DEATH AND INACTIVITY
By Andrew Biggs
There has been a push this week for the death penalty for corrupt government officials — may I be the first to announce my opposition.
The push is an amendment proposed by the National Anti-Corruption Commission, better known as the NACC, though perhaps FUTILE might be a better abbreviation for all that commission is up against.
In a nutshell, punishments are going to get tough for government officials who engage in bribery. A corrupt official would be liable to five to 20 years’ imprisonment, life in jail — or execution. Talk about going from one extreme to the other.
As I said, I am opposed to this but not on any humanitarian grounds. I’m all for putting corrupt officials to death. The first few we could even make a public spectacle, say, in that space between Paragon and Siam Center reserved for Thai pop stars whose mini-concerts require a substantial bribe to sit through.
Imagine if we really did put officials to death. We’d save so much money on salaries. We’d lose all those gnarly heads of departments who drive Mercedes Benz cars and live in mansions, replaced by bright young things not yet exposed to the rotting system in place now. Surely that has to be good for Thailand.
Well, yes. But killing corrupt officials is not going to work, which is why I am really opposed to it. Thailand is trying to make a giant leap, when really all it needs is a small step.
Getting a job in the Thai Civil Service is the dream of every mother and father for their children. On paper the salary is not great, but there are all sorts of added benefits, of which the main one the NACC is admirably attempting to quash.
You and your immediate family get good health care. You receive a pension. Your community respects, and indeed often worships you thanks to the perceived power you wield. Have you ever been at an airport when a high-ranking civil servant is about to board? The only thing lacking in the send-off is a chorus of archangels accompanied by a marching band.
In short, you are secure, well-respected – and unsackable.
It is that unsackability, along with the propensity to secure ill-begotten gains, that is Thailand’s lethal cocktail.
There is a very good reason why corruption is rife in Thailand. You can get away with it.
Nobody denies corruption is rife, and it invariably stretches to the top of any ministry. With that in mind, off the top of your head, how many high-ranking officials have been jailed in recent times over bribery?
I can think of just one, and that was back in 1996. Does that count as recent?
It’s just worth the risk. It’s like when I cross Rama 4 Road in Klong Toey late at night after finishing my radio show. There is a footbridge above me, which would be the decent, law-abiding way to cross. But the truth is, at 10 pm there aren’t that many cars on Rama 4, and my propensity to get splattered is low.
If it were 5 pm, when the cars are relentless and there are lots of people around, I wouldn’t dare cross both for safety and face-saving reasons.
Government officials engage in bribery because they can. The difference between those officials and me is when they do get “hit”, they don’t get splattered on Rama 4 Road. They don’t get sacked. They get transferred.
Actually, the full phrase is transferred to an inactive post. In Thai it is sent to examine government business at the ministry. A rose by any other name; both mean go stand in the corner for a few minutes.
(It happened again this week, though not for bribery reasons. The head of the waterworks was “transferred to an inactive post owing to his handling of the lack of water,” as if the poor guy could have reversed this current lack of rainfall.)
What exactly is an “inactive post”?
In my 26 years in Thailand I have visited some government offices full to the brim with inactive officials, but not posts. These are men and women whose inactive demeanor is only broken when they announce with triumphant malaise: “You forgot a photocopy of your work permit in triplicate.” That seems to make them feel better.
Is that where evil government officials end up – wedged between expressionless men and women in a barren office? Is there a sign on the door that says “Inactive Posts”?
More to the point – what are we doing with a government service that admits to having inactive posts in the first place?
How does that make us, the taxpayers, feel, knowing our hard-earned taxes are funding departments that proudly announce they do nothing? I know we’re not allowed to protest at the moment but if ever there were grounds for a gathering at Ratchadamri, there it is.
Being sent to Inactive Land is only half the story. After that there is the establishment of a committee to get to the bottom of the situation. This committee’s biggest task is not to scrutinize; it is to buy time and that, more than a mansion and Mercedes Benz, is the best thing to purchase if you are a government official who’s been found out.
When you are sitting at an inactive post you are essentially watching as you fall from page one of the newspaper down to page four, and then six, until you have fallen right out of the public’s memory. That’s when you slowly, and carefully, creep back to your former post. Shame, like fame, is fleeting.
This is why we don’t need death penalties.
Let’s be a little nicer and replace inactive posts with real punishment for wrongdoing, such as termination of employment and jail.
This is a drastic step for Thai society, in some ways more drastic than a death penalty, because being sacked and going to jail for civil wrongdoings are just not part of the Thai way of doing things. It upsets too many members of your immediate family, makes you lose face, and no more 21-gun-salutes at the airport.
This is why I am against this new law; not because putting corrupt government officials to death is bad. Let’s not make the leap from “inactive post” to “death.” Why not try sacking them instead?
Times are getting tough for corrupt officials, since there is another law about to be enacted, at the end of this month, known as the Government Convenience Law.
This law means government officials can no longer wrap you up in red tape; they must stipulate exactly what forms are required for doing government business – only once. Worse, they have to state how long the process will take.
Roll on the new laws!
Well, roll on, but not too quickly. I notice there is a clause that states those who pay bribery money to officials will also be arrested. A couple of years ago when I was on the lecture circuit, I was often asked to sign “extra forms” shoved in front of me while collecting my fees.
These were blank documents and I always wondered what they were for, until I started to put my foot down. Are these new laws retrospective? I’d hate to lose my life over a How To Get Good At English speech.