Opinion: Bribe or gift … which one is it?

Yap aerial
Aerial view of Yap

Much has been written and even more has been talked about on the “coconut wireless” in recent years about attempted bribes and other forms of corruption throughout these islands. Money and all-expenses-paid trips to foreign lands have been offered to and, in some cases, accepted by traditional chiefs, elected and appointed leaders, and members of the private sector. 

But the “influence peddling” aimed at government officials, traditional chiefs and the people overseeing government functions that are part of every citizen’s daily life, exists in a gray area of acceptance; a struggle between the old way and the new, which reflects the distinction between a bribe that is given discretely with the understanding that the giver will receive a favor, versus a gift that is given openly and publicly with no expectation of anything in return. 

Since time immemorial, it has been, and still is, the practice in Yap to give tributes as tokens of good will and gratitude for special occasions. The gifts are meant to benefit the community, not just one man, and are always given openly with an audience that comprises appropriate and relevant witnesses to the ceremony. 

A new form of influence peddling arrived in Yap with ETG, China’s development company that proposed building a 10,000-room resort on the 38.5 square mile island. In China, it’s common practice to present gifts of money to business owners and local officials. 

A member of the traditional Council of Pilung, the fourth branch of Yap’s government tasked with matters concerning tradition and culture, came forward after ETG’s arrival on the island to report that ETG tried to bribe him. 

While eating lunch in his office one day, the council member was startled to see the Yap-based Chinese ETG representative enter with “a small gift, a little present from [ETG] Chairman Deng Hong.”253 He handed the council member an envelope containing US$100 bills totaling US$3,000. The council member reported the money to his municipal council and fellow villagers from Rumung Municipality and they decided publicly and openly to return the money. 

The difference between the behind-the-veil money offering by ETG and the traditional giving of tributes to the chiefs is the discrete nature with which ETG presented the money. ETG did not publicly present the money to the council member and there was no audience present. 

The day of my inauguration as Yap’s governor in January 2019, my lt. governor and I were presented with gift bags containing bottles of expensive liquor from another Chinese firm that had done business with the government previously and wanted to continue the relationship.

The following day, when things calmed down a bit and the stream of well-wishers subsided, we took time to open the gift bags and, much to our surprise, we found separate envelopes placed under the bottles of liquor that contained US$4,000 in my bag and US$1,000 in the lt. governor’s bag. We refused to accept the money. The company’s representative backpedaled by saying it was intended as a donation for the inauguration committee’s expenses. 

When Western forms of currency and the availability of goods from abroad began to replace traditional forms of exchange and living off the bounty of the land and sea, it was then that greed began to appear. 

Today, awareness of greed among government officials is largely due to social media and the calling-out of their actions on Facebook pages dedicated to Yap.

Combined with critically low salaries that place the majority of residents far below the poverty line set by the U.S. government for Americans and left unadjusted based on financial criteria and requirements in the islands, a solution to this problem is difficult to come by. The salary of the governor is just US$24,000; the lt. governor US$21,000; and members of the legislature US$15,000. These salaries are the lowest among the four states in FSM. 

Yap’s minimum wage for government workers was increased from 80 cents an hour to US$1.60 an hour around 2010 where it still stands today. There is no minimum wage for the private sector.

While in office, I established a task force of cabinet members to address the issue of equitable pay. My goal was to double the salaries of all government employees across the board, which would require funding of US$20 million. 

With US$90 million combined in the two Yap State trust funds by 2020, and the prospect of the private enterprise iBoom being established and generating revenue for the state, the opportunity was very real to solve that seemingly endless problem. 

Unfortunately, upon my removal from office, my plan was never implemented and iBoom’s lease agreement was not approved by the legislature.

Now, as we approach 08 November, I am pleased to see that the witnessed corruption and greed of public and traditional leaders is finally being openly discussed and the voters are holding candidates accountable leading up to the election this month. 

I sincerely hope the citizens of Yap continue to stand up long after the election for the decency, honesty and personal accountability that were the norm during my youth.

Henry S. Falan is the former governor of Yap.

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