Sometime in 1995, Fortune magazine published what was called an ‘Asia Corrupt-o-meter’- a corruption barometer for Asian countries. This was a guide for American companies seeking business in Asia, who face a nightmarish legal dilemma, because the attractive emerging markets of Asia, for foreign investors, are also the most corrupt. This was stated by a report of the Political and Economic Risk Consultancy (PERC), a Hong Kong-based firm that analyses corruption and political stability in different countries.
China, Indonesia and India were rated as the most corrupt with scores of 7.31, 7.00, and 6.59, respectively. Japan and Singapore with respective 1.97 and 1.19 were rated the least corrupt.
It is a consolation for us in India that we were not rated the most corrupt. It is a further consolation that corruption exists everywhere, however little-even in what is regarded as the most ‘aseptic’ country in the world; if this is any consolation at all!
And what does the PERC suggest? Learn how the system works, and cultivate local leaders without giving questionable payments. This is easier said than done, especially when competitors show up with briefcases full of cash.
Many of us in these countries have just ‘got used’ to the idea. We know that if we do not pay a tip to the telephone repairman, he will not show up the next time we need him.
In fact, the telephone linesman in our area had begun walking with a strut, with neighbours nodding a greeting to him as he passed–as if he were the collector of the area.
We know that some municipal personnel will not have the accumulated garbage collected for three days, unless a tip is paid.
In 1990, I had gone to the sales tax office to get a registration, and needed a form to fill – the peon said he had run out of them.
Then I saw him performing the trick of producing a blank application form for those who slipped in a ten rupee note. These forms were to be given free.
They were applications for registration so that one could pay taxes to the government.
Should one then give a tenner and be done with it? Or file a complaint and spend a lot more money making many trips to the commercial tax office? Most people choose the easier route.
Again, some years ago, the inspector of shops and establishments visited the office of a friend, Arun. He asked for the records–as he was expected to. He found some minor faults –and blew up their importance out of all proportion.
Arun decided that he would pay. It was nuisance prevention money–because this is what the inspector was hinting at.
Arun put Rs250 in an envelope and passed it on to the inspector, who promptly opened the envelope. “You know Mr Arun,” he said, with a smirk: “even the peon in my department would expect more than this.”
The unstated had been expressed: both the intent and the amount. What should Arun do?
It was like the old story of the waiter in the restaurant, who returned the tip to the customer with the quiet admonition, “Thank you very much Sir, but I think you need it more than I do.”
Joshi went to the land records office, because he needed to change the ownership of his plot, from a joint one with his mother, to his sole ownership. His mother had died two months before.
It was just a simple administrative requirement. The will was clear. The original records showed both names and now one had died. It was simple. Yet, not so simple.
He went to the office every three months for three years. And was always given some reason why it was not yet done.
Finally, a friend suggested a broker, who specialised in this line of business. He paid a sizable amount for the service. The actual fee at the land records was negligible. The job was done in just two months!
And so it goes on, from the political rulers of the country, to the humble peon in the commercial hierarchy. Those who have chosen to tread the straight and narrow path, are a small minority.
For the many whose conscience has not yet been deadened and who still wish to distinguish between completely right and totally wrong–an ethic has evolved, where being righteous means not accepting bribes.
But giving bribes is a different matter, because one cannot survive otherwise. One would have to close shop. I did that once, and paid a heavy price. I could not do it again!
This attitude of ‘acceptance’ was beautifully encapsulated in the opening remarks of the delegate from Indonesia, at the Asia Pacific Conference on Business Opportunities, held in Malaysia, where I was invited to speak.
He spoke before I did – and he beat me to it.
“Ladies and gentlemen,” he said, “for many years we have heard the boast that Britannia rules the waves. That may no longer be true. But it is still true that in Indonesia, we waive the rules. So come and invest in Indonesia.”
The audience burst into laughter. But he had made a point. He had also demonstrated a helpless acceptance of the situation as it is.
If corruption has reduced to some small extent after these 25 years, it is because of technology – not because of better inculcation of values or morality.
The telephone linesman is no longer important – because we now carry mobiles.
The land records will improve with computerisation and net operations.
The toll stations will be more honest because of toll passes and no cash payments.
But we still have a long way to go!
(Walter Vieira is a Fellow of the Institute of Management Consultants of India (FIMC). He was a corporate executive for 14 years and pioneered marketing consulting in India in 1975. As a consultant, he has worked across the globe in four continents. He was the first Asian elected Chairman of ICMCI, the world apex body of 45 countries. He is the author of 16 books; a business columnist; visiting professor on marketing in the US, Europe, and Asia. His latest 3 books written in collaboration are 5Gs of Family Business; Marketing in a Digital/ data world; and Customer Value Starvation can kill. He now spends most of the time in NGO work.)