Young Cambodians Embracing Graft: Survey

Most Cambodians between the ages of 15 and 30 are prepared to pay bribes to get ahead and many believe they can engage in corruption without losing their integrity, according to the results of a survey released Wednesday by Transparency International Cambodia (TIC).

Of the 1,200 “youth” that the organization interviewed across the country last year, most of them also said it was more important to be honest than to make more money and that they were willing to report corruption.

At the launch of the survey results in Phnom Penh, TIC director Preap Kol said parts of the survey of youth perceptions of corruption—the first of its kind in Cambodia on this scale—were “discouraging” but that there was also cause for hope.

“It’s alarming to see that the young people are at a crossroads… and it tells us that they have been spoiled for so long,” he said.

“But in my view it’s not too late,” Mr. Kol added. “Many young people have not yet taken a government position…or in another way they are not yet in the mainstream of the public sector,” where perceptions of corruption were highest.

Cambodia regularly shows up near the bottom of Transparency International’s annual Corruption Perceptions Index and has moved little from one year to the next. It ranked 156 out of 175 countries in the latest index, released in December, with a total score of only 21 out of a possible 100.

With 65 percent of the country’s roughly 15 million people under the age of 30, and a full third of the population between 15 and 30, TIC believes Cambodia’s older teens and young adults will be key to raising its score.

“Cambodia has a young population, so this is a group that should be paid more attention to,” said Pech Pisey, TIC’s director of programs.

But even for the young, corruption is a daily fact of life in the country.

Of those surveyed who had contact with police in the past year, 69 percent said they paid a bribe. Of those who took an exam, half said they paid to pass. Nearly a third of those who applied for a job said they paid a bribe to get it.

Asked hypothetically, 60 percent of those surveyed said they were willing to give up as much as 20 percent of their future salary to their boss to gain employment.

“They say it’s OK because [otherwise] they wouldn’t have a job,” Mr. Pisey said. “This is very serious because most young people are willing to give kickbacks to get a job.”

Nearly all the people TIC asked said a lack of integrity was bad for them, their families and the country. But their definitions of integrity did not always preclude being corrupt.

Nineteen percent of those surveyed said a “person of integrity” could still break the law to help a relative or a friend; 34 percent said that person could pay or take a bribe so long as it was “small”; and 40 percent said he or she could be corrupt as long as the particular act was common practice.

Offered a variety of scenarios, paying bribes for better health care was the most popular. Nearly half of respondents considered it “acceptable.”

“Matter of Life and Death”

As one young mother, Makara, told TIC, corruption was “a matter of life and death” in Cambodia’s hospitals.

At the same time, 59 percent said they would report corruption in the future. But only 8 percent said they had, and 33 percent said they either definitely or most likely would not.

Among that 33 percent, a quarter said it would make no difference if they did, but the most common reason was a fear of reprisals.

That’s why a whistleblower protection law was among TIC’s top recommendations, along with a freedom of information law and a focus on fighting corruption in schools, said Mr. Pisey. “Because if there is corruption in the [education] system, it affects everything.”

To combat the daily bribes many students pay in the country’s public schools, the government is gradually raising teacher salaries. Last year, the Education Ministry also teamed up with the government’s Anti-Corruption Unit (ACU) to take an unusually tough stand against the bribe taking and giving that typically pervades the all-important grade 12 exam.

Mr. Kol welcomed the tougher exam environment and said the findings in TIC’s new survey should spur the government to do more. He said his organization was working with the state to introduce new anti-corruption curricula in schools.

Likening corruption to a disease, Mr. Kol said people needed to be treated early.

“We need to treat the disease and inject the vaccine so they are not infected,” he said. “We need to inject the vaccine at birth.”

In prepared remarks delivered at the launch of the survey, Choek Lim, deputy director-general of the Education Ministry’s department of youth, said the ACU was working with the ministry to clean up the education sector and continuing to make arrests in corruption cases.

Established by the Anti-Corruption Law in 2010, the ACU has made a number of arrests since, even of some high-profile officials. But critics say the unit is fundamentally flawed because it offers no protection to whistleblowers and does not make public the annual financial reports government officials must now file each year.

CPP lawmaker Sik Bunhok, deputy chairman of the National Assembly’s anti-corruption commission, said Wednesday that a whistleblower law was in the works and that the Anti-Corruption Law was also a work in progress.

“It is not a small issue, and it can’t be solved in one day,” he said. “We do it step by step. It [corruption] is a disease in our society, and the people are born with it.”

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Correction: A previous version of this article incorrectly said that 35 percent of Cambodia’s population is under the age of 30. About 65 percent of Cambodians are younger than 30.

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