After the recent revelation of “spot-fixing” in the Pakistani cricket team, the question that was being debated on Indian TV channels was this: are we congenitally corrupt?
This is a question that ought to be asked by all Asians. Corruption sweeps across Asia like a disease. Just look at the cases of corruption in India and Pakistan. There are plenty of recent examples: Match-fixing scandals in Indian and Pakistani cricket teams, alleged tax evasion in the lucrative Indian Premier League (IPL) cricket tournament, bungling in this year’s Delhi Commonwealth Games, alleged corruption in the allocation of 2G spectrums by India’s telecom ministry. Across the border, Pakistan’s Asif Zardari has been known as Mr. Ten Percent. This percentage might have gone up now that he is the President, according to his niece Fatima Bhutto .
With the exception of Singapore, all Asian countries are by and large corrupt. From the top level politicians to low level officials, dishonesty runs deep in our blood. From China to Malaysia, Indonesia and Philippines, no country escapes the taint of corruption. Of course, this is borne out by the figures of Transparency International, the global anti-graft body. To get a sense of the spread of corruption, just look at the world map at the Transparency International’s website : as you move from East to West, the deep blue color fades to light blue, indicating less and less perception of corruption in the Western world.
Let us consider some specific figures: Transparency International puts India 84th on its corruption perception index with a 3.4-point rating, out of a best possible score of 10. For a contrast, look at New Zealand. It ranks first with 9.4 points. Singapore is 3rd with 9.2 points. Somalia is last on 1.1 points, which is more or less mirrored by Myanmar (1.4) in Asia. The index for China is 3.6, Malaysia 4.5, Thailand 3.4, Indonesia 2.8 and Philippines and Bangladesh are is 2.4 each.
If the water is too clean, there are no fish
Given their size, the incidence of corruption is more prominent in the case of the two Asian giants, India and China. Almost one-third of Indians are "utterly corrupt" and half are "borderline", said Pratyush Sinha, the former chief of India’s corruption watchdog, Central Vigilance Commission . India’s former Union Law Minister Shanti Bhushan recently told the Supreme Court that at least eight of the 16 chief justices of India (CJIs) were "definitely corrupt". It might sound ludicrous but one of the anecdotal explanations behind India’s ability to survive the 2009 global financial meltdown was that India had plenty of black money. According to one estimate, the Indian black money stashed away in Swiss banks and other accounts may be of the order of US$1.4 trillion.
The news from China is not good either. Corruption is consistently rated the number one concern by Chinese, ahead of pirated goods and pollution . Unlike India, because of its system of governance, there is often no report of corruption at the top of China’s political hierarchy. However, media reports abound in corruption scandals involving China’s government officials and businessmen. China's anti-corruption watchdog has said 106,000 officials were found guilty of corruption in 2009, an increase of 2.5 percent on the year before.
Not just officialdom, corruption also touches the business world of China. A moderate tolerance of corruption is a fact of doing business in China . People who do business there live by the proverb, “If the water is too clean, there are no fish.”
Interestingly, China at least has the image of cracking down on its corrupt businessmen and officials. A BBC report said that the number of government officials caught embezzling more than one million yuan ($146,000) in 2009 jumped by 19 per cent over the year. The government says the increase is due to better supervision of the problem. In September, China has ordered death penalty for food safety crimes (Today, Sep 17, 2010)—a much reported crime that caused deaths of infants and children in the last few years in the country.
In India, corruption is seen as part of ‘bad governance’, or accepted with a creative spin called the jugaad culture. Upright Indians who are against the culture of corruption give examples of China when it comes to dealing with corrupt officials. For instance, the former head of oil giant Sinopec, Chen Tonghai, was sentenced to death last year for taking nearly $30m in bribes. Many Indian commentators on TV demand China-style executions of corrupt Indian leaders and bureaucrats.
Why are we so corrupt?
All this is background. The main question that often gets lost in the discussion is why are we so corrupt whereas we blame the West to be materialistic?
India and China are two of the oldest civilizations in the world. Corruption would have existed in these cultures in one form or another but the levels it has reached now, when these countries are once again part of a historical boom, is alarming. This is a great comedown for a country like India whose official slogan is Satyamev Jayate—truth prevails.
Is it that the sudden economic boom has warped our minds? This can’t be entirely true as there has been a history of corruption and scandals in India, for example, even before the era of economic liberalization. So what explains this explosion of corruption?
“When we were growing up I remember if somebody was corrupt, they were generally looked down upon,” Sinha said about corruption in India. “There was at least some social stigma attached to it. That is gone. So there is greater social acceptance.”
In India today, it is agreed that the love of materialism has ripped apart the moral fibre of the country. Sinha said that in modern India “if somebody has a lot of money, he is respectable. Nobody questions by what means he has got the money.” What Sinha says is it in a way an expression of the Hindu attitude of fatalism, and acceptance of the fact that we are living in Kaliyug, the era of vice?
Similarly, in the older generation of Chinese, there is widespread anger at the ostentatious lifestyle enjoyed by some Communist Party officials, police chiefs and bosses of state-owned companies, according to the BBC’s Quentin Sommerville. Canadian journalist Jan Wong, who studied in China in the 1970s, reports in her book, Chinese Whispers (2009), about the attitude of the present day’s Chinese youth: “Now young people are different. They don’t want to enter the party. They just care about money. In the old days, we had a zhandou mubiao (a battle objective): ‘Serve the people’, ‘Everything for the revolution’. Now there is a spiritual crisis. People have no goal except to get rich.’
No goal except to get rich—that sounds true for the youth of all Asian countries today that have opened their doors to marketisation. But that still does not explain the high incidence of corruption.
The problem can’t be just materialism that has been parachuted in through the forces of globalisation. If it were so, the perception of corruption in the West would be higher too because we have always accused the West to be more materialistic than us.
The explanation, in my opinion, lies in the governance structure and the application of the rule of law. That’s why Singapore, despite being part of Asia, is a shining beacon, an exemplary corruption-free state where a police officer can be jailed for as petty a crime as stealing 70 dollar from a lost wallet (this is not even a case of bribery!) . Singapore is corruption-free and Singaporeans don’t accept corruption because the government is honest and rule of law is applied without discrimination. Also the fact that Singapore’s ministers and civil servants are well paid helps to check their corruptibility.
In the final analysis, I don’t think that Asians are congenitally corrupt. But when they see their top leaders, their civil servants and their society’s rich and famous getting away with loot and murder, they too learn to accept and practice dishonesty in life and business. In Asia, corruption is more of a survival tactic than an ingrained human trait, though if it remains unchecked, it will not only dampen a country’s economic prospects but will also lead to its spiritual suicide.
An edited version of this article appeared in The Daily Star, Dhaka (24 Sep, 2010).