[VIEWPOINT]Make it hard to ask for a favor

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[VIEWPOINT]Make it hard to ask for a favor

"It's like walking in a minefield."

These are the words of one official working as an economic official in the government. I asked him how it was at work these days, when every other moment another scandal ripples through the ranks of government officials and submerges them.

The official says that he still feels that he is very lucky. Throughout his long tenure in the government, he has gotten to know many people, including Lee Hyung-taek, a former executive of the Korea Deposit Insurance Corporation and the Blue House nephew now embroiled in a scandal.

"If Mr. Lee had walked up to me, asking me for a favor, it would have been hard to reject it. Luckily he did not, and that is why I sleep better at night than some other people."

The official was stressing how hard it is in Korean society to turn someone down if he is asked for a favor.

"Korean society is so small. Every other person is a senior or junior from someone's school, a person from the same hometown or something similar," he commented. "In an urgent case, if you reject a request for a favor, there goes your reputation down the drain. People will say that you are just ill-natured, and you will be branded as an ingrate. Very bad for advancement, you know.

"This is how Korean society is run. But when a problem occurs, only one person gets stoned. It is only natural that the person in question feels as if he has done nothing wrong. Understandably, he thinks, 'Why such a big fuss about something that everyone does?'"

After the announcement of the names of new ministers and vice ministers, one director of an economic department talked about his dilemma.

"In order to become a 'competent' public servant one has to know a lot of people. One has to be able to hear a lot. These days, the very fact that you have met someone is a problem. Hence, it is no wonder that people think the best thing to do is to meet the least number of people possible. But that is a problem as well."

From another official I also heard a story about a money problem.

"One senior secretary that I serve under has a budget of 3 million won ($2,300) monthly for so-called 'extra expenses.' Now, one might think that is a lot, but in fact it is far too small to deal with all the occasions when he has to spend money. Often the secretary has to meet someone for lunch or dinner and there is only one person who pays. If someone treats the secretary, that can be seen as suspicious. And you cannot forget the countless marriages and funerals at which you pay your respect by paying money. If someone does not take care of such things, other people will point a finger."

Of course, the above-mentioned stories could be mere self-defense and may distort the true nature of the problem.

First, using one's own judgment, one does not need to hesitate to reject a favor that the person knows is inappropriate. But often it is the lack of a strong will that permits these problems to arise.

Of course there are people who see doing favors as a way to climb the ladder, and then there are those cases when unsought favors are done to look good in the eyes of a superior. Nevertheless, I still believe that the majority of public servants started out with the intention of serving the country rather than to be a self-serving person.

There is only one way to cleanse ourselves of this unhealthy habit of asking for favors. The person who holds the key is the person who asks for favors.

With pressure always on the government budget, I think it is safe to say that the chances for increasing the allocations to government officials for "extra expenses" are slim. Those who ask for favors should not be offended when a government official offers kimchi soup rather than filet mignon for lunch. Before asking for a favor, a person should consider if it would be a burden on the other person.

In fact, some officials say the pressure has eased. Fewer favors are being asked, and the scandals give them a good reason to reject the few that are being asked.

Corruption cannot be totally wiped out through laws and punishments. A clean society will spring from changes in values.


The writer is the economic news editor of the JoongAng Ilbo.

by Min Byong-kwan

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