Friday, March 26, 2010

Southeast Asia won't take corruption lying down

A CHORUS against corruption seems to be the common battle cry in all four major Southeast Asian democracies at this moment.
In Bangkok, the "Red Shirt" protesters are again out in force, in support of their leader, former prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra, who was ousted in a military coup, allegedly for massive corruption.

In Manila, national elections will take place on May 10 and strong popular opinions against President Gloria Arroyo's allegedly corruption-riddled administration are ensuring that a candidate with little to commend him but a reputation for being clean is leading the crowded pack of aspirants to succeed her.

In Jakarta, a president newly re-elected on a clean, reformist record quickly finds himself greatly compromised by allegations of corruption -- what else? -- against key members of his administration in a bank-bailout scandal.

In Kuala Lumpur, corruption remains almost an unvaried staple in the opposition's arsenal as it relentlessly attacks the government both inside Parliament and out.

What does all this corruption-themed politics tell us?

Indonesian President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono was re-elected on his promise of continued reforms.
First, it shows that public concerns about corruption are easily at the top of issues common to almost any country one can think of.

Second, it shows that corruption is almost an eternal political battle, such that it recurs unfailingly as a public issue, almost everywhere and every time.

We, therefore, need to be eternally vigilant against such a scourge in our public life while being healthily sceptical that a silver bullet exists or glib and ready answers abound to tackle a problem such as corruption.

Yes, of course, a zero-tolerance policy towards corruption sounds brilliant and seems like a no-brainer. Except that in real life and real countries rather than cities such as Singapore and Hong Kong, things can and often do get complicated. Politics, after all, is the art of the possible, not the ideal. And politics is often the common denominator that does a great complicating job in the otherwise unambiguously noble job of fighting corruption.

In Thailand, Thaksin unquestionably made politically expedient choices to consolidate his hold on power and in the process, came to be regarded -- until today -- as a hero of the rural-dwelling poor and dispossessed even as he simultaneously gained the unforgiving enmity of the urban middle class.

Democracy was again upended in a coup that won support from the middle class and some semblance of it was restored later with a prime minister acceptable to this class, Abhisit Vejjajiva. The latter was hoisted onto power but only after political compromises were secured with the same unprincipled and corrupt characters and parties that once shared power with Thaksin.

Ironically, if Thaksin had succeeded in permanently empowering his rural political base, Thai democracy might have stood a better chance of surviving and with it, the eradication of corruption as almost a way of political life.

In the Philippines, Senator Benigno "Noynoy" Aquino III looks on course to condemning his country anew, as his mother, former president Corazon Aquino, did, to a six-year stint of good intentions in place of governing competence. The intervening years of mostly self-torment between the first Aquino and likely second Aquino presidencies could have been avoided had Filipinos held their noses and gave a clean and competent president Fidel Ramos a constitutionally denied second term instead of placing blind and mostly unrewarded faith in institutions.

In Indonesia, what to make of voters enthusiastically re-electing President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono on his promise of continued reforms and clean government while at the same time electing members to a Parliament regarded as one of Indonesia's most corrupt public institutions is simply beyond my comprehension, especially as that same Parliament rather swiftly stymied the president by turning corruption investigations into personal vendettas against two of his star reformers.

In Malaysia, I keep hearing self-congratulations that we are a cut above the regional lot. We certainly enjoy corruption rates significantly less dire than all the above three countries. But given what has been happening here politically in the past two years, I won't dare bet we are a cut above them in terms of our maturity.

Senator Benigno ‘Noynoy’ Aquino III is one of the ‘clean’ candidates running for the Philippine presidential race.

What seems clear to me is that in all four of these countries, corruption, political contention and, most importantly, economic development all hold fairly constant over the years despite public obsessions and exertions. The real trick is perhaps to adequately manage and balance these so endemic poverty can end sooner and with it better chances for both democracy and corruption eradication may really prosper. John Teo for the New Straits Times Kuala Lumpur

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