Curbing Corruption in Asian Countries: An Impossible Dream?: Volume 20


Table of contents

(26 chapters)

Jon S. T. Quah, Ph.D., was a professor of Political Science at the National University of Singapore (NUS) and co-editor of the Asian Journal of Political Science until his retirement in June 2007. He is now an anti-corruption consultant based in Singapore, and a vice-president of the Asian Association for Public Administration. He was a Vice-Dean of the Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences at NUS (July 1990 to June 1991), Head of the Department of Political Science (1992–1998), and Coordinator of the European Studies Program (1990–1998). He was Acting Director of the Institute of Policy Studies in Singapore from January 1989 to June 1990.

The view from 2011 is strikingly different. Corruption problems figure prominently not only in news reports of political and economic transformations but also as concerns in international development policy, foreign assistance, business strategy, and democratization. Once corruption was seen as a distraction, or indeed as a “functional” influence on developing societies; now, a strong consensus holds that it is bad for growth and democratization. Reform efforts are regularly launched around the world, often with great fanfare. Annual country rankings are eagerly anticipated in many quarters and viewed with apprehension in others. An immense policy and scholarly literature has sprung up on corruption, reform, and ways of dealing with and assessing both. An anticorruption movement that began in various places, and reflected disparate agendas, at the end of the Cold War has now matured into a significant international policy and advocacy force – one that arguably has reshaped basic ideas about development, accountability, and justice.

My interest in doing research on corruption in Asian countries can be traced to my participation in the “Bureaucratic Behavior in Asia” project initiated by the late Dr Raul P. de Guzman, Dean of the College of Public Administration of the University of the Philippines, in 1977 with funding from the International Development Research Center of Canada. I am grateful to Raul for inviting me and my former colleague, the late Dr David Seah Chee Meow, to be the two members of the Singapore research team in the seven country comparative study, which included also scholars from Hong Kong, Malaysia, Nepal, the Philippines, South Korea, and Thailand (Carino, 1986b).

The above quotations highlight the adverse consequences of corruption in many countries around the world today. Indeed, the research taboo on corruption, which Gunnar Myrdal identified in 1968, no longer exists, and the silence on the “C” word (corruption) in the World Bank was broken by James Wolfensohn in his famous October 1996 speech, which focused on the negative consequences of the “cancer of corruption” on the World Bank's aid programs.

The Lockheed scandal was exposed during the 4 February 1976 hearings of the Sub-Committee on Multinational Corporations of the United States Senate Committee on Foreign Relations. These hearings revealed that Lockheed Aircraft Corporation paid illegal payments in several countries including Japan to promote the sale of its planes to prevent bankruptcy. The Securities Exchange Commission obtained documents showing that Lockheed paid more than US$10 million to Yoshio Kodama, a “fixer” and Lockheed's secret representative, and the Marubeni Corporation, which was Lockheed's agent in Japan since 1959. During the same hearings on 6 February, A. Carl Kotchian, vice president of Lockheed, informed the committee that a senior Japanese government official received US$2 million from Marubeni and that his company relied on Kenji Osano, a close associate of former Prime Minister Kakuei Tanaka, as an intermediary in its efforts to sell 21 Lockheed's L-1001 Tristar airbuses to All Nippon Airways (ANA) (Macdougall, 1988, pp. 193–195).

During a press conference at the Imperial Hotel in Delhi on 13 March 2001, the Internet news site,, showed secret video footage of senior politicians, bureaucrats, and army officers accepting money in a fake defense deal. Two journalists from Tehelka, Anirudha Bahal and Mathew Samuel, posed as arms dealers from a fictitious arms company called West End International to sell nonexistent handheld thermal cameras to senior officials of the Ministry of Defense (MOD) in India. Bahal and Samuel paid bribes to politicians, civil servants, and army officers to procure government contracts. The journalists used three hidden cameras to videotape the corrupt politicians and officials accepting the bribes, with the most dramatic video clip showing the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) President, Bangaru Laxman, accepting a wad of currency notes from them. Laxman later claimed that he was not guilty of wrongdoing for accepting Rs. 100,000 (US$2,170) as a donation for the BJP. Describing the episode as “concocted,” he added that he had given the donation to the BJP's treasurer (BBC News, 2001a).

In his March 1986 article in Newsweek, Russell Watson exposed “Queen Imelda” Marcos's life of indulgence as the Philippines' First Lady in the opening paragraph:Three thousand pairs of shoes, size eight and a half. Five shelves of unused Gucci handbags, still stuffed with paper, price tags still attached. Five hundred bras, mostly black, and a trunk full of girdles, 40 and 42 inches around the hips. Huge bottles of perfume, vats of Christian Dior wrinkle cream, a walk-in-safe littered with dozens of empty jewelry cases. When the palace of Ferdinand and Imelda Marcos was opened to the public as a museum last week, foreigners and Filipinos alike gawked at what the former First Lady had left behind. “It was the worst case of conspicuous consumption I have ever seen,” said an American visitor, Rep. Stephen Solarz. “Compared to her, Marie Antoinette was a bag lady.” (Watson, 1986, p. 14)

In his autobiography, Chen Shui-bian (1999, p. 40) condemned the Koumintang's (KMT's) corruption and praised the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) for being free from money politics and corruption. The DPP fought the 1992 Legislative Yuan election campaign effectively on an anticorruption platform and used the same strategy in subsequent elections. If Chen Shui-bian had criticized the KMT for its involvement with “black gold” politics and had won the 2000 presidential election on his anticorruption platform, why was he and his family found guilty of corruption after his second term of office? The short answer is that even though he had promised to curb corruption, President Chen himself had succumbed to corruption after assuming office. In June 2002, Keesing's Contemporary Archives cited a poll in Taiwan that indicated that more respondents had perceived the DPP to be more corrupt than the KMT (Copper, 2006, p. 14).

Singapore is perceived to be the least corrupt country in Asia according to Transparency International's Corruption Perceptions Index (CPI) from 1995 to 2010. In 2010, Singapore was ranked joint first with Denmark and New Zealand among 178 countries on the CPI with a score of 9.3. However, this does not mean that corruption does not exist in Singapore, which has its share of corruption scandals too. Indeed, the scandal involving Teh Cheang Wan attracted a great deal of attention because he was the Minister for National Development in Singapore from 1979 to 1986.

In late April 1973, Charles P. Sutcliffe, the Commissioner of the Royal Hong Kong Police Force (RHKPF), received confidential information that Chief Superintendent Peter F. Godber, Deputy District Police Commander for Kowloon, was remitting money abroad. This information was transmitted to James J. E. Morrin, the Director of the Anti-Corruption Office (ACO), for investigation. By the end of May 1973, investigations by the ACO officers revealed that Godber had deposited in Hong Kong banks or remitted overseas HK$650,000 (US$128,332) since 1968 (Blair-Kerr, 1973a, pp. 3–4).

Thaksin Shinawatra became the prime minister of Thailand after his Thai Rak Thai (TRT) party won 248 of the 500 seats in the 6 January 2001 election. This was the first time that a single political party had won such a mandate in Thai democratic history (Pasuk & Baker, 2009, p. 8). One month earlier, the National Counter Corruption Commission (NCCC) had charged Thaksin with concealing assets worth 4.5 billion baht on three occasions during 1997–1998, accusing him of registering these assets in the names of his housekeeper, maid, driver, security guard, and business colleagues. However, the NCCC's judgment was not upheld by the Constitutional Court, which had acquitted Thaksin on a split 8–7 decision in Thaksin's favor on 3 August 2001 (Pasuk & Baker, 2004, pp. 1, 5). If Thaksin had been found guilty by the Constitutional Court, he would have to resign as prime minister and be prohibited from holding public office for five years.

The Hanbo (meaning Korean treasure) scandal or “Hanbogate” occurred on January 23, 1997, with the bankruptcy of Hanbo Iron and Steel Company, the second largest steel company and 14th largest conglomerate in South Korea, as its debt had accumulated to US$5.6 billion. Hanbo's bankruptcy triggered an investigation by the Public Prosecutor's Office that resulted in the imprisonment for 15 years of Hanbo's founder, Chung Tae-Soo, for bribing politicians and bankers to pressure banks to extend hugh bank loans to Hanbo. Nine other persons were also convicted including Chung's son, who was jailed for three years for bribery and embezzlement, and Kim Hyun-Chol, the second son of President Kim Young-Sam, who was sentenced to three years jail and fined US$1.5 million (New York Times, 1997).

Willard A. Hanna's astute observation above about the institutionalization of corruption in Indonesia was published in August 1971, five years after President Soeharto assumed power. The origins of corruption in Indonesia can be traced to the Dutch colonial period as bribery was rife among the lowly paid personnel of the Dutch East India Company (Day, 1966, pp. 100–103). However, corruption became institutionalized during President Soeharto's 32-year reign as his cronies and family “made an art form of creaming off many of Indonesia's most profitable ventures … while being protected by monopoly regulations and their relationship to the president” (Kingsbury, 1998, p. 202). Raymond Bonner (1988, p. 80) has used the euphemism “the family business” to describe “the corruption surrounding members of the Suharto family,” which was “a public secret” in 1988.

Stephanie McPhail's description above of the difficult living conditions of the judges in Mongolia in 1995 underscores their vulnerability to corrupt practices and their negative perception by the public. Judicial salaries during that year were comparable to those of civil servants but lower than those of lawyers in private practice and ranged from US$33 to US$51 per month (Quah, 2003a, p. 43). More importantly, the living conditions of judges were difficult, especially in the countryside, where one-third of the judges did not own an apartment, and were forced to live in their offices. Consequently, McPhail (1995, p. 45) concluded that the “relatively low salaries and mediocre working conditions” of the judges were “an impediment to attracting highly qualified candidates to the profession.”

The negative consequences of corruption for a country's development have been identified in Chapter 1. Corruption is ubiquitous and is found in “all political systems, at every level of government, and in the delivery of all scarce public goods and services” (Caiden, 1988, p. 6). Corruption is a universal problem, and governments all over the world have introduced measures to tackle this “social pandemic” which has “many faces” and is “the most challenging obstacle to economic development” (Campos & Bhargava, 2007, pp. 1–2).

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Research in Public Policy Analysis and Management
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Emerald Publishing Limited
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