Corruption: culturally specific or cultural excuse?

One of the first times that I started questioning whether ‘corruption’ was a flexible term that falls in between the ‘black and white’ was when I was at a university student club meeting attended by many international students. The main speaker was a very senior lawyer with over 60 years legal experience and known for his professionalism. He was at that time also my Evidence law lecturer. This Kiwi lawyer was extremely ‘English’ and proper in his mannerisms, speech and views of morality and legality. He didn’t seem to be fazed by what some of the students considered tricky grey areas as he saw them as clearly black or white. I had attended that meeting hoping to extract some nuggets of wisdom on how to think through the tricky questions of living in countries where dealing with corruption is a fact of daily living. Unfortunately I was disappointed. Somehow his answer that giving money in all occasions was corruption didn’t sit well with me. What if it was to save a life (get a family member medical attention immediately)? What if rebel forces were holding relief aid and would only release it to refugees if they were paid a ‘tax’? No, a bribe is a bribe.  Somehow I felt that his answers were the easy way out rather than thinking through the issue.

Since that time, I haven’t been able to shed the nagging thought that perhaps what is ‘corruption’ is partially defined by culture and yet at the same time, corruption is still corruption. Is it corrupt to seek the help of a family member when facing an unrelenting government bureaucracy? If I was applying for a visa and dealing with unfriendly and unhelpful immigration officials, I don’t think I would have a problem with seeking the help of a friend to pull some strings to help push my application through (despite placing such friend/family member in a conflict of interest position!). But how is that different from seeking help from a government official and paying them in the form of money to show one’s gratitude? Is it corrupt to pay someone to just do their job? What if you are dealing with lowly paid civil servants who bribe just so they can feed their families? I recently learned that to push through an application for approval of a building plan in Asian country ‘X’, the whole process could take up to two years. Two years? Yes, two years. Is it wrong to pay for expedited services?


My quandary over what is considered ‘corrupt’ certainly became murkier when I spent a fortnight in Singapore in its run-up to its General Elections on 7 May 2011. Despite a strong governance structure and perceived as Number 1 most un-corrupted country in the world in 2010 (tied with Denmark and New Zealand, see, it was again made clear that the incumbent government had no issue with overt and institutionalised corruption over its election period.  Despite a very short period allowed for electioneering (10 days??), opposition parties managed to draw up to 20,000 people to its rallies while the incumbent People’s Action Party (PAP) were lucky if they managed to have 100 supporters. Nevertheless, the incumbents managed to retain 81 seats out of 87 total seats despite the opposition securing approximately 40% of the overall votes. Somehow, PAP managed to secure 93% of the total number of seats in Parliament with only approximately 60% total votes. (For a more comprehensive commentary, see ‘How is this possible?’, I hear you say. Well from what I learnt during my two weeks in Singapore, ‘gerry meandering’ is a common tactic where the government shifts electorate boundaries so that pro-opposition electorates are divided in such a way that they lose any majority strength they may have had under old boundaries. On top of that, electorates that support PAP are more likely to secure government funding for maintaining their local High Density Buildings (high rise state sponsored apartments) and communal facilities. You may think that I am relying on conspiracy theories but no!, Lee Hsien Long (son of former Minister Mentor [what does that title mean anyway?] Lee Kuan Yew) admitted to such underhand tactics a few days before the elections!!! Safe to say that many people were not pleased, not pleased at all! If you think that’s just politics, then what do you think about threatening Singaporeans with a criminal record if Singaporeans fail to vote? (Let’s not even talk about the fear that you might lose your job if you vote opposition, which is not an unfounded fear when you think in terms of former opposition leader Jeyaratnam being made bankrupt not too long ago…). If threats don’t work on you, perhaps money will. Does $700 sound like a reasonable price for you vote? Well that is how much Singaporeans were being paid just days before Election Day. No, not a coincidence. Thus, how could anyone expect more than just the same old same old incumbent party to win the elections?

Even though I find these pre-election practices very shady, is it right to call it ‘corrupt’ given that they have become institutionalised and endorsed by the government. Is this ‘corruption’ in the context that Singapore is far from a democratic country (which Lee Kuan Yew  is very frank about) and should not be measured against liberal democracy standards?. In Lee Kuan Yew’s interviews with local reporters (which have been transcribed in the book ‘Hard Truths’) he states plainly that he is not about to leave the country in the hands of the ‘incompetent’ opposition. Is it corrupt to remain in power when you are certain that the opposition is incompetent and more corrupt (ie if I was in Lee Kuan Yew’s position)? Was Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjaviva of the Democratic Party (Yellow Shirts) justified in overthrowing former Prime Minister Thaksin (and his red shirts) and keeping him out of power when he believes that Thaksin’s corruption is a disease that Thailand can no longer sustain?

Unfortunately for you, I have not yet resolved all my mental discussions of what is corrupt and what isn’t. In fact, I am more confused. The thought that it is very important to get local insight into what locals deem corrupt entered into my mind around three years ago when I was trying to explain to a very high ranking official from Pacific Island ‘Y’ why the New Zealand government deemed conflicts of interest to be ‘bad’. Though we both accepted that the official was in a conflict of interest position, he failed to see why it was bad and I failed to understand why he DIDN’T think it was bad. I soon learned that using your networks is very much a common thing in the Pacific. In countries like China, such phenomenon is called ‘guanxi’ and is regarded positively rather than the negative term of ‘cronyism’ as fondly used by the West when referring to some former South East Asian leaders.


During my search on how to deal with corruption, I came across some interesting tips given in the context of working and doing business in China (so may not be appropriate for all contexts).  (See ). In summary:

  1. Quote popular political slogans. For example, reference social harmony, talk about socialism with Chinese characteristics or mention how great China is.
  2. Tell the individual concerned that you know they are not suggesting any corrupt practice as you realise they would not consider behaving in such a way.
  3. Flatter the person: “Use great compliments.”
  4. Offer something else that is likely to be acceptable to both parties. “Let’s talk about it tonight over dinner; you pick the restaurant.” Or, “Why don’t you come visit our factory in New Zealand [as my guest] and you’ll see how we do things there?”

If these steps don’t work “Get a Chinese person to handle the situation for you when you are not around.”


While I found these suggestions helpful, the nagging question still remains: “Is this a solution or are we just passing the buck to someone else?” This issue is only going to become trickier for foreign corporates based in China but still have to deal with new American and UK laws passed in the last months. Foreign Corrupt Practices Acts in the UK and America require a very strict interpretation of corruption and I have no doubt that expats based in China will have to think hard as to how to juggle a foreign law that appears like very prudent rules but at the same time makes no sense in China.

My tentative conclusion is that corruption is context dependent BUT within that context people will know what is reasonable and what is not. At the same time, some institutional corruption should not be excused away by being described as cultural. Structural injustices, where the power divide between leaders and the common man are vast, where civil servants not serving the public but their interests are institutionalised, and where social injustices are seen as a daily part of life – this I believe is un-excusable abuse of power. For a common man living within such context, ‘corrupt’ practices to get leaders to just do their job is sometimes necessary to get things done.

While best practice standards are always useful, I think that there will be times when we need to think harder rather than impose a blanket rule. But perhaps that is another excuse to avoid being hard on myself? Incidentally, this senior lawyer I mentioned earlier went to Africa a few years back to try and make a difference in a country with little governance structures. He returned home to New Zealand after a year of unsuccessfully breaching the gap between his understanding of legality and that of the African country. I suspect that if he had given more thought to accepting that perhaps what he considered corrupt in New Zealand may not have been corrupt in his new home, he may have had a better chance in impacting his new community and bring long term changes to the legal system there. But who am I to judge? Perhaps I am corrupt too.


While I continue this journey of how to deal with corruption, I would appreciate your examples of ‘corruption’, the context and how you dealt with it.

One Response to “Corruption: culturally specific or cultural excuse?”
  1. Karen Teasdale says:

    Wow, fantastic thoughts and communication of them around this very challenging subject – I think you have come to similar conclusions as I might have done as I follow your thought processes…

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