Corruption in Asian Countries: Can It Be Minimized?

By Quah, Jon S. T. | Public Administration Review, November 1999 | Go to article overview

Corruption in Asian Countries: Can It Be Minimized?


Quah, Jon S. T., Public Administration Review


Can corruption be combatted? Yes, but only under certain circumstances! That appears to be the experience of Asian countries where corruption is ubiquitous with the exception of Singapore--a country that proved to be the only success story with a strong political leadership and better pay sales. Can this experience be replicated?

Three decades ago, Gunnar Myrdal (1968, 938-939) identified the taboo on research on South Asian corruption as one of the factors inhibiting the research of his book, Asian Drama. However, this taboo no longer exists, judging from the increasing amount of research on corruption in Asian countries in recent years. According to the Far Eastern Economic Review, corruption was the biggest story of 1996, the Year of the Rat, as a great deal of "newsprint and television time was devoted to reports and discussions on corruption in government" (Ghosh et al., 1997, 18). Furthermore, the financial crises in Thailand, South Korea, Malaysia, and Indonesia in 1997 have highlighted the problems of corruption, cronyism, and nepotism on one hand, and the need for more accountability and transparency in government and banking operations in these countries on the other hand.

Why is corruption such a serious problem in Asian countries? Is it possible to control or to minimize corruption in these countries? This paper contends that the extent of corruption in Asian (and other) countries depends on two factors: (1) the nature of the causes of corruption in these countries; and (2) the degree of effectiveness of the measures initiated by political leaders to combat corruption. In order to curb corruption in Asian countries, the causes of corruption must first be correctly diagnosed so that political leaders can take appropriate action to minimize, if not eliminate, such causes. Asian countries like Singapore and Hong Kong, which observe this logic of corruption control, are more successful in combatting corruption than other countries (Quah, 1995).

This paper is divided into three sections. In the first section, the different levels of corruption in Asian countries are discussed. Section two describes the anticorruption strategies employed in several Asian countries. The concluding section focuses on Singapore's experience, demonstrating that, while it is difficult to curb corruption, it is nonetheless possible to do so if a country's political leaders have the commitment or will to impartially implement effective anticorruption measures.

Levels of Asian Corruption

In September 1974, the Far East Economic Review featured the cover story "Corruption: The Asian Lubricant," which surveyed corruption in 10 Asian countries. The article concluded that:

   If you want to buy a Sherman tank, a Red Cross blanket, or simply speed up
   the installation of a telephone, there is probably no easier place in the
   world in which to do just that than in Asia--if you are willing to part
   with some cash, that is. With pathetically few exceptions, the countries in
   this region are so riddled with corruption that the paying of "tea money"
   has become almost a way of life (Far East Economic Review, 1974, 3).

This picture of pervasive corruption in Asia is supported by individual portraits of corruption in such countries as Bangladesh, the People's Republic of China, Hong Kong, India, Japan, Laos, Pakistan, Taiwan, and Thailand (Far East Economic Review, 1974, 22-31).

As it is not possible to measure the actual extent of corruption in a country, scholars usually rely on the reported extent of corruption. Lancaster and Montinola (1997, 16) have observed that students of political corruption use written documents (press reports, judicial records, and records from anticorruption agencies) and survey data to measure corruption. As these instruments are not problem-free, they have recommended the use of the Corruption Perception Index (CPI), published by Transparency International in 1995 and updated in 1996 and 1997, because it is a "robust" index that "captures more than a single indicator" and "combines several measures of political corruption for each country" (Ibid. …

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