Doubts over Ma’s tough cure for corruption

For Asia Times Online

Although the Taiwanese can hardly be called strangers to news of corrupt officials, the headlines of the past few weeks did their job in knocking the islanders of the loop. There are so many cases of judicial officials being under investigation that it’s hard to not loose track about allegations of bribery, visits of prostitutes during office hours and judges brazenly acquitting each other’s offspring.

With public pressure on their backs, Taiwan’s President Ma Ying-jeou together with a zealous Prosecutor General talk tough on the matter and vow not allow a few bad apples tarnish the reputation of the public sector and the government. Yet, unlike in the past, were Taiwan looked to democratic Japan and the western countries for inspirational guidance to judicial reform, Taiwan’s leaders of today have increasingly been naming one-party-ruled Singapore and semi-democratic Hong Kong as role models for a corruption-free judiciary.

In the eyes of Taiwanese politicians, Singapore and Hong Kong’s achievements in eradicating bribery are to be credited to powerful anti-corruption commissions. In line with this assessment, Taiwan’s government now wants to follow suit and create something similar. However, whether or not what worked out in politically tightly controlled Hong Kong and Singapore can help Taiwan is left to be seen.

“It was the British Empire that influenced Hong Kong and Singapore judicial systems but it’s Chinese culture that influences Taiwan’s”, Yao Li-ming, Professor of Law, commentator often seen on Taiwan’s political TV talk shows and former KMT-lawmaker, says in an interview with Asia Times Online. “In Taiwan, personal relationships are still too much regarded as being something of utmost importance. This makes it easier for judges to take bribes”, he elaborates.

Although the features of Taiwan’s society Prof. Yao refers to are hard to see through for outsiders, no Taiwanese will deny their existence. Before major surgeries, a patient’s relatives are expected to find a way to a hand a red envelope filled with banknotes to the physician in charge. It is unspoken law that newly hired public school teachers discretely present red envelopes to principals, just as low ranking military personnel to the high ranking do.

In the days before civil law suits are fought, defendants and accusers alike are in many cases anonymously informed that judges as well as prosecutors appreciate the same kind of red envelope the doctors receive. Numerous proverbs describe these givings and takings, one of which being the spine-chilling ‘with money sentenced to live; without money, sentenced to die’.

Generally, both Taiwan’s general public and authorities retort to these forms of corruption with a laissez-faire attitude. However, the current scandals involving the very people who are supposed to safeguard the rule of law have somewhat tested the limits of public tolerance. In recent surveys more than 70% of the respondents claimed that the scandals -which were by the local media named as Taiwan’s judiciary’s biggest corruption cases ever- have profoundly shaken their confidence in the country’s judicial system.

It began when in mid-July a newly established ‘self-policing’ unit of Taiwan’s judiciary, the Special Investigation Division (SID), delivered its first result: the uncovering of a corruption scandal involving three High Court Judges and a prosecutor. The four were accused of taking bribes from a former Chinese Nationalists (KMT) lawmaker and ex-county chief, Her Jyh-huei, in exchange for an overturning of a verdict by a district court that had sentenced Her to a 19-years jail term on bribery charges.

Her managed to escape on his scooter wearing flip-flops, shorts and T-shirt due to an alleged tip-off which Taiwan’s media has linked to judicial circles.

The affair was followed by the resignation of the president of the Judicial Yuan, Taiwan’s highest judicial organ.

 

Days later, an actress-turned-prison-counselor’s claim that one of the detained Taiwan High Court judges had sought to extort US$100.000 of a defendant in a murder case again shocked the nation. According to the counselor, the man wasn’t able to pay and was subsequently sentenced to death.

Soon, there were three more judges under investigation over allegations that they conspired to acquit the son of a Supreme Court justice in a trial following a hit-and-run accident. One of the judges involved was also alleged to have in the past wrongfully let go a colleague accused in a bribery case who is now on the run in China.

Whereas Taiwan’s government led by president Ma Ying-jeou scrambles to reduce the politically damage done by vowing to take concrete action, Taiwanese media outlets focus on the juicier aspects of the bribery cases, such as monitored cellphone calls by Taiwan High Court judge Yang Ping-chen, one of the men under investigation. It was revealed that Yang, who reportedly handled fewer cases than his colleagues due to his bad health, regularly visited prostitutes and met mistresses in restaurants and hotels during office hours. Taiwan’s public is left to guess whether Yang’s could have possibly maintained his lifestyle on a judge’s salary.

The SID, the Special Investigation Division which took the helm in the recent advances to clean Taiwan’s judiciary through a so-called self-correction campaign, is led by State Public Prosecutor General Huang Shih-ming who got his job following the impeachment of his predecessor Chen Tsung-ming. Chen was forced out of office for dereliction of duty but first and foremost over allegations that he was too soft on handling ex-President Chen Shui-bian’s corruption and money-laundering cases.

In interviews, Prosecutor General Huang deploys harsh wording that make him sound like a politician rather than a judicial official. Huang polemically calls for a cleaning of the judiciary by merciless crackdowns and the kicking out of rogue elements despite the ranks of the judges involved.

To soothe public outrage, President Ma, a self-declared admirer of Singapore for its toughness on corruption, calls for the establishing of an anti-corruption unit to serve as the “judicial police with the right to search, seize and detain.” At an initial stage, the unit would employ about 200 people and its ultimate goal would be to lower the crime rate and increase the conviction rate, Ma said. Using Hong Kong’s Independent Commission Against Corruption (ICAC) and Singapore’s Corrupt Practices Investigation Bureau (CPIB) as role-models, Taiwan’s anti-corruption agency is meant to become a powerful tool to force a code of conduct upon civil servants.

However, Ma stressed that there would be one major difference between Taiwan’s commission and its Hong Kong and Singapore counterparts; unlike ICAC and CPIB, Taiwan’s agency won’t be established under the prime minister or president, but instead be controlled by the island’s Ministry of Justice (MOJ).

Hong Kong and Singapore, which societies like Taiwan’s are dominated by ethnic Chinese, are frequently named Asia’s least corrupt places. Transparency International’s 2009 corruption index ranks Hong Kong (12) and Singapore (3) among the world’s least corrupt states and territories, easily overtaking Asia’s well-off democracies Japan (18), Korea (40) and Taiwan (37).

Both Hong Kong and Singapore were ruled by the British Empire, and it was the former colonial power that set up Hong Kong’s ICAC and Singapore’s CPIB. The objective of the foreign governors was to clean up endemic corruption since the local police forces of that time couldn’t be trusted as they too were heavily involved in bribery. Thus, Hong Kong’s and Singapore’s anti-corruption bodies reported directly to the British governors rather than to the respective Justice Ministries.

After Singapore gained independence from Britain in the 50ies, the CPIB was taken over by the new rulers of the city-state, and following the transfer of sovereignty in 1997, the the State Council of the People’s Republic of China began being in charge of appointing the head of Hong Kong’s ICAC.

ICAC as well as CPIB are reputed for their heavy-handed investigation methods. Singapore’s unit has the right to detain suspects without law trail and to investigate not only the suspect, but also relatives or agents. Financial and other records of family members can be examined, and CPIB even has the power to independently investigate any other offense which is disclosed in the course of a corruption investigation.

Hong Kong’s and Singapore’s anti corruption-commissions alike earned the respect of the ordinary people and are frequently glorified in TV-series and movies. They are widely admired for their ability to hold high ranking officials accountable. This is all the more important since unlike as in democracies, neither in Hong Kong nor in Singapore do corrupt officials or their superiors necessarily risk to be punished by bad election results.

In Taiwan’s political landscape, not only KMT-opponents doubt that an anti-corruption commission as envisioned by President Ma Ying-jeou is what Taiwan is short of. The KMT-leaning English-language daily, The China Post, carried in an editorial a sort of criticism directed at President Ma Ying-jeou rarely heard of by that newspaper. Intriguingly, questioned wasn’t whether the clout that such a powerful organ would hold could be abused by the country’s rulers, but instead it was implied that Taiwan’s democratic system and an overly hesitating approach to authoritarian measures were to render an anti-corruption commission a toothless tiger in the first place. The editorial argued that ICAC’s and CPIB’s reason for success was a trust and authority-building “fear factor” which couldn’t possibly taken advantage of in Taiwan where every government body is subject to monitoring by the legislature. As a jab at Taiwan’s democratic system that frequently makes headlines due to brawls between rival lawmakers on the legislative floor, according to the editorial, the “perennial bickering and partisanship in Taiwan’s populist politics” would hinder any effective action against corrupt members of the judiciary.

 

Questions arise. Will the Taiwanese gradually lose faith in the island’s ability to counter corruption with the democratic institutions already at hand? If they do, will the public start longing for a Singapore-style iron fist that reins in corrupt civil servants?

Prof. Yao needs a second to grasp these questions. His cellphone rings, interrupting the interview. When he hangs up, he laughs out, says: “Absolutely nonsense! News of a handful of corrupt judges won’t destroy Taiwan’s democracy.” And in an upbeat tone he adds: “The recent scandals shouldn’t be taken too seriously anyway, because the new generation of Taiwanese judges is much better than the ones before.”

 

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