[Viewpoint] A time for integrity

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[Viewpoint] A time for integrity

People think differently. They differ in values, way of thinking, the lives they have led and the circumstances they happen to be in. In fact, it would strike us odd if people actually thought alike. The people in this nation may differ in their expectations from the next president. The last, but not the least, of three things I seek from the next Korean leader is a serious attitude toward ending corruption. A vision to eliminate divisions, greenhouse gases and corruption from this land encompasses most socioeconomic problems weighing on our society, in my view.

Many say our society has become cleaner compared with the past and that there are more good and honest people than bad and corrupt. That may be true. Our society may not have had the advances it has seen over such a short span of time if it was thoroughly corrupt. But we still are confronted with depressing news items, one after another. From mind-boggling exchanges of cash and favors among politicians and bureaucrats and corporate executives and bank owners to less impressive, but still amazing corruption stories about journalists, the police and prosecutors, our courts remain busy. Korea’s “Republic of Corruption” legacy remains intact despite many years of fighting unlawful and pervasive practices.

The serial collapse of the country’s savings banks is bringing down the inner circle of President Lee Myung-bak, who turned out to be the patron of corrupt financiers.

The president’s older brother has been indicted on charges of pocketing millions of won from savings bank executives. Kim Hee-jung, the personal secretary dubbed President Lee Myung-bak’s “doorknob,” resigned amid allegations he received kickbacks from a savings bank owner. The dream team members that helped put Lee in office five years ago are having a reunion behind bars. The president himself has been under fire for attempting to skirt the law to use funds from state coffers to purchase an expensive piece of land in a posh neighborhood of southern Seoul for a post-retirement residence. He had to ditch that plan.

Chaebol owners and executives pile up slush funds, dodge taxes and bully their suppliers. Under-the-table collaborations have become everyday corporate practice. Public office positions are up for the highest bidder, and speculation runs wild on what positions were sold for how much. Professors invited to examine bids for state projects pocket graft from bidders and reward them with high scores. Public officials are rewarded with cash or other tokens of appreciation for covering up misdeeds and business malpractices. The law bends before money and power. Money can buy anything. The rich and powerful, despite guilty sentences, walk away with pardons. Equality before the law is mere ink scrawl in the Constitution.

One can hardly accept defeat in a game where foul play is licensed. Without assurance of a fairness that most can agree on, the people at the opposite side of the inequality equation could explode in anger.

There is no future in a society where individuals get by on unfair and arbitrary rules instead of their skills and efforts. This is why we long for a leader that can free this country from the fetters of corruption and hanky-panky as usual.

In the 2011 Corruption Perceptions Index compiled by Transparency International, Korea scored 5.4 on a scale of zero to 10, the 43th among 183 countries. It slipped four notches from 39 in 2010. Among 34 members of the Organization of Economic Cooperation and Development, it is at the bottom at 27th. Hyundai Economic Research Institute assessed that Korea could raise its economic growth rate by 0.65 percentage points if it can pull up its corruption level to the OECD’s average.

There is no reason to resort to foul play if there is mutual trust. Because of the possibility that others will cheat, one seeks connections from school, blood ties and one’s hometown in doing business.

As machinery needs oil to run smoothly, society also demands trust as a lubricant. The people need to have faith in the government, consumers in corporate suppliers, and workers in their employers. Politicians, public officials and entrepreneurs must earn trust. Trust is as essential as material and human resources to develop a community.

Social credibility in our society is at the bottom. Just three out of 10 Koreans say they trust a person they meet for the first time. Such a poor level of trust makes people seek ways to cheat through bribes and connections. Seven out of 10 Danes expressed a high level of trust in unfamiliar people. In a highly trusting society, corruption does not take root.

No society would advance if most of its members believe it is foolish to be trusting. Only when honesty and integrity are respected can we proceed to the next level. This government should be the last of the age of irregularities, lies and dirty tricks. The next leader should set an example for cleanness and integrity.

*The author is an editorial writer of the JoongAng Ilbo.
By Bae Myung-bak
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