To be or not to be…corrupt.


Corruption has always been a disease plaguing humanity and it is more so today, as can be seen in the related articles at the bottom of this blog. In a poll of public opinion done by Transparency International (TI), more than one in two people think corruption has worsened over the last two years. TI’s annual Global Corruption Barometer found 27% of respondents said they had paid a bribe when accessing public services and institutions in the last year.


In the ancient past, in the Greek story of 300, it was Ephialtes of Trachis and his corrupted mind that made him pledged his services to King Xerxes of Persia. In the process, he betrayed Leonidas, King of Sparta, in exchange for land, wealth, women and a uniform – a Persian uniform for that matter. In exposing to King Xerxes the hidden goat path behind Leonidas’ brave warriors, he allowed Xerxes’ immortals to outnumbered Leonidas and his men in the battle of Thermopylae. Leonidas and all of the 300 brave Spartan warriors fought to their last breath in the name of Spartan honour and courage.

Corruption is a disease. Corruption hinders justice. Corruption seems timeless. Corruption is prevalent indeed.

Is corruption a function of human nature or a function of systems of ideologies, in particular, a function of institutional system (political, corporations or religious)? I shall examine corruption in this manner of functional institutional systems.

Suppose a function is defined as f(x). A function f(x) receives an input and produces an output, y.

In the case of Ephialtes of Trachis, a certain input (i.e. land, wealth, women and a uniform) produces an output (his pledge of allegiance to King Xerxes of Persia). We have just defined Ephialtes of Trachis to be a function, f(x), with an output that is clearly known as corruption. Relatively speaking, the input of land, wealth, women and a Persian uniform by Xerxes produces a desired output, to crush Leonidas’ army and conquer the city of Sparta, Ephialtes being the function f(x), and x being land, wealth, women and a Persian uniform to produce the desired output of y (y being corruption). As we know, Ephialtes was a Greek (a human) and had out of his own free will, pledge allegiance to King Xerxes. This function can be seen in the following expression,

f(x) = Ephialtes (land, wealth, women and a Persian uniform) = y = corruption.

Next, if we now expressed the function g(x) to be a nation, and x as the political party, or forms of government (autocracy, timocracy, oligarchy, democracy, tyranny and communism), what do we get?

If g(x) is a nation, what will be the value of x to produce an output of y, where y = corruption?

If is a political party, then g(Political party A) = y = corruption.

If x is a form of government, then g(autocracy) = y = corruption; and similarly,

g(timocracy) = y = corruption;

g(oligarchy) = y = corruption;

g(democracy) = y = corruption;

g(tyranny) = y = corruption;

g(communism) = y = corruption.

From the above, it does not seem to suggest that forms of government or political parties are conditions for corruption to happen though one can argue that it facilitates corruption. Let’s examine closer in each system. Suppose now k(x) is the forms of government or political parties, and x is now the people managing or governing these systems.

In the case of autocracy,

k(Mr. Autocrat) = y = corruption.

In the case of a political party of any forms of government,

k(Mr. Vice President of Political Party G) = y = corruption.

In the case of female in a communist state,

k(Ms. Secretary of communism) = y = corruption.

In the case of a CFO in a banking corporation of any nation,

k(Mr. CFO of Bank $$$) = y = corruption.

In the case of a Buddhist abbot of a monastery,

k(Venerable Abbott of Monastery Chanting) = y = corruption.

Finally, referring back to Ephialtes of Trachis from Greece,

k(Ephialtes of Trachis) = y = corruption.

In all of the above, a closer examination of various functional institutional systems (political, corporation or religious), it suggests that it is the people in each system that causes corruption to happen. We have shown that human beings are prone to corruption rather than systems (political, corporation or religious) or ideologies.

What about humans that made us prone to corruption? Is it because of poverty? Is it because of nationality? Is it because of gender? Is it because of ignorance? Is it because of political systems (forms of government)? Is it because of human nature?

Transparency International Corruption Perception Indexed showed that corruption happens globally (in particular, countries that are in conflict and poverty.) Countries that scored 0 are considered highly corrupt and countries that scored a 10 are very clean. No country scored a perfect ten.  Suggesting that corruption is a problem in every country. Majority of the countries scored poorly, indicating that corruption is a serious problem. Corruption in countries plagued by conflict and poverty does not fuel the problem but makes conflict and poverty difficult to stop – suggesting that poverty highly facilitates corruption. TI’s goals include helping the citizens to demand accountability from their leaders and also teaching them to stop corruption. The report of the Global Corruption Barometer 2013 can be found here.

People who are corrupted make decisions that affect our lives, instead of benefiting the public; corruption caused people to receive benefits for private gain. Greed makes people corrupt regardless of nationality or educational level, because it is for private gain. Selfishness makes people corrupt regardless of nationality or educational level, because it is for private gain. Education makes people less corrupt, because with education and knowledge people understand the ills of corruption and consciously stop themselves from being greedy, selfish and ignorant. At the same time, some highly educated people can also be corrupted, suggesting that corruption is more than being educated. Transparency and accountability make people less corrupt because they show to the public that their actions are for the good of the public rather than for private gain. When monetary affairs and decision-making are transparent and accountable, fewer people would do ills since they know they will not get away with their ill doings. Thus it is virtuous people who will encourage others to not be corrupted because virtues beget virtues. It is with virtues that educate others about the ills of being corrupted. It is with virtues that allow ignorance, greed and selfishness to die. It is with virtues that transparency and accountability are able to illuminate to the public that no one is corrupted. It is also in human nature that Aristotle says that virtues can be taught by pointing to people who are virtuous and ethical.

Different forms of corruption happen around the world. In Singapore, in the sex-for-contract cases of Peter Lim and Ng Boon Gay, sex was the input for Lim and Ng to offer contracts (corruption) to the respective agencies. Lim was convicted of corruption while Ng proved his innocence and was acquitted. In Ng’s case, the judge shows that no corrupt intend was presence (Ng was found not guilty of corruption and prosecution not appealing when he issued the contract for Cecilia Sue, who offered oral sex to further the business interest of her then employers Hitachi Data System and Oracle Corporation Singapore.) Lim was convicted for corruption and sentenced to six months’ jail. Ng was fortunate that he was found innocence but nonetheless there is a hint of Ng being bias considering the fact that government contracts are in the spirit of open tender. In addition, adultery was present though it is not the jurisdiction’s duty to police marriage vows.

Regardless of the forms of government, types of organizations, types of corporations, rich or poor nations, corruption has always plague humanity and everyone is prone to it. It is only with conscious, virtuous and ethical living that we are able to fight and deter corruption from happening. No matter how tempting the situation may be, corruption will affect our lives, in greater or lesser degrees. We can only be vigilant about others and ourselves so that corruption become a question of to be or not to be corrupt (emphasis mine). In the battle of Thermopylae, both King Xerxes and Ephialtes are guilty of corruption since there are mutual benefits between their agreement – luxury and honour in exchange for the defeat of Leonidas and his men in the battle of Thermopylae.

To conclude, if we take a human as the function z(x), where x is the ethical values (Aristotelian ethics to be precise), transparency, accountability and a reasonably competent person, then y would be,

z(ethics, competency, transparency and accountability) = y = zero corruption.

If our convictions are strong and firm in the above function z(x), no amount of temptations in whatever form (land, wealth, women and citizenship for another country) will influence our beliefs. Our preference will not be corruption regardless of our affluence (as with my Affluence-Influence-Preference theory). Therefore I conclude that corruption is a function of human nature and only with ethics and virtues are we then able to fight and deter corruption, for the benefit of the greater good in the social milieu.

Corruption is a disease. Corruption is prevalent. Corruption is a killer. Corruption has to be stopped.

P.S: To be fair to Ephialtes, he did offer his services to Leonidas but was rejected because Leonidas told him that he will be more of a liability than an asset in the battle of Themopylae due to his impaired physique. Due to this Ephialtes was not able to fulfil his dream of being an honourable warrior and thus decided to betray Leonidas. In ancient Greece, particularly Sparta, only by becoming a good warrior can one acquire prestige.

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