A file photo of the Corruption Eradication Commission (KPK) building seen in window reflections.

A file photo of the Corruption Eradication Commission (KPK) building seen in window reflections past an Indonesian national flag in Jakarta. (Photo: Bay Ismoyo / AFP)

When Busting the Graft Busters is Not On

Published

A series of changes in Indonesia’s KPK will seriously dent the anti-graft body’s ability to investigate cases of corruption.

On 5 May, the Indonesian anti-graft commission, known as KPK (Komisi Pemberantasan Korupsi), announced that 75 out of a total of 1,351 KPK employees who had participated in the state’s Nationhood Test did not pass the assessment. The test was held following the revision of the 2002 KPK Law in 2019, which ruled that, among other things, the employment status of KPK staff would be changed to that of civil servants. Previously, the KPK was categorised as an autonomous state body. 

Due to the change of the employment status, KPK staff are required to participate in the Nationhood Test, just like other Indonesian civil servants. Usually, this test is for people who are about to join state or government institutions at the entry-level. Since many KPK employees have worked for many years in the graft-busting institution, the National Civil Service Agency (BKN) formulated a different kind of test. The test sought to measure employees’ “nationhood perspective” and used three indicators: “neutrality, integrity and anti-radicalism.” The agency claims that to ensure the objectivity and the fairness of the test, it used various methods. This included getting KPK employees to fill up the Integrity and Nationhood Moderation IndexAssessors from various state institutions, including the Army’s Psychology Office and the National Counter-Terrorism Agency (BNPT), also investigated and interviewed the employees.

The process sounded innocuous enough. But the test results ran into fierce criticism from the public. There were suspicions that it was a ploy to get rid of KPK investigators who are not only critical to KPK current commissioners but who also play pivotal roles in investigating some high-profile corruption cases. The suspicion stems from some questions posed in the test that the public and KPK employees consider too private, too political, and irrelevant. For example, some employees were asked about their opinions on free sex, their marriage status and the legal prosecution of radical Muslim cleric Rizieq Shihab. The public’s suspicion increased after it was disclosed that some senior investigators were among the 75 employees who had failed the test. In the eyes of the people, the test is aimed at purging them from the KPK. 

Despite the public criticism, Firli Bahuri — the chief of the KPK and an active police general — pushed on to suspend the employment status of 75 KPK employees. This could have led to the termination of their employment. After the saga dragged on for around two weeks, President Joko Widodo finally intervened. On 17 May, the president called on the KPK and other related institutions such as the BKN to keep the said staff on the payroll.

Whatever its result, the saga would continue to dent the KPK’s capacity in investigating corruption cases. Since its founding in 2003, the KPK has gone through many ups and downs. It survived three of the gravest challenges in 2009, 2012 and 2015, when the much bigger state institution, namely the National Police, threatened and even arrested KPK commissioners and a senior investigator as part of the police’s retaliation manoeuvres. The anti-graft body had investigated and arrested police generals for corruption. On these three occasions, only the high-level interventions by President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono and President Joko Widodo saved the skin of the KPK. 

The public’s suspicion increased after it was disclosed that some senior investigators were among the 75 employees who had failed the test. In the eyes of the people, the test is aimed at purging them from the KPK. 

This time, however, the KPK faces a slate of challenges that are more systemic. Despite his recent support for the 75 KPK employees, President Joko Widodo has not mapped out concrete actions as to how to develop the KPK further. Apart from his support for the 75 KPK employees, the president does not appear to have a clear vision about where the KPK should be headed. In fact, he was responsible for letting the House of Representatives amend the KPK Law in 2019, which has significantly weakened the anti-graft body’s capacity to investigate corruption cases. On this, the president took an ambiguous stance: he neither signed into law the amendments to the 2002 KPK Law nor expressed any opposition to the amended law. The result: the president’s non-commital stance led to the passing of the amendments. In line with the 1945 Constitution, if the president does not sign the amended law 30 days after it has been proposed by the House of Representatives, the amended law automatically takes effect.

One of the amendments, namely the change of KPK status into civil servants, has far-reaching consequences for the institution. In effect, it makes the KPK part of the massive state bureaucracy. This will demoralise KPK employees because its staff, in particular the investigators, will be subject to intervention by state officials and other institutions. This intervention was manifested in the implementation of the Nationhood Test, through which the external parties such as the Army or BNPT can determine the employment status of KPK staff. At the bottom, the change reduces their militancy, independence and confidence in pursuing corruption cases. 

The KPK also faces challenges from within. The Nationhood Test resulted in intense organisational conflict. KPK Chief Firli Bahuri was eager for the test to take place, but some senior KPK investigators and officials who had failed the test were less keen. This conflict will affect the KPK’s performance in probing corruption cases in the coming months. 

In its storied history, the KPK has proven itself capable of weathering the gravest challenges that threatened its existence. But the series of structured efforts by politicians aim to make the KPK come more under the control of the civil service. When it was established, the KPK’s effectiveness stemmed from its ability to investigate breaches and cases of corruption-free from government intervention or civil service control. Once that autonomy is reduced, the power of the country’s cherished institution will ebb. Put simply, the changes might become the proverbial nail in the coffin for the anti-graft body.

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