South Asia Aug 19, 2006
The wages of corruption
By Chan Akya
"In India, corruption is under the table. In China, it is over the table, while in Indonesia corruption includes the table
it has been said. People might quibble about the relative placement of Asia's three largest countries. Depending on direct evidence of paying off government officials, and the nationalities of those making the payments, the temptation to reclassify stands quite broad.
Whichever way you wish to read the quote, what remains undeniable is that corruption is more firmly rooted in Asian culture than is commonly acknowledged
. Western views of Asia are misshapen by their experiences in places like Singapore and Hong Kong, and all too often ignore the realities of doing business elsewhere. I will look here at the three countries mentioned in the above quote, in the order they are mentioned.
In India corruption is almost entirely a post-'70s phenomenon, with the country's politicians at the epicenter. While bureaucrats are also corrupt, they have derived strength from their political masters - indeed those working for relatively honest politicians are demonstrably less corrupt than the average, as well as being unhappy, presumably.
If India's plural democracy has pushed corruption ahead, China's one-party state has not done much better. Ever since Deng Xiaoping issued his "to get rich is glorious" edict, the party has seized on many opportunities to make money. Whether it is the People's Liberation Army (PLA), whose suite of businesses rivaled any Western conglomerate (until president Jiang Zemin cracked down late in the '90s) or local party officials whose fingers appear in every urban development, taxpayers' money has been illegally channeled into the hands of politically connected individuals.
Additionally, the secondary costs of corruption such as bad loans, cannot be calculated at the present juncture. This is best illustrated by looking at the history of some of the country's high-flying bankers and businessmen, many of whom have come to grief as reports of their wealth spread. The golden rule in China is to avoid being named, which would usually cause the party to investigate and quickly judge the official. One thing I have noticed though is that higher-ranking officials usually demand more long-term benefits such as joint venture projects and education or job advancement opportunities for their children as compared with lower-ranking officials who are mainly preoccupied with cash.
Javanese kings always ruled through a combination of intrigue, superstition and selective rewards. This placed them on the same level as a dalang (puppeteer) in a wayang kulit (shadow puppet show), carefully controlling the movements of various puppets and introducing surprise changes to the script depending on the audience reaction. The last of the great "dalangs" was Suharto
, whose use of his country's talented Chinese community reflected a genuine marriage of convenience.
In return for effective management of resources which gave them money, Chinese businessmen supported Suharto's family and addressed their financial needs. Their lack of a power base locally meant that they could never stray too far from the family. This is the context in which the proverb opening this article was made.
The arrival of democracy has resulted in greater corruption as each successive ruler has sought to cement his or her grip on the populace. While the people were promised less concentration of wealth to undo some of the ills of the Suharto era, this has been more difficult to implement due to the changing legal and political environment.
Meanwhile, the stagnation of investment has meant greater pressure on the government even though Indonesia, being a resource-rich country, has much to offer in the current environment of soaring commodity prices.
With the businessmen of old refusing to cede control and a whole host of new players from the West and the Middle Eas
t arriving at the country's doorsteps, corruption has become endemic. The search of the next dalang
is on. In the meantime, budding businessmen will have to support (pay) many contenders. At stake are not just the country's resources, but its entire policy framework as well. In this respect, Indonesia represents the worst of the Chinese and Indian experience in terms of corruption.
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