Giving in to Ali Baba

December 18, 2008

I once paid a cop 30 ringgit (about $10 then) for making an apparently illegal left-hand turn in Kuala Lumpur. Scores of drivers in front of me were also handing over their “instant fines”, discreetly enclosed within the policeman’s ticketing folder. It was days ahead of a major holiday and the cops were collecting their holiday bonus from the public.

Malaysia opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim holds a disc he says contains evidence of judge-fixing in Malaysia 

I felt bad about this, of course. What I was doing was illegal, immoral and perpetuating an insidious culture that goes by many names in the East — “baksheesh” in India, “Ali Baba” (and his 40 thieves) in Malaysia, “swap” in Indonesia (means “to feed”).  But the policeman pointed out I would have to take off the good part of a day to go to court and pay 10 times as much to the judge. So I rationalised: “When in Rome…”

Alas it was not the first time, nor would it be the last that I have (ahem) paid an “informal levy” to officialdom. I’ve given baksheesh to the phone company in India to get a telephone installed, and to get a driver’s license without a test (no wonder there are so many accidents in India.)  I’ve paid the immigration officer at Jakarta airport to let me in with a nearly expired passport.

Many of my friends in Asia have similar tales to tell about bribing customs agents, power companies, hospitals, schools — anybody with the power to give a license or provide a service. A couple of bucks here, a couple there. Pretty soon you’re talking about real money. Daniel Kaufmann, who spearheaded the World Bank’s efforts to improve the study of governance and the rule of law estimates that $1 trillion of bribes are paid every year. A Reuters series on corruption in Asia found that perceptions of corruption in the emerging markets of Asia have not improved much over the years and have even declined in some cases. This is despite a growing revulsion among people in those countries for business as usual on the “demand” or government side, and a growing realisation from companies on the “supply side” of the bribery equation that payola is simply bad for business.

  Protester holds a  wanted poster for ousted Thai premier Thaksin Shinawatra at a mass anti-government rally in Bangkok.

Part of the problem is mindset and a major attitude adjustment might be needed. People may be fed up with “money politics” and crony capitalism in their countries, but they still pay off people in their neighbourhoods. A U.S. National Bureau of Economic Research study on unpaid parking fines issued to diplomats in New York, home to the U.N., showed Southeast Asian nations again among the league leaders and a remarkable correlation with more conventional measures of corruption. You can take the man out of his corrupt country, but you can’t take the culture of corruption out of the man. 

Anti-graft fighters model uniforms that those convicted of corruption offenses inIndonesia willbe required to wear in court and jail.

    For years, Indonesia ranked among the most corrupt countries in the world.  It permeates almost every level of society, reducing the country’s appeal to foreign investors, and curbing Indonesia’s potential for growth.  Today, Indonesia’s anti-corruption agency, known by its acronym KPK, has won plenty of media attention with its Jame Bond-like undercover exploits against corrupt officials.  The government is also trying to get at the root of the problem by sending officials and judges to “anti-corruption school.

    Passers-by in Jakarta walk past a poster that reads “fight corruption.” 

Some OECD countries will even let you take a tax deduction for providing “facilitation payments” to get routine services such as a phone installed. Facilitation payment? Hello, it’s called a bribe, payola, grease, ice, a backhander. It’s corruption, the dictionary definitions of which include moral perversion, depravity, debasement, not to mention rottenness. Okay, that’s a little harsh. We’re not talking about the moral equivalent of, say, paedophilia. But it’s surely a slippery slope from giving the cop some lunch money, to bribing the customs guy to look the other way on a smuggled shipment, to paying off politicians.

Ramon Navaratnam, 73, the Transparency International Malaysia President told me the battle for him started when he was a young man in the finance ministry and he came home one night from work to find a case of whisky on his doorstep from a company bidding on a government contract. “It took a lot of doing, but the company finally took the whisky away. “If I had taken that box of whisky, I can never say no later on.”


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The writer makes no mention of the UK, but corruption is alive and well here as well. We give it fancy names like “cash for questions”, “cash for peerages” or “cash for votes”, but the principle is the same.

Posted by Jason | Report as abusive

Bribery can only be minimized, not eliminatted. Even in the U S, you don’t
bribe businessmen, you take them to lunch, dinner, or to bar.

Is not bribery, a way of equalizing the
playing field.

max from florida

Posted by maximo p fabella | Report as abusive