Let’s fight corruption through ‘ZERO TOLERANCE’

opinion March 19, 2018 01:00

By The Nation

‘Lenient’ justice system stems from a ‘forgiving’ society

Some time back, two experimental signs were placed at a national park in Arizona asking people not to steal by taking home wood from the forest. At one entrance, a sign showed three “thieves” with an X over them. At another entrance, the sign showed just one thief, again with an X. What happened was very interesting.

The second sign was more effective in reducing theft. Why? According to psychologists, if we emphasise how common a crime is, it conveys a subtle, but very significant, message that many others are doing the same thing.

Corruption has many levels, but everyone knows that it’s the “small” ones that sow the seeds for big graft that eats into everything – corporations, government agencies and the whole society. There is no way to fight the “big ones” without eradicating their mini counterparts.

One of the biggest cases at the moment involves an ultra-rich businessman who allegedly was involved in illegal hunting in a reserved forest area and tried to bribe park officials who found out about the alleged violations. Bribery is one of the charges he is facing. It is a big accusation, but it is also hard to prove.

As a high-profile case, it captivated society and his alleged attempt to bribe added fuel to the public outcry. But if the suspect did try to bribe park officials, what is the difference between him and, say, commuters trying to offer something to traffic police in order not to get a ticket? What makes him different from foreign companies trying to bribe their way into lucrative concessions?

There are laws against bribery, of course, but making people feel that violations of those laws are frequent, common or widespread makes those very laws less likely to be followed strictly. The same goes for social tolerance. If people know that they can pay off traffic police and their friends will not even frown at it, they will continue to do so. Those around them will be encouraged to do the same.

It is, therefore, imperative that the “warning sign” points to just one bribe giver. Society must recognise that the involvement of even one person can undermine the whole anti-corruption principle. Which is why sending a proper message is important. On the one hand, we need to discourage bribery entirely. On the other hand, saying bribery is rampant can create a forgiving society when it comes to small fish.

Zero tolerance is the way to go when it comes to corruption. It’s even more important in relation to politics, as we all know what corruption cases can lead to. They can snowball into detrimental nepotism, outcries of double standards and even ideological showdowns. To stand any chance of fighting corruption in Thailand, we need strict standards that are applied equally to everybody.

Another reason why zero tolerance must be adopted is that many corruption cases are hard to prove in court. If society adopts the zero-tolerance standard, it will deter potential wrongdoers. Deterrence is necessary because legal punishment alone is not enough and, as things stand, is very hard to come by.

Looking at the matter at hand, a society with zero tolerance for corruption would not have to worry about whether influential persons are accused of illegal hunting and bribery would be helped by a “lenient” justice system. In a zero-tolerance society, it’s very unlikely that such offences would happen in the first place, let alone the leniency.