Communist Party of Vietnam Secretary General Nguyen Phu Trong has been leading a nationwide anti-corruption campaign. Photo: AFP / Vietnam News Agency

As members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) grapple with the impact of the Covid-19 pandemic on their economies, they are also having to mitigate a rise in corruption.

On July 1, Indonesia’s Corruption Eradication Commission (KPK) indicted a former Supreme Court judge, dealing a harsh blow to what could be massive systemic corruption at the country’s highest court.

While this move is cause for applause, this apparent victory is tainted by the serious doubts that remain about the KPK’s true ability to fulfill its mission adequately these days. Indeed, a recent report by an activist group revealed that the sybaritic lifestyle of the KPK’s chief, General Firli Bahuri, is not immune from the temptations posed by high office. 

Doubt envelops the KPK

While self-indulgence alone is not evidence of corruption, Firli was appointed in 2019 at a time when evidence existed that he had interfered with corruption investigations. Worse, he was appointed in the wake of controversial amendments to Indonesia’s anti-corruption law in 2019, which graft watchdogs say open the door to “the intervention from the executive and legislative in KPK’s functioning” and “cripple KPK’s functioning as an independent institution.”

“The Indonesian legislative reform is, in the opinion of many, a step backwards in the fight against corruption. In the first half of 2020, the KPK is now facing a backlog in its performance and questions about its commitment to transparency and accountability,” Brook Horowitz, chief executive of IBLF Global, a UK-based non-governmental organization promoting responsible business practices, argued in a recent mail.

But the KPK had failed to live up to its purpose even before the amendments. The Global Investigations Review wrote in 2017 that Indonesia’s anti-corruption body “still faces significant political challenges to maintain its independence and prosecute well-connected individuals with powerful vested interests.” 

As a foreign correspondent in Jakarta in 1998, I spoke with many citizens and officials about the corruption investigation lodged against Indonesia’s former dictator Suharto after his resignation and his alleged raid on the nation’s treasury estimated at between US$15 billion and $35 billion during his 32 years of authoritarian rule.

To this day, the legacy of Suharto’s malpractice remains tangible in the country – and so does his brand of kakistocracy across ASEAN, above all in the Philippines, Malaysia and Thailand, where a long shadow falls on transparent good governance. 

South Korea to the rescue?

Although ASEAN as an organization has itself engaged in fighting corruption, many of its members have been backsliding in the regard over the last five years at least. Amid continuing political volatility and security concerns, the Philippines has also struggled to enforce corruption despite President Rodrigo Duterte’s bombastic anti-graft language.

Duterte’s high-value and high-risk projects take a page from the late president Ferdinand Marcos, and his ambitious infrastructure projects have been hobbled by large-scale corruption and bidding anomalies singularly from contracts awarded to China. 

Vietnam’s anti-corruption record remains an ASEAN exception. Communist Party Secretary General Nguyen Phu Trong has been leading a nationwide anti-corruption campaign since his re-election as party leader at its 12th National Congress in January 2016.

“Trong heads the Central Steering Commission for Anti-Corruption. Its campaign against corruption is known colloquially as the ‘blazing (or hot) furnace,’” claimed Carl Thayer, of the Australian Defence Force Academy in Canberra.

Against this backdrop of overall growing corruption in the region, South Korea – an ASEAN observer country – has positioned itself in as an adviser in recent years in fighting graft in Southeast Asia, touting itself as a role model.

It’s clear that such help is sorely needed, since data confirm the pervasiveness of corruption in the private sector in ASEAN. According to the World Bank Bribery Index, 30% of business transactions in relation to public services require informal payments and gifts, and more than 40% of companies are expected to give gifts to secure public contracts in the ASEAN region.

Not so fast

In South Korea, the level of petty bureaucratic corruption is among the lowest in Asia, along with Japan, Hong Kong and Singapore, according to the Transparency International’s Global Corruption Barometer surveys.

According to a Jong-sung You, author of Democracy, Inequality, and Corruption, South Korea today is widely recognized as a rich and robust democracy with relatively good governance. That’s a huge leap forward from the 1950s when the West considered the country a hopelessly corrupt and poor autocracy.  

Even so, Korea isn’t without its corruption scandals. For while notable progress has been made in the fight against dishonest practices in politics and big business, the country’s NGO sector remains unsupervised.

Case in point: the Korean Council, an advocacy group for Korea’s “comfort women,” and its executive, Yoon Mee-hyang. Yoon stands accused of misappropriation of funds, including using the funds raised by the organization for purchasing a house above market value and for paying her daughter’s university tuition fees. 

The scandal came to light after Lee Yong-soo, 91 years old and one of the last living survivors of Japanese wartime sexual slavery, accused Yoon and the Korean Council of exploiting her plight for financial and political gain. After these revelations in May, the authorities raided the organization’s offices, shelters and stores in Seoul.

The scandal carries far-reaching implications: Not only has it disgraced Yoon Mee-hyang, who also holds a political position in the ruling Democratic Party of Korea (DPK), perhaps worse, it’s a great embarrassment for South Korea – one that undermines its standing as an adviser and role model to ASEAN members. 

This malfeasance does not bode well for anti-corruption activities, especially during a deadly pandemic that has left the affected societies in a particularly vulnerable state. 

The implications for ASEAN at large are that the organization must enact standardized laws for all member nations or risk the corrosive effects of corrupt activities in the critical area of governance across Southeast Asia. For sure, the challenges imposed by limited bottom-up accountability mechanisms and weak law enforcement must be addressed. 

James Borton is a senior fellow at the Foreign Policy Institute at Johns Hopkins University’s School of Advanced International Studies and the author of Dispatches from the South China Sea: Navigating to Common Ground.