Corruption is in the crosshairs but no one is taking the shot

Vietnam is the latest country in Southeast Asia to begin a high-profile crusade against corruption. However, a few spectacular arrests are nowhere near enough in a region beset by graft

Alejandro Salas
March 28, 2018
Corruption is in the crosshairs but no one is taking the shot
Vietnamese former state oil executive Trinh Xuan Thanh (wearing the white jacket), who was allegedly kidnapped in Germany, listens to the verdict at his trial at Hanoi's People's Court. He was sentenced to life in prison for corruption Photo: STR / EPA-EFE

A quick glance around the world gives the impression that the fight against corruption is gaining momentum – specifically when we look at media headlines and see a growing number of corruption-related arrests as well as the prosecution of high-profile, corrupt individuals. This is the good news we’re fed: the corrupt can’t get away with it as easily as they used to.

From rich businesspeople and politicians in Brazil linked to the national oil company, Petrobras, to powerful members of the Saudi Arabian elite, and even disgraced presidents in South Korea and Guatemala, the trend seems positive in an area that had remained largely untouched for decades.

Southeast Asia isn’t the exception and some countries are joining the trend. We see this particularly in Vietnam, but also to varying degrees in the Philippines, Cambodia, Indonesia, Laos and others.

While this trend is welcome, we have to understand better what a few arrests and prosecutions mean in terms of an effective and sustained approach towards curbing corruption. In other words, we need to understand the effects of a ‘crackdown’ strategy on democratic governance in general and to honest and permanent anti-corruption efforts in particular.

Transparency International has long stressed that there isn’t a simple or single solution to the issue of corruption – arresting a few individuals won’t be enough to root out the problem.

This is particularly true in Southeast Asia where, according to Transparency International’s Corruption Perceptions Index 2017, most of the region’s countries have a score of lower than 50 in a scale where 100 means very clean and zero reflects a deep-rooted systemic problem. Regrettably, no one hits the 100 mark, not even top-of-the-list countries, such as Singapore, which have also had their share of scandals in recent times.

To have a real and sustained impact in the fight against corruption, governments need to follow a combination of punishment (ending impunity) and prevention. Some countries, including those mentioned above, have cracked down against perpetrators – that is fine but not enough. There also needs to be a normative framework and strong institutions in charge of enforcement of these rules and laws, to prevent corruption from happening in the first place.

Southeast Asian countries perform both types of anticorruption actions to different degrees. As a result, while the overall perception of existing corruption in the public sector remains high, people have mixed views regarding the performance of their governments in tackling the problem. According to Transparency International’s latest Global Corruption Barometer, 64% of Indonesians rate their government as performing well in the fight against corruption. On the other side, we found that 60% of people in Vietnam and 56% in Cambodia rate their governments as performing badly.

The message is clear: some arrests of high-profile officials or businesspeople do not replace an urgently needed, comprehensive and well-resourced strategy. Furthermore, the effectiveness of a government’s anticorruption efforts that emphasise high-profile crackdowns also raises questions in terms of the honesty behind them. While most of the accused individuals might indeed be corrupt and need to face justice, what often comes into question is the selection of the cases. Quoting the now famous phrase of former Peruvian President Oscar Benavides: “To my friends, everything; to my enemies, the law.” In many cases there seems to be political criteria behind the high-profile arrests; this in turn opens the question: can we also expect punishment of corrupt individuals linked to those in power?

Finally, and of extreme importance to anticorruption efforts, there needs to be the space and liberty for people’s action. Journalists need to be able to investigate and report, civil society organisations should be able to do their work, people in general should be able to demand accountability and raise their voice against corruption. However, in these areas, the trend in Southeast Asia is worrisome.

Anti-corruption activists are threatened, people are arrested and, in the worst cases, journalists and activists at the forefront of fighting corruption are killed or disappear. If countries are serious about fighting corruption, then this cannot happen, and a few spectacular arrests will not be enough to bring good governance and sustained anticorruption efforts to Southeast Asia.

Alejandro Salas is a regional director at Transparency International. His work focuses on the Asia-Pacific and Americas regions.

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