Leaders of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations are not doing nearly enough to address corruption at the national level, warns a new report by Transparency International.

According to TI, “Southeast Asia is one of the most economically and politically diverse regions in the world and includes some of the richest, fastest-growing economies, as well as some of the planet’s poorest people.” To help bridge this gap, leaders of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) articulated a set of goals—the ASEAN Vision 2020—for more comprehensive regional integration.

“Against such a backdrop, where cross-border trade, cultural exchange and regional peace and stability will be so vital, it is worrying that so little effort has been made to tackle corruption at the regional level,” the report stated. “If economic integration is not built on a strong foundation of transparency, accountability and integrity then the ASEAN community’s vision will be jeopardized.”

Public sector corruption remains a major problem for many ASEAN countries. Only Malaysia and Singapore score above 50 out of 100 (where 100 is very clean and 0 highly corrupt) in TI’s 2014 Corruption Perceptions Index. Malaysia scored 84 out of 100, while Singapore scored 52 out of 100. The average score for ASEAN countries was 38 out of 100.

Such high corruption risks have not gone unnoticed by multinational companies, according to a survey conducted last year by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. In that poll, 588 senior executives representing U.S. companies in all ASEAN countries cited corruption as the top issue across ASEAN in all countries except Brunei and Singapore; this finding was unchanged from previous years.  

“American companies also pointed to burdensome laws and regulations, lack of transparency, poor quality of infrastructure, and the difficulty in moving products through customs in some countries as obstacles to greater investment,” the U.S. Chamber of Commerce stated.

TI Recommendations

In its report, TI recommended that ASEAN form an ASEAN Integrity Community (AIC) to fast track anti-corruption policy measures into its ASEAN post-2020 vision. The report calls on companies, governments, and civil society alike to fully participate in the reduction of corruption across the region.

Specifically, the report recommends four targeted anti-corruption priority areas:   

• Achieving effective anti-corruption policies, legislation and strategies;

• Achieving strong and independent anti-corruption institutions;

• Achieving intergovernmental anti-corruption cooperation; and

• Achieving meaningful engagement with civil society and the business sector.

The TI report further calls for the establishment of the ASEAN Working Group on Governance and Integrity to act as the driving force for the AIC, including proposing priorities and an integrity action plan. This working group shall consist of a joint ministerial committee, civil society, and business sector representatives, the TI report stated.

“ASEAN governments should take the lead in declaring and defining their vision of the ASEAN Integrity Community,” said Srirak Plipat, TI’s regional director for Asia Pacific. “The business community and civil society should stand ready to support them to realize the joint [AIC] vision.”

“A series of ministerial meetings must be created to set priorities and carry out action plans, which are severely needed due to delays in the past decade,” Plipat added. “Platforms for business and civil society must be created so that they can contribute to one coherent and strategic framework of the [AIC], as opposed to a random and organic approach as in the past.”

The recommendations in the TI report reiterate the commitment of all ASEAN countries that have ratified the UN Convention against Corruption. In many countries, however, public institutions lack transparency and accountability, key anti-corruption laws are absent, and civil society engagement is restricted, according to TI.

“Only Indonesia and Thailand have passed a freedom of information law,” TI noted, “while many anti-corruption authorities in the region fall short of their full potential, often suffering from a lack of operational independence and limited capacities.”