Infernal Ramblings
A Malaysian Perspective on Politics, Society and Economics

Defining Corruption

Written by johnleemk on 3:49:27 am Mar 27, 2007.
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The problem of corruption is one that Malaysia has been plagued with ever since independence. It is generally agreed, however, that this problem has particularly worsened over the past two decades or so. An interesting question, though, is just what constitutes corruption?

Different societies often have different views of what corruption is. An improper relationship in one country can be normal networking in another. In some Asian cultures for example, there is nothing wrong with giving a gift to a government official who has been particularly helpful. In Western cultures, such an act would be almost an outright bribe.

Relativist definitions of corruption are not very helpful, however. There has to be an objective, standard definition of what corruption is.

It's an unfortunate fact that not all societal norms are necessarily consistent with good governance. "Asian values" for example, are contrary to both democracy and free markets.

This does not mean people must give up their culture, however. All it means is that they have to adopt new societal norms. Nobody would argue that the people of Hong Kong or Taiwan are any less Chinese for having adopted a more open form of government that is antithetical to the traditional Chinese or Asian idea of government.

So, if we are to objectively define corruption, how should we define it? I think a good definition of corruption might be any activity that is intentionally conducted for personal gain, at the expense of the government. I'm sure this is far from an ideal definition, and I would welcome alternative ideas, but this seems to be a good definition for now.

It is imperative, of course, that individual entities be seen as separate from the government itself. The Barisan Nasional coalition may form the present government, but it is distinct from the government and the state. BN has no right to, for example, take taxpayers' money and use it to build a new headquarters — just one theoretical example of a deed conducted for personal gain at the expense of the government.

Similarly, closed tenders are often a form of corruption, because they are used to innocuously award overpriced contracts to the cronies of the people in the government. Meanwhile, it is the government itself that suffers, as it overpays for a job that could have been done for less expense.

Vote-buying, too, is corruption. The government is undermined when its processes are circumvented and its officials chosen on a basis of who can bribe the most voters rather than who can persuade the most that he has what it takes to lead.

And when it comes to elections, using the state media to support the incumbent government — a practice our government has no qualms about resorting to — is, for similar reasons, corruption. The individuals who make up the government are not the government.

I think that the definition I have come up with is certainly quite consistent with our perceptions of what is corruption. I am sure, though, that there are better ones out there. If anyone has a proposal for how to define corruption, feel free to write to me.


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Infernal Ramblings is a Malaysian website focusing on current events and sociopolitical issues. Its articles run the gamut from economics to society to education.

Infernal Ramblings is run by John Lee. For more, see the About section. If you have any questions or comments, do drop him a line.


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