Fri, 12 Sep 2003

Don't try to steal bananas

Kornelius Purba, Staff Writer, The Jakarta Post, Jakarta,

If you decide to become a thief, or if you already are one, please take this advice: don't be a mere banana thief like Sudarno. Instead, steal as much as you can from the state coffers, as the cronies of former president Soeharto allegedly did, because the more cash stolen, the less appetite the authorities will have for jailing you.

That was the message one received watching two news reports on SCTV TV on Monday.

One report was about Sudarno, now in police custody after being caught stealing some bananas from his neighbor in East Lampung. Sudarno allegedly tried to steal a bunch of bananas to feed his two starving children and granddaughter. The Lampung Police spokeswoman vowed that Sudarno would be brought to justice, although the owner of the fruit had forgiven him and despite the fact that this spokeswoman acknowledged that Sudarno's family was facing starvation.

Another report was on the wholehearted support Attorney General M.A. Rachman received from House of Representatives Commission II for his decision to drop corruption charges against timber tycoon Prajogo Pangestu and Soeharto's eldest daughter, Siti "Tutut" Hardiyanti Rukmana.

The House also showed its understanding about Rachman's reluctance to locate convicted banker Samadikun, who fled after being sentenced to four years in prison. The legislators are more paranoid about the ghost of communism than the real threat of corruptors.

A former director of a state-owned company recently disclosed his formula for escaping corruption charges. "Fill their bellies, in my case those of the police and prosecutors. As you can see, I am free," the man declared proudly. Of course, he is not alone.

Based on simple observation, alleged corruptors known for their generosity when still in power have a better chance of avoiding the watchful eyes of the police and the state prosecutor's office. Many believe Soeharto crony Mohamad "Bob" Hasan is now in prison not because of his mega-scale corruption, but because he was stingy and did not like to distribute his wealth to other people.

As an attorney general, Rachman is no doubt full of empathy for corruptors and robbers of state money; after all, one of his associates accused him of corruption. Fortunately, President Megawati Soekarnoputri's wisdom saved him from a humiliating fall.

Rachman can share the trauma of this experience with one of his predecessors, A.M. Ghalib. The Indonesian Corruption Watch disclosed its findings on Ghalib's alleged corruption when he was in Switzerland to investigate a report by Time magazine on the transfer of US$9 billion allegedly belonging to the Soeharto family from a bank in Switzerland to an Austrian bank. Ghalib lost his job.

A chicken thief often receives a heavier sentence than a corruptor, and we more often hear about the acquittal of corruptors than of a chicken thief.

That is why lawyers are now more prestigious than medical doctors, engineers or accountants. Their services are urgently needed by those targeted in corruption investigations. And don't think that their clients just need their legal knowledge; a good lawyer for them is a person who can get all the charges against them dropped by any means necessary.

All of Soeharto's successors -- B.J. Habibie, Abdurrahman Wahid and Megawati -- boasted that they would eradicate corruption at any cost. But talk to businesspeople and many of them will tell you that corruption under Soeharto was more centralized. Once you reached a deal with one of his six children or cronies, your project could go forward with no more problems. You were also untouchable if you had connections to the then first family.

These rules have been forgotten now! Now everybody wants to steal the money. Not surprisingly, a local official will no longer help you even if you describe in length your close ties with President Megawati or her family.

Indonesians also are very tolerant about corruption. We often feel confused when told that we do not need to pay to renew our ID cards. Many churches and mosques receive huge donations from people whose salaries are much lower than their donations. And there is no lottery in this country. But rarely are donors asked to prove the legitimacy of their donations. They are even praised as "humble servants of God" and their generosity is expected to be followed by others, regardless of how they got the money.

Sudarno is only a banana thief. The judges in his trial will act as representatives of God when they issue their verdict against this poor farmer. Misery awaits Sudarno should the judges conclude that the farmer should be sent to prison. Why? Because here, the only banana thief that people tolerate is a monkey.