Tue, 13 Jun 2000

A bad precedent

How to read Gus Dur? This question has become a frequent topic of conversation around the country since President Abdurrahman "Gus Dur" Wahid became Indonesia's first democratically elected president in October last year.

During the seven months he has been in power, he has managed to upset friends and foes and politicians and legislators by making controversial statements. He has risked lawsuits by making unproven accusations of corruption or other wrongdoings by politicians, and even members of his own Cabinet.

Little wonder that although there are still many Indonesians who like him, if only because of his populist image and unceremonious style, there are others who seem to have had their fill of the President's verbal antics and are looking for ways -- at least Abdurrahman so believes -- to hurt the democratically elected leader in August, when the People's Consultative Assembly meets to either accept or reject his accountability speech. If only for that reason alone, one would think, the President is well advised to be careful of what he does, and how he does it.

To the frustration of his supporters, however, the President has so far shown little intention to correct his erratic behavior or change his style. He has even given his opponents further ammunition by neglecting to correct his habit of using his private bank account to keep large amounts of money that have been donated for government administrative purposes. By doing so President Abdurrahman is also setting a bad precedent for future Indonesian chief executives.

Two latest cases in point are donations from the Sultan of Brunei Darussalam, Hassanal Bolkiah, amounting to US$2 million for relief work in Aceh, and another of Rp 1 billion from an Indonesian businessman, which went largely to the funding of the recently concluded Papua People's Congress in Irian Jaya.

One may reason that money meant for state use must not be kept in a leader's personal bank account. For Abdurrahman, however, who seems to see nothing wrong in taking his pesantren (Islamic boarding school) background with him into the presidential office, it makes no difference where the money is kept so long as it is not stolen. Besides, money given with obvious good intentions must not be refused, but must be accepted in the same spirit in which it is given.

Certainly, no one is accusing the President of misappropriating the money or keeping it his personal bank account for any other reason than he says: to avoid red tape and make it easier to cash if or when it is needed. On the other hand, his critics in this matter are equally right when they say the practice is highly irregular and makes the money prone to misuse.

There is, as yet, no law governing gifts to the head of state. Neither is there any clear precedent. It is not clear where Indonesia's first president, Sukarno, kept money and other gifts or how they were managed. Former president Soeharto is known to have kept donations in the bank accounts of foundations established especially for that purpose. Where other gifts are kept is not exactly clear, although presumably both Sukarno and Soeharto put them in either of the six state palaces.

In any case, it seems to be time that a law be drafted to govern such gifts. This is not only to avoid further confusion in the future, but also to make sure that gifts, donations and presents are properly managed and used for the purpose designated. In addition, by regulating what is or is not appropriate, it could save our future presidents from having to suffer any unnecessary assaults on his or her integrity, which is, after all, of greater value than any present anyone could give.