Corruption – which etymology means -to abuse or destroy – is an evil act and behaviour, and shall never be condoned. Any form of evil, whether small or large, are still evil, and should not be accepted, period. in the Quran, the verse: “Wa Tudlu Biha ilal Hukkaam, liya’ khuzu amwal an-Nas bil baathil” – in general meaning “by giving the people in position of decision making, with the purpose of taking the wealth of the people (or other people), illegally” – describes the essence of economic corruption – that is to give some compensation to decision makers (politicians, government officers, corporate officers, etc.), in order to gain something at the expense of the others.
In a nutshell – corruption is illegal and a disease for the society – it is haram, and should be punishable under the law.
Then, what the hell am I talking about “democratization of corruption”? Is is a new lingo to justify corrupt practices? To make the activities to be somewhat less evil and acceptable? This is the subject that I will address in this writing – which I am sure will be controversial and creates lots of issues for the readers. Nevertheless, I will try my best at it.
Corruption has been far in existence in our societies more than we can imagine. The Sultanates exists purely on the basis of providing rent on any sorts of rights. The rents were the main source of income and support for the Sultans, and hence prosperity of the kingdom. If you read the history, it is all littered with such examples. It was the acceptable way of governance, and the society prosper based on that. The costs to the society of such practices is hard to calculate – whether on balance the society was benefited more than harmed? with such systems, the Malacca Sultanate succeed more than other Sultanate of the time, and in fact it provides them with wealth and power to conquer other Kingdoms. Trade prosper, and Malacca became one of the major trade centre of the region, until the colonialists came.
The Portugese, Dutch and finally the British came of South East Asia, not to promote industrialization, democracy and freedom, as what they have gained in their homeland. they came to expropriate, and further enhance the “systems of corruptions” for the benefit of their control over trade and resources. Not only does the colonialists propagate the practices, they even make it more organized and ensure law and order to protect the practices. Kingdoms that were not adhering to their orders, will be eliminated or conquered, and the rulers will be deposed. What they practices was the highest order of corruption under the name of the Crown and what have you. None of them were of any real meaning, rather than to continue the feudal practices of Europe into the South East Asia, in order to maximize the expropriation benefit for the motherland.
The colonials provide the Kings, Sultans, etc., with sufficient rewards for being obedient, so that they can go in their order of business to get the most from the colonies they manage. Little, if any, benefits are given to the people at large.
When the colonials left (despite leaving behind some legacies, positive and negative), we were left with our own political systems to deal with how to develop our nations, and how to grow out of the predicament of hundred of years of colonization. Each nation took its own path of development, including the political, economic and social systems. There were no more Kings or Sultans as before to deal with, and each country (save a few) develop its own democratic systems.
The democracy that we inherit is far from perfect and mired in so many issues and problems that we have to deal with. In another word, we have a far from ideal democracy in place, while the economic challenges to develop the country is extremely pressing. Furthermore, the culture and background of the societies, from the days of the Kingdoms and Sultanates, and the colonial rules, are still embedded in our inner culture (and sometimes we call it our DNA). The tendency is that the society reverts back to its customs and hence imbued our system with such mentality. And believe me, the customs and culture are far reaching than what we could imagine.
I would like to take a quick digression of modern day Bali. Balinese by any count is a truly description of Malay society prior to Islam and colonials. The Caste system is still embedded in the “Adat” of the Balinese, and these adat is a clear system of justifications of the rights of the upper caste to “collect rent” from the lower caste. And the lower caste “willingly” accepts that the upper caste are rightfully party to get such privileges. Such is the culture and customs deep in the Malay psyche. And it won’t be strange if largely, many Malays still accepts certain privilege groups have advantage over the others, “willingly”.
For that reason, our societies tolerate rulers and leaders that continue the “corrupt practices” even long after the colonials are gone, and democracy is being practised. Despite not being too happy, people are willing to live under such conditions, and no riots or major upheaval such as revolutions as in other places never happened. To say that they never do because of strong laws and ruling elites restricting such activities would be a bit too apologetic, since if by nature people would resists such, no body can stop it.
To conclude the discussion thus far – corruption has always been presence in our society, and it has been somewhat an embedded part of our culture and customs. The only issue left is how do we as society practice them today, and what would be the outcome of such practices?
For this reason I coined the term “democratization of corruption” – that is corruptions that are no longer become a source of the elites, but economically spread out to a larger circle of people. When corruption occurs at the top most, only few people benefits from it, and by and large it discourage economic activities, and the lack of incentives at the lower level to perform cause severe economic under performance. This is the case that you see today in some of the African nations, where people have no incentives to do anything, because there are no incentives to do so. For example, in the case of Sierra Leone, any farmers would not try to get better output, since for example, the cocoa they produced extra will be of no extra benefit for them, since it will be “taxed” heavily by the Cocoa board, which pays them not even 20% of the market price for cocoa. They will just grow and plant, enough for them to eat and survive, since anything extra will have no consequence for them.
The same case would be for local officers, if their incentives for income does not change whether they worked a bit harder or do the same amount of work as normally expected out of them, then the natural thing for them to do would be just work as normal. There is no need of extra efforts. Due to such system, progress would be very slow, and any economic activities would take a long time to be developed. they would just obey the order of the superiors, just to ensure that they will keep their job (and salaries). With the dictator in power, he would order any of his project as priority, and all the officers will just ensure that the jibs are done. But how much can any dictator do? he cannot run the whole economy by himself.
However, when the small level officers are given some autonomy to make decisions on his own levels, and by doing so, he can gain some extra incentives, we will see the opposite start to happen. He will work extra hard, even at the extent of beyond normal duties to ensure that the projects are successful and implemented on fast track basis. He is doing so not because of sudden realization of duties and obligations – but rather, from the promise of extra rewards from the projects that will be obtained by him – albeit illegally through corrupt means.
This is what I meant by democratization of corruption. It is bad and illegal, but it kept the economy chugging along. Corruption in this case is no longer for the super elites, but also to lower level people as well. In fact, as the cry for democracy gets wider, the higher level corruption, which are a=obvious, will be gradually eliminated, and what’s left are the lower level corruptions.
Perhaps, as nations grew, economic development took place, hopefully, with better awareness, the society will no longer condoned, even low level corruptions. That is my wish, and I hope that is not too far of an achievement. For that I conclude that I am against any forms of corruption, high or low, small or big. But to live in an idealistic world that in an overnight effort, from such an embedded society and culture, it would take sometime and strong efforts before we can say that we have succeed to have a corruption free society.