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Web-only Exclusives
November 30, 2000

From Our Correspondent: Hirohito and the War
A conversation with biographer Herbert Bix

From Our Correspondent: A Rough Road Ahead
Bad news for the Philippines - and some others

From Our Correspondent: Making Enemies
Indonesia needs friends. So why is it picking fights?

Asiaweek Time Asia Now Asiaweek

MARCH 31, 2000 VOL. 26 NO. 12

The Whistleblowers
When you come across blatant injustice, but nobody listens to what you have to say, there is sometimes only one thing to do


Seokyong Lee/Black Star for Asiaweek
The behavior of Korean University professors outraged Hyan Taik Soo (see story below)

In the Hollywood movie The Insider, a tobacco-company executive courageously resists pressure from all around him to reveal how his employers ignored the health hazards associated with cigarettes. It's a tense tale, made all the more gripping by the fact that it is based on a true story. In Asia, this kind of "whistleblowing" has traditionally been left to the professionals - activists driven by a calling to improve society and ensure a fairer deal for all. Nowadays, though, more and more ordinary citizens are stepping forward, putting their reputations, their jobs and even their families' lives on the line to make a noise about situations they find unacceptable. Not all whistleblowers are untainted, of course. Some may be exacting revenge, or stirring up trouble for trouble's sake. On the other hand, many have justice on their side. The following four people hail from a wide slice of life - a Hong Kong government worker, a Japanese sumo wrestler, a Korean academic and a Thai mother. They risked being mocked, reprimanded or ostracized, but they stuck to what they believed to be right. And, in the end, their courage helped make a difference.


'I EAT ALONE. I DON'T TALK TO ANYBODY'
Before Hong Kong returned to Chinese rule, it was widely assumed that the city's civil service was one of the most professional in the world - a legacy of Britain's enlightened stewardship. Then the regional financial crisis hit and suddenly the air was full of accusations of bureaucratic ineptitude, corruption and outright dereliction of duty. The following story came to the attention of the public thanks to an insider named Lo Pui-lam.

 
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Lo had been driving sewage collection trucks for the Urban Council for some 20 years when he was assigned in 1998 to the night shift. It wasn't long before he discovered his colleagues were serial slackers. Their job was to pump sewage and other waste from drains into a tanker truck, but they weren't doing that at all. Instead they were allegedly filling the tanks with fresh water so that when they arrived at the dumping ground, the truck would weigh enough to pass inspection.

Lo's co-workers whiled away their shifts sleeping or playing cards. For five months he tried to convince them to do the work they were being paid for. They brushed him off. He threatened to go public. It was then that the situation turned ugly. He claims his colleagues "accidentally" tipped sewage waste on him; and they called him on his mobile phone to bring him back to the depot for non-existent emergencies. Pretty soon, Lo and the others were trading verbal insults and threats. In the end, they resorted to pushing and shoving.

The boss didn't want to hear about it. "Just take it easy," Lo says he told him. So Lo went to a more senior supervisor. Another. Then another. All three told him not to make a fuss. "You're about to retire," they said. "Don't stir up trouble now." Lo next visited the office of the Ombudsman, which deals with public complaints against the government. He was turned away on the grounds there was no cause for action. Lo then approached the Independent Commission Against Corruption (ICAC). Sorry, Mr. Lo, said the graftbusters, no bribes have changed hands.

Lo wrestled with his conscience. He didn't want to put his pension in peril; he was married but had no children to look after him post-retirement. He felt he couldn't discuss the situation with his wife. Nor his friends. "When Idecided to go public, I was prepared to have no friends," he says. "My wife only cares if I bring home the money." As Lo wondered what to do, his colleagues continued to abuse him. Lo wasn't going to take it any more. He marched off to see legislator Li Wah-ming, who organized a clandestine investigation into the sewage workers' nocturnal habits. That led to an inquiry.

The morning before he was to appear at the inquiry, Lo recalls receiving a phone call from a welfare officer. "She told me not to testify or I'd lose my job," he says. "I thought she was supposed to be on my side." When Lo arrived at the inquiry, a senior official with the Urban Council told him to leave because he lacked authorization to testify.

At a second inquiry, Lo got a chance to unburden himself. His two-hour testimony prompted the disciplining of 15 nightshift workers, and the ICAC arrested six civil servants suspected of falsifying work records. The senior Urban Council official was reprimanded for obstructing inquiries and was transferred to another department, though at the same rank and salary.

For his part, Lo was commended for exposing the scandal. That felt good for a while, but slowly the victory turned sour. His superiors transferred him to another job driving garbage trucks. Now he is an object of suspicion among his new colleagues. "I eat alone," says Lo, now 55. "I don't talk to anyone." When he reports to work, his supervisor stares meaningfully at the clock to suggest he is monitoring Lo's every move and looking for the slightest infraction. Still, says Lo, "it was worth it."

Epilogue: Amid a barrage of criticism from the public about featherbedding and overmanning, Hong Kong's civil service is being forced to streamline and reform.

By Yulanda Chung/Hong Kong


'I FELT BAD ABOUT WHAT I DID'
Whistleblowers don't come much bigger or more controversial than Itai Keisuke. This is a man, after all, who spent the 1980s fighting as a sumo wrestler. Then, in January this year, nine years into retirement, he went public about yaocho, or the match-fixing that is widely assumed to be endemic to Japan's most emblematic sport. It has won him few admirers. Like most wrestlers, Itai says he learned early on that winning is not always what sumo is about. He recalls wrestlers' aides, known as tsukebito, acting as middlemen between fighters who wanted an opponent to throw a match. That way sumo wrestlers personally never had to get involved. Itai claims that during the 1980s at least 80% of the fights were rigged in this fashion, including many of the 1,000-plus bouts he fought. For big matches, Itai says, as much as tens of thousands of dollars changed hands.

Given his own participation in match-rigging, Itai seems a touch hypocritical damning a practice that netted him millions of yen during a decade-long career. And there are plenty of Japanese who believe Itai has ulterior motives for going public. There have been allegations that he sold his story to a local magazine to raise money for his troubled restaurant. Others say Itai is trying to get back at the Sumo Association for not making him a coach upon his retirement in 1991. Another theory making the rounds: Itai is seeking revenge for the mysterious death of his former coach, Onaruto, who died of a respiratory ailment shortly after publishing a book in 1996 about match-fixing and sumo's alleged links to organized crime. The police ruled out foul play, although the coach's co-author died of the same complaint within 12 hours at the same hospital.

Itai insists his motives are pure and simple. "I want the Sumo Association to clean up the sport," he says. "I am not doing this for revenge against anyone." Itai says he has been haunted by guilt since he retired. "I felt so bad about what I did and, as I watched matches on television, Icould see this awful practice was still going on." Making the situation worse, he says, is the fact that everyone knows sumo is corrupt, but no one will speak out in case they are accused of shaming Japan's national sport.

And that, of course, is precisely what people are saying about Itai. He says that since airing his allegations at a press conference, he has received threatening phone calls. Wrestlers he has accused by name are demanding hard evidence to back up his charges; the chief of the Sumo Association wants Itai to retract them. His reply is that he is trying to encourage openness in a sport where frank discussion is discouraged. "The sumo masters shouted at us to make us practice hard," Itai recalls. "We had to obey them all the time. It was difficult to take this issue of rigging to a master." So Itai, now 42, took it public - and knows he will have to live with the consequences.

Epilogue: While many remain dismayed by Itai's attacks, other ex-wrestlers reportedly say his outbursts could have a cathartic impact on sumo. Few would disagree that it is time for the sport to clean up. But given its almost-mythical place in Japanese society, not everyone thinks change will come.

By Suvendrini Kakuchi/Tokyo


'
IT'S MY DUTY TO POINT THINGS OUT'
Students trading sex for grades or copying term papers from title to footnote. Professors buying tenure, forcing students to ghostwrite scholarly theses. This is the sort of behavior that greeted Hyun Taik Soo upon entering Korean academia in 1993. It came as a shock after several years at the Sorbonne in Paris, where rectitude is more revered. Grimly watching life at Seoul's prestigious Korea University, Hyun, a hyperkinetic sociology professor, couldn't decide who was more untrustworthy: the nation's politicians or its professors.

He could do nothing about the people running the country. Fellow academics were another matter. Still, it was easier to mutter in private and unsettle his wife with threats of going public than actually doing anything. Some colleagues shared his scorn about the system, but most were happy to ignore the excesses and await their turn at the trough. At home, Hyun viewed ambitious professors on TV talk shows, evincing an erudition that he knew was at odds with their knowledge of the topic. And he seethed as the newly tenured went around joking about their bribes.

Four years rolled by and Hyun could take it no longer. He started with rancorous broadsides in the newspapers, itemizing the exploits of his academic brothers - how some professors lorded it over students and junior instructors, forcing them to run errands, write papers, perform sexual acts in exchange for good grades. How most professors overlooked blatant plagiarism. How they covered up for each other.

Hyun hadn't yet summoned the courage to name names. But when nothing changed, he began identifying wrongdoers and denouncing them on his Internet homepage. Hyun's aim widened. Not only was Korean academia rotten from the top down, he alleged, but some professors were using their position to launch political careers.

By then Hyun had become distinctly unpopular. The crusader drew stares on campus, and, in the eyes of his detractors, his righteousness bespoke a man who would stop at nothing - even, gasp, criticizing his seniors. Hyun told anyone who would listen that what he was trying to do was to bring genuine meritocracy to Korean academia and end the ossifying culture of entitlement. Sympathetic professors phoned in their support - but few would stand shoulder to shoulder with Hyun. Pretty soon colleagues were freezing him out. One, whom Hyun had accused of using uncredited work in a book, is threatening a defamation suit. Hyun says he will "appeal and appeal because I know I'm right."

Occasionally self-doubt creeps in. Hyun felt bad when one of his targets unexpectedly sent him a New Year's card. And he frets about the impact his crusade is having on the family. "My wife has a heavy heart because I could lose my job," he says, noting that a professor was fired for exposing a sex scandal at another Korean university. But Hyun, now 41, is not a man for second thoughts. "I told my wife it's my duty to point these things out," he says.

Epilogue: In the wake of Hyun's revelations, Korean newspapers have begun running one exposť after another on campus corruption. That hasn't yet put an end to the old habits, but at least people are now talking about what is wrong and what has to be done.

By John Larkin/Seoul


'THE THAI EDUCATION SYSTEM SUCKS'
Sumalee Limpaovart looked and looked for her daughter's name. And looked again. It was nowhere to be found. She scanned the list one more time, her eyes running over the successful applicants to Bangkok's prestigious Kasetsart University Demonstration School - but her daughter's name wasn't there. Sumalee couldn't understand. She knew her child was easily smart enough to pass the entrance exam. Then she studied the names of those who had made the grade - the list read like a 1998 who's who of the Thai establishment.

Sumalee frowned. She had a pretty good idea of what was going on. But what was she supposed to tell her six-year-old daughter, Nattanit? That she wasn't clever enough to get into a good school? Or that Thailand rewards pedigree, while discouraging hard work and ability? Sorry, kid - that's life? One look at her downcast little girl told Sumalee she couldn't let this one lie. She'd have to fight the system. That wasn't as crazy as it sounds. Sumalee was a prosecutor, after all, and as a student had written a thesis on government power. Moreover, Thailand had just put in place an Official Information Act. Sumalee aimed to use the legislation to help get her daughter into the school and set a legal precedent for like-minded citizens.

First Sumalee requested that the school's dean release the test results. After fruitlessly waiting a month for his reply, she lodged a petition with the Official Information Commission. It was about that time that the mud-slinging began. People opposed to having their kids' test results made public began putting pressure on authorities and denigrating Sumalee - accusing her of starting trouble because her daughter had failed.

Finally Sumalee got a peek at the results - only to find she still wasn't being told the truth. Officials provided the registration numbers and answer sheets of the 120 successful candidates, but no names, plus a list of candidates with no registration numbers. "This made it impossible to establish which scores belonged to which candidates," she recalls. Still, the exercise wasn't entirely useless. Poring over the lists, Sumalee spotted a strange phenomenon. While school officials had insisted that her daughter had scored one point below a pass, 38 of the "successful" candidates had failed to make the passing grade. Now she had some ammunition.

Back to the information commission. This time, the authorities forced the school to release a list with matching names and scores. Sumalee and other interested parents assessed the results: All 38 children who had failed but still been accepted came from leading political and business families. While Sumalee had come to expect this, she was still shocked. Later she sat down with a teacher who explained that rich parents donate money to the school - sometimes cars and computers. If it had been a private institution, Sumalee might have swallowed the excuse, but Kasetsart is financed by taxpayers - "so all people have a right to study there."

Epilogue: Sumalee, now 39, had scored a personal victory in getting access to the files. But powerful people are still fighting to maintain the status quo. Sumalee is scornful. "The Thai education system sucks. It relies on favoritism." As for her daughter, Nattanit, she now attends a private school, where the faculty allowed Sumalee to see the entrance-exam results.

By Julian Gearing/Bankok

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