BANGKOK • In the not-so-distant future, civil servants in Thailand might find themselves in a tight spot after the new Bill on conflict of interest is enacted.
Even receiving a small gift could be a crime punishable by up to five years in jail.
The Bill, which has already passed its first reading in the National Legislative Assembly, would ban civil servants and their immediate family from receiving gifts, benefits or offers, such as special discounts or interest exemptions. Even transactions between close friends and family members could land a civil servant with a criminal charge.
While the legislation is a response to the country's paramount need for a corruption-coping mechanism, the question arises as to how the stringent rules will affect the everyday lives of millions of civil servants.
During a recent opinion-gathering session, a man claiming to be a Public Health Ministry employee said that people working for the government were not only public servants, they were also people with social and personal lives.
"We all have long-time friends, best friends, who offer us gifts and kindness. Will this law prohibit a representation of love in those friendships?" he asked.
However, graft busters Mana Nimitmongkol and Sangsit Piriyarangsan both view the controversial anti-corruption rules as fair.
REPRESENTATION OF LOVE PROHIBITED?
We all have long-time friends, best friends, who offer us gifts and kindness. Will this law prohibit a representation of love in those friendships?
A MAN CLAIMING TO BE A PUBLIC HEALTH MINISTRY EMPLOYEE
BETTER IF LAW IS WRITTEN VERY CLEARLY
When the law is written very clearly, the enforcers can work accordingly. This is unlike the current situation where the law is ambiguous and a vast number of committees have to be set up.
GRAFT BUSTER MANA NIMITMONGKOL
Mr Mana said the stricter the regulations, the better.
"When the law is written very clearly, the enforcers can work accordingly. This is unlike the current situation where the law is ambiguous and a vast number of committees have to be set up," the anti-corruption campaigner said.
"More importantly, when the law isn't clear, civil servants have to be even more careful. Any act could fall into the broad definition of corruption and they could easily be convicted," he added.
Some people were concerned that the new law could elicit unnecessary complaints, causing trouble for both the enforcers and the defendants.
However, Mr Mana said there were existing mechanisms that would deter such foul play. The corruption court that was recently set up, he said, had all these deterrence mechanisms.
Mr Sangsit, a member of the National Reform Council and one of those propelling the Bill, said such rigid rules were common in many countries.
Some of them set an even lower threshold, banning civil servants from receiving gifts with a value of more than US$10 (S$13) or approximately 300 baht, he said. In Thailand, the current cap is 3,000 baht (S$125).
Both graft busters said honesty was a fundamental value that every civil servant should hold.
Civil servants had public power and their income came from taxpayers' money, Mr Sangsit said, adding that it would not be appropriate for them to have conflicts of interest.
"This isn't even a sacrifice; it's a responsibility," he said. "You earn money from the taxpayers so you shouldn't get more than that. If you want more, you can find a better place in the private sector."
A recently retired civil servant who had served in an executive position, who asked not to be named, told The Nation that it had always been the norm not to accept expensive gifts. The culture of reciprocity makes it very easy for civil servants to abuse their power in exchange for those gifts, he said.
He believed most civil servants would not be affected by the legislation.
"I think it would be more (difficult) for some very obvious cases. And only high-profile officials or politicians would be the target. Others will be able to carry on with their normal lives just fine," he said.
THE NATION/ASIA NEWS NETWORK