Is Southeast Asia really a cesspool of corruption?
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Is Southeast Asia really a cesspool of corruption?

LAST week, an unimaginable amount of cash was found hidden in the offices and houses of two government employees in the state of Sabah, Malaysia. A total of RM52 million (US$12.5 million) to be exact. Another RM60 million was found in their bank accounts.

These two individuals, who are supposed to be serving the people, work for the Sabah Water Department and the money is apparently kickbacks linked to RM3.3 billion (US$800 million) worth of federal infrastructure projects in the north Borneo state.

Allow me to stress that a bit more. The Malaysian Anti Corruption Commission (MACC) raided the offices and homes of these two government servants and found, literally, stacks and stacks of cold hard cash stashed in closets, cabinets and cupboards worth RM52 million. You read that right!

Yeah sure. These two people are innocent until proven guilty. But this is just a perfect example of how corruption is so much a part of life in the country. And this case only involves some low ranking officials. What kind of perception does this give of those even higher up the chain?

SEE ALSO: ‘We are all instigators’: Malaysian graphic artists protest against corruption

In Malaysia, the term ‘duit kopi’ (coffee money) is understood by all – it means small-time bribery. And people just laugh when they hear about it. But that is the problem. The fact that they can laugh almost indifferently shows that the people have really become desensitized to it all.

To think about it, it’s not just in Malaysia (the 1MDB scandal doesn’t help either) but the entire region is seen as functioning via corruption. It’s sad to see that big blanket stereotype being thrown by the rest of the world at this region. But can you really blame them for thinking this?



Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte gestures with a fist bump during his visit to the Philippine Army’s Camp Mateo Capinpin at Tanay township. Pic: AP.

Today, ask any Filipino and they will tell you that if you want to get involved in politics in that country, you will definitely need to learn the Padrino system. It is so ingrained in the system that it is just accepted as standard practice.

The Padrino system is an unofficial patronage system in Filipino politics that plays on nepotism and cronyism. It is said that if you want to get ahead in politics there, then you have to play the game. And you can see how corruption can fester.

Current president Rodrigo Duterte has been in the limelight since he took office in the middle of this year for waging a violent war against drugs. Nearly 3,000 suspected drug dealers and users have already been killed in battles with the police and vigilantes.

Now, it seems that he also wants to address the corruption issue which he believes is rampant in the regulatory arms of the government. Thousands of government officials have already been sacked, even without sufficient evidence.

SEE ALSO: Philippines: Duterte gets thumbs-up from Filipinos in first 100 days rating

Funnily enough, this directive doesn’t include his own Cabinet ministers and officials because according to him, ‘It is too early for them to be corrupted.”.



Indonesian President Joko Widodo. Pic: AP.

The world’s most populous Muslim country has also had to deal with long-standing corruption practices in the government. And recently, the country was hit by a huge scandal involving a power company own by the Standard Chartered group.

The Maxpower Group is currently being investigated by the US Justice Department after audits have shown unaccounted outflow of a significant amount of cash (about US$750,000) believed to be bribes paid to Indonesian officials in order to secure contracts.

Indonesia has always been seen by foreign investors as a country where kickbacks are expected in order to expedite approvals for licenses and permits for all kinds of government projects, namely those involving infrastructure.

SEE ALSO: Indonesia’s anti-corruption agency pushes plan to combat deforestation, fires



Thailand’s Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha. Pic: AP

When it comes to corruption, Thailand seems to show that they do not tolerate it. Former prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra, who is currently living in exile, was ousted in a military coup. He was accused of corruption and an arrest warrant was issued when he was out of the country.

Then, elections were held and a new prime minister Abhisit Vejjajiva went into office. Soon after, all kinds of corruption accusations were made against his government involving several ministers and also his political party, the Democrat Party.

He was succeeded by Yingluck Shinawatra, the younger sister of exiled former premier Thaksin Shinawatra, in 2011. In 2014, she, along with several of her ministers, were accused of corruption involving the National Rice Policy.

A coup de tat took place and General Prayut Chan-o-cha became prime minister. And now, surprise surprise! He and members of his Cabinet are also being accused and investigated for corruption. It’s just a never-ending problem for the Thais.

SEE ALSO: Thailand pays lip service to corruption problems with new museum

Overcoming corruption

Last week, corporate leaders from all around the world who had gathered at the Nikkei Asia300 Global Business Forum in Bangkok, collectively agreed that Southeast Asia needs to handle the corruption problem if they want to see attract foreign investment and see growth in the region.

If you look at Transparency International’s corruption index, many of the countries in Southeast Asia are pretty high on the list. Instead of improving, the numbers seem to be getting worse as the years go by.

The international community, be it corporate or governments, have always expressed the potential they see in this region. But many of them also don’t hide their reluctance in entering this market because of the issue of heavy corruption.

These are just a few countries in Southeast Asia that are being mentioned. Countries like Vietnam, Myanmar, Cambodia and Laos also have rampant cases of corruption. So let’s see if anything is going to be done about it.

** This is the personal opinion of the writer and does not reflect the views of Asian Correspondent