Cambodia is currently ranked 162 out of 180 countries, scoring 20 out of 100 in the 2019 Corruption Perception Index (CPI) by Transparency International which rates the country as “highly corrupted”. It is the lowest score among Southeast Asian and Asia Pacific countries, second only to North Korea and Afghanistan. Government spokesman Phay Siphan says the government actions against corruption in the country have improved favourably. Khmer Times invites Pech Pisey, Senior Director of Programmes of Transparency International Cambodia, to speak on this issue.
KT: Last year Cambodia went down one place in the Corruption Perception Index (CPI). How do you reflect on that?
Mr Pisey: In the past few years Cambodia’s ranking has not changed much. Out of 100, it has scored around 20, and in Southeast Asia, this is the lowest although Cambodia used to do better than Laos and Burma (Myanmar).
Experts still see that Cambodia is suffering from serious corruption. So why is that? The experts have looked at many indicators, including bribery, national wealth exploitation, power abuse, nepotism, the judicial system, freedom of speech, human rights and so on.
KT: What statistics or information is Cambodia’s ranking in CPI based on?
Mr Pisey: We got our information from eight organisations in Cambodia, all specialised in this topic and study a number of indicators. We also receive data and information from the World Bank, the Economist as well as Global Justice Project and World Economic Forum. Many countries, for example Malaysia, refer to the CPI as an indicator to measure their levels of corruption and their effectiveness in combating corruption.
KT: What do you think counts as corruption? Does it have any loophole?
Mr Pisey: That is a good question. Cambodian people have little understanding about the nature of corruption. People think that corruption only has something to do with monetary deals while in fact it comes in many forms: bribery, favouritism, nepotism, political corruption and systematic exploitation for personal gains or to exploit national wealth. Speaking of nepotism, Cambodia’s laws do not see it as a form of corruption, which allows senior officials to bring their relatives to serve in the ministries or departments. However, the universal definition sees it as an act of corruption since it will lead to conflicts of interest, especially the reluctance in imposing penalties and legal action, as well as favouritism in promotions and so on.
KT: How does such a low ranking affect Cambodia, particularly its reputation and economic development?
Mr Pisey: Investors tend to avoid highly corrupted country. No businessman wants his or her enterprise to face legal or financial risks. We see that happening in many countries with weak governing systems and serious corruption. Why? In most Western countries, there is something called the Foreign Bribery Act or a similar law under a different title, which prevents companies registered in the countries from committing bribery although they are operating in a foreign country. Companies which violate the Act will face trouble when they are investigated.
Without investment from foreign companies, a highly corrupted country, despite its potentials, will fail to gain creation of jobs for its people as well as increase its revenue. With the right reforms, I believe that Cambodia could even achieve faster annual growth.
KT: In spite of what you have said, many big companies, including those from Japan and the US, are operating in Cambodia. Can you elaborate on that?
Mr Pisey: We conducted a study based on perspectives and experiences of business executives. We acknowledge the economic development and influx of foreign direct investment (FDI), but foreign companies are operating in a frightening atmosphere in Cambodia. Foreign investors have been facing many problems caused by corruption in the country, especially the request for under-the-table money by public service officials. Big companies have enough power and resources to deal with these problem, but SMEs cannot afford that.
Just because Coca Cola and AEON are doing well, it does not imply that Cambodia is corruption-free.
KT: At which level of the government do you see the most corruption? And can you give a few examples?
Mr Pisey: Corruption is happening at both the national and sub-national levels. Nevertheless, Transparency International has seen improvement in local public services, the result of great effort from all sections of the government. But, when we look at systematic corruption on a large-scale, the situation is still grave. The embezzlements in large national projects, for example, remains untouched. Corrupt officials seek gratification from new companies during the registrations process. While the government has come up with new and effective methods to collect tax revenue, corrupt officials are still making it complicated for the taxpayers and extort money through this.
KT: Cambodia’s government never recognises CPI and even calls it biased and political. What can you say about that?
Mr Pisey: Transparency International is willing to work with the government bona fide to reduce corruption. If the government wants to know more about the information and indicators that we use, we are willing to share. Although the Cambodian government does not accept our findings, many others in the world have been using it as a reference in decision-making, especially regarding major investments. It has also been used by the UN and other major international organisations.
KT: Is corruption a part of Cambodia’s culture?
Mr Pisey: Corruption could be either a culture or a habit because people widely accept it. In one of our surveys, people say that they realise that corruption is here, they also say it is fine if they are the ones who benefit from it. This [mindset] is what TI and the Anti-Corruption Unit (ACU) want to change through educating the people.