Corruption query is unfortunate sign of times in SE Asia

CorruptionNot only in Southeast Asia would someone write the following, as one administrator of a non-governmental organization (NGO) did on a Cambodia Web site dedicated to expats:

Unfortunately we experienced a case of corruption in our NGO. Our accountant asked service providers to slightly increase invoices in order to get the difference to the lower invoice as a personal commission. For the time being we suspense [sic] her in order to investigate the case.

The writer went on to ask for advice, which another member of the forum answered in detail. Someone else subsequently suggested that the discussion be taken private, and therein is revealed discomfort with the West’s intolerance for the extent of corruption in Cambodia. In reply, on the site of the Cambodia Parents Network (CPN), another writer objected to the need for privacy. Said he:

My thoughts are that this (CPN) is an excellent forum to discuss corruption – sunlight is the best disinfectant – and new-ish foreigners are perhaps the ones most at risk of unwittingly being defrauded. Its also in Cambodia’s interests and all staff’s interests to prevent corruption as it puts job’s at risk / stops companies investing here which hampers creation of good paying jobs for locals.


Corruption is being perpetrated by dodgy expats here as well and there are plenty of them here.

Uh uh, someone else responded:

1.  What foreigners consider to be ‘corruption’ may not be considered as such by locals.  This point is made without judgement to either side.  Commissions, kick-backs, sweeteners etc. can simply be viewed as a perk of doing business. . .  
2.  Given these key differences in culture it is tricky not to be interpreted as condescending, preachy or even, to an extreme, xenophobic.  It should be noted that there is a mix of nationalities and cultures on CPN. . . 
3.  [P]erhaps not so black and white as initially believed.

Forgive me for quoting so much at length, including any spelling or grammatical errors, but I find the exchange of views revealing, not a little bit depressing and illustrative of the complexity of the issue.

Here is what  someone else had to say:

I think we are doing Cambodian’s a great injustice presenting their view of corruption here as anything other than illegal.

Its always conducted surreptitiously and not in the open, which is not in keeping with the theory that its considered okay by locals.

And so went the discussion.  One poster suggested bribery was so pervasive that it was becoming counter-productive as a path to efficiency:

It is precisely that black and white and the amount of time spent in Cambodia has nothing to do with one’s perception of it. Surely, corruption in the government bureaucracy has made it easier for many to get things through or get things they were not supposed to have but it has just as equally made it so much harder for those others who have tried to get things done by the book.

With some many Western expatriates participating in corruption in Cambodia it has become virtually impossible to get anything done without paying a bride. The most mundane of things, such as getting a certificate of residential address from the Sangkat have become subject to bribery, let alone wedding certificates and such other things of a higher rung. Most curiously, on many occasions it no longer has the intended effect for the one giving the bribe. A good example of that is people paying a fixer to cut the line when paying the vehicle inspection tax — so many are doing it that the line simply can’t be moved any faster, with everyone ending up in the same line they would have been otherwise but lining up the fixer and the government employees’ pockets in the process.     

“It’s really not black and white,” came a response from one of the original writers echoing a post quoted above.  There is, he said,  “a spectrum of activities,” some of which folks deem to be acceptable and some not.  

According to him, some activities common in the West could be interpreted as bribery, therefore corruption.  Among them were corporate gifts provided and received, corporate entertaining, leaving good tips in restaurants to encourage benefits in the future and finder’s fees.  In Asia, he listed what the writer termed unofficial finder’s fees, unofficial commissions and rewards for business introduced (financial or otherwise).  He explained:

When I came to Cambodia these were no-no’s for me but over time I have softened & have found ways to deal with this and protect the organization where necessary.
There are other items further along the spectrum which are still no’s for me and my staff know this.  We have open dialogue when things like this come up.
So, we all draw a line somewhere.  I think most would agree that corruption and bribery are wrong.  But different people will draw the line in different places.
Someone called me a hypocrite on this subject earlier today, I guess I am.  But I suspect in some ways we all are hypocrites.

Others took issue with the foregoing response.  One said that expats best lead by example, not by judgment and lecturing.  “After all, we are guests in this country, not colonial overlords,” he maintained.

And one of the original writers said he doesn’t know whether “anyone on this planet” considers restaurant tips (!) and corporate entertaining as part of corruption.

“If they do,” he contended, “I’d like to see what the argument for this is as both have receipts, both are subject to taxation (perhaps not in Cambodia yet but most definitely in the US), and neither violates any law on the books I am aware of.”

PhotoXPress-corruptAmong the points no one raised in this discussion is that the focus was on petty corruption.  The corruption evident in the spendthrift ways of the tiny but widely visible elite class — their luxury SUVs, their expensive dinners, their extravagant properties — that is the corruption that really matters.

In other words, the corruption that is manifest everywhere only distends the pockets of minor bureaucrats and lower-level purchasing agents.  The corruption that truly galls me is the funds that are drained from government accounts and international donors.  Those funds would be put to better use by improving the lot of those desperately poor Cambodians who go hungry, live in rude shelters, forgo education and work, if lucky enough to find employment, at hard labor.

Most of us are well aware of corruption around the world, so it is not an issue confined to Cambodia.  It is evident in neighboring countries and across oceans, including in the United States, where the harm to underprivileged Americans must be proportionately less than in developing nations.

Corruption’s pervasiveness make me wonder whether the practice of facilitating and accepting ill-gotten gains, not prostitution, isn’t the oldest profession.

E-mail: malcolmncarter@gmail.com

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