Pouring money into a bottomless pit of corruption
Annual losses due to graft and illegal economic activities could already have put Thailand well on the way to becoming a developed nation
Recent revelations about massive economic losses resulting from widespread illegal activities in Thailand are alarming indeed, but unfortunately not surprising. The Anti-Corruption Organisation of Thailand (ACT) has cited a figure from Washington-based Global Financial Integrity (GFI), which conducted an annual survey on illegal outflows worldwide to show that Thailand lost around Bt192 billion per year through illegal financial outflows between 2001 and2011.
This figure is shameful, as it puts Thailand in 13th place for such losses among developing nations.
We cannot simply shrug off this figure because it means a loss of opportunities for ordinary Thai people, and this is only the figure for the past decade. Moreover, illegal financial outflows are closely associated with illegal activities such as corruption, counterfeiting of copyrighted goods, and drug and human trafficking.
Again, not surprisingly, the survey suggests that this problem is common in Asia. Other Asean countries are on the top 20 list for such losses, including Malaysia, the Philippines, Indonesia and Brunei. China is also near the top.
"Asia, accounting for 61 per cent of cumulative outflows, was still the main driver of such flows from developing countries," said the report, which was released in late 2012.
The massive amount in illegal outflows in Asia should be an alarming wake-up call for governments, concerned agencies and citizens because an increasing number of big development and investment projects in the region involve international transactions, especially now that the region is moving towards a common market. How can Asean and the wider region progress if good business practice is so commonly ignored and abused?
In spite of the severity of the problem, Thais in general have a lax attitude towards graft. The media is also affected by this attitude. Recently a TV drama that portrayed the negative effects of corruption was shut down by the powers that be. The problem is now deeply ingrained into the national psyche. Some politicians and commentators even try to promote the perception that corruption is justified if enough people can get a slice of the pie. This attitude must be changed.
If you want proof of how bad the situation is, the latest figure from GFI has quantified the damages from illegal financial outflows at US$6.42 billion in just 10 years. Thailand could have been such a better nation if we had not allowed corruption to permeate every level of our society.
These illegal outflows rob the country of the opportunity to develop. As ACT executive member Thawatchai Yongkittikul has pointed out, "Illegal outflows of money are a great loss for the country. We have lost the opportunity to spend [this money] on national development…. Corruption, therefore, is a severe threat to the country." The private sector is thus calling for measures to curb illegal outflows and to prevent irregularities involving expensive government projects.
Thailand's ongoing and severe political division is caused largely by unequal access to opportunity. Massive corruption is a factor that obstructs progress and the need to spread the nation's wealth in a more balanced manner. As illegal outflows of money hit welfare, education and wealth distribution, Thailand will not be able to address the political and social question of "double standards". It is thus time to seriously combat corruption.
The magnitude of illegal activities and corruption has also raised the question of long-term economic and social stability in Thailand, because no country can progress in a sustainable way without justice in the system. Overall, the wealthier developed nations, as the survey has found, have better records when it comes to transparency in their economic and political systems. Talented people are encouraged to work hard and excel because they realise that they will not be robbed of opportunity because of unethical practices.
The latest findings from the international organisation should prompt us to change our attitude and strengthen the institutions that provide a check and balance, and which aim to eradicate illegal practices. Until this effort has been realised, Thailand is likely to come out on the list of shame year after year, at the expense of us all.