On 18 March 2014 in Yangon, the ASEAN CSR Network held the final in a series of three regional meetings of the Forum on Anti-Corruption at the Myanmar Chamber of Commerce and Industry (UMFCCI). Previous meetings were held in the Philippines and Malaysia.
The Forum was intended to introduce international principles and frameworks on anti-corruption, to share best practices on addressing corruption and to gather recommendations and commitments on ASEAN regional collective action against corruption.
Global Diligence LLP partner Alex Batesmith participated in the Forum as an observer to better understand the general ASEAN approach and specific local context of this important issue for responsible business in Myanmar.
Sponsored by the UK FCO and the Swedish Embassy, the Forum attracted the UMFCCI Joint Secretary Daw Khine Khine Nwe, the Director of the Myanmar Centre for Responsible Business, Former UK Ambassador Vicky Bowman, the UMFCCI Global Compact Myanmar and the Myanmar Business Executives Association. Other speakers included specialists on bribery and anti-corruption from the UN Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC), CSR experts from the UN Industrial Development Organisation and from around the region.
The majority of Forum participants came from the Myanmar business community, whilst speakers from other ASEAN countries shared their experiences and insights.
Whilst Myanmar has consistently ranked amongst the world’s most affected States, speakers reminded the audience that no country is totally free from corruption and bribery.
The statistics demonstrate the pernicious impact of corruption on development and poverty reduction. Corruption adds 10% to the cost of doing business, representing 25% of all procurement costs and 5% of the total global GDP. $1000Bn is the global annual sum paid in bribes. Corruption costs the EU $160Bn each year.
This is money that could have been spent on healthcare, education and infrastructure. As an example, a relatively modest $100M can buy ten million chemically-treated mosquito nets, HIV treatment for 600,000 people, immunization for four million children, water for 250,000 houses and 240km of paved roads.
Corruption also has a highly corrosive effect on the daily functioning of a country’s broader economic and political systems, distorting markets and leading to misallocation of resources, as well as undermining the rule of law and public trust in governments.
National, regional and international efforts to combat corruption were discussed in some detail, from the UK Bribery Act, the UN Convention Against Corruption in 2003, the UN Global Compact’s 10th principle (against corruption), the Myanmar Centre for Responsible Business’s recent project inspired by Transparency International, and the ethical decision making Code of Conduct of a local Myanmar company, SMART Technical Services.
Speakers from four ASEAN countries introduced different perspectives.
Chua Cher Yak, former Director of Singapore’s Corrupt Practices Investigation Bureau, argued that adopting a tough enforcement approach from the beginning was the basis of his country’s pioneering successes over 50 years of fighting corruption. Mr Chua also stressed the importance of political will to engage in the fight; the need to show that no-one was above the law; the need for a strong criminal justice system and building institutions to control corruption. As he put it, it is necessary for State and business ‘to develop a deep-rooted and obsessive desire to distinguish itself through better standards of governance.’ Interestingly, he also made the point that culture is an over-played factor in the debate, arguing that the issue of corruption should be ‘de-culturised’.
Mohammed Shah bin Hashim, former head of legal and compliance for Nestlé in Malaysia, described corporate integrity pledges and a corporate liability legislation amendment initiative. Similarly, Nonette Climaco from the Integrity Initiative in the Philippines, explained how new ethical norms were being established, in collaboration with professional associations, chambers of commerce and big audit firms, with 3000 companies signed up to the integrity pledge.
Pensri Suteerasarn, the president of the Thai Listed Companies Association, explained how her initiative came from the private sector in Thailand. 40 private sector organisations have joined together, making their collective voice and action significantly more powerful. She argued that business for short-term profit was no longer a reasonable corporate strategy: unless a company adopts international best practice in the field of ethics and anti-corruption, it would not be able to expand.
Although not specifically one of the stated objectives of the Forum, it was disappointing that more effort was not made to encourage Myanmar businessmen and women to participate in the discussions. Admittedly, it is still very early in the development of the business community Myanmar, and from recent experience there is often a reluctance to speak out at such events. Nevertheless, it would have felt more like an exchange of views with the local community than a series of lectures by more developed countries had there been some form of interactive audience debate.
It was significant however that the Myanmar business community was being exposed to such diverse experiences from their regional counterparts on a challenging subject normally ignored in public debate. This may have been one of the first such events, but the very fact that it was able to take place suggests that it mostly certainly will not be the last.