First-grader’s words a siren on corruption

Updated: 2009-09-08 00:00
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Like the boy in Hans Christian Andersen’s The Emperor’s New Clothes, the words of a six-year-old girl in Guangzhou last week has shocked many in the nation into deep reflection.

It all happened on the first day of the new school semester when students were asked what they aspire to be. “I want to be a government official… and a corrupt official because a corrupt official owns a lot of things,” said the first grader.

While words from a six-year-old usually may not be taken too seriously, it nevertheless hits a nerve of many people in this society today.

In the eyes of most people, all children should want to grow up to be a hero or scientist, as was the case between the 1950s and 1980s; or a pop star or an entrepreneur as in the last 20 years. No child should ever think of becoming a corrupt official because this is such a despicable figure.

We could blame this on lack of proper education in preschool years when parents and teachers pay more attention to their children learning practical skills, such as painting and playing piano, and less on talking about ideals as in Mao’s days.

Yet the fact that a child wants to be a corrupt official makes many think that corrupt officials may not look that unglamorous in society as they squander taxpayers’ money and engage in all kinds of rent-seeking activities secretly or under official disguise. That should be cause for concern and that is why the first-grader’s words are so alarming.

Although many corrupt officials, including some high-ranking ones, have been put behind bars in recent years, crooked public servants are still believed to be hiding unnoticed. Rent-seeking activities are rife. And, corruption has somehow permeated our culture.

For many, to be a government official is to find a shortcut not only to power but also wealth. That is partly why throngs of youth, including many holding doctorate degrees, rush to take the annual public servant enrollment tests. Many long for the jobs not to serve the people whole heartedly but to take full advantage of fringe benefits.

That is also why only 10 percent of the people polled said they would take no offense from the child’s babble while 55 percent said those words in some degree reflect social reality.

Corruption has long been listed as a top public concern over the years. Yet the fact that corrupt officials are both hated and coveted shows a moral confusion in our society today.

Such a crisis in people’s belief is no small matter. It shows the kind of tough battle we are facing in eradicating corruption and in educating our children.

Our society has experienced a significant transformation over the past decades with children’s role models shifting from Albert Einstein and Madame Currie to Nicole Kidman and David Beckham. But taking a corrupt official as a role model challenges our moral bottom line, which has been retreating over the years and should not retreat anymore.

The child’s words are disheartening. What we would expect is that schools and parents would also talk to their children about ideals rather than purely pragmatic skills in this materialistic world.

More importantly, the government should beef up its crusade against corruption and set up an effective mechanism to root out all rent-seeking opportunities for public servants. The ICAC (Independent Commission Against Corruption) in Hong Kong, for example, seems to be quite an impressive system to keep the public servants clean. TV dramas about ICAC are usually well received.

The child has spoken the sad truth of our society today. What awaits us should be an all-out war on corruption, making corrupt officials like a rat crossing the street and hunted by all, as the Chinese saying goes.