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The paradox of “the most honest country in the world” bucking the global trend on asset declaration

by Augustine Low

Visiting South Korean President Moon Jae-in has said that his country has much to learn from Singapore, which is “the most honest country in the world.”

He was lavishing high praise which promptly and expectedly garnered splashy headlines in the mainstream media.

But in the honesty and integrity stakes, South Korea is actually ahead of Singapore in one key aspect: it has a robust asset declaration policy for its top public servants.

As many as 5,400 high-ranking officials, including the President, members of the National Assembly, and chairs of public service related companies have to register and disclose their property status under their Public Service Ethics Act.

More and more countries are adopting such asset declaration measures.

According to the World Bank, more than 150 countries have introduced asset disclosure requirements for their public officials as a tool to detect illicit enrichment and conflicts of interests.

Recently, Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad announced that all Parliamentarians from the Pakatan Harapan coalition, including himself, would have to declare their assets in a bid to clean up corruption and cronyism in Malaysian politics.

Another neighbouring country, Philippines, spells out in its constitution that every public officer, and his/her spouse and children have to declare their assets, net worth, liabilities and business interests.

In Singapore, asset disclosure by public servants has never been publicly talked about. In all likelihood, it has never even been considered.

The argument would be that it is a breach of privacy and a deterrence to those contemplating public and political office.

But even an esteemed organisation such as the European Court of Human Rights has endorsed the publication and Internet access to such asset declarations, arguing that “the general public has a legitimate interest in ascertaining that local politics are transparent and Internet access to the declarations make access to such information effective and easy.”

Will Singapore one day catch up with the more than 150 countries which have to date introduced asset disclosure requirements for their public officials?

We can talk about accountability and transparency till the cows come home. But doesn’t action speak louder?

And shouldn’t “the most honest country in the world” (according to President Moon Jae-in) take the right and necessary step rather than buck global trend?