Under-fire Taiwan in anti-graft drive

After reports of rising corruption, government tries to restore island's business-friendly image

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 14 September, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 14 September, 2013, 4:19am

Popular discontent with graft in Taiwan after a quarter-century of democracy has led the government to sniff out shady public servants and boost the island's image as a clean place for investment, its top anti-corruption official said.

Motivated by a public demand for stamping out graft, from a few dollars paid to customs workers as "tea money" to European junkets at public expense, investment-thirsty Taiwan is stiffening laws while checking every citizen complaint and chasing its own leads.

Cleanliness counts, because Taiwan competes vigorously with its Asian neighbours for investment to sustain an export-reliant economy, the world's 26th largest. Taiwan wants to be seen as a place with clear, consistent rules for business, despite mounting complaints of graft and a recent critical report by a non-governmental organisation.

"We hear from a lot of people, from all walks of life," said Chu Kung-mao, director-general of the Justice Ministry's Agency Against Corruption. "We get letters every day. Some people see acts with their own eyes."

In the nearly two years since Taiwan created Chu's agency, 5,937 complaints have been filed, 1,070 with enough evidence to follow up. Of those, 210 went to prosecutors, and 114 ended in indictments. The inflow of complaints has been steady over the past two years, Chu said, and his agency has added 2,190 more suspected cases based on its own information.

The government's Anti-Corruption Act carries a maximum sentence of three years imprisonment.

The island, which democratised in the late 1980s, has come under fire particularly since July, when Berlin-based Transparency International released a survey saying judicial bribery had risen from 12 per cent to 36 per cent since 2010, putting Taiwan on par with Ghana and Mozambique.

The NGO's "Global Corruption Barometer" also rated Taiwan's legislature and political parties at 4.1 on a scale of one to five, with five being the most corrupt.

Taiwan disputes the results, calling the research method flawed, and has asked a local Transparency International chapter to do a new poll.

The island's latest flap involving public servants erupted last week when special investigators accused Wang Jin-pyng, speaker of the ruling party-dominated parliament, and others of influence peddling, generating a rebuke from President Ma Ying-jeou. Ma's expulsion of Wang from the Kuomintang on Wednesday was reversed by a court yesterday.

But the largest share of cases chased by the Agency Against Corruption stem from construction contracts or procurement deals, mostly by local governments with relatively little money, Chu said. Of the 1,070 cases with enough substance to probe, 164 related to procurement and 137 to projects. Judicial cases totalled 25, and the agency does not keep figures on how many involve legislators or political parties.

The agency also intervenes in likely cases of graft, such as when a county tobacco and liquor firm recently proposed travelling to Europe for business, Chu said. The trip was cancelled.

People in Taiwan generally consider the central government and career public servants to be clean but suspect the judiciary and local elected officials, said Liu Yi-jiun, professor of public affairs at Fo Guang University.

"What I see is that people still have very little confidence in judicial independence, and people have seriously criticised this matter," Liu said.

"Those who are elected by the general electorate, that's where problems come from."

The government also worries that suspicion about graft will spill over from the public to investors, including Taiwanese firms that have taken capital to the mainland or Southeast Asia, undermining economic growth prospects.

By the end of the year, the agency will give foreign firms a special window to report suspected graft.

"Whether returning Taiwanese or foreign firms, both would like to come here to invest," Chu said. "We hope to tell them Taiwan is actually not so bad."