Survey: Many in South, Southeast Asia See Govt Corruption as a Major Problem

John Bechtel
Washington
2020-11-24
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201124-SEA-SA-corruption-620.JPG Thai student Nalinrat Tuthubthim, 20, who claims she was sexually abused by a teacher, has her mouth covered with tape as pro-democracy protesters accuse the government of corruption, Nov. 21, 2020.
Reuters

Updated at 2:45 p.m. ET on 2020-11-24

About three-quarters of citizens surveyed in nations across South and Southeast Asia see government corruption as a major problem but many believe they can make a difference in fighting it, Transparency International said in a report published Tuesday.

People in countries including Bangladesh, Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines and Thailand reported being paid bribes for votes, paying bribes for public services or facing sexual extortion for public services, according to the Berlin-based NGO that monitors corruption worldwide.

“For anti-corruption efforts to remain sustainable across the region, it is critical for citizens to counter and reject corruption in all forms. This often starts with individuals speaking out against corruption, which most respondents in our survey think would lead to retaliation against them,” Transparency International said in its report, Global Corruption Barometer – Asia 2020.

“Despite these challenges, fear of intimidation and limited freedom of speech, an overwhelming majority of citizens believe that ordinary people can make a difference in the fight against corruption.”

The survey, carried out during a six-month period earlier this year, polled as many 20,000 respondents in a total of 17 Asian countries.

“When it comes to Asian citizens’ experience with corruption, whether through bribery, the use of personal connections, sexual extortion or vote-buying, the results are stark and worrying, and call for immediate and coordinated action,” the anti-graft watchdog said.

In Malaysia and Indonesia, 71 percent and 92 percent of respondents, respectively, said they found government corruption to be a major problem.

Asked if citizens could make a difference, 59 percent in Indonesia, 65 percent in Thailand, 68 percent in Malaysia, 78 percent in the Philippines and 82 percent in Bangladesh responded positively.

“This resilience and positive outlook are the key to any future anti-corruption efforts and can be a powerful tool in the hands of reform-minded governments, businesses and civil society,” the report said.

‘Sextortion’ widespread

Transparency International noted that citizens in three nations – Indonesia, Thailand and Malaysia – reported the highest rates of sexual extortion or “sextortion” when accessing a government service. This is where a person is compelled to have sex or trade a sexual favor in return for a service.

In Indonesia, 18 percent of respondents reported that they or someone they know had experienced this form of extortion, while 15 percent in Thailand and 12 percent in Malaysia reported this trend as well. In Bangladesh and the Philippines, 9 percent reported such cases.

The report specifically addressed sexual extortion in Indonesia. In March, it noted, the National Commission on Violence against Women reported that nearly all cases of such violence fall apart in the pre-investigation stage because law enforcement agencies often side against the female victims.

“In some cases, the process is transactional, with law enforcement authorities demanding payment of money or sex to follow up on cases,” Transparency International reported.

The report noted the cases of two officers in Malang, East Java, in 2016, and of an Indonesian judge who sexually extorted people and was convicted for corruption in 2009 and 2010.

“More recently, during the COVID-19 pandemic, a female airline passenger was sexually extorted by a doctor at an airport in exchange for access to rapid COVID-19 test results,” it said, noting that sexual extortion is not addressed in the nation’s criminal code.

“A strong culture of silence, combined with the difficulty of proving sexual bribery in court, makes this a challenging issue in the fight against corruption. Equally troubling, Indonesia is the only country in the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) that does not have national regulations to prevent violence and harassment against women.”

Indonesian national police spokesman Argo Yuwono rejected the report’s sextortion claim.

“It’s not true. There is no such thing,” he told BenarNews, but declined to comment further on the new findings by Transparency International.

Meanwhile, the advocacy director of Malaysia’s Women’s Aid Organization, described sextortion as another example of the scope of sexual harassment.

Yu Ren Chung called on Malaysian lawmakers to introduce for debate the Sexual Violence Eradication Bill, which would ensure that all organizations adopt sexual harassment policies.

“The bill would also ideally create an independent body that would look into sexual harassment complaints,” she told BenarNews. “The people’s patience is running thin and the government must stop delaying this crucial legislation.”

Transparency International offered this advice to how governments could combat such extortion: “Take measures to reduce the culture of shaming and victim blaming that discourages people from reporting abuses; empower anti-corruption agencies and justice systems with the right tools to address ‘sextortion’ cases; and create safe, accountable, accessible and, most importantly, gender sensitive reporting mechanisms.”

Bribery

For many respondents, bribery is part of life, the survey found.

In all 17 countries where the survey was done, 1 out of 5 people said they had paid a bribe for a public service during the previous year. That translates to 836 million Asian who paid bribes, the report said.

Asked if they had been offered a bribe to influence their vote, 28 percent of Filipinos and Thais said yes while 26 percent of Indonesians responded positively as well.

On the other end of the spectrum, 8 percent of Bangladeshis and 7 percent of Malaysians said yes.

Asked if they had ever paid a bribe for public services in the previous year, 30 percent of Indonesians, 24 percent of Bangladeshis and Thais, 19 percent of Filipinos and 13 percent of Malaysians said yes.

Responding to a question about whether respondents had used personal connections to get public services, 15 percent of Malaysians to 36 percent of Indonesians said they had.

A source from Malaysia’s Anti-Corruption Commission said bribes could come in any form.

“It can be in a form of cash, a gift, bonuses, votes, services (like sex), a position, gratification, a discount, a loan, and others,” said the source who asked to remain anonymous because he was not authorized to speak to reporters. “The perpetrators can be charged under few sections under the Malaysia Anti-Corruption Commission Act.”

On the plus side

Despite negative views across the region about the entrenchment of corruption in government, Bangladesh, the Philippines, Malaysia and Indonesia scored highly – 86 percent, 82 percent, 74 percent and 67 percent – when respondents were asked whether their countries’ anti-corruption agencies were doing a good job.

Among all 17 countries, Thailand scored the lowest on this question, with only 34 percent of Thai respondents saying the agency was combatting corruption effectively.

Among ASEAN member-states, “Thailand fares worst for citizens’ trust across state institutions, including government, the courts and the police,” the report said about the Southeast Asian nation governed for the past six years by an administration with deep ties to the military.

“These bleak numbers illustrate a considerable lack of trust in government and a general deterioration of the national integrity system and institutions like the police and the courts that should be at the forefront of the fight against corruption,” Transparency International said.

The NGO called its Global Corruption Barometer one of the largest, most detailed surveys of citizens’ views on corruption and experiences of bribery in 17 countries across Asia.

It surveyed nearly 20,000 people from March 2019 to September 2020. Because of the COVID-19 pandemic, most interviews were conducted by telephone.

Nisha David in Kuala Lumpur and Tia Asmara in Jakarta contributed to this report.

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