Public is No Longer Hiding Behind Us
Ahead of his demission at the end of January, Commissioner of the Indonesian Ombudsman, Alamsyah Saragih is still busy with speaking at various forums. He is also wrapping up final reports on cases such as the dual position held by state-owned enterprise (SOE) commissioners and the lobster larvae export scandal in which former maritime affairs and fishery minister Edhy Prabowo was implicated. According to him, public awareness is rising. "The public doesn’t just report to us and hide behind us anymore," he said.
AFTER five years as Commissioner of the Indonesian Ombudsman, Alamsyah Saragih has finally decided to retire. He did not enroll himself when the registration for commissioner of the next period 2021-2026 was open a few months ago. “I really like to go all out but I don’t want to continue because I know that even if I pass the competency test, not everyone will be happy with me,” said Alamsyah, 54, in a special interview with Tempo in his office on December 23.
Ahead of his demission at the end of January, Alamsyah is still busy with speaking at various forums. He is also wrapping up final reports on cases such as the dual position held by state-owned enterprise (SOE) commissioners and the lobster larvae export scandal in which former maritime affairs and fishery minister Edhy Prabowo was implicated. For the lobster larvae case, Alamsyah led a team to scrutinize the supply chain so as to detect potential maladministration in each link.
As part of the economy division at the Ombudsman, Alamsyah has handled a myriad of high-profile cases and often found himself at loggerheads with ministers or other government big shots alike over the way he announced his findings. In the rice field mapping program, for instance, Alamsyah got into a heated argument with the then military commander-in-chief, Gen. Gatot Nurmantyo. At another time, he logged horns with the agriculture minister. “The cases I handled are often of controversial nature. That indeed is my strategic choice,” he added.
To Tempo reporters Alamsyah spoke about the cases he handled and the challenges that await the new commissioner. The interview was supplemented with WhatsApp chats last Thursday, December 31.
How does the Ombudsman evaluate public service in the last five years?
Our coverage has expanded to consulting which made up 30 percent of activities. Most of these cases are handled by our regional branches. Consultation in the sense that the public ask us what they should do, whom to contact, then they resolve issues with respective parties. That’s one of the measures of our increased influence. The public doesn’t just report to us and hide behind us anymore. Their awareness is rising. The important thing is that they have the guarantee (to be responded) as they report the problems to us first. We also have many contacts on the government side so the complaints are attended to promptly.
Are Ombudsman’s recommendations followed up?
More than 80 percent of our recommendations are followed up. Sometimes, some ministries in fact want certain matters to be included in our recommendations so that they have the administrative ground to take proper actions. We issue very few recommendations though. Most of the complaints are resolved during investigation or via mediation and reconciliation. We encourage that.
What are the consequences if Ombudsman’s recommendations are not executed?
Administrative sanctions by their supervisors. We would pursue the supervisors. Sometimes, we have to publish the facts if recommendations are not implemented. That makes ministers and officials wary. It’s better to find solutions. We also use media influence to throw light on the issues that affect many people’s lives but rarely reported.
There are a lot of problems in the agricultural sector but only very few farmers reported them to the Ombudsman. For example, their grievances about fertilizers, rice import, poultry prices that often nosedive, chili prices and distribution of farming equipment which often ended up in the hands of landowners.
Since when did your investigation turn to the agricultural sector?
It started with the evaluation of seven maladministration cases in rice management in 2017. We found a number of issues. Rice production data are often manipulated at the regional, provincial and national levels so as make them look successful. I call it maladministration of data. The integrity of their data is poor.
What did you do when you discovered that?
I and our colleagues at the Central Statistics Agency (BPS) pushed for production data collection via satellite mapping. The agriculture ministry seemed unhappy about it at that time.
Why didn’t they welcome the initiative?
It took two years until we got the data which turned out to be quite different, around 30 percent or thousands of tons. As a result, the data in use had to be suspended.
How did the agriculture ministry react that time?
It caused an uproar. The minister called me and berated me. I was a bit offended and yelled back at him, (chuckles)...but we could tidy up the data so they are now more precise. There were also rice field mapping and serap gabah petani (farmers’ welfare) programs involving the State Logistics Agency (Bulog). The Indonesian Military (TNI) was deployed. Gatot Nurmantyo was the chief and we were at odds a few times.
During the investigation, a babinsa (non-commissioned village officer) said that the Ombudsman chief believed the military committed maladministration. He wasn’t aware that I was the person he was talking about (laughs)...
What did you find in the field?
We found that the rice fields were too far away and farmers were pushed to work on them. Once they finished planting, they didn’t want to continue anymore. The fields were again overgrown with weeds and shrubs as a result. We thought it was not effective so we asked the program to be reevaluated. Likewise, for the serap gabah program. More tension broke out between the Ombudsman and the military. We also summoned several agriculture ministry staff.
What was the solution?
After Pak Hadi Tjahjanto replaced Pak Gatot, we visited him at the military headquarters in Cilangkap (East Jakarta) to report our findings. In the past, the TNI’s involvement was called upsus or upaya khusus (a special initiative). Sometime later, a team from the army carried out an evaluation and reported that the Ombudsman’s findings were valid. A few days later, a telegram came from the army chief of staff—Pak Mulyono at the time—ordering to suspend the rice field mapping and serap gabah activities.
You also handled insurance cases. How are they progressing?
I questioned the House of Representatives for only summoning Bumiputera and Jiwasraya, without Asabri. Eventually it resulted in a public outcry. After that, many—both customers and companies affected by the case—filed complaints with the Ombudsman. I forewarned in February that legal actions against Jiwasraya could land five other insurance companies in defaults. The number turned out to be even higher. Mitigation should have been done. A corporation with Rp7 trillion assets went belly up because the assets were blocked or seized.
What did the Ombudsman find in the insurance cases?
At the beginning, customers reported their complaints to the Financial Services Authority (OJK) but did not receive response. So we kept watch on the OJK. Second, the companies did not just accept the clients’ money but invested it. We looked at OJK’s supervision over the capital market including its reporting model. If there was no oversight and something happened, it is maladministration. Third, we looked at the governance in the insurance industry through discussions with the five best investment managers in Indonesia. I had to know everything including how they secure deals in stock sales and purchases. We also keep an eye on the administration process in investigation of legal cases.
Keeping watch on the OJK means the Ombudsman is exercising oversight over an oversight institution?
We did it as a last resort. Without oversight institutions, the public would come to us directly. Since there are, they are encouraged to go to them first. If they (the institutions) don’t do their job, then they will become our ‘patients’.
How did the insurance issues escape OJK’s attention?
The OJK certainly is weak in a number of areas. As we know, some of its deputies are embroiled in the (Jiwasraya) case. I think OJK problems are first of all overly legalistic. They advise mediation for losses up to Rp500 million. If more than that, they let cases go to court. Consumer protection is weak. It is also found to be slow in the oversight aspect. It can be firm in some cases but weak in other cases.
Doesn’t the OJK have the authority to protect consumers?
For banking, I think the OJK is relatively able given the experience. But for non-banking financial industry, what kind of ‘setting’ is it in? We’ve proposed an institutional review of the OJK but are stalled by the pandemic.
What about Ombudsman’s investigation into the alleged corruption in the distribution of aid packages for people affected by the Covid-19? How is it going?
We forewarned that there were too many schemes. Granted, the president needed to be present at the onset (of the pandemic) via social aid programs but no more afterwards. Then, ahead of the regional head elections, the regional heads desperately wanted to provide in-kind assistance. If the procurement is centralized, the money involved is massive and tender winners are appointed directly, temptations will be overwhelming.
How far did the Ombudsman oversee the Covid-19 aid distribution?
The crux of the matter is procurement. We noticed deviations. We compared it with the aid programs of the same value in other regions. In terms of the content, those in the regions are better than the central government’s packages. The audit agency perhaps has the exact figures.
What about the recipient data that happend to be erroneous?
The data were unclear at the beginning. I reminded the law enforcement authorities to be careful in handling (false) data. They should not punish anyone unless the person falsified data. It’s reasonable for someone who fell into poverty but had not registered him/herself as a poor citizen to receive social assistance. For the Ombudsman, messed up data is quite normal but it should be improved as we go.
Ombudsman Commissioner Ahmad Alamsyah Saragih presenting data on public complaints in the 2019 Ombudsman Annual Report in Jakarta, last March. Photo: Antara/Indrianto Eko Suwarso
You are also in the process of finalizing the report on the investigation into the lobster larvae export policy. What is the evaluation like?
The Ombudsman observed government’s desire to switch the conservation regime into the stock regime in the lobster management as manifested in the appointment of Edhy Prabowo. The larvae are allowed to be exported as long as they are hatchery-reared and some of them have been released to the wild. But export is done by the private sector to prevent smuggling that has been rampant so far. There we detected inconsistencies.
What is wrong with the policy?
First, for natural lobster larvae whose sustainability still cannot be guaranteed, why wasn’t an SOE appointed as an exporter? This is important to ensure profits are reinvested in cultivation. Second, we also saw non-compliance to the ministerial regulation. Some of the exports went so fast and many exporters don’t have lobster cultivation businesses although the regulation requires to prioritize cultivation or rearing. Third, we received complaints about a (lobster) cargo. We looked up the company’s name with the cargo association and they said it wasn’t registered with them. It was a new company apparently. So, we checked the ownership and found links to those with indications of maladministration or even corruption. There are also possible violations of the business competition law. We already reminded them to be careful last June.
For the public service, are there any sectors still facing problems?
There are two: land and police problems that are going to exist for the long term. We don’t have the intellectual capacity as citizens to resolve the issues. We are not able to solve highly legalistic land administration problems. Land acquisition for building airports by giving compensation that disadvantages the landowners, for example. The government did not consider the prospect that the land consolidation can still allow the landowners to live around the airport and enjoy economic benefits. This should be organized better.
Is that approach feasible?
It is in other countries. Japan has a land consolidation model. It’s not enough with just taking firm and quick decisions. The right decision makes sure that those affected must have access to benefits from that given program. Decision makers in Indonesia are not yet capable of that.
What about the police?
The police always complain about the lack of personnel and budget to tackle ever-mounting pile of cases. The prisons are full. The problem is they send cases that could have been resolved administratively to court.
We helped resolve a case involving teachers who charged illegal fees. The total amount involved in the entire school perhaps was Rp150 million. It may sound huge but it came from small sums. If they could return the money and do not repeat the offence, why not? If they do repeat, all it takes is for the education departments to fire them.
Does this kind of approach work?
We’ve taken it often. At first, we were criticized and being called cynical or permissive by activists. But it brought changes. The police began to appreciate it. The inspectorate turned to training and counseling. So, let’s not feel as if all cases have to be prosecuted but get scared when it comes to major crimes and follow any way the political wind blows.
What about the use of excessive violence by the police in major incidents, for example, the May 21-22, 2019 unrest and the protests to reject the revised Corruption Eradication Commission Law?
That is the realm of the National Commission on Human Rights but we always gave our support. For instance, we helped with the administration of the children detained in the May 21-22 case. We pushed to resolve their cases.
How is the investigation into dual position held by SOE commissioners going?
The discussion with the investigation team is still ongoing. I will hand over the final report to Pak Erick Thohir (SOEs minister) in January. There are several structural changes because I hope to see improvements that are made gradually and then fully and strictly in 2023.
What kind of improvements?
Particularly the practices that carry legal risks, for example, the dual position by candidates who are clearly forbidden to hold such positions according to the government regulation. That makes their income and other perks illegal and that’s dangerous for state officials. I think they need to straighten out these issues and apply stricter rules. Pak Erick also has a plan to create a talent pool for prospective commissioner candidates.
As of last month, there are dozens of former members of President Jokowi’s campaign team occupying SOE commissioner seats. What is your opinion?
What can you do? But it will create chaos if that is allowed to continue, right? That’s why we asked them to correct a number of things but it’s not possible right now due to the current political system. We are too naive if we say the candidate (for patronage position) must have competency. Pak Erick may be forced to accommodate them but he can tighten the requirements.
ALAMSYAH SARAGIH | Place and Date of Birth: Pekanbaru, September 27, 1966 | Education: Bachelor of Economics, Padjadjaran University, Bandung (1987-1992) | Career: Community Based Housing Financial Specialist, National Cooperative Housing (ASPEK) and INS-UNDP (1995-2001); Local Governance Specialist, Initiative for Local Governance Reform, World Bank, Jakarta (2002-2008); Member, Central Information Commission (2011-2013); Chairman, Central Information Commission (2009-2013); Member, Economic Affairs Ombudsman of the Republic of Indonesia (2016-2021)