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ASEAN ANALYSIS 15 June 2010

Lack of anticorruption measures still haunts Asean

By David Swartzentruber
AseanAffairs 14 June 2010

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The initiative of the Thai government of Prime Minister Abhisit Vejajiva to buy back its former satellite operation, Thaicom Plc from an investment arm of Singapore, in the interest of national and quite frankly, its own political interests, recalls an old theme in Asean member states: the lack of legal and enforceable restraints on its leaders from having their way with public funds and assets.

To resurrect ghosts from the past who were accused of corruption: the Philippines had its Ferdinand Marcos with his shoe-loving wife, Imelda, and Indonesia boasts its second president, President Suharto. Marcos died in exile in Hawaii and a good deal of money was recovered from Swiss bank accounts and returned to the Philippines. Suharto was prosecuted but ill health and his death, curtailed the process, although his charitable foundation was forced to return $110 million to the government.

Both of these former leaders aren’t around anymore but former Thai prime minister, Thaksin Shinawatra, still is and the remarkably corrupt military dictatorship of Myanmar lies adjacent to Thailand.

The incident that forced him from office in 2006 was the sale of Shin Corp., which included the Thaicom satellite division, by family members of his firm, Shin Corp., to Temasek, the investment arm of the Singapore government. The sale insulted the intensely nationalistic mindset of many Thais with rumors that national security matters would be compromised by the deal.

Of course, Thaksin was not the first leader since Thailand embarked on its democratic path in 1932 to flee the country because of corruption charges.

Asean countries do not have a lock on government corruption. It occurs on a daily basis through the governments in most countries at local, state or provincial and national levels and on any given day, it is reported in the press of individual nations. However, what impresses in the Asean context, is the size of the illegally stashed funds, when they are finally uncovered.

Some may regard my scrutiny of Asean governments as unfair, given that they have not been working at “this democracy thing” a relatively short time, compared to western democracies. Perhaps Thailand’s latest corruption incident linked to a chief executive can serve as a call for Asean states to establish stricter safeguards to keep politicians from raiding the cookie jar.

This noble goal flies against the “folk wisdom” in many countries that a good way to become wealthier is for a businessman or military leader to enter politics and public corruption is accepted as a way of life, whether it’s a bribe to the local policeman or the local provincial official.

In the absence of enforceable, legal structures the “tea money” culture marches on and Asean countries continue to pay the price.


 


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