Indonesia's government is checking to see whether the country's traditionally pervasive graft has gone into orbit.
Since few other areas of Indonesian life have escaped the touch of corruption, observers here were not surprised at allegations that millions of dollars in bribes were sought and given in connection with the construction of a satellite communications system designed to link this 3,500-mile-long chain of islands together.
Despite President Suharto's call for a full investigation, many people here say they will withold judgement until they see how vigorously the current anticorruption drive is pushed after the general elections scheduled for May 2, in which graft has become an important issue.
According to the charges, published in The New York Times near the end of January, Maj. Gen. Soechardjono, head of the postal and telecommunications agency, sought a $40 million bribe on satelite contracts from the General Telephone and Electronics Corp.
The request was turned down, a source said, adding that the answer might have been different if the more "normal" $3 million or $4 million had been sought. Hughes Aircraft, a General Telephone rival, won the contract.
A common reaction in business and government circles here has been that there almost certainly was some padding in the satellite contracts, but that the figures in the report seemed high.
It is hard even to tell how much of the $1.4 billion telecommunications program is going for the satellite system.Last July, when the first of two satellites was launched at Cape Kennedy, two different Indonesaian officials gave the contracts' value as $173.5 million and as $178.7 million; at the beginning of February another official put the figure at $161.8 million.
Whatever the bottom line may be there are some interesting questions about the figures that go to make it up: For instance, the receiving earth stations average about $2 million each, while a Canadian system built at about the same time and using the same type of Hughes satellite reportedly paid only a tenth as much for the same type of ground stations.
Even allowing for the extra costs of hasty dilivery to a remote location, the gap is intriguingly wide, and the tendency is to presume that it falls in the same category as other recent cases:
After 23 officials of the national agency charged with maintaining essential supplies such as rice were arrested for allegedly embezzling about $15 million, a central bank official was quoted as asying that anything up to $5 million would probably have escaped notice.
When paratroops from Jakarta were sent tocatch a big-time smuggler near Singapore, because local forces had been bribed to stay in their camps, they found in his pockets secret police cables about anti-smuggling operations.
A man sentenced to nine years in jail complained that the public prosecutor had taken a bribe to arrange for a lighter sentence; the prosecutor's superior later told the press the bribe money was a legitimate "windfall" so long as it did not influence the prosecutor's performance of his duties.
Customs officials have held up vehicles for an aid project for months while waiting for bribes; drugs for a public-health project were held so long that they had to be thrown away when Customs released them.
Such cases are, of course, small potatoes next to the Pertamina scandal.
Nearly two years after President Suharto's government began its long-drawn-out rescue operation on national finances, following collapse of Pertamina's "state within a state," the corporation's tangled involvement in tanker charters is still being sorted out.
Laid up in sorts around the world are more than a score of tankers earning nothing for Indonesia and given the projected glut of world tanker capacity for the next few years, not likely to earn much in the future.
Leased through a series fo sweet-heart contracts from corporations that did little other than charter the ships from their owneres and turn around and lease them to Indonesia at a higher rate, the tankers began to arrive just as the market for them was collapsing.
This coincided with a credit crunch Pertamina was feeling because of its commitments in other areas, such as steel-making, fertilizer plants, aviation, construction and real estate.
Indonesia is trying to negotiate settlements to cut the tanker liabilities to $1.5 billion - a process complicated by the fact that in some cases not even the middelmen know who the ships' ultimate owners are.
Not a single senior executive of Pertamina has faced prosecution: Its chief executive, Lt. Gen. Ibnu Sutowo, who admitted under the oath gross violations of laws and procedures for personal gain, was dismissed. But he lives in wealth, despite that disgrace, and is free to run his vast businesses.
Given this background and attitude, it is little wonder that the crash programs to link this archipelago by Satellite - so hastily that there was no time for competitive bidding - opened the door to boondoggles.
The pattern of payoffs and commissions believed to have occurred in the satellite system is so pervasive that many observers here wonder whether it can still be classified as an irregularity.
A prominent Jakarta lawyer observed: "You get to the point where you try to make a distinction between what is "routine" corruption and what is excessive and greedy. Then you see whathas become routine . . ."