Culture of Corruption, Part 2


Mae Sot, THAILAND

Last week, Part 1 introduced the themes of this two-fold post, “Culture of Corruption,” in which I examine the relationship between a country’s government type, GDP, and education budget and standard. Part 1 suggested that Southeast Asia stands out among global figures as a regional low in political transparency, economic liberalization, and corruption.

I cited exceptionally high rates of transparency (and correspondingly low rates of corruption) among Western nations. In that camp, we see Denmark, ranked second highest of 180 nations by Transparency International, Sweden, ranking third, and the UK and US, following in 17th and 19th respectively.¹ Lower down the ladder, we find Thailand, scoring a 3.4 (of 10), China, slightly above that with a 3.6 score, Vietnam, a one party communist state, placed at 120 with a modest 2.7, with Indonesia only .1 ahead. The Philippines: 139th, score 2.4. Nepal, 143rd, scoring 2.3. The list goes on. At the depths of political corruption and abysmal transparency ratings, Myanmar, dominated since 1962 by a military junta, places at number 178, scoring only 1.4, merely one position better than Afghanistan (179th and 1.3), a country mired by civil war, drug trafficking, and perpetual insurgency and foreign occupation. In fact, Freedom House rates Myanmar among the absolute lowest in political rights and civil liberties.²  Only two Asian nations (Singapore and Japan) and the semi-autonomous region of Hong Kong, are to be found among the top 20 in Transparency International’s CPI Index.

So are the higher ranking countries democratic and therefore more transparent? Conversely, are the worst ranking nations the least democratic, authoritarian regimes stifling any opposition? Not exactly.

Denmark, Sweden, and the US are all democratic countries, and the UK, while nominally a parliamentary monarchy, holds free and democratic elections, and may be included amongst the list of democratic countries. Japan is a parliamentary democracy as well, albeit with a long tradition of dynastic constitutional monarchy, more or less fitting the mold for the list so far. Similarly high-ranking Singapore, however – a parliamentary republic – and Hong Kong – a quasi-democratic, though non-sovereign, “special region” within Communist China, do not compare so readily to the other countries in the top 20.

Democracy seems to be the norm in the higher ranking transparent governments of the world, but it is not a universal. Does this hold true for a country’s riches? That is, as an industrialized country reduces its poverty level and enters global trade with a rapidly expanding economy, does the overwhelming trend appear to combat corruption and encourage transparency? Again, the relationship between a country’s GDP and level of corruption is a murky one.

According to the 2009 CIA World Factbook, the EU in its entirety takes the lion’s share of global capital, with GDP (adjusted for PPP, purchasing power parity) at $14.5 trillion. The US follows with nearly $14.3 trillion. Japan and India, a vibrant democracy (admittedly dealing with extensive corruption issues—ranking 84th on Transparency International’s CPI Index), lay claim to 4th and 5th largest GDP figures respectively.

For now, democratic nations maintain leading positions in global commerce. However, since China introduced market-based reforms in 1978, it has remained the world’s fastest growing economic power (nearly $8.8 trillion in GDP 2009), bringing record numbers of people out of poverty and leading the largest exodus of humanity in human history from country to city in such a short period of time. The anomaly of China is that it has been able to maintain such a high growth rate with such low rankings in terms of international human rights standards, and all the while guarding its rigid, single party ruling power.

The leaders of the world economy (namely the EU and US), barring India and China, maintain excellent human rights standards and low levels of government corruption. Elsewhere in Southeast Asia, however, the world has watched as countries such as Thailand, Indonesia, and Vietnam, have shown unprecedented growth rates and yet been unable or unwilling to deal with rampant corruption and cronyism. The CIA World Factbook estimates that Thailand’s economy grew by an average of more than 4% per annum between 2000 and 2008. During the last decade, Vietnam has reported an average annual GDP growth rate of 7% (Vietnam in particular is a country to watch in the years to come: though only representing a third of Thailand’s GDP, the nation has attracted increasing numbers of FDI (Foreign Direct Investment) and maintained high growth rates).

Once more it would appear that GDP and transparency share some measure of correlation among world leaders, but the overwhelming trend in Asian markets today seems to allow for economies to develop prior to—or without—eliminating corruption and human rights abuses.

Often, mounting international pressure stipulates that nations with lower standards of human rights must act in accordance with international codes of behavior in order to join organizations such as WTO or the UN. However, we’ve all seen China and Russia block UN resolutions again and again in order to preserve their business ties to corrupt nations like North Korea and Myanmar (a nation allowed into ASEAN presumably for the exploitation of its rich natural resources, namely natural gas, teak, and minerals such as gold). So the goodwill of reformed nations and multinational platforms is often stymied by the very world organizations that were formed to uphold those ethics. As a result, countries like Myanmar and North Korea are permitted to carry on with blatantly repressive policies as long as the world perceives them as largely internal issues, rather than a danger to regional neighbors (though it remains to be seen whether or not North Korea’s nuclear weapons policy will not incur direct action from surrounding nations or the West).

So the old pattern of liberal democracies mandating international trade policy with the largest control of GDP and strict anti-corruption regulation no longer appears to determine which countries find prosperity and global power in the world. But liberal democracies still allow for the greatest stability, freedom of debate, political liberty, and civic rights. On top of this, these nations are able to permit nearly unlimited freedom of the press and intellectual freedom, while maintaining the best educational standards in the world.

Contrary to this form of direct democracy and concordantly high levels of government transparency often found in the West, the nations of China, Vietnam, Thailand, and Myanmar, represent an apparent fear, on the part of the powers that be, of a rising middle class, upwardly mobile and increasingly demanding of freedom of political expression. For this reason (more than that of type of government or GDP level alone), education, hand in hand with civic liberties and access to a free, global market, is the paramount indicator of any given country’s level of corruption. A highly educated and rising middle class with political freedoms poses no threat to a liberalized democracy, because representative government depends on public debate and the free exchange of ideas. For the same reason, however, that expanding, educated, and urban class of citizens comprises the greatest opposition force to a single party state denying political participation and intellectual freedom to the majority of its populace.

Therefore, education in the West focuses on critical thinking and the ability to present one’s own opinion, and governments spend liberally on scholarships and foreign exchange programs (fortunately, Southeast Asian nations like Japan and South Korea send large numbers of their students abroad for a period of their education). In an open society, a student’s exposure to the world of ideas poses no threat to the liberal nation which that student returns to. But, if we shift our attention to the Southeast Asian region, the trend in nations from Thailand to China is dominantly toward rote learning, focusing largely on data memorization, exact reproduction of information as presented by the teacher, and limited dialogue.

In a country like Vietnam, the results of educational reform are markedly different from those in the West. The insular, communist government of Vietnam finds it increasingly has to silence the liberal media and lock up foreign educated lawyers demanding greater democratic reforms. In the days of Burma’s civilian government (1948 – 1962), a large portion of parliamentary members were British educated or had studied abroad for extended stays. In fact, U Thant, former Burmese ambassador to the United Nations, was voted to become Secretary General of the UN from 1961 – 1971. Today, Myanmar spends only 1.3% of GDP on education, shockingly low by international comparisons.³ Today, many of Myanmar’s top ruling generals lack any education outside of the national military schooling provided them. It is no small wonder Myanmar prefers to send its students to disparate locations within the country for “distance learning” after the 1988 student-led street demonstrations inspired a military crackdown that killed upwards of 3,000, in an event reminiscent of Tiananmen Square in May 1989.

As long as education, critical thinking, and political rights are repressed and stigmatized by authoritarian regimes, rule by fear will be the standard. The world eagerly and apprehensively watches the conflicts between paranoid, centralist powers and citizens of the world, increasingly exposed to international media and an electronic forum of debate providing a sliver of hope for political reform. We nervously hope for the inevitable boiling point that will topple regimes like Myanmar’s junta or force corrupt politicians to cede power to coalition governments. Let’s hope for the option of a smoother transition.

¹Transparency International Corruption Perceptions Index (CPI) 2009 is compiled by 13 independent global surveys. Last year’s results can be found at <http://www.transparency.org/policy_research/surveys_indices/cpi/2009>.

²Freedom House, “Freedom in the World – Burma (Myanmar) (2010).” This special report can be found at <http://www.freedomhouse.org/inc/content/pubs/fiw/inc_country_detail.cfm?year=2010&country=7792&pf>.

³ Steinberg, David I. Burma/Myanmar: What Everyone Needs to Know. New York: Oxford University Press (2010), 96.

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One Response to Culture of Corruption, Part 2

  1. Hunter3 says:

    Excellent points made here. I can see the value of indexing transparency and I like the correlation to education (or lack thereof) as a contributing factor. I wonder if China & Russia’s efforts to “protect” established trade and ties is factored into the ratings given out.

    Can’t wait for next post!

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