• Take the money and run?

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    EI SUN OH

    “INSPIRED” by the recent conviction of Hong Kong’s former chief executive, Donald Tsang, of misusing public office for personal gain, I have again been thinking a bit about the perennial issue of corruption. In more advanced societies such as Hong Kong, there are very stringent rules in place to deter public officials from enriching themselves at the public’s expense, and the case above was but the latest example where very senior officials were charged and convicted for corrupt practices.

    Nevertheless, in many developing countries and regions where both the hardware and software are still very much in dire need of comprehensive upgrade, enormous misuses of powers by (especially) senior public officials are still very much “in vogue,” and quite ostentatiously so. But as the democratization processes of these developing regions are often stunted by the powers-that-be, the misbehavior of senior politicians are often difficult to monitor, not to mention checked and balanced. If some public-minded righteous persons are brave enough to uncover some of these corrupt practices, these whistleblowers are likely to face political persecution by the deeply entrenched, often unchecked circles of power. Worse, these Good Samaritans may even be slapped with trumped-up charges by the self-interested parties. If this is coupled with controlled kangaroo court systems, the innocent and the righteous could easily be thrown in jail without the opportunity to even defend themselves fairly.

    In a related vein, a large part of the members of the public in these developing regions may be said to be not yet well aware of the concept of good and clean governance. To many, corruption is not necessarily a negative practice. They may even consider paying to “get things done” to be something quite “convenient”. How such “convenience” could demoralize the whole society until it verges on total collapse is not a major concern to these people. As such, even with shining examples such as Hong Kong on how corruption could be at least controlled, I am still quite pessimistic even in the mid- to long-term as to whether it is at all possible to reduce corruption in developing countries and regions. I think the corrupt practices rampant there have partly to do with the “live and let live” mentality of both the government officials and their colluding business “partners”.

    Human nature dictates that many would like to ditch relatively backward living conditions and environments, and seek early migration to the more advanced regions of the world. This is why among the many tens of thousands of asylum-seekers who overwhelmed Europe in recent years from North Africa, the Middle East and even South Asia, there are of course many who flee persecution based on political and other discriminatory grounds in their respective homelands. But there are also many who are but economic migrants. They yearn to pull themselves away from the poor, debilitating socio-economic conditions of their developing homelands, and seek to enjoy the purportedly generous welfare of many European countries. The Western countries typically make clear distinctions between the two groups of asylum-seekers. The former group get to stay on or move to another developed country, while the latter will most likely be summarily repatriated.

    I have described these migration categories above just to bring out the observation that although it would appear that many senior officials and their business “partners” seem to enjoy privileged lives in their homelands, many had more opportunities to experience firsthand the relatively “appealing” life in more developed societies. They gradually develop a “migrating” mentality, longing for lives in the West, if not for themselves then at least for their children, and the sooner the merrier, so that children would not have to struggle in unstable societies like their parents. But these “privileged” people obviously do not qualify as either refugees or economic migrants.

    If they are still very much intent on eventually emigrating, that leaves but two options. One is the so-called professional migration, which typically admits those with professional skills in high demand in the country of destination. But many of these officials and businessmen, though they may well be professionally qualified, have built up social status over the years and are no longer well versed in their skills. They would also not be likely to start their careers afresh in the new countries.

    That leaves only the option of investment migration, with the applicants pumping money into the country of destination to set up new businesses and thus create employment, bringing about economic prosperity. This is not a difficult migration option, but first you need to have handy large sums of money. So, some senior officials in developing countries become extremely corrupt, demanding huge undeclared sums from their business “partners”. In return, the officials will exercise their often unchecked powers to grant various good monopolistic “deals” to the businessmen, or turn a blind eye to their shady business practices. “Far-sighted” businessmen would of course not let go of these golden opportunities. They collude big-time with government officials to enrich both parties, and may eventually migrate en masse to developed societies.

    Such “take the money and run” mentality is very prevalent in developing countries. It is difficult to eradicate because it is based on the intrinsic feeling of insecurity in these unstable societies. It would take many generations to ameliorate, but by then the elites might well have all left.

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