JAKARTA – Indonesia plans to tighten vetting of senior public servants amid fears that hard-line Islamist ideology has permeated high levels of government, according to documents reviewed by Reuters and a senior official involved in the plan.
Indonesia is officially secular, but there has been a rise in politicians demanding a larger role for Islam in the world’s biggest Muslim-majority country, with some groups calling for an Islamic state.
The rise in conservatism was a major test for President Joko Widodo in the April election, with some Islamist groups accusing him of being anti-Islam and throwing their support behind political rivals, including challenger Prabowo Subianto.
Widodo was re-elected for a second term but voting patterns revealed deepening divisions between areas known for a moderate following of Islam and conservative Muslim regions that backed Prabowo.
The senior government official, who is part of a team formulating the new vetting policy, said Widodo intends it to be a part of his legacy of ensuring Indonesia remains a model for moderate Islam.
The official said the president strongly believed that radical Islam threatened the state apparatus as well as the future of democracy. The vetting plan was a big priority for him, said the official, who declined to be identified.
“He wants that before the next election in 2024, hard-line and radical elements be weeded out to aim for a healthier democracy,” said the official.
Widodo’s office did not respond to requests for comment.
According to the documents reviewed by Reuters, the government wants to introduce stricter background checks and a new psychological test to gauge candidates’ political leanings — especially for those seeking promotions to the top two rungs of the bureaucracy.
The official said the plan will be rolled out by the end of the year at 10 of the country’s biggest ministries by budget and several state-owned enterprises.
Ministries to be targeted as priorities include Finance, Defence, Health, Education, Religious Affairs, and Public Works. Priority enterprises include state energy company Pertamina, flag carrier Garuda Indonesia, the biggest state bank BRI, state miners Antam and Timah, and two state media companies.
Civil servants would not be sacked but the new policy could be used to keep those with hard-line leanings from rising through the ranks, the official said.
One of the factors driving the new policy is a 2017 survey done by independent Jakarta-based pollster Alvara Research Center that found one in five civil servants and 10 percent of state enterprise workers did not agree with the secular state ideology Pancasila, and instead favored an Islamic theocratic state.
“What we’re seeing is not sudden but the result of seeds that were planted years ago through small movements that at the time were not considered a threat to the state. For over 10 years, these ideas have been tolerated, accepted, and perhaps even used by elements of the state,” one government document said. The government official who spoke to Reuters is part of a team of 12 officials and experts that will work with the National Agency to Promote Pancasila and with civil society organizations to formulate new metrics to strengthen existing recruitment tests.
Pancasila includes upholding national unity, social justice and democracy alongside belief in God, and enshrines religious diversity in an officially secular system of government.
The official said the government is expecting a backlash both from within the state bureaucracy and from rights activists who could liken the moves to the authoritarian era of former President Suharto, when loyalty to the state ideology was mandatory and equated with loyalty to the regime.
“We are aware the Pancasila was used in the past as a tool to consolidate power, but we believe it is an umbrella that protects all Indonesians and is a tool to unify against the virus of radicalism,” Benny Susetyo, an official at the national Pancasila agency, said in an interview.
A representative for the Islamic Defenders Front (FPI), an Islamist group that calls for Shariah law to be imposed in Indonesia, said the planned vetting procedures would “amount to discrimination against Islam.”
“This government is affected by the disease of secularism and is trying to separate politics and religion, which is very dangerous,” said Novel Bamukmin of the FPI’s Jakarta chapter.
“They should be focusing on targeting the communists and Shia (minority Muslims) in the bureaucracy instead,” he added.