IN his book Curbing Corruption in Asian Countries: An Impossible Dream?, Jon S. T. Quah takes us on a lengthy journey (533 pages) to identify the causes, consequences and control patterns of corruption in 10 Asian countries – Japan, India, the Philippines, Taiwan, Singapore, Hong Kong, Thailand, South Korea, Indonesia, and Mongolia.
The level of detail and breadth of analysis provided are a result of more than 30 years of teaching and research on the anti-corruption strategies of these countries. Many lessons for Malaysia to learn, and many more lessons to teach Malaysians.
Recently, I had the good fortune of listening to Professor Quah in person at the Malaysian Anti-Corruption Academy where he took questions after a two-hour presentation.
I was especially interested in two points (i) the relationship between crime and corruption, in particular the nebulous ties between the police and crime syndicates and (ii) the symbiosis among politicians, civil servants and businessmen.
My suspicions were indeed confirmed – these seedy networks exist with some of them deeply embedded in the culture. There’s no question that corruption-breeding links have to be busted if anti-corruption efforts are to succeed.
In general, Quah argues that the extent of corruption in a country depends on two factors viz the nature of the causes of corruption and the degree of effectiveness of the various measures undertaken to combat corruption.
To effectively control the level of corruption, the causes of corruption must first be correctly diagnosed and appropriate action be taken by the political leaders to minimise, if not to remove, such causes.
Quah’s answer to the question in the book title is that eradicating corruption is tough but it is possible if tough measures and laws are in place and they are enforced by tough people.
Hong Kong and Singapore are exemplary in this. The two countries have succeeded in minimising corruption by giving their independent anti-corruption agencies greater powers to fight corruption.
Here, a clean government, tough laws and good governance are in place to drive the anti-corruption efforts forward.
The overriding prerequisite is thus the political will to instate and enforce effective anti-corruption laws without exception; to equip anti-corruption agencies with the funds and manpower to work independently and without interference; and most important of all, for the political leaders themselves to show exemplary conduct and lifestyle.
May I add that leaders who have the courage and conviction to be the frontliners in the anti-corruption war will long be remembered for bringing about real and intrinsic development to the nation and its people, much more than those who brandish the artificial spoils of a thriving economy or a technologically savvy society.
In Malaysia, the public contempt for corruption has never been more intense than now, ie in the pre- and post-GE 13 period, when cases of petty and grand corruption are uncovered regularly, all pointing to the systemic corruption in the country.
Contributing to the perception that the government’s anti-corruption efforts are less than effective is the fact that those guilty of grand corruption somehow manage to evade the law. The perception then grows that they are indeed protected by their godfathers.
It does not take genius to argue that to dispel the perception that there is selective prosecution of corruption offenders, all cases of corruption must be investigated under the anti-corruption laws and the offenders punished regardless of their status or position.
Public perception is a tricky matter, encouraged not only by careless talk, rumour and slander but by poor media coverage. These days cyber communication is swift and sweeping in spreading unsavoury information which is soon taken to be the truth.
All the more then that media communication must be expertly handled to counter the misinformation and to update the public regularly on the progress and success of anti-corruption efforts.
However, those who are convinced that laws and their enforcement are the only cures for corruption have missed out a crucial aspect of the disease diagnosis viz its cultural causes.
There’s no doubt that the Asian/Malaysian custom of gift-bearing underlies much of the practice of bribery and graft. Gifts are given between and among friends to say “please” and “thank you” so why not between two or more business partners?
It might not be far-fetched to suggest that some may not even know that gift-giving can be construed as an inducement to get things done or as a reward for having things done.
Public education must be positioned as a crucial component of the anti-corruption measures especially among the gullible and less-educated. The recently announced no-gift policy of public and private sector corporations and business houses must be explained to the man in the street.
What better way than to have month-long public anti-corruption campaigns at regular intervals to sustain the efforts and remind the people?