A Voyage Into the Darkness of Indonesian Corruption

by Angela Dewan
Asia Sentinel
18 JANUARY 2011

The Travels of Taxman Tambunan

If Jonathan Swift had written a satire on corruption in Indonesia, he couldn’t have imagined a more farcical plot than that involving Gayus Tambunan. In just eight months, the detained civil servant, a mid-level tax official, managed to bribe his way out of prison 68 times, fly to at least three other countries in a dubious disguise and even bribe his way out of bribery charges.

A frustrated President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono Monday demanded an end to the affair and issued orders to look into 149 companies said to have benefited from the tax official’s services, including as much as US$1 billion in taxes allegedly evaded by companies controlled by Aburizal Bakrie, the head of the Golkar political party and one of Indonesia’s richest businessmen. It is a story that illustrates how deeply corruption reaches into the Indonesian government, including the national police, the courts, the prosecutor’s office, the immigration department, the prison system, the tax agency and others. It has also tarnished Yudhoyono’s reputation as a reformer.

Tambunan, back in jail, presumably for a long stretch, was so audacious in his antics that he captivated and even impressed Indonesians, who have dubbed him SuperGayus in local media – one newspaper even named him Man of the Year.

After several secret jaunts abroad, Tambunan was finally busted when a photojournalist covering an international tennis tournament in Bali snapped the slippery 31-year-old in the audience sporting an unconvincing wig of lustrous black locks and thick-rimmed glasses.

Tambunan was supposed to be sitting in a police cell awaiting trial for accepting Rp28 billion (US$3 million) in bribes to doctor the tax returns of three companies linked to the Bakrie Group. He denied for weeks that the photo depicted him. “I prefer golf,” was his sole response to reporters’ allegations outside the courtroom.

When he finally admitted what everyone could see, he showed little understanding that bribing his way out of prison, hopping on a plane to a resort island and checking into an upmarket hotel with family on illegally obtained money was wrong.

“I had never expected that my leave would trigger such a major controversy,” he said.

“I have been so stressed since being detained and I thought I would take a little vacation because I also saw that several other high-profile detainees were allowed to leave.”

It wasn’t long before the nation found out that it wasn’t the first time Tambunan had been outside the prison walls. After images of him in disguise appeared in the media, a reader of the Kompas daily newspaper wrote a letter to the editor saying she had spotted the same man on a flight to Singapore in September.

It turned out that the mop-headed, bespectacled man had a name, Sony Laksono, and his very own forged passport. Tambunan took romps to China, Singapore and Malaysia during his supposed detention.

It seems he will not be worming his way out of prison this time although he is certainly still trying. Last week, the disgraced tax official made one last attempt to save himself – and his country – from corruption. In his final address to the South Jakarta District Court, where he faces 20 years’ imprisonment, Tambunan offered an unsavory plea-bargain.

“Make me an expert assistant to the National Police chief, the attorney general or the KPK [Corruption Eradication Commission] chairman, and I promise within two years Indonesia will be clean,” he said. “I will help net the big fish.”

The suggestion has been met with ridicule. What the case has exposed, however, that rules and regulations can be bent every which way with money and bargaining chips to pervert everyday life in Indonesia. The case has become much larger than Tambunan himself, involving vast amounts of money and corrupt players on all fronts.

A prison warden and guards, for example, were bribed to let Tambunan out of his cell; a TV news program allegedly paid a man to pose as a case broker for corrupt national police; police officers took bribes to not search Tambunan’s house for evidence; a businessman bribed a police officer with a Harley Davidson motorcycle in exchange for dropping him as suspect in the case; immigration officials are being questioned over a passport forgery syndicate; and, most disturbing, prosecutors and a judge allegedly accepted billions of rupiah to reduce Tambunan’s money-laundering and graft charges to embezzlement and then acquit him.

Sink your fishing line anywhere in the putrid pond and you will no doubt come up with a catch. And, as Tambunan himself pointed out, there are indeed bigger fish to fry although given Indonesia’s record, there is precious little evidence that any additional frying will be done.

The biggest fish to bite so far is Bahasyim Assifie, former head of investigations for the Jakarta Tax Office tax directorate, who is on trial for graft after Rp932 billion was found in various family bank accounts. When Assifie was put on trial, the jokes about SuperTambunan began to subside – it became clear that that there was a lot more to this case than Rp28 billion, a comical wig and pair of glasses, and that the corrupt tax mafia was very real.

Just as real is the judicial mafia. Allowing the corrupt judiciary to deal with the corrupt tax office has proven a waste of time, and, ironically, taxpayers’ money.

Almost weekly, another suspect is implicated in this case, which began in 2009 when the Rp28 billion was found in Tambunan’s local bank account. As the case becomes more convoluted, it further ridicules Indonesia’s democracy and Indonesian President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, who has won two presidential terms on a fervent corruption-fighting platform.

Yudhoyono, Indonesia’s first democratically elected leader, won his people’s approval by backing the effective anti-graft body, the KPK, which prosecuted some of the nation’s most senior corrupt officials. But the former general appears to have lost his zeal for reform when his second presidential term began in 2009.

“In the early stages of Yudhoyono’s second term, he publicly said that the KPK had too much power and that the KPK must not go unchecked,” Erry Riyana Hardjapamekas, a former KPK commissioner, told Asia Sentinel. “But everybody knows that even the public can check the KPK’s performance, and the KPK has its own internal controls.”

Why Yudhoyono turned on the KPK is not exactly known, but it seems no coincidence that he soured at the same time his government became mired in a Rp6.7 trillion bank bailout scandal, in which he lost his best minister and right-hand woman, then-Finance Minister Sri Mulyani Indrawati.

With plans to reform Indonesia’s frail tax system, Sri Mulyani went head-to-head with Bakrie, who in a recent Financial Times story was called “Indonesia’s shadow president.” His family owns the Bakrie Group, to which the three companies accused of bribing Tambunan to cook their tax records are linked.

With law enforcers who have proven themselves unreliable, hope is now pegged on the KPK, which is cooperating with police and has been called on by activists to take over the case.

But after a number of attempts by the corrupt elite and the police to weaken the KPK since 2009, it is unclear whether the KPK has retained enough clout to take on the tax mafia and its allies.

While no one is interested in Tambunan’s offer to clean up Indonesia, the one figure that could step in and make a difference is the president – if he has now indeed come out of hiding to realign himself with the KPK.

“He always says he cannot interfere in the legal process,” said Hardjapamekas, the former KPK commissioner. “But as head of state, the police and others are under his command. It’s not about interfering but controlling and checking that subordinates follow the due process of law.”

  1. #1 by yhsiew on Sunday, 23 January 2011 - 9:59 pm

    I think “A Voyage Into the Darkness of Malaysian Corruption” is more appropriate, after all Malaysia is no better than Indonesia as far as corruption is concerned.

  2. #2 by jus legitimum on Sunday, 23 January 2011 - 10:26 pm

    True.Whatever that happens in Indonesia can also happen in Malaysia.After all,they are abang and adik.The important thing is corruption must be dealt with fast and effectively otherwise it will suck the country dry.No wonder countries like Indonesia and Malaysia are always frowned upon as corrupted and backward.Now we also can understand why Singapore under LKY can become the only developed nation in SEA.

  3. #3 by tak tahan on Sunday, 23 January 2011 - 10:41 pm

    I will say voyage into deep blue ocean from the starting point a couple courting on the beach follow by the cheap thrill to experience in the deep water.The leader is not even good enough to swim least to say rescuing the other.We need to change a better life safer.

  4. #4 by dagen on Monday, 24 January 2011 - 12:20 am

    Oh malaysia is better at the game. Look. Didnt our umno guys score better than the indons in illicit money outflow? And clearly those silly americans who compiled the data to rank malaysia did not know better. Jib himself said that if zeti was not doing her job then the outflow would be substantially larger! Not just larger but substantially so.

  5. #5 by monsterball on Monday, 24 January 2011 - 7:18 am

    Golka party under the late President Soharto became big time crooks when Mahathir was PM in Malaysia and treat each other as long lost brothers.
    There is no doubt in my mind…that Mahathir taught Soharto how to get Golka party govern forever.
    And Taksin openly embraced Mahathir and call him teacher too.
    When you have a brave President like Susilo in Indonesia that cares for the people and country….getting rid of corruptions by netting up all big fishes first.. is his priority…look so easy.
    In Malaysia…our government is still showing to Indonesia how to avoid being caught….with all sorts of magician tricks never seen by the whole world.
    I have said time and time again…Indonesia is a sincere democratic country.
    Malaysia is just window dressing.
    Having said that…Indonesians…especially the University students are the driving force to get rid of corruptions..no matter how powerful a corrupted government is.
    So successful…to bring down the mighty Golka party…you get Mahathir telling Malay University students in Malaysia…not to talk or participate in politics..in spite of the fact they are the most educated people in Malaysia and are the future leaders of the country..and so many are eligible voters too.
    Such is our country standard of understanding towards sense and sensibilities against advises that are just the opposite…as UMNO B still governs after 12th GE.
    Will our country be guided towards getting rid of corruptions by the people…just like the Indonesians doing that 10 years ago…or do Malaysians need more time to wake up?
    Are we really smarter than Indonesians?
    You ask Indonesians and almost all know UMNO B is not to be trusted or respected….because Mahathir make always project his UMNO B party members are the smartest Muslims in the world…insulting Indonesia …Islam religion..non stop…and with no second thought.
    Yes Indonesians hates UMNO B party..not Malaysians.

  6. #6 by waterfrontcoolie on Monday, 24 January 2011 - 6:48 pm

    At least in Indonesia, some semblance of actions is being taken. Here even a smallish fish like the late ‘Chia-Kow-lia” could not be roped in!!!!

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