BANGKOK – Two recent announcements, though evoking a sense of foreboding, could also inspire a solution to a longstanding curse.
The first announcement, at the start of this month, was that international donors have pledged US$1.1 billion in aid to Cambodia this year.
The second item was an Asian Development Bank survey of 900 bank stakeholders, including bureaucrats, development partners, private businessmen, civil society leaders, journalists and academics.
The survey found that corruption is rated far ahead of all other issues as the most serious threat to development.
That perception is strongest in Southeast Asia, where 68 percent of respondents agreed that “because of corruption, foreign development assistance is mostly wasted”.
My God, that means nearly seven out of 10 bank stakeholders believe most of Cambodia’s $1.1 billion in aid will be lost to corruption. It will end up in the accounts of bent officials and businessmen.
That is why Transparency International’s corruption index lists Cambodia down at number 158 out of 180 countries.
Singapore is number three.
Which inspires an idea: Cambodia should emulate Singapore and bring corruption under state control.
Let me explain. When posted there 20 years ago, I was told Singapore was so efficient you could get your telephone hooked up in 24 hours.
Naturally, when I sought to arrange this and the woman said my line would be activated in three weeks, I was stunned.
“What happened to the 24-hour service?” I spluttered.
She calmly told me I could get connected in one week if I paid a $35 express service fee.
Hang on, I replied. If I’m in “corrupt” Bangkok or Phnom Penh, I can pay $35 under the table and get it connected immediately. What’s the difference?
That is the Singapore system – bring corruption under official administration.
It is brilliant, and it extends right to the top. Ministers have no need to skim 30 percent of contracts that pass over their desk because they receive the highest salaries of any ministers in the world.
Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong gets $2.7 million a year; plain, ordinary ministers get more than $1.8 million.
Singapore thus ensures that its civil service is staffed with the best, and that they are not tempted by illicit backhanders.
Of course, given human nature, even some Singaporean officials transgress – but they are punished severely if caught.
And that is why, although it is laudable that Cambodia’s Anticorruption Law has now been passed, unless and until it is robustly enforced, it will merely be shallow window-dressing.
Now, you may argue that the high ministerial salaries and the myriad fees like those for the express phone service are merely institutionalised corruption.
And you may be right. But the fact is it works. And it could work in Cambodia, too.
Then this year’s $1.1 billion might actually be used to aid the Cambodian people, and not to buy another SUV for the nephew or a holiday in Paris with the girlfriend.
correspondent for Asiaweek and former bureau chief in Washington and Hanoi for The Straits Times. He has covered East Asia for the past 25 years.