Corruption is a global problem that poses a threat to economic growth, democracy and the political stability of both wealthy and poor countries alike (Gomez, 2002). Furthermore, Farazmand (1999: 518) argues that “corruption challenges the very foundations of societal health and destroys citizens’ trust in leadership and system”. Consequently many countries have attempted to curb internal corruption that affects all levels of government and society. However, Asian countries have been particular unsuccessful at eradicating corruption. In this essay I will analyse the reasons why Asia has been so unsuccessful at eradicating corruption, namely: a lack of motivation for reform, a cultural acceptance of corruption, and the Asian anomaly that corruption does not necessarily hinder economic growth. I will also argue that the combination of these factors makes corruption a way of life in Asia, rather than a fact of life in countries like Australia, and therefore is very difficult to eradicate (Caiden, 1981: 58-62).
The fact that corruption is a way of life in many Asian countries is one of the main reasons why its eradication has proven to be so difficult (Quah, 1999 and 2005). Corruption runs so deep and is so intertwined with life at virtually all levels of the country that any anti-corruption measures are almost impossible to initiate, let alone implement (Chang, 2004). China is the best example here with its heavily publicized anti-corruption efforts having very little effect (Duperouzel, 2006). In fact, the leaders of government charged with enforcing anti-corruption measures are often so intimately involved with the targets of their investigations that it makes any legitimate reform both unlikely and unwanted (Rohde, 2004).
Therein lies another problem facing Asia’s attempts to eradicate corruption; namely there is often no motivation to implement changes. In countries such as Indonesia and Thailand where corruption is a serious problem, no one seems to be concerned with changing the system (Phongpaichit and Piriyarangsan, 2001). It takes a really big scandal, usually combined with difficult economic conditions, to get action in these countries, and even then the action is usually designed more to fight a specific act of corruption than to tighten up the entire system to prevent such abuses from reoccurring in the future (Political and Economic Risk Consultancy, 2002).
The lack of motivation for implementing anti-corruption measures in Asia can be traced to two main factors. Firstly, many governments in Asia are unwilling to admit that corruption is a big problem. They are often extremely sensitive to criticism and can even use the legal systems of their countries to persecute critics who make accusations of corruptions (Gomez, 2002). An example of which was Indonesia under President Suharto, where critics within Indonesia who pointed out the existence of nepotism and corruption involving the President’s children did so at their own risk as long as Suharto was in power (Political and Economic Risk Consultancy, 2002).
Secondly, there is an anomaly in Asia that runs directly against traditional economic wisdom, namely: that corruption hinders economic development (Chang, 2004). Wedeman (2002) argues that high levels of corruption within Asia have in some circumstances been associated with high levels of economic growth. This is a result of government elites and businesses entering a mutually beneficial relationship, where government elites advance the economic interests of businessmen with a pro-growth investment environment and cheap public resources and, in return, the profiting businesses support the government elites with kickbacks and monetary resources that are necessary for them to stay in power (Wedeman, 2002). Wedeman (2002) also argues that while corruption in other regions of the world is “degenerative” and poisonous, corruption in Asia is distinctive in its “developmental” nature, which permits the concurrence of corruption and growth. Corruption in Asia has therefore been so difficult to eradicate because very often the very people who are in a position to implement change, have absolutely no motivation to do so.
The difficulty of eradicating corruption in Asia can also be attributed to the regions’ cultural practices. In many Asian countries it is still more important who you know than what you know (Chang, 2004). The difficulty therefore in eradicating corruption in Asia is that if it were to be removed it may prove very difficult to get anything done at all. These personal connections extend to gift giving that may be viewed as bribery in western countries, but are the cultural norm in many Asian countries.
For example in China, the exchanging of gifts for private gain is a widely accepted practice called guanxi, and is not necessarily considered corrupt (Mayfair, 1994: 62-63). Furthermore, Rose-Ackerman (1999) finds that citizens in Thailand believe that they should show their appreciation by giving gifts to officials when good services are delivered. In short, it seems quite reasonable that the embedded culture in Asian countries causes people to regard corruption as an acceptable practice. While those in power benefit from corruption and the citizens’ of Asian countries remain neutral to its effects, the eradiation of corruption is indeed a very difficult task.
Quanh (1999 and 2005) however argues that eradicating corruption in Asia is particularly difficult due to workers in Asia receiving “meagre salaries”. This theory is supported by Palmier (1985: 2) who conducted a comparative study of the control of corruption in India, Hong Kong and Indonesia and also identified low salaries as an important factor contributing to corruption control: “if the official is not to be tempted into corruption and disaffection, clearly there is an obligation on the government to provide or at least allow such benefits as will ensure his loyalty; one might call it an implicit contract”. It is clear that if civil servants wages are low, than they are in fact almost forced to subsidise their income through corrupt activities. This is particularly true in countries such as Indonesia, “where the monthly salaries of civil servants usually last for only 10 to 12 days” (Quanh, 2005: 2). In these circumstances it is very difficult to eradicate corruption when people rely on it to survive.
Consequently the combination of a lack of motivation for reform, a cultural acceptance of corruption, low wages and the Asian anomaly that corruption does not necessarily hinder economic growth has made the eradication of corruption in Asia a very difficult task. Given these factors it seems that the current levels of corruption in Asia will remain for many years to come.
Caiden, Gerald E. (1981), “Public Maladministration and Bureaucratic Corruption,” Hong Kong Journal of Public Administration, Vol. 3, No. 1, June.
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