SINGAPORE — Asia has been hit by three recent scandals involving a renown scientist, an upstart IT entrepreneur and a national charity in South Korea, Japan and Singapore, respectively — Asia’s three most developed economies. What lessons can one draw from them? What repercussions will they have on the social transitions shaking Asia today?
In South Korea, controversy broke out around controversial scientist Hwang Woo Suk with the finding that his groundbreaking stem-cell research was fraudulent. After confessing that his 2004 published paper in the prestigious journal Science journal (claiming a world first in cloning a stem cell from a human embryo) and his 2005 paper on speeding up the process (deriving 11 stem cell lines with fewer eggs) were based on falsified research, and then apologizing to the nation for causing it shame, Hwang went on to publicly blame fellow researchers, who he alleged had misled him.
This fall from grace of a national hero in a country known for its excellence was stunning. Some observers surmised that the scandal was a result of Seoul’s traditional meritocratic pressure combined with its no-time-to-lose drive for success.
Is Korean society changing too fast? Does the Hwang scandal typify a social phenomenon as South Koreans question the benefits of globalization?
In Japan, there is the “Livedoor scandal.” IT entrepreneur Takafumi Horie is alleged (including by his former chief financial officer) to have “cooked the books” so that his company would look like a viable suitor for a local baseball team and to propel himself to celebrity status. This scandal hit raw political nerves, as Japanese Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi had to answer to Parliament on why he and the ruling Liberal Democratic Party went so far as to “sponsor” Horie’s candidacy against an estranged LDP lawmaker in the September parliamentary elections.
Meanwhile, a lively debate has now erupted in Japan over the increasing rich-poor gap. At 33, Horie had become a sort of national hero, symbolizing Japan’s re-emergence as an economic power as well as the rise of a new class of “techno-entrepreneurs.”
This scandal, which caused stocks on the Tokyo Stock Exchange to plunge on the day of its revelation, could cause further ripples just as Japanese society feels increasing angst over a number of social and political issues — from constitutional reforms, succession to the Imperial throne and Japan’s engagement with the world in the future to tax cuts, domestic reforms and relations with China and the Koreas.
Toward the end of last year, Singapore was hit by a scandal at one of its most prominent national charities, the National Kidney Foundation. The saga involved the foundation’s former CEO, T.T. Durai, after he took a Straits Times reporter to court over allegations of Durai’s extravagant lifestyle. Durai, well-respected for his fundraising prowess and entrepreneurship, not only lost the case but also was investigated by the Corrupt Practices Investigation Bureau.
As the NKF board resigned, the health minister moved quickly to try to limit the political fallout. Voluntary contributions have plunged as many Singaporeans question the “overemphasis on entrepreneurship without moral scruples.”
The government is determined to rebuild confidence in national charities among Singaporeans. At the same time, it will not leave any stones unturned in a country prided for its moral integrity and ethics. Future entrepreneurs will surely be assessed not only by entrepreneurial success but also by ethical and moral yardsticks. Did meritocratic pressure in Singapore, like that in South Korea and Japan, lead to this scandal?
At least four conclusions can be drawn from the above scandals:
* These three economies may yet lead Asia toward developing a real sense of professionalism in public and corporate governance. The whistle-blowing tendency appears to be gaining ground.
* There is now a fundamental question of whether Asian societies have come to terms with the mounting meritocratic pressure and competition, even as social mores and cohesiveness smack of Asian conservatism and hierarchism.
* Too much emphasis may have been placed on success at all costs without much investment on the moral side, apart from the strict enforcement of laws as in Singapore. Perhaps religious safeguards and ethics could complement the rule of law in Asian societies.
* Asian societies in transition must address the issue of what kind of society they really want — the liberal, competitive American model, a more social and cohesive one, or a healthy balance of both.
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