[VIEWPOINT]Armrests, ethics and scandals

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[VIEWPOINT]Armrests, ethics and scandals

I always feel uncomfortable about fighting over an armrest whenever I fly economy class. I consider myself lucky if no one sits beside me or a Westerner sits next to me. Although Westerners tend to be large in physique, they rarely cause inconvenience to others by encroaching on an armrest.

Koreans are the problem. Though Korean women and young Koreans are exceptions, Korean men tend to edge further and further past the armrest and then take it over as if it were their right. In extreme cases, their arms extend into the seat next to them. Sometimes I think it would be nice to make an announcement about leaving the armrest unoccupied or to sign a bilateral agreement to take turns in using the armrest. Although it is less a problem in a train and express bus, it is equally frustrating to sit next to an armrest hog.

People often fail to distinguish public property from private, and use public property as if it was their own. Speaking loudly on the phone in a bus, swimming in the tubs in a public bath and shaving or exercising in a sauna are rude. It is quite different in Germany, where Germans attempt to use a sauna without leaving a single drop of sweat and wipe the area clean before they leave.

The recent scandals, often jokingly described as "the Four Gates," stemmed from an expansion of the greed that we see in hogging an armrest despite knowing it should be shared with the person next to them. Good examples are Lee Hyung-taek, the nephew of the first lady, who allegedly used government resources in a search for a sunken treasure ship and Shin Seung-hwan and Shin Seung-ja, siblings of Shin Seung-nam, the former prosecutor general, who conspired with businessmen for tax reductions using their brother's powerful position. Those people should not have intruded in others' affairs, but officials at the prosecutors office and the National Intelligence Service have been involved in every scandal that has come to light; many people want to take a free ride on the power these officials have.

Model ethics guidelines established by the United Nations in hopes that government officials across the world would abide by them have a principle of "arm's length" dealings. The principle has already been generally accepted in Western societies and are being applied to all areas of public service. For example, doing special favors for relatives and providing special benefits violates the principle of arm's length dealings and thus is considered corruption.

We still do not recognize that principle here. For examples if a diplomat shows friends around during work hours, it wastes tax money and thus is illegal. But most people do not feel guilty when they are offered such a favor or even ask for it. It would be better if they were not shameless enough to smile about having formed a wide network and about using their chances to take advantage of the network. So those who were alleged to have been involved in the scandals could complain that the criticism is unfair and grumble that their wrongdoings have been exaggerated.

In order to make people distinguish the subtle differences between presents and bribes, treats and entertainment, assistance and special favors and inquiries and requests, our standards of behavior must be upgraded to international levels using the principle of arm's length dealings. The standard must also be concrete and taught to everyone. Then worthless excuses like "I can be treated to a dinner, can't I?" "I only played golf," "I was just acquainted with the person," "I just asked for fairness," "I borrowed money; it was not a bribe," "I inquired how things were going, that's all" will disappear.

Ethics codes in the U.S. government are strict. Government officials cannot receive presents for work-related reasons. They cannot receive birthday presents from their subordinates. They cannot accept meal invitations except for very minimal amounts. Borrowing money from subordinates and associates is prohibited. Even the appearance of impropriety is banned and the penalties can be heavy. I hope for a time when I can relax in an economy class seat without worrying about the person next to me hogging my armrest, when the principle of arm's length is respected and these scandals disappear.


The writer is a professor of public administration at Sungkyunkwan University.

by Bahk Jae-wan

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