The issue of corruption is one that burdens governments and institutions world-wide. Given the long bureaucratic tradition of the Asian Pacific, staffed by well educated, extensively connected and highly influential officials, it is often misconstrued that this system necessitates corruption.
Indeed, such a judgement often creeps into Western discourse. There is an automatic assumption that, because many of the countries are not liberal democracies that the corruption they experience is to be expected.
However, such a bureaucratic system – the state arena responsible for formulating and implementing policy – is not inevitably corrupt in the Asian Pacific. To think as much is a poor reading of the region's historical mode of governance and indicates a poor understanding of the origins of corruption itself.
The most salient way in which Asian Pacific governments are fighting corruption is through strong anti-corruption institutions. Such institutions provide an effective barrier to the abuses of power that significant economic growth incentivises.
Nobel-prize winning economist Douglass North highlights the importance of institutions in counteracting corruption and agues that economic and institutional development should be simultaneous, with ‘efficient institutions’ being the preventative measure stopping economic prosperity translating into increased corruption.
If executed effectively, institutional development will safeguard against the traditionally connected and influential bureaucracy abusing their position for personal gain, thus, stemming corruption.
This is most notable Hong Kong, where the Independent Commission Against Corruption (ICAC) has experienced spectacular success in overcoming flagrant institutionalised corruption since its inception in 1974.
Hong Kong achieved this by monitoring, managing and holding to account their elite and influential bureaucrats, preventing them from exploiting economic growth through their position. This achievement was facilitated by the ICAC receiving extensive power from government to place tightly controlled institutional checks and balances on the bureaucracy, whilst ensuring that civil servants are well remunerated to disincentivise the illicit pursuit of economic gain.
Further, the ICAC has vast power to oversee and investigate the bureaucratic system, with their ‘three-pronged strategy’ of ‘law enforcement, prevention, and education’ establishing a rigorous anti-corruption environment in which corruption cannot proliferate.
This is augmented by generous levels of funding that strengthens the ICAC’s ability to deal with corruption, its 2018 budget being HK$1,120.4 million and a headcount of 1,481. This support enabled the ICAC to execute their broad mandate, independent from potentially corrupt government officials coupled with vast power to quash corruption.
Their success was highlighted in the ICAC’s 2009 Annual Report which details how ‘only 21 government servants were prosecuted’ on corruption charges, with ICAC Corruption Reports stating that ‘both corruption cases and corruption reports about the civil service are declining’.
In addition, political reform and regulation can restrict the ability for corruption to proliferate and can quash it entirely if applied appropriately. Samuel Huntington’s Theory of Corruption proposes that ‘corruption thrives on disorganisation’ and a lack of ‘recognised authority’, with such authority provided by effective political legislation.
The Asian Pacific has had a historically opaque governmental system which qualitatively deepens the issue of corruption as bureaucrats are not bound by legislative restrictions and are not accountable to the people whom their corrupt activity negatively impacts. Previously, bureaucrats were able to engage in corrupt acts with little legislative constraint through a lack of accountability, enabled by their technocratic intellectualism and connections. However, with political restrictions in place, bureaucrats are held accountable and corruption reduces.
In keeping with Donatella Porta’s Socio-political Theory of Corruption, bureaucrats have less inclination for and engagement in corruption after anti-corruption political reform as its governmental transparency regulates behaviour so that corrupt officials can be ousted.
Corruption exists in all countries and modes of governance. It is an evil that the Asian Pacific is certainly not immune to. However, is it far from the truth to say that corruption is inevitable in Asian governance, such Orientalism should be identified and corrected.
Author: Nicholas Madsen
Nicholas is a scholar in international relations at the University of Amsterdam.