Discourse on corruption: an exercise in futility

Published: November 18, 2011
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Asking Nawaz Sharif or President Zardari to declare their assets is not going to rid the country of corruption. PHOTO: PID / FILE

If there’s one thing that captures public imagination in this country, it’s the phenomenon of corruption. The very word, thrown around in public discourse by politicians, talk show hosts and drawing room conversationalists, is as omnipresent as the occurrence of the phenomenon itself.

Although the idea of ‘scourging’ Pakistan of corrupt politicians appeals to our morality-crazed middle class, my argument is that this paradigm is an inherently flawed way of viewing the problem.

Asking Nawaz Sharif or President Zardari to declare their assets is not going to rid the country of corruption – and here is why. Corruption and fraud are not the results of a few individuals who become the face of dishonesty in collective consciousness. Rather, it is very much an institutionalised and historical problem that Pakistan has faced since its very inception.  Corruption, therefore, needs to be contextualised before we all desperately jump on the next bandwagon declaring that it’s going to rid the country of evil by holding ten famous politicians accountable for their misappropriation of public funds.

In case you’re thinking, “well, it became worse when Zardari and his lot came along,” here’s an insightful excerpt from Jinnah’s speech to the constituent assembly in 1947:

“One of the biggest curses from which India is suffering—I do not say that other countries are free from it, but, I think our condition is much worse—is bribery and corruption.”

So here we see that this is in fact, a systemic malaise. Are corrupt politicians a cause for the problems faced by Pakistan or a symptom? I think it’s more a case of the latter. Legal lacunae, for example, facilitate this rampant dishonesty. The Acquisition of Land Act, dating back to 1894 has been modified over the years for (to quote one instance) for allowing the government to purchase land from the poor and sell it off to ‘land mafia’.

When you see that corruption is something that extends from top politicians and military brass to a clerk at the passport office, that’s when you know it’s time to address corruption as a structural issue. Looking up to those who plan to empty a corrupt politician or two’s pockets, therefore, is a flawed and short-term approach.

Heba Islam

Heba Islam

Heba Islam is a sub-editor at the national desk at Express Tribune. She tweets @hebaislam.

The views expressed by the writer and the reader comments do not necessarily reflect the views and policies of The Express Tribune.

  • Salman

    If you catch the top 10 corrupt people in Pakistan and recover looted money and punish them, the next 10000 corrupt people Will fall in line. Its worked in other countries so no reason it can’t work here. Not trying is like giving up. Don’t be so pessimistic!Recommend

  • MarkH

    Not to mention even if people became united against the corrupt it will help very little. They never intend to be caught from the very start so the outside view is irrelevant like any criminal breaking any law. Every last one of them know they will not get a favorable response and can’t afford to be caught. Be it today, yesterday or 5 years ago. Their goal and plan is not just benefiting themselves but also putting their best effort into people not finding out as a non-negotiable self requirement. . Punishment and getting ostracized are not even key players in their decision to do so whatsoever. They’re not going to shy away from an end they are either sure of, or have convinced themselves of that the negative and intended deterrent scenario will never exist.
    While not trying to take a shot at PTI, it’s actually becoming one of the best parties for a corrupt person to join and succeed. They’ll get to hide behind that image. The supporters automatically assume the party is clean and always will be. What that means for a corrupt person is, it’s a shield. If their acts get attention, the blind supporters will come to their defense just like any other type of criticism of PTI and vilify the accuser, allowing them to continue on freely with very few critical eyes on them where it counts.Recommend

  • Grace

    I think corruption will end only when ordinary citizens hold themselves to better standards. We all complain about corrupt politicians or dictators who act like they are above the law but what about ourselves. My relative always complains about corrupt policemen but he is the first to offer a bribe to the policeman or the customs guy and then he has the gumption to call them corrupt if they take the bribe! What about all the Muslims living in the West who claim welfare benefits which is state khayrat but then work illegally under the table so they don’t pay taxes and take money from Westerners who do pay tax? Until Muslim people fix their own household, there is no point about talking about corruption of more prominent people. Change comes from within!Recommend

  • http://NewYork Falcon

    Heba-
    You are right. But ask any fraud examiner or a risk manager and they would tell you that regardless of the amount of controls, procedures, and structures you put in place, there will always be something that will get through. So credibility of the leader is the first testament against corruption. Secondly, most importantly, you need to have people in the ranks who are truly interested in putting the process / policies for closing the loopholes. If they were to really do so, most likely they would close out door for themselves for the next round. Now who would want to do that in Pakistan??? Putting it altogether, its a chicken and egg issue. you need to have a sincere team first to deploy the right controls, and only then you will be able to prevent future corruption to a reasonable extent. Recommend

  • goggi

    Pakistan is married with the institution of corruption. This discourse on corruption is purely rhetorical.Recommend

  • http://syedaabidabokhari.wordpress.com The Only Normal Person Here.


    Very well written. You pointed out some bitter facts of our society.Recommend

  • sajid

    Corruption is deep-rooted in Pakistani society. Looking around us all of us have a friend or a neighbour or a rellative who we know earns black money. We all know some one in our office who takes bribes for getting files signed, applications approved etc. yet we do not do anything about them. Corruption is not unacceptable in our society. The phrase ‘sab khate hain mainay bhi kha liya to kya howa?’ has become very common. So if corruption is acceptable for everyone else than its extremely hypocritical to go after politicians and ask them to declare their assets and stop plundering money. Change comes from the bottom to the top. Recommend

  • Nadeem

    Someone in Pakistan has been very successful in associating the term ‘corruption’ exclusively with politicians and civilian government employees. The thought that faujis are also corrupt – both indvidually and institutionally (making laws to enrich themselves) – does not even enter the mind of an average Pakistani when he hears the word ‘corruption’. The army uses this advantage to continue the civil-military imbalance, all to the detriment of Pakistan. Recommend

  • http://awaaragard.wordpress.com/ Lala Jie

    @Heba
    You raised a very valid point. Hanging one or two politicians is not going to solve the problem. Corruption is a wide spread issue. Politicians are, to some extent, accountable to the public. However, we always miss out on the corruption in the military ranks and the judiciary. We have been trying to fix politicians for past 65 years, we need to fix the other institutions also.

    @Sajid:

    I do not agree that it is bottom up approach. If an officer is corrupt, it would be very difficult for the peon/clerk to remain honest. The honest junior official would be/is thrown out. We need the top persons to be honest, and they would set examples for the junior lot. Also, they would be deterrents to the erratic junior officials. Recommend

  • Parvez

    Nicely written. Bribery and corruption are small words, loot and plunder describes it better.
    The comment of @Salman is very valid. Question is who will bell the cat. Expecting the cat to do it is ridiculous. It will have to be done by force by the people.Recommend

  • Alina D

    Heba, you put this all very eloquently and I really appreciate the points you raised. You definitely gave me stuff to think about and consider. When I first heard Imran Khan say that all the “corrupt politicians” should declare their assets, I thought it was a great idea – and I still do. We can’t look to Imran Khan or any politician for that matter as our messiah or saviour from all the ills that plague Pakistan today. But isn’t Imran’s attempt at least a step in the right direction? Sure, it won’t rid the country of corruption once and for all, but I think it’s a good start and a good way to enter office with that kind of precedent; to establish a spirit in people that each of needs to be accountable for our actions. To instill a sense of responsibility amongst citizens at all levels from the president down to the janitors and chai wala’s. Because true social change won’t just occur from the top only, it needs to be from within the people themselves. Really enjoyed your piece, though :) Looking forward to more from youRecommend

  • Alina D

    @sajid: I don’t think it is not hypocritical. To eliminate corruption from society, start with the biggest culprits first. Those criminals need to be held accountable, no ifs, ands, or buts about it. THEN go after everyone else Recommend

  • Farrukh abbas

    Each of us try to get captured the opportunities does not think whose right is this blaming others not thinking ourselves what we r doing for our selfishnes then we ignore all the right just taking shortways to fulfill desires then no rules no justice & when we got captured then repent on our deeds and try to give false justification then we forget our cultures,customs & religious if we do so who can suport us we does not think these r the basic failures of our society b/c we have not the courage the reality there r many socio-economical hindrances come across our way but we have never forget that right direction is too much dificult but long lasting and forever Recommend

  • http://www.southasiancc.org zameer afaqi

    A Request to the Friends’
    I request to my all friends that we are all respectable and we respect each others but some times consciously and Unconsciously we make some mistakes those are not fair for anyone.A few days ago,there is same happening to a friend which made him ashamed and worried. including that friend and to all friends there is a request please be careful for the next time when you upload any picture or update the stat mint. Because among you respectable friends there are also family members,including women and children.Please when you hit like any post you must have check clearly before hitting,because when you like or comment any post it reached to your all friends on Facebook.So be Careful and make this social network easier and good..zameer afaqiRecommend