Culture, Corruption and the Hereafter

Published: February 2, 2013
The writer retired as professor of physics from Quaid-e-Azam University, Islamabad

The writer retired as professor of physics from Quaid-e-Azam University, Islamabad

Some readers, whose intelligence I respect, took my last op-ed to be dismissive of corruption as a cause of Pakistan’s social decay. I apologise for having failed to express myself adequately: I certainly do not dispute that Pakistan is reaping the terrible consequences of wholesale corruption. Corruption, by definition, expropriates that which rightfully belongs to others. By doing so, it hurts the poor more than the rich, lowers productivity, creates mistrust of authority, breaks down the social contract and leads towards ungovernability. We all know that the average Pakistani is frustrated and that he encounters corruption while reporting a crime, seeking justice in a traffic accident, getting an electricity or gas connection, securing admission to school for children, or getting a business contract signed. We have kunda mafias, tanker mafias, and mafias of all shapes and forms that raise the collective blood pressure.

So, instead of emphasising corruption, why did I choose to identify the principal problems of Pakistan as a) unbridled population growth; b) terrorism; and c) slowness of cultural modernisation? (Please wait until I define modernity; it doesn’t mean consumerism or rock music!).

My plea: corruption is a symptom of some social disease, but there are very many different kinds of such diseases. To borrow a medical analogy: high fever could come from typhoid, pneumonia, measles, flu and a hundred other diseases. They can all make you hot and sick, but no genuine doctor specifically targets ‘fever’. Buying the wares of roadside hakeems who advertise anti-fever brews is worse than useless. It is equally useless to target corruption without understanding its origins.

At one level, corruption is easily understandable. When Willie Sutton, America’s famous bank robber was put to trial, the judge asked why he robbed banks. Sutton’s answer was straightforward: “That’s where they keep the money.” This makes perfect sense from the point of view of rational choice theory. Sutton was bent upon maximising his well-being while knowing that it came at the cost of depriving others. In short, he was selfish. To those who perceive the world in adversarial terms and have a negative view of human nature, foul and fair are equal and corruption is just as natural as honesty.

Our world has millions of Suttons. People in every country go through red lights, break queues, cheat on taxes, forge documents and degrees and rob banks. In this regard, there is nothing unique about Pakistan. The real question is quantitative: why do some societies have many more unbridled self-seekers than others? Why has Pakistan become so terribly tolerant of the chain of corruption that extends from its generals and political leaders down to the humble office peon and the dweller of a katchi abadi?

The answer according to sociologists, such as Eric Uslaner at the University of Maryland, lies in lack of social trust. Corruption and trust are polar opposites. Trust is a value expressing the belief that others are part of your moral community. It lays the basis for cooperation with people who are different from yourself. People who have faith in others are more likely to endorse strong standards of moral and legal behaviour. Simply put, corruption flourishes when we don’t trust one another. Francis Fukuyama of Stanford University, who coined the phrase ‘trust capital’, argues that trusting societies have lower administration costs, higher institutional reliability and can have large and efficient organisations.

Trust capital is not increased by dire threats that you will be punished in the hereafter. Studies of European societies by Max Weber in the 19th century firmly established that those who share a religion may still cheat one another. His results can be succinctly summed: Protestants were this-worldly and ethical, Catholics were other-worldly and corrupt. Today, corrupt countries such as Greece, the Philippines, Mexico and Italy have more churches per capita when compared with less corrupt countries such as Germany or France.

These lessons apply equally to us. A celebrated couplet of Allama Iqbal is manifestly wrong: the symbolic Mahmood (ruler) and Ayaz (ruled) have never become one — or more trusting of each other — although both have prayed in the same suff (prayer line). The number of mosques in Pakistan is said to have doubled in 30 years. Bazaar merchants and traders drip piety from their pores, perform frequent pilgrimages, but most are defiantly corrupt and short-change their customers as readily as they cheat the state on taxes, electricity and water. The Urdu saying nau sau choohay kha kay billi haj ko chalee fits neatly. Our political leaders are no different. Flaunting his piety, President Asif Ali Zardari has ordered the sacrifice of one black goat for his every day in office. His wife, whose financial integrity was just as suspect, was a mureed of Pir Pinjir, the famous holy man.

So, what can increase the trust capital within a society?

The answer lies in speeding up the transition towards modernity. Modern societies build trust because they emphasise competence over kinship and efficiency over patronage. Jobs in a truly modern society do not depend on your caste or religion; just your suitability matters. Transparency and a free press — also a part of modernity — are powerful enemies of corruption and can potentially keep the elite in check. A legal system that has a clear set of rules, which apply equally to all members of a society augments trust whenever the announced rules are actually respected and applied. Democracy, while not strictly necessary (Singapore!), can be helpful in enhancing trust. But democracy must not be understood as a system wherein feudal lords and wealthy men play musical chairs in parliaments. Instead, it has to be a system that actively involves the population in matters of governance.

To conclude: it is certainly time for the people of Pakistan to get rid of their venal leaders. But that is far from enough. A larger social transformation — one that encourages modernity — is needed. Let us beware of magical solutions, such as Cricketer Khan’s promise to eliminate corruption in 90 days (and terrorism in 19 days!). Hanging current leaders by their necks (or perhaps, chopping off a few limbs) can yield little beyond some temporary satisfaction. Dealing with a systemic problem of changing a culture of distrust into one of trust, is much tougher.

Published in The Express Tribune, February 2nd, 2013.

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Reader Comments (39)

  • Clear Black Bag
    Feb 2, 2013 - 11:52AM

    In fact corruption has been the culture of present PPP’s leadership by forgetting the hereafter….


  • Alan
    Feb 2, 2013 - 11:59AM

    As always the author is the foremost modern educated man in Pakistan in tune with what rest of the modern world has learnt through the last few decades.


  • Mirza
    Feb 2, 2013 - 12:02PM

    Only a scientist can write such a factual and logical Op Ed. I have personally observed that some of the most dangerous, drug infested and corrupt countries like Afghanistan, Mexico, Philippines, etc., are most religious countries in the world. Pakistan started with the likes of Mr. Jinnah and L. A. Khan who accompanied his wife with him most of the time and other leaders who were the most modern in their own right. There were no Hijabs, Tableegi Jamat, gun totting mullahs or Allah Hafiz was not discovered (still our national anthem says Khuda and not Allah) but the corruption was low and morals were relatively high. There were race courses, night clubs and wine shops but no bhatta mafia or kunda mafia of any kind. It is not a coincidence that with the Zia regime the religion started taking over the good governance and corruption was camouflaged with religious symbols and slogans. While the most secular and modern countries are making progress we are going in the opposite direction and there is no plan to arrest this slide.


  • Feb 2, 2013 - 12:05PM

    excellent piece as usual and dissectional analysis of corruption and the remedy.
    Hoodbhoy is a gem.


  • A man in street
    Feb 2, 2013 - 12:48PM

    What I understand is that a better society is the one who prefer MERIT over FAVOR. Whatever the nature of favor may be; like relationship, color, creed. The question is, from where such people will come who will do that? Only purposeful education can do that!


  • Saeed
    Feb 2, 2013 - 1:03PM

    Very well written sir,however temporary solutions are needed for longer term solutions. One cannot be excluded for the other. That is why Cricketing Khan is right, even if he cannot produce the results in 90 days or 19 days he can and probably will, start the process to correct the rotten state of affairs.Who else will rid us of these odious characters who have according to you, destroyed the very trust in our social contract. We are an ignoble nation and all your altruistic rumblings wont solve our problems, only realistic actions will.


  • Arifq
    Feb 2, 2013 - 2:19PM

    Absolutely brilliant analysis and recommendation! How many times have we debated solutions for our problems, nothing makes more sense than what the honorable Doctor has suggested. This is by no means an easy fete to accomplish, but this has to be our mission statement if we wish to have a sustainable and long term solution. Thank you Dr. Hoodbhoy for your acumen, love of Pakistan and above all intellectual integrity.


  • Adnan Pardesy
    Feb 2, 2013 - 2:27PM

    Well it has become all the blame game. Its very easy for everyone of us to blame the leaders and not really bother about checking within ourselves as to whether are we doing the same thing. We cheat, break laws, are not honest etc etc.. We are as corrupt ourselves in whatever capacity we have. A nation only gets leaders who are like them. May be its time to let go of the blame game and change ourselves before we point fingers at any one else. Each one take responsibility of their own actions first and once we are completely clean then we should talk about changing others.
    Its just is ridiculous to quote Mr. Jinnah who did what he preached and then took a stand for change. So before you suggest n point fingers at what the problem with someone’s else ARE YOU REALLY clean and never broken traffic signals, never wasted a second at work, never bribed the guy at passport office so that your turn comes fast etc etc….Recommend

  • Ishtiaq
    Feb 2, 2013 - 2:49PM

    Dear Dr Hoodbhoy – Can you also shed some light on relationship between corruption and hypocrisy. I find it rife in Pakistan where corrupt take to sermonizing others on piety. This can be widely seen in our public (on TV channels) and private lives (in our mosques and market places).


  • Asad Shairani
    Feb 2, 2013 - 3:08PM

    I think most people would disagree to Dr Hoodbhoy’s preference of population and (the lack of) modernity as greater evils than corruption. I believe that even a flawed system can go a distance in solving people’s problems if executed honestly. However, even the most brilliant system of governance would fall flat and fail to deliver if there is corruption of Pakistani scale in it. In my opinion, honestly and a control on corruption is most essential to any success.


  • Shaami
    Feb 2, 2013 - 3:58PM

    Sir I became your fan the day i met you in Quaid Azam University and still the people like you inspire me. You are absolutely right but most of our people with a biased eye will never able to understand what you meant to say.


  • Riaz Khan
    Feb 2, 2013 - 4:57PM

    You are simply superb! There are very few left like PH in PK. Listen to him very attentively.


  • Shameema
    Feb 2, 2013 - 6:11PM

    Sir, there is corruption of Need and corruption of Greed. It is the latter, practiced by our Ruling Elite that sets the standards and ought to be eliminated first. An Officer of NAB investigating the Prime Minister in the Rental Power case is found to have committed ‘ suicide’! Do they think the Public are stupid. You should be writing about this..


  • a_writer
    Feb 2, 2013 - 6:12PM

    Very rarely you are fortunate to read such a lucid and brilliant article. This is one of those occasion. The Asian subcontinent needs hundreds of such brilliant thinkers. I sure hope the Indian news media would reprint this article across the country ( of course with Dr. Hoodbhoy’s and ET’s permission !)


  • Truth detector
    Feb 2, 2013 - 6:13PM

    I thought all of Pakistan’s problems are due to Imran Khan (PTI). No criticism on him? How is that possible? Are you ok professor?


  • QB
    Feb 2, 2013 - 6:28PM

    Dear author you forgot to mention the most important aspect, that is rule of law and lack of fear of persecution in corrupt and elite. While improving the overall ethical values of a nation are critical but that won’t last if there is no rule of law. Look at what happens in developed countries. In US streets became so unsafe when the law enforcement agencies were handicapped in the wake of Hurricane Katrina. While self consciousness is important the enforcing rule of law is critical and can be achieved in a rather short period of time provided we have an honest leadership.


  • ballu
    Feb 2, 2013 - 6:33PM

    Zaid hamid get tremors when he read or hears Dr. sahib intellectual writings. Bravo keep it up..


  • Shaami
    Feb 2, 2013 - 6:57PM

    @ballu: Indian trolls like you should avoid making their own political statements on such great articles. Your statement have nothing to do with the above article

    @Truth detector I hate PTI because of the people like you poking nose everywhere and crying foul like a little baby.


  • Mansoor Siddiqui
    Feb 2, 2013 - 7:39PM

    Mr. Hoodbhoy, fever in itself can be life threatening and has sometime to be confronted ahead of any other treatment for the underlying disease. Why shouldn’t we understand Imran when he says that corruption needs to be confronted directly within days? He can at least start with himself from Day#1; can’t he? He can fire corrupt bureaucrats (at least the biggies) within days of his election; can’t he? He can advise the generals on terrorism and work out a truly political strategy on terrorism; can’t he? If you have a better candidate in mind then please name him otherwise I might assume that you have an old grudge against Imran.


  • Faraz Kakar
    Feb 2, 2013 - 7:45PM

    You are a precious asset – a reason that make us proud to call ourselves Pakistani.


  • Mansoor Siddiqui
    Feb 2, 2013 - 7:47PM

    Your system of posting comments is totally flawed. I took 1/2 an hour to write my comment and it has vanished because you asked me to include the city I live in. I later put in the city and now my comment is gone. Why are you so exclusive and so intrusive. I will let you decypher that and make it the last time I ever write you. I also challenge you to print this comment.


  • imran
    Feb 2, 2013 - 8:07PM

    Excellent Op-ED, I think this is enough for eye opening of some dream-sellers in our society like Imran Khan and Dr. Tahirul Qadri


  • PakNum1
    Feb 2, 2013 - 10:03PM

    “…Buying the wares of roadside hakeems who advertise anti-fever brews is worse than useless..”

    An apt description of a leader and his party promising us to relieve of corruption in just in 90 days, once he is elected, of course.


  • Tas
    Feb 2, 2013 - 10:17PM

    I also sent a short comment about three hours ago which I thought added something useful to the on-going discussion. It was in connection with the corruption vs. modernity. That comment also disappeared as previously mentioned by Mansoor Siddiqui. It is indeed a strange policy of posting comments.


  • John B
    Feb 2, 2013 - 10:43PM

    Social trust or social contract is important in any society and it starts outside of government level at various levels such as community work, volunteering, and charity and such works gain value when they are given as equal an importance as grades in college admission and in employment.

    The “individualistic” Americans hosted thousands of family in their homes or made housing available for thousands of flood hit New Orleans family across the country (basically the most poor who had no other means) for nearly two years until they returned back. Why they did it is hard to summarize, because under normal circumstances no American gives a $ without a cause.

    Social trust is a cultivated habit and it comes to top when a system of honest wage for honest work permeate, endemic corruption has no place in such environment.

    When the flood hit Sind, I expected similar levels of community involvement in PAK but never happened : people gave money but never were involved in solving the problem by opening up their homes for accommodation, education, and safety. Caste, creed religious barrier ?


  • Billoo Bhaya
    Feb 2, 2013 - 10:47PM

    @Mansoor Siddiqui:
    ET has a mind of its own. They discard thought provoking comments that spur debate, even if one disagrees with ET or its readers views. But no. ET approves stereotype views, some biased in favor of the PPP or against PTI. Though I must say they do give license to PTI and Indian trolls that make me sick. Then there are some commentators who parrot this thought and are always listed. Go figure?? I think ET’s vetting process is unpredictable, irrational, irreverent and illogical. There you have it ET. Now print this I dare.


  • Ch. Allah Daad
    Feb 2, 2013 - 10:58PM

    “I thought all of Pakistan’s problems are due to Imran Khan (PTI).”
    @ Truth detector,
    You are mocking anti Imran people but its a fact. Hypocrites like him are reason we have become so disgusted. They love western socities and eat only white meat. For us they have banned everything.


  • DilliNiwasi
    Feb 2, 2013 - 11:41PM

    What words of wisdom!! This is THE analysis of what ails Pakistani society and for that matter Indian society too although on a different scale as compared to Pakistan. I wish Person as wise and as accomplished as Dr. Hoodbhoy was an Indian and contributing in India. Pakistanis are fortunate to have him. I don’t understand why don’t the liberal, educated types nominate him to run for President-ship of Pakistan?????

    Imran Khan comes across as an immature leader suffering from various insecurities and incapable of deep thought or analysis. If Dr Hoodbhoy is in incharge, he will immediately lay a roadmap for all Pakistanis and for once Pakistan would be on the right path and inspire others.


  • John the Baptist
    Feb 3, 2013 - 3:28AM

    @Ch. Allah Daad:

    No, it’s darbaris a like you who have brought us to the pits!


  • pmbm
    Feb 3, 2013 - 9:31AM

    ET did not print my comment about how to get a culture of trust, with a definition of a Muslim( majority in PAK). Is it really a Pakistani paper ? It appears more of an Indian scrap paper.


  • Lala Gee
    Feb 3, 2013 - 2:33PM


    Now this is what is called a good write. This is what I have been asking the writers since ages that suggest solutions to the problems, the real hard part, instead of just criticizing, the easiest part. All the appreciations for doing that. People can differ, but at-least you tried your best.


    Very well said.


  • Dr V. C. Bhutani
    Feb 3, 2013 - 4:23PM

    Clearly, you have no use for my comments.


  • Fouad Khan
    Feb 3, 2013 - 5:25PM

    Trust is not some magical dust cloud that appears with the advent of modernization… trust comes when law is implemented in word and spirit and is SEEN to be implemented in word and spirit… that sometimes requires some icons of corruption and abuse of power being hung publicly.


  • Dinar Wali
    Feb 3, 2013 - 6:07PM

    Brilliance at It’s best, terrific analysis and well written article, Corruption can never be eradicated from society without understanding the origin. We are a polarized and fragmented society. Our predicaments are deeply rooted and multifaceted; so can’t be solved overnight. Therefore the euphoria of get ride of corruption in 90 days and to put Pakistan on the right track in such a short span of time is nothing more then a fairy tale.


  • observer
    Feb 3, 2013 - 11:31PM

    @Fouad Khan:

    Trust is not some magical dust cloud that appears with the advent of modernization… trust comes when law is implemented in word and spirit and is SEEN to be implemented in word and spirit… that sometimes requires some icons of corruption and abuse of power being hung publicly.

    Shall we make a beginning with the NLC? Or may be the Baharia Town boss and his beneficiaries?

    And why only corruption? How about acquittals for insufficient evidence even in the face of public declaration of murder and more? And how about acts that amount to ‘High Treason’ in view of Article 6 of the Constitution?

    Or is mass murder and high treason less important than ‘corruption’?


  • Ali Zaib
    Feb 4, 2013 - 2:07PM

    “such as Cricketer Khan’s promise to eliminate corruption in 90 days “

    Sir Please, you understand very well, what crickter khan mean by saying that. no need to tell you but the readers.

    Khan means eliminating the top level corruption, the corruption in cabinet, in judiciary, in other insititues….

    Sir Please, Don’t misguide people, you must understand that we read each and every of your lines very carefully.


  • bball
    Feb 4, 2013 - 7:20PM

    I guess our education system has really gone bad. Whereas in the last article the author defended corruption by pointing to others, namely italy, and implying that they have progressed under corruption, now he has taken a reengineneered his argument by claiming that corruption, though bad, is just a symptom and not the cause. He then quotes some theory/supposition and goes on to state that we need to fix the ‘mistrust’ problem. Now here are the problem with this rather ridiculous reasoning – first, how do we define ‘mistrust’? second, what if going after the study that the author pointed to is not the answer? third, what if the presence of massive corruption frustrates that effort – in the presence of such a govt, how do you go about establishing that all-miraculous ‘trust’ that Mr. Hoodbhoy talks about? Fourth, what if ‘mistrust’ is also a symptom, or more likely, just one of many causes? How do we go about emphasizing this and excluding others? fifth. What a meaningless and detached from reality article this was – weak reasoning I must say.Recommend

  • AH
    Feb 16, 2013 - 2:00AM


    Corruption and trust are polar opposites




  • Arshad Ali
    Mar 8, 2013 - 10:03PM

    When was it ever different on the Indian subcontinent? I can’t recall any golden era. The corruption is the way business and politics take place in Pakistan. I’m not convinced it’s so terribly different in the USA — except it’s more organised, on a much larger scale, and takes place behind the camouflage of law.

    Corruption in Pakistan probably has its roots in tribal and ethnic structure of society — the patron-client relationships trump everything else. The idea of being a citizen in a abstractly defined state with abstract rights and duties simply has no meaning in Pakistan. So a senior civil servant in the education ministry will make sure a coveted scholarship goes to someone he owes, or whom he wishes to put in his debt. A policeman will ignore a blatant driving infraction by the son of a local landowner.

    That’s one aspect. Another is that junior officials don’t make enough to live on. And often promotions have to be bought — and hence paid for by taking bribes or in kind.

    Pakistan is never going to be like Norway.


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