Irked by the customs service's long-tainted image as a hotbed of corruption and poor service, Finance Minister Sri Mulyani Indrawati took herself down to the docks to see how things have improved -- or worsened, as the case may be.
During an impromptu inspection of Tanjung Priok Port on Thursday, the minister -- to her satisfaction -- witnessed customs officers intercept a shipment of three luxury cars -- a Ferrari, a Lamborghini and a Rolls Royce Phantom -- worth Rp 11.8 billion (US$1.3 million) that were imported illegally through the misuse of diplomatic permits.
In recent months, the customs service at Tanjung Priok has also intercepted 117 commercial vehicles and used trucks that were improperly described on the customs documents as ambulances.
Other contraband involved 112 containers of banned bone meal worth Rp 5 billion, and thousands of gas cylinders -- which have recently been in the spotlight in relation to the government's gas conversion program.
There was also an attempt to illegally export 30 containers of unprocessed timber and rattan worth Rp 23 billion.
The interceptions and seizures represent the initial results of the reform of the Tanjung Priok customs office since it was designated in April as a pilot project as part of the Finance Ministry's latest effort to overhaul the service.
The ministry recently rescreened 4,000 of its 11,000 customs officials, with only 1,800 been reappointed to the service. It then recruited new officers, with some 800 of these currently assigned to Tanjung Priok Port.
"All institutions are prone to abuse of power, corruption, and other unscrupulous practices. But if we just talk about stopping it without doing anything, then nothing will actually happen," Sri Mulyani said.
"Cleaning up and beefing up Tanjung Priok is the first step for the customs service. Things should be better with new people and a new sense of integrity."
Sri Mulyani also referred to efforts to rescreen and reregister all customs clearance firms as most appeared to be deeply involved in bribery and smuggling.
Many regard the customs service as being among the most corrupt institutions in the country, along with the tax service, which also comes under the authority of the Finance Ministry.
A recent survey by the University of Indonesia's LPEM economic think tank revealed how the scale of illegal fees charged by customs officials had increased, while services were perceived as having improved, indicating that people may simply be paying for better service.
The reform program for the customs service also includes expediting clearance at the country's ports to between 20 minutes and 4 hours, if inspection is needed.
Sri Mulyani said that similar, reformed customs offices would be set up at Indonesia's other ports so as to prevent smuggling and corruption being transferred to those ports after Tanjung Priok had been cleaned up.
Regarding Thursday's attempted smuggling of luxury cars, Sri Mulyani said that her ministry was working with the Foreign Ministry to tighten up the procedures for the use of diplomatic permits.
Since 2003, customs have seized 208 luxury cars -- 43 this year alone -- with all of them being associated with the same suppliers in Singapore.