Taiwan Should Abandon Its Irrational Anti-Corruption Strategy

Written by Jon S.T. Quah.

Image credit: MJIB headquarters by Bstlee/Wikimedia commons, license CC BY-SA 3.0

Taiwan has been eminently successful in combating the current COVID-19 pandemic because of its rational approach of relying on science, extensive testing, quarantine, contact tracing, and through the population’s observance of the necessary public health preventive measures. In contrast, Taiwan has failed to make significant progress in minimising corruption, judging from the frequent recurrence of corruption scandals and its unimpressive performance on Transparency International’s Corruption Perceptions Index (CPI) from 2012 to 2019.

Corruption is a Chronic Problem

Corruption remains a chronic problem in Taiwan as it has consistently been ranked the fifth least corrupt Asian country on the CPI during the past eight years. Taiwan’s CPI score of 65 in 2019 trails behind the CPI scores of Singapore (85), Hong Kong (76), Japan (73) and Bhutan (68). As Taiwan’s CPI score has fluctuated between 61 and 65 during 2012-2019 (see Table 1), it is unlikely to improve its CPI score if it does not address the causes of corruption and continues to rely on the ineffective Ministry of Justice Investigation Bureau (MJIB) and the poorly-resourced Agency Against Corruption (AAC) to combat corruption.

Table 1: Taiwan’s Performance on the Corruption Perceptions Index, 2012-2019

Source: Transparency International
Note: The CPI score ranges from 0 (highly corrupt) to 100 (very clean)

An anti-corruption agency (ACA) is a specialised organisation established by a government to minimise corruption in the country. There are two types of ACAs: Type A ACAs, which perform only anti-corruption functions; and Type B ACAs, which perform both anti-corruption and other functions. The most effective Type A ACAs are Singapore’s Corrupt Practices Investigation Bureau (CPIB) and Hong Kong’s Independent Commission Against Corruption (ICAC) because their governments have provided them with adequate budgets and personnel to function as independent watchdogs against corruption.

The MJIB is a Type B ACA that was established in 1949 as a law enforcement agency to protect national security and to investigate these five major crimes: public corruption, malfeasance and election fraud; economic crime; drug crime; money laundering; and cybercrime. This means that the MJIB is not a dedicated ACA, but a national security agency as combating corruption constitutes only one of its 12 functions. The MJIB was the only ACA in Taiwan until the AAC was established on 20 July 2011 by President Ma Ying-jeou in response to the corruption scandal involving three high court judges and a district prosecutor for accepting bribes from a former Kuomintang legislator, Ho Chi-hui, in July 2010.

Unlike the MJIB, the AAC is a Type A ACA responsible for formulating corruption-control policies, anti-corruption education, corruption prevention, and investigating corruption cases in Taiwan. Unfortunately, the AAC has been unable to realise its potential as an effective Type A ACA from its inception in July 2011 because its limited budget and personnel have severely handicapped it.

Irrational Anti-Corruption Strategy

A government’s political will in combating corruption is reflected in the budget and personnel that it allocates to the ACAs. Taiwan’s anti-corruption strategy is irrational because the MJIB has been given a larger budget and more personnel than the AAC to combat corruption. More specifically, the MJIB’s budget of US$182.9 million was nearly 13 times larger than the AAC’s budget of US$14.2 million in 2017. Similarly, the MJIB had 2,339 personnel or almost 11 times more than the AAC’s 214 personnel in 2017. The MJIB’s Anti-Corruption Division, which is responsible for its anti-corruption function, had a budget of US$1.1 million and 33 personnel in 2017.

A comparison of the AAC’s budget and personnel in 2014 with the budgets and personnel of Hong Kong’s ICAC and Singapore’s CPIB, shows that the AAC’s per capita expenditure of US$0.59 is much lower than the ICAC’s per capita expenditure of US$16.59 and the CPIB’s per capita expenditure of US$5.36. This means that the per capita expenditures of the ICAC and CPIB are respectively, 28 times and nine times larger than the AAC’s per capita expenditure in 2014. In the same vein, the AAC’s staff shortage is reflected in its highly unfavourable staff-population ratio of 1:117,150 compared to the more favourable staff-population ratios of the ICAC (1:5,333) and the CPIB (1:26,682). In short, unlike the CPIB and ICAC, which are independent watchdogs that investigate all corruption cases impartially, the AAC is a paper tiger because it lacks the necessary budget and personnel to perform its anti-corruption functions effectively.

To make matters worse, there is also sibling rivalry between the MJIB and AAC, which is manifested in their intense competition and lack of cooperation in sharing intelligence and investigating corruption cases. Furthermore, the MJIB’s emphasis on its national security functions at the expense of its anti-corruption function — along with its long history of competition with the Ministry of Justice, which oversees the AAC — have hindered its effectiveness in investigating corruption cases.

Suggestions for Reform

Addressing the causes of corruption in Taiwan is imperative and requires the implementation of sustained long-term reforms. However, the immediate concern is to rectify the AAC’s severe shortage of funds and personnel and eliminate its sibling rivalry with the MJIB, by initiating these two reforms.

First, the MJIB should focus only on its functions as the national security agency in Taiwan and relinquish its function of investigating corruption, bribery, and vote-buying to the AAC. As a Type B ACA, the MJIB has been ineffective in curbing corruption for many years because it has given higher priority to its national security functions than its anti-corruption function. Accordingly, the rational solution is for the MJIB to function solely as the national security agency and transfer its anti-corruption function to the AAC, which should be made the new lead ACA in Taiwan and given more resources.

Second, the Government of Taiwan should abandon its irrational anti-corruption strategy of making the MJIB the lead ACA and providing it with more budget and personnel than the AAC to perform its many functions, including its anti-corruption function. The AAC will continue to be ineffective and remain a paper tiger until the government allocates the necessary budget and personnel to enable it to combat corruption effectively.

Needless to say, these two suggestions to reform the MJIB and AAC would not be welcomed but strongly resisted by the MJIB and other affected stakeholders in Taiwan. As the MJIB’s resistance delayed the AAC’s formation in July 2011, it is unlikely that the powerful MJIB would willingly relinquish its anti-corruption function to the AAC.  If Taiwan is seriously concerned with combating corruption, it should emulate the successful anti-corruption strategies of Singapore and Hong Kong by making the AAC the only Type A ACA and providing it with adequate financial and human resources to perform its anti-corruption functions effectively.

Conclusion

Minimising corruption in Taiwan is an extremely challenging task and requires sustained long-term reforms to address its many causes. Indeed, apart from the resources and expertise required by the ACAs, the implementation of the anti-corruption laws would be strongly resisted by those intelligent and powerful corrupt individuals and organisations with vested interests to circumvent these laws to avoid arrest and conviction for their offences.

If President Tsai Ing-wen is sincerely committed to the elusive goal of minimising corruption in Taiwan, she should abandon without delay the existing irrational strategy of relying on the ineffective MJIB, which focuses on national security matters than fighting corruption, and the poorly staffed and under-funded AAC to combat corruption.  The obvious and rational solution to Taiwan’s impasse in curbing corruption is to make the AAC the only dedicated ACA and provide it with the required resources to enhance its effectiveness.

Failure to do so would mean accepting the easier option of maintaining the status quo of relying on the ineffective MJIB and inadequately resourced AAC. This would result in business as usual for those corrupt politicians, civil servants, businesspersons, and citizens in Taiwan to continue their corrupt activities with impunity and to encourage others to follow suit.                           

Jon S.T. Quah is a retired Professor of Political Science at the National University of Singapore and an anti-corruption consultant based in Singapore. He has conducted research on corruption in Asian countries since 1977 and has published extensively on this topic. His recent books include: Combating Asian Corruption: Enhancing the Effectiveness of Anti-Corruption Agencies (2017); Hunting the Corrupt “Tigers” and “Flies” in China (2015); Different Paths to Curbing Corruption (2013); Curbing Corruption in Asian Countries: An Impossible Dream? (2011); and Taiwan’s Anti-Corruption Strategy: Suggestions for Reform (2010).

This article is part of a special issue on corruption in Taiwan.

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