokowi’s massive failure in eradicating corruption, and applying his “revolusi mental” to change Indonesia’s bad habits, as well as Sri Mulyani’s  inability to clean the notorious tax department she has been promising to do since the power couple took over Indonesia almost 10 years ago.

From his official report of his assets to the state the public then knows that Rafael has total assets of 56 billion rupiah, meaning the Finance Ministry has well aware that one of its mid-level employees has unusual and suspicious amount of wealth, and has not taken any action until this torture incident exploded.

But possibly also, Rafael’s report of huge amount of assets could be just a common practice among tax officers that it is considered ordinary that it does not attract any attention from his bosses, who, perhaps, have more assets than him.

The aftermath of the incident only confirmed Sri Mulyani’s inability to take tough and drastic action she was supposed to do. Rather than acknowledging how rotten his ministry, including the Tax Office, is, and how prevalent corruption among his own subordinates, and thus accordingly, should have ordered revelation of all assets and bank accounts of her employees, she blames Rafael’s lavish lifestyle and his show-off to the public, rather than questioning how a mid-level employee like him could accumulate such amount of assets.

In a similar tone, Director General of Taxation Suryo Utomo also issues a video, warning his subordinates not to do a show-off.

Are these officials suggesting that you can accept bribes and steal as long as you don’t show it off?

The public has been long suspicious against corrupt practices, especially at the Tax Office and Custom and Excise Unit, while other civil servants have been voicing their grudges upon special treatment the Finance Minister’s employees get in terms of higher grade and salary, and Rafael’s extraordinary wealth only confirms it, destroying the trust, if any, the public has, on the institutions, with many people in the social media mocked the ministry, questioning if there is any use to pay taxes at all now that the money is stolen.

The torture incident followed by a suspicion of corruption against Rafael can’t be seen as tax problem alone, and isolated from Indonesia’s condition in general under Jokowi. This is a norm rather than exception. And it’s just a matter of when such a case pops up to the public as when you randomly pick any employee within the tax office, chances are you will get Rafael type of guy.

Besides, are we that naïve to believe that what has been officially reported by these officials is honest, and they have nothing to hide anymore? The Corruption Eradication Commission have checked and investigated assets reports submitted by state officials during 2018-2020 period, and finds that 95 percent of the reports were inaccurate and understated. It means that most of officials have not been honest in reporting their wealth, and possibly have stashed away the majority of their assets. If, for instance, Rafael reported that his wealth is 56 billion rupiah then it could be much higher. Also, if Director General of Taxation Suryo Utomo claims in his report that his assets stood at 14.4 billion rupiah, who’s going to believe that it is not understated?

All of these concerns explain why Indonesia’s tax to GDP ratio is low – one of the lowest in Asia and the Pacific, considering Indonesia’s almost 280 million population. Indonesia’s tax-to-GDP ratio was 10.1% in 2020, below the Asia and Pacific average of 19.1% by 9.0 percentage points, and only above Bhutan and Laos out of 28 countries in the region. These also explain why the country ends up borrowing and borrowing from abroad to finance Jokowi’s outlandish projects.

Last year, for instance, Indonesia’s tax income reached 1,716 trillion rupiah, and with other revenues, Indonesia only has 2,2660 trillion rupiah to finance the whole things. But in that same year the country’s expenditure reached 3,106 trillion rupiah. It means Indonesia then must borrow around 850 trillion rupiah last year, piling up Indonesia’s accumulative foreign debts to more than 7,000 trillion rupiah. And the debt will continue to rise as this year Indonesia has already planned to borrow some more because the tax revenue can’t follow the increase of the expenditure.

The saddest thing this is that – looking at Rafael’s corrupt lifestyle – this money will be shared among officials and their business partners. Even Abdullah Azwar Anas, minister of administrative and bureaucratic reform, admitted recently that around 500 trillion rupiah allocated for poor families have been stolen by officials.

Even in the fields where Jokowi is mentioned to have been successful, especially in infrastructure development, allegations of corruption, wastefulness and inefficiency have been rampant.

How many land grabbing have taken place? How many have land conflicts between developers, government officials and villagers taken place? Check high-speed train project from Jakarta to Bandung, for instance. The project seems to never completed with hundreds of billion rupiah of state money have been taken to finance the project which is supposed to be financed from China’s loan. Are we stupid enough to deny that there are corruption and bribery in the project?

Also, recent reports have unveiled the bankruptcy of several state-owned firms that have tasked to develop these infrastructure projects.

Almost 10 Years, and Back to Square One, or Even Worse

Jokowi’s rise to power has been based on two perceptions pushed by foreign media and many inside the country. First, he is not part of Soeharto’s New Order circle, coming from the region and a humble start as just small-time business from small town in Central Java. He is the first Indonesian president not to be from the military or the political elite. Secondly, he forged a reputation for being a ‘clean’ politician, avoiding the charges of corruption and nepotism which plague most politicians.

With these perceptions, the expectation was that he could be independent and pursue policies based on the interests of people as he has not owed anybody, and that his administration could be free from corruption. He was hailed as a reformer who would protect civil liberties and promote better governance.

Also, because Jokowi is a civilian and has no military background whatsoever, plus he enjoys rising to power through free and fair election, he was expected to create a more democratic and free Indonesia, with respect to human rights as a priority, while unifying the whole Indonesia – liberal and conservative groups alike — under his leadership. But what he has done are almost all contrary to the expectations. Jokowi has appeared to belong to the oligarchs rather than becoming the people’s president he has portrayed himself to be.

Rafael’s alleged corruption, for instance, has showcased rampant corruption within his administration. But this case is only a result of Jokowi’s own doing. He has dismantled the Corruption Eradication Commission (KPK) – once corrupt officials’ most feared agency but most beloved by the public – while turning a blind eye to corruption by people in his inner circle.

He was also accused of nepotism by supporting his son, and son-in-law and possibly later in 2024 his youngest son to contest for public office, and has his sister married to the chairman of the Constitutional Court without asking his brother in law to step down from his job which can determine which law can or can’t be applied for the nation, or without showing any concerns that it was a conflict of interests and betrayal of democratic principles from whatever point you look at it.

It’s no surprise that the 2022 Corruption Perception Index (CPI) published this February by the Transparency International shows that Indonesia has become significantly more corrupt, dropping 4 points in its score from 38 in 2021 to 34 in 2022, the biggest drop the country has ever experienced in a single year. In the global ranking, Indonesia ranks 110th out of 180 countries surveyed, crashing down from number 96 in 2021.

When Jokowi took power in 2014, he inherited from his predecessor, Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono a CPI score of 34. As things will only get worse leading to 2024 elections, Jokowi will leave Indonesia more corrupt in 2024 than when he took the job in 2014.

As corruption is highly related to the country’s state of democracy, Indonesia’s democracy and human rights have take the hardest beating during Jokowi’s era.

Just a year after he took office, global democracy think-tank Freedom House in 2015 downgraded Indonesia’s status from “free” to “partly free”. In 2019, Thomas Power and Eve Warburton, editors of “Democracy in Indonesia: From Stagnation to Regression”, write that “Indonesia’s democracy had sunk to its lowest point since the end of the New Order.”

If not for the country’s abundant commodities which have been sold cheaply, and people of Indonesia who use their money for consumption, Indonesia’s economy would have sunk altogether.

If we are not in a better place now compare to before 2014, what has Jokowi been doing the whole time?

Jokowi and his inner circle as well as his officials can play any tune to mask such as spectacular waste of time, money, resources and destruction of environment. But The Beatles’ George Harrison sings it better: “Cause, I am the taxman, yeah, I am the taxman…be thankful I don’t take it all…”.

Editorial Omong-Omong

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