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Is Corruption in Thailand Really a Bad Thing?
The Thailand Theses

Omnipresent and regularly condemned, often by the very people who profit from it, corruption is the first topic of a new Naked Farang series, the Thailand Theses. This month we pose the question: Is corruption in Thailand really a bad thing? Find out our answer here...

It doesn’t matter whether you are a Thai or a foreigner, if you have breathed Thai air, you have been a party to Thai corruption in some form or other. From the misuse of billions of baht in public funds to the passing of a couple of hundred baht to the policeman’s benevolent fund, corruption is so ingrained in the Thai psyche that I once had an argument with a taxi driver over whether “corruption” was an English or Thai word. “You can have it,” I finally conceded. “You use it more than we do.”

But is corruption in Thailand really a bad thing?

On the one hand, there is something to be said for the ease with which legal corners can be cut, red tape can be shredded and blind eyes can be turned.

The ability to pay a “spot fine” for speeding certainly cuts out all the time and paperwork involved with a trip to the police station. In addition, it helps the government by supplementing the salaries of their employees without dipping into public funds thus sparing a burden on the tax payer. These unofficial spot fines become, in effect, a tax on petty law breakers, and they do seem to have the effect of causing many drivers to reduce their speed – at least when they know checks are being carried out. It looks at first glance like a win-win situation.

Indeed, it makes you wonder whether the wheels of Thai society could keep on turning without corruption. The ability of responsible adults to buy alcohol at reasonable times; the availability of affordable, bootlegged merchandise (including medicines); and the ongoing battle against bureaucratic visa and business regulations are just a few examples of how the common man’s life becomes easier after palms have been greased.

But is it really so simple? A closer analysis suggests there are two main reasons to suggest otherwise.

First of all, while corruption becomes the norm amongst both Thais and long-term expats, it seriously harms Thailand’s international standing whilst reinforcing the unfair division of wealth.  

An education system in which cheating, plagiarism and even blatant absenteeism aren’t enough to prevent graduation serves only to reward slackers and discourage meaningful learning. Add to this a legal system in which only the poor are guilty, and corruption quickly begins to reveal the ugliness of its true colours. Everyone is corrupt, but it is only the rich who really benefit.

Conclusion 1: corruption in Thailand serves only to damage Thailand’s international reputation and perpetuate the class divide, making it somewhat ironic then that its most high-profile perpetrator is the globetrotting champion of the poor.

Secondly, it is all very well being able to skirt around regulations, but they are there for a reason. Environmental and safety concerns in particular should not be taken lightly.

Issues of land encroachment and pollution damage more than just Thailand’s reputation. Areas of pristine beauty are being over-developed for the sake of a quick profit. In doing so they ironically lose forever the very beauty that made them attractive to tourists in the first place. And anyone who has watched a Bangkok bus spewing out black exhaust fumes as it sails past a police checkpoint will wonder at the true cost of keeping such vehicles on the capital’s crowded streets.
The Santika Pub fire of New Year’s Eve 2008 is just one example of a tragedy that would surely have been avoided if health and safety regulations had been strictly enforced. How many more time bombs are ticking because building standards were compromised or health and safety regulations sacrificed in the name of profit?

Even when the business of the day is fully legal and above board, unscrupulous officials will find a way to exploit their momentary power over you for their unofficial monetary gain.

Conclusion 2: corruption in Thailand is not only detrimental to health and safety, but also a form of empowerment to otherwise meaningless individuals who happen to hold a position just powerful enough to merit an under the table payment before you can buy your condo, register your company or get your child into a half-decent school.

So is corruption in Thailand really a bad thing? While it may provide the illusion of making life easier, it is the main reason why Thailand – with all its natural resources – is nothing more than a bit-part player on the world political stage.

If Thailand is ever to become a truly democratic and classless society in which the rights, health and safety of everyone are more important than personal short-term gain, then corruption must be stamped out at all levels.

You might want to pack some sandwiches. It could be a LONG wait.

Paul Snowdon – January 30, 2010

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