Chiang Mai, THAILAND
Having grown up in the United States, a country that prides itself on democratic ideals, the best educational centers in the world, and its high degree of government transparency, I have been fascinated by the opposite end of this spectrum. Having lived in Vietnam for a little more than two years and traveled extensively in neighboring countries, I have observed the corruption, lack of government accountability and of freedom for public debate, and poor educational structures, apparent in many Southeast Asian nations. The disparity between the high transparency standards of Western governments such as Denmark, Sweden, the UK, and the US, on the one hand, and the lower end of the spectrum as represented by their Eastern counterparts, such as China, India, Thailand, and Vietnam, on the other, makes for some remarkable interactions and disputes between these two spheres of economic and political engagement in an increasingly integrated, global market.
This two-part post sets out to examine the correlation between education, corruption, and reform. In particular, what are the underlying causes of entrenched political corruption, cronyism, bribery, and misappropriation of funds? Is one form of government more capable of reducing the level of fraud and regressive behavior, or do GDP and corruption have an inverse relation to one another, the former rising as the latter falls? Or are educational standards at the root of the problem? Part 1 will raise these questions in a broad and theoretical way, while Part 2 will provide more concrete data to back up assertions made here and attempt to enumerate a set of possible solutions to the issues raised.
It’s no easy ground to tread on: saying one society or culture is more inclined toward or tolerant of corruption, or that that group of people is less educated or less able to think critically. These considerations smack of ethnocentrism. However, social programs, political ideologies, and levels of education, are the products of specific groups of people, and people in turn are products of their society and the environment in which they live and act. For this reason, this discussion will attempt to examine these factors in an objective and unbiased manner.
I feel more confident making certain observations about a foreign culture after having heard from Vietnamese friends who are critical of their own country. I have heard first hand from those who disagree with many of their government’s policies, abhor the educational methods used in their public schools, and are more broadly aware of the magnitude of the issues at stake if these trends continue. More recently, during my stay in Thailand, I came across an interesting article in The Bangkok Post by a development economist, Sawai Boonma. It discusses the surveyed complacency of Thai citizens with the obvious level of corruption in business and politics:
We complain so much about corruption. But we do little about it. Worse, we keep electing the same corrupt politicians because they have money and influence from which we hope to benefit. Survey after survey last year shows that the majority of us do not mind corruption as long as we get something out of it.
One of the surveys last year showed that almost 85% of us believed that cheating was a normal business practice, making us practically a nation of thieves.¹
This was a remarkably candid exposé that no doubt brought Mr. Boonma great illwill. But if we are to make any progress in addressing deep-rooted, endemic bribery and cronyism, we will need to rely on both multinational institutions like the WTO (with strict socio-political standards to be met before a nation can enter and benefit from its membership in this organization) and—increasingly importantly—on the voices of ordinary citizens within those countries as they attain the world stage.
Next week, Part 2 will examine in greater depth the statistics gathered by various independent institutions that corroborate the assertion made above: namely, that the Southeast Asian region has one of the worst global records of political transparency and educational commitment, and that, in turn, there is a perceivable connection between corruption and education. Specifically, it will address the correlations between corruption and: (a) a particular nation’s form of government (democratic or otherwise); (b) that nation’s GDP; and, (c) its level of education.
¹Boonma, Sawai. “A Guide to the Perfect Thai Idiot,” in The Bangkok Post, 26 May, 2010. <http://www.bangkokpost.com/opinion/opinion/37714/a-guide-to-the-perfect-thai-idiot>.