Tue, 06 Apr 2004

The fight against corruption starts with the individual

Pravit Rojanaphruk The Nation Asia News Network Bangkok

A book on corruption in East Asia released recently by the World Bank suggests that any measures put in place to tackle the issue in this part of the world must take local social contexts into consideration. The public doesn't need to be reminded that corruption in countries like Thailand is not just a matter breaking the law, but also a cultural phenomenon.

One of the biggest obstacles to removing corruption from society is the fact that, in Thailand, a corrupt person may very well be considered a good person in the eyes of his or her family, friends and the professional or social groups with which that person identifies. This last category is one of the most important. While one part of society may brand someone as corrupt, this same person is probably thought to be a good husband, father or friend or is even popular within his community.

A media tycoon who runs a business daily declared his partiality towards the Thaksin Shinawatra administration by saying that in Thailand, the thing that counts most is which group you belong to. This could be considered a sort of cronyistic morality, a value system relative to one's peers.

The tycoon's comments helped shed light on why some corrupt people seem to have no sense of guilt. Even when their actions are exposed in the light of public scrutiny, they can be sure that they are still seen as being kind, sincere, straight-forward and honest among those closest to them. And perhaps this is what counts in Thailand.

The practice of merit-making is another cultural phenomenon that could explain the local tolerance for corruption. Merit- making donations are typically made in the hope that the giver will receive something in return, be it in this or the next life. Rarely do Thais participate in universal merit-making in exchange for things like world peace.

Even nationalism can be used to obscure corruption. Diplomats and policymakers have no qualms about evoking the national interest while ignoring issues like human rights violations and suppression in places like Tibet or Burma, as long as Thailand benefits from its dealings with the countries responsible. Nationalism by its very nature requires a certain moral relativism. In this light, it is easy to see that a person who might be considered good among people in Pattani, such as the missing Muslim lawyer, may be viewed differently in Bangkok.

It may sound contradictory, but the ability to think beyond one's family and peers and care for the public at large may depend upon an individual's sense of right and wrong. It requires a certain amount of courage to uphold the public interest, especially when it runs contrary to the private interests of one's immediate group.

In the absence of an individual sense of right and wrong, people tend to reason that whatever problems or corruption take place around them are none of their business. Likewise, government officials may end up endorsing a passive form of corruption by accepting bribes simply because their colleagues do. They may feel that if they don't they won't fit in and may eventually be ostracized.

The ability to cultivate a more universal and encompassing sense of right and wrong that transcends group and national interests is an important matter for Thai society. This shouldn't require a concerted, national campaign, although that could help.

Each individual has the power to take a courageous first step towards making Thailand a less group-oriented, and therefore less corrupt, society. The urge to please one's peers is so strong in Thailand that it at times run contrary to public interests. At the same time, one must not despair that nepotism and cronyism are essential to Thai culture. However, until people take that necessary first step, corruption will continue to plague us.