SINGAPORE -- Corruption in Asia-Pacific continues to weaken public trust in government and democracy, according to Transparency International's latest annual global rankings based on perceived public sector corruption levels.
The Corruption Perceptions Index evaluates 176 countries with a composite of data and surveys from independent institutions focusing on governance and business climate analysis. The index ranges up to 100, with zero being the most corrupt.
Within the 10-member Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), Cambodia was ranked the "most corrupt", and went back six places to 156 in the global league last year. Singapore remains the least corrupt member of the grouping, placing 7th --an improvement of one place since 2015.
Kate Hanlon of Transparency International said Cambodia's low ranking is "not surprising" as it continues to face restricted space for civil society. Prominent Cambodian civil society leaders and opposition politicians were detained on questionable charges last year, including alleged bribery and adultery. Protests were suppressed with some arrests.
Thailand has seen an erosion of public confidence, according to the review, and fell 25 places to 101. Transparency International said the Thai junta has placed emphasis on addressing corruption, unaccountable government, and military abuses that undermine an "eventual return to democratic civilian rule", but noted the country's "clear absence of independent oversight and rigorous debate".
Malaysia was ranked 55th, a place down from 2015. Prime Minister Najib Razak has been embroiled in a corruption scandal involving the sovereign wealth fund 1Malaysia Development Berhad after $681 million was found in his personal bank account. The prime minister has denied any wrongdoing, but the issue contributed to Malaysia's "lackluster score".
Some emerging ASEAN countries have done better. Myanmar and Laos have moved up more than 10 places to 136 and 123 respectively.
Transparency International said the rise to power of the National League for Democracy in Myanmar headed by Aung San Suu Kyi, and its promise to reduce corruption, "is a good step". However, it warned that the crisis surrounding the Rohingya ethnic minority could impede progress, and highlight "a lack of oversight for the military, which allows abuse to take place with impunity".
"Efforts to fight corruption must include a holistic approach involving civil society as well as the private sector," the report said.
China and India both remain in the lower half of the index. The report noted China has improved four places, but said its anti-corruption efforts come at "the expense of transparency and independent oversight".
India slipped three places to 79, and still appears unable to handle corruption scandals and other economic and societal distortions. Corruption in India has exacerbated inequality in the country with poverty, illiteracy, and police brutality remaining significant problems. Some 300 cases relating to corruption have been pending for up to 20 years, according to one Indian vigilance official.
Wilson Ang, a partner at Norton Rose Fulbright (Asia) LLP, said that the failure of Asian governments to deal effectively with corruption could "lead societies to clamor for change, ultimately resulting in turmoil and instability". He said this has the potential to deter multinationals from investing. "Where levels of corruption are intolerable, businesses are forced to move elsewhere -- leading to further unemployment and economic stagnation," said Ang.