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Public education and corruption

Studying, practicing, and teaching law have allowed me to theorize on finding legal solutions to fundamental problems of the nation such as corruption. The Corruption Perception Index (CPI) is a survey conducted by Transparency International that ranks countries according to perceived levels of public sector corruption. In 2019, the Philippines ranked 113th out of 180 countries in the CPI. New Zealand garnered first place as the least corrupt country and Singapore, a fellow member of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, ranked fourth. Interestingly, both the Philippines and Singapore have common historical backgrounds. Both countries were colonized in the 19th century and suffered under Japanese rule during World War II. However, in terms of corruption control, the similarity between the two countries ends here. Singapore, which gained total independence much later in 1965, has successfully battled corruption in the public sector.

Besides the strong political will of its leaders, Singapore has fought corruption through public education. The country consistently invests heavily in public education infrastructure: 25 percent of its yearly government expenditure is spent to build schools and issue public scholarships. As a result, Singapore has the best public education system in the world and all Singaporeans have equal access to it.

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The value of quality education is also enshrined in the country’s government. In Singapore, meritocracy has long been considered a core principle of government leadership. Meritocracy refers to a political ideology that a country should be governed by well-educated public officials with “a record of academic and technocratic excellency” (Yahong Zhang and Cecilia Lavena, “Government Anti-Corruption Strategies: A Cross-Cultural Perspective,” 2015). Thus, stringent mechanisms are in place for selecting Singaporean leaders. These measures include competitive examinations and specialized tests. Based on the results, prospective government officials would then be placed in departments that truly suit their skills (i.e., law, finance, or economics). In addition, incumbent government officials are also given access to prestigious public sector executive scholarships. Government leaders who graduate from these scholarship programs are then equipped with the proper competencies and values to be better leaders of their nation.

Clearly, Singapore’s best anticorruption secret is investing in its own people. The country places public education in the forefront of national development. Based on studies, investing in human capital and having more access to public education lead to less corruption. Proper quality education, one that fosters good values and integrity in public service, becomes a cornerstone of anticorruption policy.

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Like the coronavirus, international law defines corruption as a disease—a disease that erodes the quality of life of a nation and leads to human rights violations. In fact, under the United Nations Convention against Corruption (UNCAC), corruption is considered an “insidious plague” that undermines democracy and the rule of law. To address corruption, the UNCAC encourages member states to develop “coordinated anti-corruption policies that promote the participation of society and reflect the principles of the rule of law, proper management of public affairs and public property, integrity, transparency and accountability.”

Currently, in the Philippines, anticorruption policies are geared toward the steadfast apprehension of corrupt government officials. President Duterte once publicly gave the order to “shoot but not kill” government officials who ask for bribes. The approach is undoubtedly an iron-fisted remedy against the plague (like a total lockdown to suppress a pandemic). Accordingly, successful anticorruption efforts are often likened to a bloody war between law enforcement officials and criminals that involve entrapment operations, adversarial prosecutions, and penalties issued by courts that lead to imprisonment.

However, what can be drawn from the anticorruption success story of Singapore is that the pen could, in fact, be mightier than the sword in winning the war against corruption. In the realm of anticorruption policy, prevention is better than finding a cure.

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Marlon Iñigo T. Tronqued is a lawyer, professor of law, and a student of the University of the Philippines Master of Laws (LLM) program taking International Anti-Corruption Compliance as a subject.

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TAGS: Commentary, corruption, Marlon Iñigo T. Tronqued, public education
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