We need to know why undergraduates think bribery is OK
A 2007 survey by the Performance Management and Delivery Unit (Pemandu) revealed that a majority of the 1,800 respondents at selected universities felt that it was acceptable to give or receive a bribe. While this tells us that many undergraduates are likely to think that paying or getting a bribe is justified, in the absence of similar polls for the rest of the population, it would be premature to conclude that the young are less ethical than the old.
What we do know from corruption perception surveys and anecdotal evidence is that many older Malaysians who see themselves as law-abiding citizens are just as willing to pay a bribe to get a permit or get off a traffic summons. In fact, this year's Global Fraud Survey by Ernst & Young, which is based on interviews with more than 1,700 senior executives in 43 countries, shows how unwise it is to castigate the undergraduates for their widespread acceptance of corrupt practices. In this regard, as the Global Corruption Barometer which measures the public perception of the government's efforts has increased from 28 per cent in 2009 to 49 per cent last year, it would be interesting to see whether there has been a change in the five-year-old student attitudes following the National Key Result Areas (NKRA) initiatives on corruption.
In a sense, however, regardless of whether that change is positive or negative, we don't have to wait for a new survey to tell us that unless bribery is seen as unjustifiable behaviour, anti-corruption initiatives will be difficult to implement. Indeed, the social and cultural acceptance of greasing the wheels of bureaucracy and business to get things done only creates a vicious cycle which contributes to its intractability. As values influence attitudes, and attitudes drive behaviour, the NKRA Fighting Corruption director D. Ravindran is quite justified in stressing the importance of instilling "positive core values against corruption". However, though this seems a logical place to start changing the tolerant and permissive attitudes towards bribery, it would be wishful thinking to assume that mindsets can be changed by appeals to ethics alone. What we do know from some studies is that people are more inclined to act corruptly not simply because they are less ethical than others but also because the private returns to corruption are high, institutions are weak, the likelihood of getting away with it are high, and the legal consequences of detection are limited. This suggests that we need answers as to why students think bribery is justified before we can begin to change their attitudes.