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.