Last week, Transparency International (TI) released its 2013 Global Corruption Barometer report. The local media immediately picked up on the fact that the survey said 35 percent of Taiwanese respondents reported having paid bribes to the judiciary. The media then inferred from the various category results that the nation’s overall rating placed it third among the Asia-Pacific region’s most corrupt nations.
These figures were then picked up by the international media, adding to the ignominy, and certainly hitting President Ma Ying-jeou (馬英九) — famously fond of parading his clean government credentials, but whose administration has been rocked by a string of corruption scandals — where it hurts. It seems his anti-corruption fortress has turned into a house of cards. It was for this reason that many government departments have railed against the survey, calling it flawed.
TI has an impeccable reputation: Few would question its integrity or the quality of its work. Ma has on several occasions even met members of the organization to express his support. The government should not paint TI as the enemy just because it is unhappy with this year’s findings. The way that the Presidential Office, the Cabinet, the Ministry of Justice and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs have reacted will do little to help the situation.
Both Transparency International Chinese Taipei (TICT) and the Agency Against Corruption (AAC) saw the report before it was reported in the media. Despite having their doubts about the findings, they chose not to query them. That left media organizations free to draw their own inferences. The Economist ran an article discussing the figures, opening a wound into which Taiwan’s own media poured more salt. The TICT and the AAC’s inaction denied them the chance to make a preemptive sally to defuse the crisis.
The government was keen to say that previous reports found corruption of less than 5 percent, so this year’s high figure must be incorrect. It was a ploy that was doomed to failure. If it had confidence in its own figures, and if these figures were to be believed both in Taiwan and abroad, the government would not concern itself with the report’s findings. However, the government is very concerned, and many people in Taiwan and overseas trust the findings. If the government wants to go on the offensive, it needs to choose its targets more carefully.
The focus of the criticism then moved to the fact that TI commissioned a Shanghai-based market research agency to carry out the Taiwanese part of the survey, which some believe casts doubt on the findings’ accuracy. Such politicized criticisms are unlikely to find sympathy or support abroad, as TI commissions local or regional agencies to carry out the surveys in each country, and it will naturally enforce consistent standards and regulations, without which international comparisons would be impossible. To say errors were caused because a Shanghai-based agency was responsible for Taiwan’s survey is simply not a persuasive argument.
If the government wants to address the shame of these findings, it should arrange for a market research specialist to ask TI for details about the questionnaire, the sampling methods, the survey procedure and other details, and to compare how the survey was conducted with how it would be done in Taiwan, to see if there was any systemic bias. They could then discover whether there were any flaws in the survey that might have led to inaccuracies.
Taiwan does not come out too well in this year’s report. However, he who has egg on his face does not wipe it clean by flinging eggs at others. The correct approach is the use of reasoned argument. Taiwan has lost face, but that does not mean we have to sacrifice our demeanor or our professionalism through impulsive retaliation.