The Culture of Corruption
Sometimes I’m openly and I think justifiably disappointed with the local Thais (read “Ugly Thais”) and / or local expatriates (read “Racism Among Expats”)
, but there are times when I feel the same great disappointment, but I really can’t apportion the responsibility directly to individuals. It’s more of a systemic responsibility through which each individual plays a part. Such is
the case with Thailand’s Culture of Corruption. Sometimes the best we can do is understand the part each of us plays, and then if possible adjust our behavior to the benefit of the greater good.
For the purposes of this essay I’m going to define corruption as illegal activity. Yes, we know corruption might not necessarily be illegal, but when it’s not illegal it’s more a matter of personal judgment or moralizing and not the unified voice of society. If something is illegal it’s actionable. If we commit crimes we know we risk incarceration, and if someone hurts us through criminal behavior we can hope for justice.
No justice system is perfect, but in a democracy it’s the best we have. In an open and active responsible democracy, if something isn’t illegal but should be, we pass legislation making it illegal. If we don’t, then we must assume the majority of society doesn’t consider the behavior criminal. Put bluntly, if it’s illegal we care. We care because we can go to jail, or because someone who wrongs us can go to jail. Actionable. If it’s not illegal not enough people care to make it illegal, so like everything else it becomes a matter of personal judgment or moralizing. This is democracy.
In western countries we certainly have corruption. Many will be quick to point out the major corporations which have been charged with crimes, lobbyists who stepped over their respective countries legal boundaries, politicians who have been caught taking payouts, loan scandals, and the list goes on. If there is a way for people to cheat the system they’ll cheat the system. I call this “rising to your environment.” The way we restrict this environment to the smallest possible size is to actively investigate and prosecute criminal behaviors.
The ONLY reason we know of corruption in western countries is because our justice systems have investigated and actively prosecute. If we read in the news that someone was investigated but not prosecuted, we shrug our shoulders and rightly (more often than not) think this someone’s activities didn’t reach the legal bar for criminality. Or even possibly our laws need to be improved, and our elected representatives will soon fix the problem. Things are much different in Thailand.
In Thailand corruption is a lifestyle, a business essential, an ‘every mans’ issue most every citizen deals with more than occasionally. Their justice system is corrupt from the top down, from their highest courts to the lowest law enforcement officials. Their legislative and executive bodies are also corrupt. And by corrupt, I mean actual illegal activity. It is almost impossible to be a member of Thai society, either as a citizen or expat, and not be part of it. When something is this embedded on a national level, individuals feel powerless to effect change. Indeed, it would take a major political and social event (such as a revolution) to effect meaningful change in Thailand.
I’ve often heard expatriates and visitors to the Kingdom alike say “I prefer the type of corruption in Thailand.” This must be in reference to the type of corruption in their own country? When I hear this I always ask “what types of corruption happen in your own country that aren’t also taking place in Thailand?”
I’ve yet to hear an accurate answer. Someone might ‘think’ their country has different or more corruption in certain areas, but this is usually because the person is more familiar with their own country and more up to date on the local news than they are with Thailand. Most expatriates in Thailand are retired and not actively engaged in the workforce and local and national politics. Most can’t watch the news in the Thai language and understand, so they depend on their wives or golf buddies for the ‘important’ news.
The bottom line is that every type of corruption present in our own countries, is present in Thailand, but probably on a larger scale (per capita) in Thailand. Heck, Thai MBA students (witnessed by myself in two different MBA programs in Thailand) really pay attention to methods of corruption in western countries in case they missed something. They’re looking for a new way to corrupt the same way western students look for innovation or that new business idea no one has yet thought of. A new “scheme” can make them rich.
To summarize: Corruption is illegal activity. Thailand’s Justice, Legislative, and Executive bodies are corrupt. Thais are corrupt in the same areas our own countries are corrupt. Thais are corrupt in many more ways western countries are not.
So, when someone says “I prefer the type of corruption in Thailand”, what they’re really saying is they’re benefitting from the type(s) of corruption in Thailand not present in their own countries. Fair enough. But let’s take a look at how “rising to your environment” plays out with these different types of corruption.
Let’s start with one of the most obvious. Road safety. I currently have a young Thai lady as a guest in my home who has recently spent three months in Australia. She voices ‘exactly’ what I’ve heard every other Thai lady voice on return from a western country. “In Australia they drive so nice, everyone obeys the rules, and it’s so much nicer and more safe to drive in Australia.” A bit obvious right? It should be.
Simply put, in the west we follow the rules of the road or face heavy fines and possible revocation of our driving privileges. In the west we’re held financially liable for our actions. It is in our own best interest to obey the rules of the road. Not only do we get safer, more enjoyable roads, but we won’t be paying heavy fines, increased insurance premiums, or walking to work.
Thailand has rules of the road. Most of Thailand’s roads and laws are modeled exactly after those of western countries, even down to those annoying roundabouts from a country with the lowest death rate by car. Yet, we know most Thai drivers don’t follow the rules, many don’t have insurance or registered vehicles, and many are unlicensed. We know driving while intoxicated is a national past time. Google “highest traffic deaths per capita per country” and you’ll find several lists showing Thailand not even close to a western country, in the company of most third world countries, but not so bad as say Swaziland..
If Thailand has roads and laws modeled after the west, then why such a high traffic death rate, why do so many ignore the rules and make driving in Thailand organized chaos at best? It’s simple. Because they can. They can because law enforcement is corrupt at it’s very core radiating out to its lowest common denominator, the traffic cops.
Sure, it’s nice to pay just 100 – 200 baht if you get caught speeding or for some other traffic infraction. I’m on record as saying it’s “civilized.” I think this sort of thing is what most expatriates “prefer” over their own countries. At least until you stop and think about it.
If I could have the road safety and driving experience of my own country, in Thailand, and all I had to do is pay a reasonable fine for my infractions, I’d make that choice in a heartbeat. If I could count on professional law enforcement personnel not guided by corruption, in half a heartbeat. Because of corruption we’re giving up professional law enforcement personnel, road safety, and must live with a chaotic driving experience each time we’re on the road either as a driver or passenger. We risk our lives to a much higher degree each time we use the roads. Because of corruption. Is this really what you “prefer?” Still not convinced? Read on..
As expatriates we might ‘prefer’ to pay 100 – 200 baht fines to the corrupt police official because it’s convenient and cheap. We might even giggle to ourselves when paying the “fine” when we remember the heavy fine we’d have faced in our own countries, not to mention the thought of traffic school and increased insurance premiums. We giggle like school children because we feel like we’re getting away with something. What’s not to prefer? After all, it takes a bit of deeper thought to associate our 100 baht fines to the death and carnage of the Thai roadways.
We giggle because 100 – 200 baht is inconsequential to us. Nothing. We won’t think about it an hour later. To us. A bit self-serving? How much difference does 100 – 200 baht make to your average Thai? With the current minimum wage in Bangkok set at baht 206 per day, less in other areas, a single traffic infraction can mean an entire day's pay. With the way most Thais live hand to mouth, it can literally mean the difference between having the money for supper that day, or money for the kids' lunches the next day. The impact to the average Thai can be huge.
You might be thinking “the average Thai can’t afford to drive so no worries.” Not necessarily true. Has anyone noticed that most police traffic traps target motorbikes? We all know the Thai police would never stop someone who didn’t do anything just for money.. The form of transportation the average Thai can afford? Even if the police are only extorting half as much from them as from the more well off car owners, it’s still a huge amount to these people. And corruption spreads like a spider web..
What happens when the average Thai on a motorsai doesn’t have the money to pay the corrupt police officer? They can either go the “legit route” and accept a ticket and end up paying much more which hurts them all the more, or they can accept any term(s) the nice man in brown offers. Such as what you say?
If you talk with and listen to the local Thais you’ll learn the police regularly demand sexual favors in lieu of fines, almost always from the younger girls. Or free services from their place of business, food from their food cart, haircuts from their shops, they’ll even accept personal items like clothing articles, phones as collateral, and even the lunch they were taking back home to eat. It’s a foothold of corruption into the local community at all levels.
When a law enforcement officer with the power to arrest and imprison you makes such demands, you’re often left with few choices. It creates an ‘environment’ which is terrible to live in. An environment of fear and oppression. An environment where your 16 year old daughter might have to face the choice of giving Sammy Somchai a bj or worse. Still not convinced? You still “prefer” the system here. Read on..
If you’re got this far in your thought and you’re still paying attention, you’ll have noticed those without the ability to easily pay these ‘fines’ are more brown, from a “lesser class”, or socially disadvantaged in some significant way. This is where corruption turns into racial and class discrimination. Right at the point where the required graft exceeds the average person’s ability to pay, and becomes a disproportionate burden on the individual based on race, class, or social background. There’s more.
As we know graft for traffic infractions is just the tip of the iceberg. Now comes the shaft.
The lowest common denominator. When the very people entrusted by the public to enforce our laws fairly and equally violate society so heavily, people notice. They become scared, bitter, angry, and they want revenge. They want a feeling of “fairness.” So they become corrupt. Building permit officials start requiring bribes, business license officials, any official with power over others wants their fair share and more. Soon, we have Thailand, where every facet of society has deeply embedded corruption at almost every level of the ‘every mans’ environment. In the west we don’t have this, we trust our police, we trust our city officials, we have laws which are enforced. When corruption happens it's almost always above our pay grade, and not at the ‘every mans’ level. It’s not part of our environment.
In Thailand corruption permeates every level of government, business, and law enforcement entity. It’s a daily condition which unfairly skews the chances of personal and business success in the favor of those with the ability to pay. Those with different skin colors and those who belong to different classes. The rank and file, the poor, the ‘little people’.. Have you ever wondered why Thailand has such a dearth of middle class families when compared to the west? Now you know. But there’s more.
We’re all familiar with the Red Shirt vs. Yellow Shirt political discourse? A history of coups and new constitutions unparalleled anywhere else in the world? The deep south where a bombing, beheading, or some form of killing is an everyday occurrence? All attributable to racial and class discrimination brought on or made worse through corruption.
I began this essay by defining corruption as an ‘illegal activity’ and now we’ve come full circle as to why. In a democracy the rule of law, equally and fairly applied, is the bedrock and foundation of any successful country. Corruption is the mold, the stress cracks, the settling earth, corruption is what eats away at this foundation and ends up bringing down anything built on top of it. Corruption at the ‘every mans’ level is insidious and perhaps the most destructive force a country faces.
So what can we do as expatriates or visitors to the Kingdom? Not much I’m afraid. Sure, when faced with the choices I’ll still probably pay the 100 – 200 baht ‘fine’ to the nice men in brown. But I won’t do it with a smug look on my face and later tell my buddy I “prefer Thai corruption” because as you’ve read, that would make me look like an ass.
Instead I’ll continue to observe, to learn, and to improve my understanding of my host country. Who knows, maybe someday someone who can do something about it will ask for my opinion. You never know when you’ll get the chance to chat with an important professor, diplomat, head of state, exiled prince disposed prime minister, or even the King or Queen. It happens. I’ll be prepared with thoughts that don’t show me to be entirely self-serving. Thoughts that show I really do care about my host country. Because I do.
Until next time..
Corruption in Thailand at the low – or everyday – level has got so much worse over the past several years and become noticeably worse each year over the past 3 or so years to the point that it has become a little scary. It really is wide to do everything you can to avoid anyone in authority at all as there really seems to be no limit to what they can do to you.