Asia is well-known, publicised and often criticised, as one of the regions of the world where corruption is endemic – part of daily life everywhere. This is perceived, particularly by sanctimonious (the pot calling the kettle black) Western observers as a 'bad thing' which can never be justified or defended, and must be ended outright. But 19th Century British historian Lord Acton (1834-1902) was referring to Europe rather than Asia when he made the now famous quote "power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely". Politics may have changed in Europe (and the West generally), but corruption still exists – often in cleverly disguised or legal forms.
Surprising to many will be the results of annual surveys of government transparency and corruption in the public sector by Transparency International.
In 2009, with New Zealand and Denmark in top positions (least corrupt), they found low corruption in Asian nations like Singapore #3, Hong Kong #12 and Japan #17 (shared with the UK). Next was the US in 18th position.
By 2010, out of 178 comprehensive country surveys, in #1 position with least corruption: Singapore, Denmark and New Zealand; Canada 6, Australia 8, Hong Kong 13, Japan 17, UK 20, USA 22, Taiwan 33, Korea 39, Malaysia 56, China 78 shared with Thailand (and Greece!), India 87. In the high corruption range were Indonesia 110, Vietnam 116, Philippines 134 (shared with Nigeria); among the highest are Cambodia and Laos (shared with Russia). At the bottom of the list are Myanmar (Burma), Iraq, Afghanistan and Somalia.
Here are details and statistics of world country corruption levels.
In a perfect world with good, honest governments and efficient civil services, there would be no place or need for public sector corruption – or many other 'bad things' for that matter. There is general consensus that certain forms of corruption should be ended because the overall effect is negative. A kickback, backhander, bribe, 'tea-money', baksheesh is an inducement or sweetener, often in the form of cash, paid to someone able to produce a short or long term benefit by unofficial, unethical, unlawful or illegal or devious means. At its highest level, national or international government contracts are secured, often resulting not only in considerable portions of a country’s funds being diverted into the pockets of a few powerful politicians, civil servants and the big businesses themselves, but also leading to uncompleted projects or those with inferior workmanship. When failure or disaster occurs, blame is rarely apportioned to the real cause. New contracts are drawn up, continuing the self-serving process for the benefit of the avaricious few who continue to wield this sort of influence.
In Asia, though there is a difference: the influence is not generally from random individuals or companies. There are dynasties of powerful Asian families who use intermarriage to maintain and increase their overall wealth and therefore political power. Money is the only real God, revered by all. Family business often controls politics, so naturally nepotism and cronyism play an important role. Power leads to corruption as we already know, and this increasing power is passed down to future generations through control of political systems. This originally Chinese 'model' has filtered into the Southeast Asian region over the past several hundred years. It's not going away.
Names like Marcos (Philippines), Soekarno, Suharto (Indonesia) are already synonymous with corruption in Asia. Thailand's Thaksin Shinawatra was a noticeable addition to the list. Ousted by a military coup in September 2006, five years have passed. He has been criminally convicted of corruption and lives in exile in Dubai, facing arrest and prison – if he returns before the 'way has been paved'. In his place from 2011 (and seen as a puppet) is the current Prime Minister of Thailand, Thaksin's sister Yingluck Shinawatra with no previous political experience.
See also our Foreign Business in Thailand and Foreign Business in Asia pages.
There are many more, less well known or publicised cases in Asia and even more so in Africa. Sadly, most of the efforts of genuinely public-spirited individuals and organisations who draw attention to corruption and misuse of their countries' resources and try to promote political change and improvement to enhance the lives of the majority of their populations, especially the underprivileged and poor, are still overwhelmed by these powerful entities.
Corruption and Hypocrisy
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Arvis, Jean Francois - Fighting Corruption in East Asia: Solutions from the Private Sector
Corruption obviously doesn't exist only in Asia. The West has its cartels, monopolies, giant conglomerates and the Mafia; Russia and Eastern Europe have the 'mafiya'. However, lobbying in the US – paying high-ranking politicians or elected officials to further a cause or try to secure a contract for a particular company (as long as the payment is not exposed as such) – is legal, as are 'donations' of large sums of money or other disguised forms of payment to a political candidate’s party campaign in return for expected favours if he or they are elected. This happens in the US and Europe (the Brussels-based EU is well known) and the UK. It's all legislated corruption by those in power, using different names and definitions.
Underlying causes for corrupt practices at lower levels
Civil services including central and local government offices and police forces, not only in Asian countries, are criticised more than praised by the public for their efficiency. In Asia, civil servants start their careers at almost below subsistence levels. The rules and bureaucratic procedures are often archaic by modern standards – relics from bad or indifferent colonial systems. Even with new technology, modifications are not always improvements. In some cases they make things worse, and the bureaucratic 'paper trails' and lengths of 'red tape' get even longer.
Realistically, the only way to a living wage for low-level government employees and police in many developing countries, either interminably filling in and signing forms and applications, is by getting a direct cash benefit – tip, food or tea money, baksheesh, or 'spot-fining' motorists without issuing official tickets. There is another stage which is by achieving a level of seniority where it's possible to exert some influence or derive some benefit from underlings. Benefits pass upward, right to the chief of the department or organisation.
However, promotion within these cumbersome bureaucratic systems is a slow process if one relies simply on merit or length of service, although this hopefully does play a part. The way to speed things up is by paying sometimes large amounts of money just to get the job. Further payments will be necessary to climb each rung of the ladder more quickly too. There is obviously no justification for this and it cannot produce an efficient system of government of benefit to the general public. However, stamping it out completely is virtually impossible because the legislators are the very ones these practices benefit most!
Corruption is organised from the top down and it filters all the way to the lowest rung of the ladder. Small benefits accumulate as they move upward. The 'public' are completely aware of it but few actually complain about it. Politicians make promises to reduce corruption, but it's only to win votes at elections. A few knuckles are sometimes rapped as a token gesture, somewhere down the line, but at the end of the day, nothing changes.
In the above respect, apart from being impractical in some cases and virtually impossible in others to eradicate completely, certain forms of 'corruption' can be of benefit to many, both 'giver' and 'receiver', with little or no effect on others or a country as a whole. It comes down to the fact that if you need something done quickly and are prepared to pay a little extra (or a lot depending on the value of a government contract), then principles take second place. It's basic human nature.
In the West it's known as 'lobbying' and providing you follow the legal guidelines (or can simply get away with it with a bribe) it seems to be quite normal and acceptable!
Entering Asia as a tourist or visitor
Visiting a Southeast Asian country for the first time, we get our first experience of local officialdom at the airport or border crossing. Most developing SE Asian countries are aware of the financial benefits of large numbers of happy tourists, so this is usually a straightforward affair. If you are sensible, you will have found out beforehand whether you need a visa at all, if you should obtain it in advance from an embassy, or can get it issued on arrival, sometimes by paying a higher fee. You get stamped in at Immigration, collect your bags, and pass through Customs, usually unhindered unless you look or act suspiciously to unseen eyes. Much the same as anywhere else you care to travel these days. See our pages on Visas for Asia and other countries and Visas for US citizens who can travel to many countries without a visa.
Business or residence in an Asian country
As is the case most countries, for those who want to take up residence of one form or another, there will be further criteria. Requirements differ from country to country, and usually involve set procedures as well as considerable paperwork, often needing completion in the local language and requiring the services of a local 'professional'.
This can be an impossible task for a foreigner to accomplish alone. Although the methods differ, these issues may be resolved more easily by paying a (usually not excessive) fee to someone in addition to the official charges. In some countries, this will be an agent who has a contact in the relevant government office. It might also be paid directly to an official who can push the paperwork through, possibly himself paying a portion to someone higher up in the system. This may be, in some countries, the only practical way to obtain a visa or work permit.
It is a form of corruption, but no one really suffers, and you don't have much choice in the matter, as you will make little or no progress trying to get what you want by attempting to do it alone.
Thailand recently made mainly cosmetic efforts to make the bureaucratic process (red tape) more transparent, and proudly claim 'no corruption!'. But many business and other applications are now made more difficult, more time-consuming and considerably more expensive! See also our Foreign Business in Thailand and Foreign Business in Asia pages.
Corrupt practices are not just applicable for foreigners. Local citizens need to use these services too. Sometimes for the most basic permit or other item, people have to wait in lines or stand in a queue for hours – sometimes all day for some piece of paper that allows them to proceed to the next stage of bureaucracy. Paying a little extra to someone with an agent or 'contact', the job will get the job done more quickly, efficiently and legally! The government gets its revenue (hopefully), and low-paid officials receive necessary supplements to their meagre salaries. At the end of the day, everyone wins. Well, anyone able to pay a little extra. Nobody ever said life was fair!
How will you achieve what you want in Asia? Try to do everything 'by the book', taking the moral high ground, or accept that things are not the same as they were 'back home', do it the same way as everyone else, and learn to live with it?
As a foreign retiree or resident of a South East Asian country with no local business or political interests, not a drug user or paedophile and generally keep your nose clean by living within the accepted social boundaries, then you are unlikely to run into problems – unless you are just plain unlucky or stupid! Follow the advice of foreigners already living there regarding visas and other permits. Pay the required fees, which are usually quite reasonable, and don't worry about whose pockets they end up in. Turn a blind eye to everything else that doesn't directly concern you.
If you are thinking of starting a business in an Asian country, you should be aware of the issues that are likely to affect you and your success or even survival. Find more information on our Foreign Businesses in Thailand, Asia Business and Living in the Philippines pages.
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