A report by the Berlin-based Transparency International watchdog last week makes sorry reading. It says that more than a quarter of people living in Asia had to pay a bribe while trying to access a public service in the past year. Singapore was not included in the survey of 16 countries and territories in the Asia-Pacific. It is among the top 10 cleanest countries in the world, as ranked separately by the same group. But recent cases in the Republic should give one pause for thought. Ten employees of one company allegedly gave bribes to advance its business interests over more than three years. And a regional director was charged with taking about US$4 million (S$5.7 million) in bribes over a number of years. These alleged incidents were not one-off lapses in moments of weakness.
Mercifully, these are isolated instances here and do not represent entrenched graft as is evident in India and Vietnam where bribery rates are the highest, according to the report. Expediency might prompt people to grease palms but corruption infects the entire spectrum of national institutions - the police, state executive councillors, bureaucrats, and lawmakers. Even judges are not immune, as seen in Indonesia, where two-thirds of those polled said corruption has increased - a proportion exceeded only by China, where three-quarters saw graft growing in their midst.
Clearly, hopes of having a century named after Asia will be stymied if the region does not stamp out this insidious cancer. Going after culprits doggedly is a necessary move that must be sustained over many decades. But countries must also create a climate that inhibits corruption in every way. For example, red tape allows functionaries to maximise their administrative and discretionary powers over citizens. Then, imperceptibly jobbery will creep in. Victims might deem it nothing more than robbery but there is a difference. Fearing for one's life or safety is one matter, craving something material, like a licence or tax waiver, is quite another. Bribery thrives when people allow it to happen by normalising such actions instead of fighting the status quo. Even if just a small amount of money changes hands illicitly, a larger evil is created bit by bit. Graft raises the transactional costs of business, which are met by the customer and the tax-paying citizen finally. It can lead to producers cutting corners which can threaten the quality of goods and services and could even prove hazardous to consumers.
Asian countries can help themselves by creating a stronger regional legal framework against corruption to act against officials hiding their ill-gotten wealth abroad. In all nations, including the least corrupt ones, the task of making corruption unthinkable should be a never-ending one. Even the smallest traces of it can grow exponentially over time if not removed - like all cancers.