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Corruption up in the region

Updated On: Nov 10, 2006

Corruption has been identified as one of the major scourges of the Southeast Asian region. 

Thaksin has been ousted by a military coup partly because of allegations of widespread corruption.  Malaysia’s Abdullah Badawi and Indonesia’s Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono were elected partly on the promise of reform and determination to tackle the issue of corruption.  However, despite such desires to fight corruption, results have not been particularly encouraging.  The release of Transparency International’s (TI) global Corruption Perception Index (CPI) for 2006 seemed to confirm the general observation.

Released Monday (6 November), the CPI revealed that corruption in Thailand and Malaysia has actually worsened this year. Thailand slipped to 63rd, from last year's 59th position, while Malaysia fell to 44th from 39th place last year. 

Though Indonesia shows mild signs of improvement in ranking, the country still ranks a low 130, placing it among the world’s most corrupt nations.  Indonesia's position on TI’s scale of zero to 10, with zero most corrupt and 10 the least, improved slightly to 2.4 in the 2006 survey from 2.2. last year.  However, TI says countries with indices below 3 in its annual corruption perception index are considered "highly corrupt".

Despite high profile initiatives to fight corruption, the Indonesian public remains unconvinced that endemic corruption is in decline. While dozens of elected officials and other high ranking civil servants are either in jail or on trial over graft charges and state prosecutors have begun to air pictures of graft fugitives on television – part of initiatives launched to fight corruption since Indonesian President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono took office, experts say many public services at all levels still require greased palms to get action underway, and low official salaries paid to civil servants, including police and judges, encourage the situation.

Yudhoyono was propelled to office in 2004  in large part due to his promises to improve governance and fight graft.  Since then, he has energised an anti-graft commission and has stepped up prosecution of top government officials and business executives.  But despite his pledge to eradicate graft, experts now say Yudhoyono risks political backlash or public disapointment, frustration and cynicism for failing to go after ‘big fish’.  The credibility of anti-corruption efforts inIndonesia could be undermined by the appearance of partisanship and/or selectivity.  As Indonesian legal expert Frans Winarta said, the government’s anti-corruption drive is not addressing corruption in high-ranking officials, and this discriminating anti-corruption law enforcement between those who do and those who do not have political power must be changed.  Most notable of course, is the absence of any explicit emphasis on investigating and prosecuting corruption by former president Suharto and his family and close associates – despite continued calls to do so from civil society. Indonesia's judicial system also has been tarnished by several high profile cases, including the early release last month from jail of a son of former Indonesian strongman Suharto convicted for paying a hitman to kill a judge.

Top graft fighters in Thailand too bemoan the drop in CPI ranking, saying it highlights the country’s need for political will to tackle the problem. Sak Kosaengruang, spokesman for the National Counter Corruption Commission, said that corruption seems contagious and widespread, as evident in farm produce mortgage and price intervention schemes. Juree Vichit-Vadakan, the secretary-general of Transparency Thailand said a local survey of Thai people pointed to a more serious corruption problem over the past five years.  Those surveyed blamed the problem on politicians' lack of sincerity in tackling graft.

In Malaysia, the country’s CPI ranking fell against a flurry of high-profile complaints and cases on corruption.  Most recently, The Star ran a report on complaints from a whistle-blower implying that the Anti-Corruption Agency (ACA) showed no interest in handling his report and lacked action. Transparency International’sMalaysia chapter president Ramon Navaratnam said the CPI ranking has “convinced [them] that the ACA must be independent.”  

Since coming into power, Abdullah has promised to clamp down on corruption, giving more power to anti-corruption agencies and making it easier for the public to reveal corrupt practices to the authorities.  But despite moves to charge several prominent figures from the Mahathir era with corruption, the Abdullah administration's efforts to combat corruption seemed to have fizzled off.  In fact, allegations were made last year that under Abdullah's administration, there has been a significant increase in cases of cronyism.

After the release of the CPI, Minister in the Prime Minister’s Department Nazri Aziz was quick to upkeep Abdullah’s carefully cultivated image as an anti-corruption crusader, telling the Opposition that corruption has been on the rise from the time of the Mahathir administration and is not a recent phenomenon.  He added, "We have a bigger mission now, to fight corruption. The government is going to concentrate on doing just that as this is what the Prime Minister Datuk Seri Abdullah Ahmad Badawi wants.”

Sources:

Indonesian leader risks backlash over wavering graft fight : experts (ANTARA News, 8 November 2006)

Indonesia still considered corrupt despite graft war (ANTARA News, 7 November 2006)

Thailand's graft ranking worsens (Bangkok Post, 7 November 2006)

Kingdom falls in world graft ranking (The Nation, 7 November 2006)

Corruption ranking slips (The Star, 7 November 2006)

Money laundering report against deputy minister (The Star, 8 November 2006)

Malaysia slips to 44th place on graft index (New Straits Times, 7 November 2006)

Think-tank chief held for questioning (The Straits Times, 9 November 2006)

Image of police tarnished by murder (The Straits Times, 9 November 2006)

M'sian PM seeks full probe of Mongolian's murder (The Straits Times/AP/Reuters, 9 November 2006)