Interview with Prayong Preeyajit, Secretary General of the Office of Public Sector Anti-Corruption Commission
Corruption along with strategies and policies combating corruption is a focal point of CPG’s work. In Thailand, the two principal anti-corruption agencies comprise the National Anti-Corruption Commission and the Office of Public Sector Anti-Corruption Commission (PACC). The latter was established in 2008 under the Act on the Administrative Measures for Anti-Corruption B.E. 2551 (2008). The following interview with PACC Secretary General Prayong Preeyajit informs about the work of the PACC as well as the challenges to and prospects of fighting corruption in public administration and government agencies.
Q: Secretary General Prayong, before you became Secretary-General of the Office of Public Sector Anti-Corruption Commission (PACC) what other positions related to your current work did you hold?
Before I joined the PACC I had worked for the Office of the Narcotics Control Board for almost 30 years. Throughout that time, I was the Director of the Narcotics Control Division 1 and the Bangkok Metropolitan Narcotics Control Office. In 2010 I moved to the PACC and assumed the post of the Deputy Secretary General, before finally becoming Secretary General last year in June.
Q: Has your previous job experience helped you in your new position?
The narcotics and corruption problems are never isolated matters. They are almost always the result of more deep-seated issues. Drugs are more common amongst individuals from dysfunctional families, a poor economic background, or who are otherwise affected by social pressures. Similarly, corruption is not a sudden occurrence but the result of previous problems. Often corruption is a last resort for state officers facing financial issues, personal problems in their family or frustration about not being promoted.
Ultimately, corruption is an issue of the state. The chiefs of the individual departments must be held accountable, as they are often the source of corruption. This gives us the chance to tackle the issue at a very early stage, thereby preventing the issue from spreading further down the hierarchy. This goes for the narcotics issue as well. It is necessary that the state tackles these issues from the beginning, not the end. Only with this approach can these two problems really be solved.
My previous work has helped me tremendously, as I have gained the experience to understand the true nature of these issues. Before the 22nd May 2014, these problems were very severe indeed and so it has been important that new approaches to address them are used quickly.
Q: What is your personal and the organization’s motto?
Personally, I use “Justice” as the main reference point of my work. Actually, what is right and what is wrong has to be separated. Our country has to address both, through law and morality.
His Majesty’s speech on the topic of Good People basically outlined this point. The speech stated that our society consists of both good and bad people. Transforming bad people into good ones is not easy. We therefore have to let the good people rule our society, whilst removing the bad and blocking them out. His Majesty gave this speech in 1969. This is my working principle and as well as that of the PACC. We have to protect good people. We must protect good civil servants, and if they are violated bring the offenders to justice.
So, if you ask me what is my working principle: It is His Majesty’s Speech.
Q: Where do you see the biggest challenges to you work?
Like I mentioned before, narcotics and corruption are hard to solve, especially the corruption problem. Now we are facing three problems that in a way underlie these two issues.
First, there is corruption itself. It is pervasive and from the top level down. It is almost like a web that has spread throughout the government at every level. Recently the percentage of kickbacks amongst government agencies has reached the historically high level of 30% or 40%. Some projects are initiated purely for this purpose, such as the futsal field construction project that was widely reported on. Or take the procurement of outdoor exercise equipment. These are sold for 2000- 3000 Baht or 4000-5000 Baht in China. We purchased them for 40,000 – 50,000 THB. In another case, slides for children were bought for 980,000 Baht when they usually cost around 85,000 Baht. We are talking about the same product here.
Normal state officers would not dare to do this kind of corruption. But if they do so, there might be different reasons therefore. One is that they are being encouraged by their superiors. The boldness of these corruptive practices rises as morality falls. Just think, in the case of the state government’s clock case. The question is: Is there anyone you know who would buy a regular clock for 75,000 Baht? Even if it was especially good, no normal supply officer would make the purchase. And yet this is happening on a regular basis. The core of the issue is that these officers are being supported and encouraged in their actions by individuals in higher positions.
The second problem is the mechanism we have in place to deal with this problem. It cannot account for the scale of this issue and is therefore unable to provide adequate solutions. As I mentioned, the chiefs of each state agency have the power to prevent corruption in their organization. It is prescribed by law that if there is suspicion of corruption, they must act immediately. What kind of action? Disciplinary action. The central state authority has around 400 departments. If we include the local government together it will be about 7000 departments. If all 7000 department chiefs would supervise their own activities and act as soon as an issue arises, by forming investigative committees, slashing the salaries of offenders and so on, there would not be a problem. However, several sectors fail to behave in this way.
This is where the PACC comes into play. Yet there are too many cases for us to process. The responsibility has to be held by the individual department chiefs. Since its establishment in 2008, the PACC has recorded close to 18,000 cases. We merely have 200 people working for us. We simply cannot do it all. The National Anti-Corruption Commission (NACC) has approximately between 20,000-30,000 cases, so they also cannot do it. The result is that corruption in many cases goes unpunished. Third, the damage to the country is severe. The scale is staggering. Look at the rice mortgage scheme project. The corruption in this case reached 700 to 800 million Baht. This is money that is not available for crucial infrastructure projects and is therefore damaging society. And worst of all, the people engaging in this corruption have no shame at all, no morality.
If the 400 central agencies and 7000 local government departments would do their work, this would drive the country forward. But how? Can the PACC do it? Can the NACC do it? The NACC is an independent entity with a different jurisdiction so they cannot become involved in this matter. So there is a need for an institution that can devise strategies, and push forward. This resulted in the PACC being set up.
All organizations related to the fight against corruption in public administration and government agencies are bundled in this institution. The PACC has two duties. First, it needs to move the state agencies to fulfill their responsibility. All 400 state agencies on the national level, and 7000 local governments need to do their duty. If this is not the case, the chiefs of the individual departments or agencies will be punished. The PACC will bundle resources and ensure that the various state organizations do their job by exerting pressure on the chiefs.
Another duty of the PACC is to direct all related organizations to work according to their duty, in line with the fight against corruption. It is the work of preventing corruption. If they are not fulfilling their duty, the Office of the National Anti-Corruption Commission will take action according Order No. 69 of 2014 of the National Council for Peace and Order.
For an example, we have about 6-7 millions school students around the country. It is impossible for the Ministry of Education to individually discipline every student. That’s why there exist individual schools with the ability to impose discipline on their students. Similarly, the PACC steps back and hold the chiefs of the departments responsible rather than trying to control all civil servants or government officers collectively. So our new approach to tackle corruption involves a new system of administration, and we can see initial promising results.
The Corruption Perception Index 2013 of Transparency International ranked our country 102nd out of 185 countries. The full score a country can reach in this index is 100. A higher number indicates less corruption. In 2013 we got 35. Last year we scored 38. That made us climbing up to the 85th rank. Why is that? It is due to us encouraging government agencies to do their work based on the Prime Minister’s (PM) sustainable 4 point plan:
First, growing the idea in the heart of the people – so that the state officers are ashamed of corruption and become immune to it.
Second, preventing corruption in each organization, don’t let them have a chance to corrupt. If a law is flawed and provides the opportunity for corruption, amend the law. If government agencies still are corrupt, disciplinarily punish them.
Third, using criminal suppression methods to control corruption. Previously, some cases took almost 10 or 20 years before the court sentenced the offenders. The PM said that now if anybody commits corruption, he or she must be immediately transferred to another post and be disciplinarily punished so that the people can see that there are consequences – and that those consequences are immediate.
Fourth, the PM wants to use more public relations, telling the people that we have done it, and that we are really serious about it.
It is the PM’s idea and now PACC is following his idea. We think that if we continue solving the corruption problem, the corruption problem will get better and the other main problems will also be solved.
Q: Could you give some sample cases to illustrate the work of the PACC?
One such case is the rice subsidy payments project to support the low income farmers. We gave them 1000 Baht per one Rai of land. The size of land was not exceeding 15 Rais. That equaled 15,000 Baht. This project has been run consecutively for many years. General Paiboon Kumchaya as the President of the Center of National Anti-Corruption (CNAC) ordered the CNAC to inspect in order to preempt wrongdoing. We inspected on site and advertised. We inspected farmers who registered, and examined whether they really had 15 Rais of land. Secondly, we inspected the officials if they were engaging in fraud by acquiring the money and registering more than the real area. Thirdly, we inspected the officials who had inspected the farmers, in order to find out how they received money from the farmers. Our inspection found that in some provinces farmers have been used as proxy without their knowledge. The village headmen have been prosecuted. The officials had to prepare the account again. These PACC actions were preventive measures and they worked effectively.
Another example where suppressive methods were necessary is the case of the futsal stadium. The politicians proposed an amendment to the budget proposal and to add about 3-4 billion Baht for the establishment of futsal stadiums, yet only between 2.5 million and 5 million Baht were actually procured per stadium. This money was used to acquire the equipment. The floors were covered in concrete and EVA rubber. However the cost of these steps was set extremely high. Even little illustrated books were valued at over 2000 Baht per item. The concrete ground was damaged after 1 year. The EVA rubber was purchased for 1 million Baht, despite the fact that an ordinary person pays no more than 200,000 Baht if he or she wishes to buy this at a normal market. Ultimately, this project was basically useless. The futsal stadium cannot be used because it was outdoors, and therefore damaged very quickly. We have therefore taken this under consideration and forwarded it to the NACC.
We work in the name of CNAC in all cases. If only PACC is working on its own, the extent of our impact is restricted, even though we have the power to act according to Order No. 69 of the NCPO. This condition does not apply to the CNAC, and so we have more power when we act in its name. We believe that if the PACC works together with every anti-corruption agency in the same direction, in the end we will be able to solve this problem.
Q: Speaking of the different agencies in Thailand involved in fighting corruption, how do you assess the inter-agency cooperation?
No problems at all. Everything has gone well so far. From the record of the former cases, all organizations have co-operated effectively. For example in the project offering aid to the farmers or the encroachment upon forest land we have been able to work smoother. The NACC and Anti-Money Laundering Office (AMLO) have the authority to investigate properties, the DSI is entitled to investigate the private sector, and the Office of the Auditor General of Thailand has general authority across the entire country. It was the first time in Thai history that this sort of co- operation has been in place. And it is a great a accomplishment in the eyes of the public. Without this cooperation the Corruption Perception Index rank 85th in 2014 from 102nd in 2013 would not have been possible and the public sector would never get any better. This co-operation is a tool to tackle corruption in Thailand.
Q: How do you see the relationship between PACC and the police as both are involved in investigating corruption of public officials?
The PACC model is our invention. I want to prove that this system can work together with the police system. If the police system fails, the PACC system provides the PM with the power to discharge a corrupt officer. Before we had this measure in place, we had to endure very slow processes. With the PM in the position of Director of the PACC, corruption cases can be solved faster than ever before. If the old system can’t find a solution, the Cabinet will be in charge and the PM can call upon Article 44 of the current Interim-Constitution to bring about a swift resolution to a problem. Don’t forget that corruption is like a cancer. We have to act fast.
Q: So Article 44 is the key to the solution?
Of course. Corruption is built upon other problems. It will take a long time to solve all problems. We can’t wait any longer. Fortunately, we have Article 44 that can help solve many corruption problems quickly, as we could see for instance in the issue of trespassing on preserved forestry areas or in the swift reorganization of the Education Ministry.
Q: What are the prospects of the PACC work in the near future?
Regarding this, there are two things to talk about, namely the workforce and scope of authority of the PACC. The current workforce of the PACC amounts to approximately 200 persons. The PM sent Deputy Prime Minister Wissanu Krea-ngam to take care of this and we came up with an idea to increase the workforce by over 200. We have submitted a request to increase the workforce to 300.
Not only should the workforce be enlarged, but also the scope of authority should be broadened as we have established co-operation between all the aforementioned organizations. On the other hand, the target group is narrowed, as we are confronting the most powerful groups and most outrageous cases. The PM is determined to set this as a national agenda.
If we look at the example of Hong Kong, there are around 4-5 preconditions for success. First, they have vigorous political motivation; second, the law is upheld, and by the way, our Article 44 is also authoritative and allows for immediate action; third, the relevant organizations are being supported by the government; fourth, they take all necessary measures; last, the whole society is behind the initiative. The whole society is working together, nowadays you see the private sector reacting strongly to it, and the people are as well.
We have all preconditions for success but not as fully as Hong Kong. We need to work on this and I am sure we will succeed because the will and ability is there. In the past we had a situation where people were pulling in different directions. It was like trying to lift a table with four people while each person lifted on their own accord, without coordinating their activities with the others. This is an understandable issue, and is the result of the three problems I explained.
Which of these problems do you solve first? It is about creating a proper problem solving mechanism. If this is in place, the solution of one problem will lead to the others vanishing as well, so that in fact you do not need to try and solve each problem individually. We need to force the state officers to do their work. Like in school, one does not need to force each student to their homework. One only needs to push the supervisor to ensure that the work is done.
Thank you very much Secretary General Prayong.
The interview was conducted by Siraprapa Chalermphao, CPG Office Manager.