Why we need an ethics codeTen years ago, I was harshly criticized for my writing. At the time, President Lee Myung-bak was struggling to get his cabinet appointees confirmed. It was hard to find decent candidates, as many were revealed to have ethics violations involving their assets, military service and academic credentials.
When lawmakers requested candidates’ approval for a background check, 60 percent of them declined, and only half of those who agreed to a check were actually screened. Competency was not a priority. Personnel appointments were based on regional, academic and religious ties.
It was pathetic that Korea’s elites had such low ethical standards, but we had no time to deplore them. So I wrote, “How about we forgive trivial mistakes that were the result of momentary greed rather than professional speculation or habitual tax evasion?
How about we give them the job of cleaning up the world? In the course of cleaning, they can wash off their own faults. How about we create a transparent society where honest people don’t suffer losses together by getting rid of our dusty past?”
“Inconceivable,” readers said. “Why didn’t you say that during the previous administration? Are you expecting a position in this administration?” The criticism was understandable. People who have lived honestly don’t want to overlook expediencies and illegalities. Clearly, a society that makes people unhappy is not right.
It would have been nice if things changed after I was criticized, but unfortunately, that didn’t happen. We are faced with the same controversy every five years. The only change is that those in the offense and defense have switched roles. The elites of the country have faulty ethics regardless of political party. Not much has changed in 10 years.
This is the bare face of Korean society, and it is pathetic that politicians are fighting over flaws that not a single one of them can claim they lack. As national resources are wasted on the same debate every five years, I feel obliged to make the same claim from a decade ago. Of course, I cannot repeat the same rhetoric after all those years, and I need to be careful to mention forgiveness, too, as more serious faults could be revealed after trivial mistakes.
So I want to add that there needs to be an ethics code for high-level officials that go through confirmation hearings. Minimum ethical standards should be outlined, and officials should be required to take an oath swearing they have not violated them in the past and will not in the future. They will be subjected to grave punishment if they conceal violation or violate the standards after stepping down. Those who are not determined to be ethically straight should not dare serve the nation. Those who shamelessly pursue personal interests should be restricted from entering public service.
The ethics code is necessary for the government and emotional health of society. We are constantly dealing with anger and frustration and have to keep forgiving the elites. But a more important reason for an ethical code is providing guidance to future elites so that they are not tempted by material vices and pursue greater causes early on.
Albert Einstein once said, “The most important human endeavor is the striving for morality in our actions. To make this a living force and bring it to clear consciousness is perhaps the foremost task of education.”
It would be a great loss to the nation if an outstanding young Korean loses direction because of one imprudent mistake. It is necessary to turn on the guiding light of ethics to lead them.
JoongAng Ilbo, May 31, Page 30
*The author is an editorial writer for the JoongAng Ilbo.