Wednesday, June 8, 2011

Indonesian politicians on the lam

The Singapore slink

TO SEE Indonesian shoppers strolling along Singapore’s Orchard Road, or to overhear their Bahasa Indonesia in the elevators of some of the city-state’s most exclusive medical centres is unremarkable. After all, the countries are only a short plane ride part, and more affluent Indonesians often take shopping trips or seek medical care in Singapore.

But some Indonesians who lurk around Singapore these days give new meaning to the phrase “weekend escape”. A delegation from the Democratic party of Indonesia’s president, Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, were in Singapore this past weekend in a bizarre attempt to persuade the party’s former treasurer, Muhammad Nazaruddin, to return home to face questioning over allegations of corruption. Mr Nazaruddin, who is also a member of Indonesia’s parliament, had been sacked as treasurer last month after being accused of taking kickbacks from the winning bid to build athletes’ dormitories for the upcoming South-East Asia Games. A few days before this, the chief justice of Indonesia’s constitutional court publicly claimed that Mr Nazaruddin had given a court official an unsolicited payment of 120,000 Singapore dollars ($97,000) last year “as a gift”.

Perhaps fearing that his goose was cooked, Mr Nazaruddin followed the well-worn playbook of Indonesian corruption suspects: he caught a flight to Singapore on May 23rd, one day before Indonesia’s Corruption Eradication Commission (KPK) could secure a travel ban against him. Meanwhile the KPK has been attempting to track down another corruption suspect, Nunun Nurbaeti. Mrs Nurbaeti, an Indonesian businesswoman, left for Singapore last year after being implicated in a bribery scandal involving dozens of lawmakers. Her husband claims she has been there for medical treatment, for a rare condition that “makes her forgetful”. She may have travelled to Thailand and then Cambodia in recent weeks to avoid meeting a posse of KPK officials in Singapore, according to Indonesian authorities. For his part, Mr Nazaruddin claimed to journalists that he was in Singapore for a medical check-up. Democratic Party officials reported on Monday that Mr Nazaruddin told them he was ill, having lost 18 kilograms in just two weeks.

Indonesia remains among the most corrupt countries in Asia, despite a high-profile anti-graft campaign by Mr Yudhoyono. On June 6th the president ordered Indonesia’s foreign ministry to do whatever it takes to arrest Mrs Nurbaeti and bring her back to Indonesia. The weekend confab with Mr Nazaruddin wasn’t the first time that an Indonesian government team was sent to Singapore to locate a high-profile corruption suspect. Last year members of a task force appointed by Mr Yudhoyono found a mid-level tax official, Gayus Tambunan, who allegedly bribed senior Indonesian police, prosecutors, and a judge after being caught with millions of suspicious dollars, at a shopping centre on Orchard Road. They persuaded him to return voluntarily to Jakarta to face trail.

However, Mr Tambunan’s return is quite the exception. The recent daily headlines about the hunt for Mr Nazaruddin and Mrs Nurbaeti have once again highlighted the uncomfortable fact that Indonesia and Singapore don’t have an extradition treaty. Numerous Indonesian corruption suspects have passed through Singapore over the years, include bank owners who are alleged to have stole billions of dollars in state bailout funds during the 1997-1998 Asian financial crisis. In 2007 Indonesia submitted more than a dozen extradition requests with Singapore that are still pending.

The strange thing is that the countries actually did sign a joint extradition-and-defence agreement in 2007. But then the Indonesian parliament refused to ratify it, claiming that the defence pact would compromise Indonesia’s security by giving Singapore the right to conduct military exercises in Indonesian airspace and maritime territory. Some critics have charged that lawmakers blocked the extradition treaty so that Singapore could remain a safe haven for the sort of Indonesian corruption suspects who donate to their campaigns—or even a refugee for themselves.

An interesting statistic could support the latter claim: In 2010, 37.7% of all Indonesians named corruption suspects by the KPK were current or former members of parliament, according to Indonesia Corruption Watch.

None of this of course has stopped Indonesian officials and politicians in recent days from trying to deflect criticism by blaming the Singaporean government for not ratifying the treaty. This is yet another well-rehearsed call from the Indonesian playbook: a former vice-president, Jusuf Kalla, once accused Singapore of not wanting to part with billions of dollars that fugitive businessmen keep in its banking system; and the former president B.J. Habibie once accused Singapore of harbouring “economic criminals”. According to a wealth report by Merrill Lynch and Capgemini in 2006, around one-third of the 55,000 millionaires who lived in Singapore at that time were Indonesian, with assets totalling a staggering $87 billion.

The Singaporean government has flatly rejected such claims. One Singaporean official told The Economist that his government signed the extradition treaty back in 2007 and has been waiting ever since for the Indonesian parliament to ratify it, along with the defence pact. The official also noted that Singapore has repeatedly expressed its willingness to consider sending Indonesian corruption suspects home—even without a treaty in place—if the Indonesian government provides adequate evidence that they had committed crimes. Meanwhile Singapore has yet to arrest or extradite any of Indonesia’s current white-collar fugitives.

Whether these latest fugitive scandals are goad enough for Mr Yudhoyono’s government to push the extradition treaty through parliament remains to be seen. Though the president has won two elections on a platform of zero-tolerance for graft, his stance on this issue looks markedly lacking in determination. Other disturbing questions remain: why do high-profile corruption suspects always seem able to slip out of Indonesia, just before a travel ban is issued? And why don’t the Indonesian government and parliament make the extradition treaty a national priority? Until these questions are answered, it’s likely that both the fugitive suspects and the Indonesian government teams that cajole them will have reason to carry on skulking about Singapore. There may be billions of purloined dollars at stake. The Economist

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