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Jakarta's tax office workers share tales from the trenches

Indonesia's amnesty program brings long hours but also a bit of a thrill

JAKARTA Tax supervisor Mekar Satria Utama can pinpoint the exact moment when deep-pocketed Indonesians began to change their attitude about taxes.

"It was started by James Riady," he said, referring to the chief executive of the Chinese-Indonesian conglomerate Lippo Group, who visited the tax office on Sept. 2. Riady pitched the government's tax amnesty program, launched in July, as a national "reset button."

"This is a very good thing," he enthused before TV cameras. "Everyone must support it and participate fully as soon as possible. ... Enter the system and contribute to national development."

Utama, who had seen just a trickle of people apply for the historic amnesty program in its first couple of months, suddenly witnessed a steady stream coming into his office in the last days of the first period of reporting. "One businessman joined, the others followed. It was kind of a snowball effect."

The tax office on Jalan Jenderal Sudirman, a thoroughfare in the heart of one of Jakarta's main business districts, handles filings for Indonesia's biggest taxpayers, the roughly 2,200 individuals and corporations -- including all state-owned enterprises -- that contribute half of the country's tax revenue. Never before had staff there seen a rush to come clean about secret holdings. Soon many of the tax office's workers were putting in 11- to 16-hour days. Some signed up for weekend shifts. None complained. The experience, it seemed, was a bit of thrill. They are now wondering if this month will offer up a sort of sequel. The last day of filing for the second period will be Dec. 31, and the program ends in March.

"Mysterious people were suddenly showing up at tax offices across a number of regions," Utama said of the September crowd. "They paid a huge amount of redemption fees, when they had escaped tax offices' detection before."

The Sudirman office welcomed an average of 40 to 50 amnesty applicants a day in the third week of September. From Sept. 29 to 30, traffic soared to up to 1,500 a day. Aditya Wibisono, who usually heads up press relations for the office, found himself turned into a service coordinator. The tall, gray-haired man in his 40s helped sort the crush of applicants, addressing their questions and soothing their anxieties, while also cheering on co-workers trying to bring order to the financial chaos.

"Some of the people had waited here since 3 a.m. or 4 a.m. so they could immediately join the line once the office opened at 8 a.m.," Wibisono said.

CROWD CONTROL Novi Lina, who has worked at the tax office for the past two years, manned the reception desk and welcomed applicants in a fourth-floor room furnished with two sets of sofas and a coffee corner. There they could get help filling out forms. To keep their identities a secret, applicants were referred to by their number in line.

Big taxpayers often send employees or consultants to handle tax affairs. This time was different. "There was an old man coming on his own; he probably didn't trust other people to come on his behalf," Lina said. "I had to handle people who refused to wait in line. Many of them arrived here with tension straining their faces. But they looked relieved upon leaving."

One officer said some people showed up with incomplete papers. But even when tempers flared, staff slowly went over the regulations explaining which documents were needed.

Staff also found time to enjoy their role in this historic moment and celebrate small achievements. One worker who handled the most amnesty applications in a single day won a free bowl of meatball soup. Another took home a chocolate bar.

The best days were when the top bosses in the tax office -- a branch of the government with a less than sterling reputation due to past cases of corruption involving its officials -- recognized the workers on the front line. Finance Minister Sri Mulyani Indrawati, who oversees the tax office, sent workers a letter praising their "hard work and extraordinary dedication." She described the tax office as "an institution trustworthy, credible, needed and respected by our people."

"It was touching," said one worker who kept a copy of the note. "She wrote the letter on her own. It was handwritten."

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