The Good, The Bad and The Ugly
This is a controversial piece, but I'll go ahead and publish my opinion and commentary.
It's well known that government salaries are quite low and inadequate to support either the civil servants' families or many government departments' operations.
Normally, government workers do not request under the table money, and it is not necessary. It is amazing how well the Thai civil service works.
However, sometimes people want to expedite something whereby unofficial extra fees are offered, and sometimes this works. You should understand that many Thai civil servants will refuse under the table money, but there are many who will take it.
Is this good or bad? On a case by case basis, that depends, in my opinion, on whether it's helpful or hurtful, especially if it creates victims or not.
You are driving and violate some road law in a harmless way. A policeman stops you. Instead of taking a ticket and going to the police station, you pay some cash on the spot and it becomes just a warning. This saves you and the police considerable time. I think this is acceptable in minor cases. Some people call this "extortion" but I disagree if you did something illegal.
Note: If you are driving correctly and a policeman stops you and threatens to fine you for something you didn't do, whereby he just wants money, then take the ticket and go to the police department. That would be bad corruption. Note: I've never had such a bad experience with a policeman in Thailand, nor have many people whose stories I trust. The police in Thailand have usually been correct with me, and usually quite polite. I would bet there are bad cases, like most everywhere, but I've been pleasantly surprised by the nature of the police in Thailand by my own experiences, which is much better than the average traffic cop in the U.S. However, I do know many hot-headed people who have cursed the police for stopping them for gross violations of the law.
Another case of where corruption is helpful is in expediting applications for various things, right or wrong. A tip can speed things along. If there is no victim, then everyone benefits. It's the price of doing business, whereby you pay a reasonable extra fee for the government operation to process your application in an expedited way. Otherwise, you just follow the normal cheap route and wait, wasting time and productivity.
I worked in the engineering and construction business for several years. On government infrastructure projects, the business often went to the highest briber, not the best technical operation, and surely not lowest bidder. Technical competency was often not considered seriously, as the winner figured they could always find cheap enough technical people after they win the contract. (The mismanagement and problems of some projects are legendary.)
One victim is the public, who have paid for these projects with their tax money, and who must deal with the shoddy results when the infrastructure doesn't work and the delays and repairs.
Other victims are the entrepreneurial companies which have high technical skill and who do proper business. They get blown away by those offering bribes but who usually have less technical skill.
More victims are the government budget and other projects which need the money.
Sometimes, criminals who commit crimes with victims offer very large bribes to avoid capture and/or prosecution, and then continue creating more victims. This includes scamming businesses, scamming their own workers (e.g., unpaid wages), and of course human trafficking (whereby people are offered a high paying job overseas for a fee, but arrive to find they've been tricked into working for a sweatshop at menial wages, or worse yet, imprisoned prostitution against their will and with rapings, beatings and/or threats of violence).
Look around Bangkok at some the unfinished and abandoned highrise buildings, which have been rusting and decaying for years.
Most everyone knows about corruption in the construction and banking businesses, which caused Thailand to have an economic liquidity problem in 1997, which in turn brought down almost all of the rest of Asia's economies. Thailand cleaned up a lot of its act after that, and in fact we are now benefiting from the shock reaction after 1997.
What's not known is just how much corruption helped bring this about. On these big projects, the offers of bribes and kickbacks encouraged many decision makers with authority to approve the loans and licenses for those projects. If those bribes and kickbacks had not been offered, and decisions had been made solely on the economic merits of each project in view of all the similar, competing projects, and market supply and demand, then the Asian collapse would have been much less, or perhaps would never have happened.
This is something to think about every time you look at all the ugly, decaying buildings still in Bangkok's remarkable skyline. (However, many projects were resumed 5 years laters, and some other highrises taken down, so few still exist as of 2010. This article was originally written in the late 1990s.)
There is a related section in ThailandGuru on the 1997 Asia Economic Collapse.
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