Ethical questions

Business students weigh differences in instances of corruption in the United States and Thailand during a trip to Chiang Mai.

A scooter ride in Thailand led to a run-in with a cop and an impromptu lesson in ethics for Indiana State University students discovering Thai society and culture for the first time in March.

“We had an American student who rented a scooter and was stopped by a cop who told him he could either go to court with him, have the scooter impounded and pay a fine, or he could pay the cop right then,” said Bill Wilhelm, a Scott College of Business professor and an experienced traveler to the country.

“If this happened (in the U.S.), we would call the police or tell a manager or someone higher up, but this kind of petty bribery permeates Thai society. The argument that local officials use to justify bribery is that they don’t make a lot of money in regular pay. On the other side of the bribery transaction — for those paying the petty bribe — they look at it as just part of their culture and in some cases, as a value-added transaction.”

Business Professor Bill Wilhelm spearhead the anticorruption education curriculum for the master’s and Ph.D. program.

Business Professor Bill Wilhelm spearhead the anticorruption education curriculum for the master’s and Ph.D. program at Chiang Mai, Thailand.

It’s a mentality Wilhelm is looking to investigate when he retires from Indiana State in 2017 and becomes a consultant with Chiang Mai University, where he will spearhead the anticorruption education curriculum for the master’s and Ph.D. program in international public administration.

In March, the faculty of political science and public administration at Chiang Mai University extended the invitation to Wilhelm, who is collaborating with professors at the institution for an ongoing research study measuring moral reasoning to learn how Thai students and young professionals handle ethical decisions.

This offer is Wilhelm’s second study conducted with partners at Chiang Mai University. In 2012, he was involved in a comparative research study to compare moral reasoning and cultural variables among students and professionals in the U.S. and Chiang Mai, a city in northern Thailand.

He translated two survey instruments — one to measure moral reasoning and another for assessing cultural dimensions — into Thai with the help of Thai colleagues and a Thai student at Indiana State.

“We got a high-level journal publication and the article got a lot of attention at Chiang Mai University, one of the most prominent universities in Thailand,” Wilhelm said.

Corruption in the United States tends to be at the top, he said. Just think about the fraud and corruption in the mortgage lending, investment banking and securities industries that brought about the great recession of 2008.

“There was the famous ‘Frontline’ interview with Lanny Breuer, who was the U.S. assistant attorney general, where he was asked why his office didn’t go after the people who caused the economic crisis, and he responded that it in his opinion, investigating and prosecuting some of those large financial institutions could have caused more economic unrest than good,” he said. “This statement from a senior U.S. attorney whose job it was to investigate high-level fraud, not to make judgments about what the consequences of such prosecution would be. It drove several senators to condemn Breuer’s decision. Breuer left office shortly thereafter and took a job with a law firm representing many large business clients.”

Most U.S. business schools require students to take ethics courses, and Wilhelm will bring those lessons to Thailand by teaching students to do ethical analysis when faced with ethical dilemmas.

A scooter is seen in the streets of Chiang Mai, Thailand.

A scooter is seen in the streets of Chiang Mai, Thailand.

As with many southeast Asian nations, Thailand’s corruption occurs at all levels of society, and Chiang Mai University is turning to Wilhelm to provide education on ethical decision-making to help turn the tides.

“In a developing economy economists know that public sector corruption siphons off money that could improve the overall economy and bring up everyone’s living standards,” Wilhelm said. “It is estimated that corruption such as bribery costs billions of dollars in wasted revenue and failed opportunities in such economies. Additionally, bribery at lower levels of the public sector acts as barriers to entry into the entrepreneurial economy for many would-be small business people. They just can’t afford to launch a small business because of the pressures to pay bribes.”

There is a renewed focus to address corruption and ethics in Thailand, especially among the more prominent universities.

And as Wilhelm asked, “What are universities for if not to help refine and improve their societies?”

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