Why an environmentalist chose to join gov’t to fight corruption

Natashya Gutierrez

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Why an environmentalist chose to join gov’t to fight corruption
Here's what professor turned commissioner Laode M. Syarif plans to achieve during his time at the Corruption Eradication Commission

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JAKARTA, Indonesia – In Indonesia, corruption is practically a norm.

Many of the 250 million people living here accept corruption as pervasive, an omnipresent problem felt in the smallest of offices to the largest corporations – from the justice system, to the police force, to the private sector.

In 2015, NGO Transparency International’s Corruption Perceptions Index ranked Indonesia 88th in the world out of 168, and gave it a score of 36 – with zero being the most corrupt, and 100 to represent the absence of corruption in a country.

One of Indonesia’s former presidents, Suharto, who ruled for 31 years, is even ranked by the same NGO as the most corrupt leader in modern history.

So why then, did Laode Muhammad Syarif, who dedicated a large chunk of his life on protecting the environment, leave his job as a law professor at Hasanuddin University to become the Deputy Chairman of the Corruption Eradication Commission (KPK)?

While Syarif enjoyed his previous job, he said he could not turn down the invite to help the country.

“We knew the office was supported by the people of Indonesia,” he told Rappler. “Corruption is the enemy of the nation.”

“With all my heart, I take this job,” he said.

Syarif, who holds a PhD in international environment law from the University of Sydney, was not a complete stranger to the KPK, which was formed in 2002, 4 years after the fall of Suharto.

He was picked to join the KPK in December 2015 as a new commissioner until 2019 – the year President Joko “Jokowi” Widodo ends his term.

“I supported KPK for about 15 years, supported them through capacity building,” said Syarif, who was also a senior adviser to the Partnership for Governance Reform. 

But Syarif admits that now, as an insider, the reality is harsher. 

“When I joined the KPK, I [realized] that human resources here are very, very limited compared to the cases we receive every year or the corruption cases reported. We only have [few] investigators or prosecutors – less than 200 but we have to look after the whole Indonesia so it’s quite tough,” he said.

Lifting Indonesia

Compared to other Southeast Asian nation countries, Indonesia is behind some of its neighbors in corruption ratings, despite a bump in 2016.

Malaysia is ranked 54th in the world, with a score of 50; Thailand is on the 76th spot with a score of 38; while Singpore of course rides high at 8, with a score of 85.

In Indonesia, the problem of corruption persists, despite organizations like the KPK.  

 “It is very serious. It can be seen in our Corruption Perception Index,” he said.

But Syarif and his colleagues hope to make a difference during their term. The goal? “By the end of our term we hope to at least hit 50 in our Corruption Perception Index score.”

“We are still bad compared to other ASEAN countries. Malaysia, Thailand, of course Singapore – some of them already achieved 50 something. We are still 36 in the score,” he said.

Unfortunately, said Syarif, it is not all up to the KPK to lift the country in its rankings and reduce corruption. They plan to work closely with other government offices to make an impact, or to amplify recent improvements in rankings: Indonesia in 2015 rose from a score of 34 in 2014, up from 32 in 2013.

“In the prevention aspect, we will work with local government and ministries because one of the main component of Corruption Perception Index looks at the acuity of public service,” he said.

CORRUPT. Indonesia is viewed as quite corrupt by Transparency International, ranking it 88th out of 168 in the world. Screenshot from TI 

“It is not just the KPK itself, but it must be done by local governments, ministries, provincial governments that we work closely [with] to improve the quality of their service.”

Syarif also highlighted the need to work with civil society organizations, schools, and universities “for corruption eradication campaigns, so people are less willing to give bribes for example.”

Law enforcement corruption

But Syarif also noted that a major source of corruption are the law enforcement agencies themselves, citing it as “one of the main pull down factors in Indonesia’s score.” 

“That’s why we now work closely with police, authorities and the Supreme Court. Some of the new members of KPK come from police enforcement agencies,” he said.

“We still see a lot of problems within our law enforcement agency so we have to work closely with them.”

Jokowi’s latest police chief appointee could help. Former counterterrorism agency head Tito Karnavian is set to take over the police force. 

Karnavian, who is relatively cleaner in his record compared to others, also understands the problem of corruption in the agency – he said addressing it would be part of his agenda

Karnavian said he planned not only to address corruption internally, but externally as well. He highlighted the need to improve and promote the welfare of the officers “stage by stage, year to year renumeration” to address the root causes of corruption internally – good news for those like Syarif in the KPK.

Pervasive problem

While it is widely perceived that corruption permeates public offices like the Supreme Court and law enforcement agencies in Indonesia however, Syarif emphasized that in reality, “public sector corruption is only 30% and corruption happens mostly in the private sector, which is 70%.”

The problem, he said, is worsened by the fact that current laws do not account for corruption or bribery in the private sector. 

He said this corruption is present not just in a handful of multinational companies, but mostly national, Indonesia companies. 

“For example, companies from the UK or the EU, they have very strict internal rules equal to the US. But national companies do not have that,” he said.

All this, he said, could be further addressed with support from the executive and the parliament, although he said that “so far… we’ve gotten very good support.”

He said Indonesia also works closely with the anti-corruption commission in ASEAN countries especially Singapore, Malaysia and Thailand with whom they share dual operations. 

“ASEAN is a community and of course corruption needs to be specifically scrutinized because the movement of goods, and the movement of subsidies is highest amongst ASEAN countries and there is the possibility of corruption,” he said.  –

HOPEFUL. Laode M Syarif hopes to help lift Indonesia higher in rankings of the Corruption Perception Index during his term in the KPK. Photo by Uni Lubis/Rappler  

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Natashya Gutierrez

Natashya is President of Rappler. Among the pioneers of Rappler, she is an award-winning multimedia journalist and was also former editor-in-chief of Vice News Asia-Pacific. Gutierrez was named one of the World Economic Forum’s Young Global Leaders for 2023.