Over the last month, an administrative tug of war has gripped the anti-corruption community in Indonesia – and beyond. The dismantling of the Corruption Eradication Commission (KPK) has reached a decisive point: the sudden, some say orchestrated, dismissal of some of its most dedicated employees.
The KPK was established during Indonesia’s reform period in the early 2000s, to respond to demands to address the rampant corruption that was a feature of the Soeharto regime. It quickly became one of the world’s most powerful and independent anti-corruption institutions.
When it began operations in 2004, a government regulation granted the agency substantial autonomy in its human resources management system, which the KPK used to ensure the integrity and competence of its staff.
This control over personnel is considered good practice by international standards for anticorruption agencies, especially when the state, and law enforcement in particular, is part of the corruption problem.
In Indonesia’s case, the KPK’s competent and honest staff has been crucial to its track record of success—a track record that includes bringing more than 700 cases, the vast majority of which resulted in guilty verdicts against members of Indonesia’s national and regional political elite.
But the KPK’s threat to vested interests has provoked strong resistance. This resistance has taken many forms, from judicial hostility, orchestrated demonstrations and threats, personal attacks on members of the organisation, and the stalling the agency’s budget, to attempts to curtail its authority and autonomy through new legislation.
The most devastating development was the revised Law on the KPK (Law No. 19 of 2019), which was pushed through the legislature in rapid time without input from the public or the KPK. Anger over the revised law was a major factor in triggering the largest student and civil society protests since the fall of Soeharto, under the banner of Reform Corrupted (#Reformasi Dikorupsi).
The 2019 KPK Law effectively stripped the KPK of autonomy in important investigative functions and in its human resources management. Under the law, the KPK is to be integrated into the state apparatus by September 2021, and its employees must become regular civil servants, affecting their independence.
As part of this integration process, the government required all KPK officials to take a specially concocted “national vision exam”. To be clear, neither the 2019 KPK Law nor its implementing regulations explicitly require such a test, which differs from the standard civil service entrance exam that all civil servants must take.
Rather, this special test was developed by the National Civil Service Agency (BKN) in collaboration with the Indonesian Armed Forces (TNI), State Intelligence Agency (BIN) and the National Counter Terrorism Agency (BNPT) to identify KPK officers who were “radical” and lacked neutrality and integrity, and were therefore presumably unfit for future civil service.
Seventy-five KPK employees failed this special exam. That may not seem like a big deal, both because 75 people amounts to less than 6% of the KPK’s staff of more than 1,300 employees, and because failing a civil service exam is reasonable grounds for dismissal. But as the names of those who failed the test were made public, and details emerged about the questions and the process, many critics have raised legitimate concerns.
Even before the test was administered, the KPK employees’ union (which will cease to exist after the conversion of the KPK into a regular civil service agency) warned that the test could be misused. It said the test could be used to legitimise the marginalisation or dismissal of KPK officers who handle strategic cases or hold strategic positions in the agency. And now that the results have come out, it looks like these fears were well founded.
Several of those who failed the test have been in managerial positions with the KPK since it began operations in 2004. Others, who joined later, have been at the forefront of the KPK’s most prominent investigations. These individuals underwent a rigorous selection process to join the KPK in the first place. Some had been regular civil servants before joining the KPK, meaning that they had already passed the regular civil service entrance exam. And all of them passed “integrity” tests, administered by independent private sector consultants, before joining the KPK and pledging to abide by the KPK’s Code of Ethics.
If there were reasons to suspect improper behaviour by any of these officers, this could have, and would have, been investigated by the KPK’s ethics committee. The KPK ethics committee was an ad hoc body set up by the KPK leadership to investigate suspected misconduct. Many members of the ethics committee set up in 2019 to investigate alleged ethical breaches by KPK chair Firli Bahuri, when he was then the head of KPK’s law enforcement division, are now among the 75 facing dismissal.
As for the test itself, very few of the questions seem to have anything to do with integrity or competence. Some are odd, to put it mildly. For example, respondents had to state how much they agreed (on a five-point scale) with a series of strange statements that would seem to have little to do with their competence to serve as KPK officers, including “I have a bleak future”, “I live to atone for past sins”, “Religion is the result of human thought”, “I believe in the unseen and the practice of teaching without questioning”, and “Homosexuals should be given corporal punishment”.
Other questions may have been designed to ferret out those who harbour racial prejudice (“All Chinese are the same”, “All Japanese are cruel”) or religious extremism (“Blasphemers must be put to death”). Even as a test of radicalism or prejudice, the test seems poorly designed, as it seems obvious what the “politically correct” answer to these questions would be.
In addition to the questionnaire, KPK employees had to write an essay on highly politicised topics such as the Free Papua Movement (OPM), the Communist Party of Indonesia (PKI), and the Islamic Defenders Front (FPI). They were also interviewed by a panel that included representatives from the BNPT, BIN, and the Army’s Intelligence and Psychological Services, and asked questions on their marital status and religious practices at home.
For these reasons, many suspect that this test was not really about vetting KPK officers for their qualifications as civil servants, but was rather a poorly disguised attempt to silence some of the more outspoken and unrelenting KPK officers.
Anti-corruption activists have spoken out strongly against the way the test was administered, and the firing of the 75 staff. They have also drawn attention to the reputational damage done to the 75 fired staff, who may be stigmatised as intolerant, radical, or lacking nationalism.
Public pressure led President Joko “Jokowi” Widodo to issue a statement saying that the test should not be used as the basis for dismissing the 75 employees. But the president’s statement was not followed up by action by the government and did not put an end to the process. Rather, the KPK leadership announced a week later that the decision on 24 of the 75 staff was being re-evaluated, meaning that 51 staff still face certain dismissal. Who the 24 are has not been made known so far – not even to those concerned – and all 75 staff remain suspended for now.
The 75 have filed a complaint with the KPK’s Supervisory Board (Dewan Pengawas) against the KPK leadership (consisting of chair Firli and four other commissioners). The Supervisory Board is a new body established under the 2019 KPK Law, replacing the less powerful ethics committee. Some of the 75 also filed a separate complaint against one of the five members of the Supervisory Board itself.
The Supervisory Board, which is appointed by the president, was among the features of the new KPK Law criticised by anti-corruption activists (for its power to decide on the issuance of warrants). But its independence from the KPK leadership may now prove a blessing.
The board is chaired by a former public prosecutor who was one of the commissioners who built the KPK between 2003 and 2007: Tumpak Hatorangan Panggabean. In addition, the president appointed a former judge and three academics to the board.
The board is now in the challenging position of being asked to decide the complaints against the KPK leadership and one of its own members. The complainants allege that the leadership introduced the requirement of a test overnight without consulting the KPK administration, in breach of KPK integrity and leadership principles.
The costs of the test, Rp 1.9 billion (about A$173,000), was not part of KPK’s original budget for 2021 and had to be retroactively included. All this points to a last minute, surprise move by the KPK leadership. It could be poor planning, disregard of internal procedures, or crafty tactics to get rid of certain staff – either way, it is not good.
The separate complaint was made about Supervisory Board member Indriyanto Seno Adji, a law professor who was only appointed to the board in April. Indriyanto appeared at a press conference given by the KPK leadership to discuss the test results and separately described the test as an “appropriate legal procedure”. Complainants argue that his apparent support of the process constitutes a conflict of interest.
The board, without Indriyanto, has 60 days to make a ruling. It is not clear what happens in the case of a split decision, considering his absence creates even numbers on the board.
Both sides in this tug of war have considerable experience and resourceful legal practitioners within their ranks. Both are willing and able to use the full legal and administrative arsenal at their disposal.
It is unfortunate to see that the “battle” against corruption has turned into a battle within the KPK, among those supposedly pursuing the same mission. It shows how high the stakes have risen for those wanting to make a difference in an environment that still nurtures grand scale corruption.
An earlier, shorter version of this article was published on the Global Anticorruption Blog, as “A Bleak Future for Indonesia’s Anticorruption Commission?” on 10 May 2021.