Time to rethink the misguided anti-corruption strategies in Thailand
Few people question the cost of corruption. Though statistics on corruption are often questionable, available data suggest it accounts for a significant proportion of economic activity. Estimates by the World Economic Forum show the cost of corruption equals more than 5% of global GDP, with over US$1 trillion paid in bribes each year according to the World Bank. Not surprisingly, there has been a growing global movement to condemn corrupt practices. In addition, many governments and development agencies have devoted substantial resources and energies to fighting corruption in recent years. But sadly, in highly corrupt countries, many anti-corruption initiatives, although well-intentioned, offer little chance of success.
In the case of Thailand, all the legal frameworks to effectively counter corruption have been in place since 1999: the National Anti-Corruption Commission, the Anti-Corruption Network, the Election Commission of Thailand, the Office of the Ombudsman, the Asset Examination Committee, the Anti-Money Laundering Office, the Office of the Auditor General — you name it, Thailand has it. And although the country does not have a specific law dealing with whistleblowers, protection can be derived from the Witness Protection in Criminal Cases Act of 2003. A tremendous government budget has been set up to maintain these agencies, not counting the millions that were spent on wide-ranging media awareness campaigns. Add in countless seminars and workshops on the subject, but corruption in Thailand is not improving. According to Transparency International, Thailand has slipped from 60th in the Corruption Perceptions Index in 2001 down to 102nd out of 177 countries in 2013. Why is that?
Corruption varies from country to country, but in most cases corruption comprises two main forms. First, there is public sector or state policy corruption, where vast amounts of public resources are stolen or misused by state officials and politicians. Then there is bureaucratic corruption, namely kickbacks and bribes of public officials. Though this second category of practices may seem petty, in aggregate a substantial amount of public resources may be involved.
In most cases, public sector corruption is a symptom of failed governance at the highest level. Corruption thrives where laws apply to some, but not to others. Unfortunately, Thailand is a classic example of this, where the pillar of the rule of law — the judiciary — is deeply compromised. Moreover, old habits die hard in Thailand; things have not really changed much since the Ayutthaya period where fiefdoms and cronyism tend to feed off each other. As a result, when the line between what is “public” and what is “private” is blurred, the abuse of public office for private gain is routine.
We seem to be stuck in a broken system and a highly divisive society with glaring weaknesses in institutions of accountability for all to see. Maybe it is time to think outside the box and try something unconventional for a change. Instead of wasting money on ineffective public awareness campaigns, it may make more sense to strengthen the rule of law through citizen empowerment. This could be done through support for bottom-up reforms such as trial by jury, freedom of information laws and e-government initiatives, which let citizens to use the internet to pay taxes, track court cases, etc.
Another way to tackle the corruption problem is to legalise certain activities. In many countries, drugs, gambling and prostitution are illegal, but some countries have legalised them. Thailand needs to stop living in denial. It is an open secret that all of the gambling dens, brothels and underground lotteries are run by people in power anyway (I am sure the former massage parlour king can back me up on this). So rather than pretending there is no vice in society, we might as well make it transparent and manage the problems properly with rules and common decency by legalising them and increasing tax revenues at once.
Having a smaller and fitter government sector also helps. This will reduce opportunities for corruption by limiting the situations where officials might exercise unaccountable discretionary powers. The privatisation of state enterprises will bring about more transparency and restrain public sector monopoly powers. With smaller government, we can afford higher pay. By following in the footsteps of Singapore and Hong Kong, where civil service salaries are in line with those of the private sector, public-sector corruption could decline when people can make an honest living without taking bribes.
Teera Phutrakul is chairman of the Thai Financial Planners Association, TFPA.