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P.M. Tuilaepa warns about perils of ignoring corruption

Prime Minister Tuilaepa Dr. Sa'ilele Malielegaoi has cautioned Pacific leaders about the perils of leaving corruption unaddressed, consequently enabling it to "wreck great havoc" on island nations.

Prime Minister Tuilaepa made the point when he spoke at the opening of the Pacific Regional Conference on Anti-Corruption in Kiribati on Tuesday.

“Like natural disasters and health epidemics, corruption, if allowed to flourish would wreak great havoc and misery,” Tuilaepa said.

The P.M. added that as universally acknowledged, corruption is present in all countries, irrespective of the level of wealth or location on the world map.

“In our Blue Pacific region, we know and understand the threat that corruption poses to the development of small island economies and the cohesiveness and stability of our communities.

“Our shared deep regional concern with the damaging effects of corruption has prompted most of our Pacific countries to become members of the UN Convention against Corruption (U.N.C.A.C.).”

He also shared experiences early in his career as a public servant. 

“I served in our then Treasury Department (now the Ministry of Finance) as Deputy Financial Secretary.

“One time when I was acting Financial Secretary, the department’s administration officer in charge of personnel provided me with a report on a couple of Officers (one of them a senior staff) who signed in for overtime work when they were actually partying at a nightclub nearby. 

“It was something that these officers had been doing on different occasions but were now finally caught with sufficient evidence for the report to be put together.”

Tuilaepa added that after discussions with the Public Service Commission as required by process, he called in the charged officers.

“They tried to evade the evidence but when faced with immediate dismissal, they pleaded for leniency. They were still sacked. Not doing so would send out the wrong message. 

“The other part of this story was that another Treasury Officer came and saw me to ask for the decision to be reversed; the reason being that the Administration Officer who put together the report was an ‘overseas newcomer’ to the Department - an expatriate. 

“I was seen as taking the side of an ‘outsider’ against officers who were local and part of the ‘Treasury family’.”

He added that the officer was immediately told to return to her desk while she still had a job. 

“This real life story from the 1970s demonstrated the often-insidious nature of official corruption and its high costs if we are not careful. 

“The cost in this case of fraudulent overtime claims, if not stopped, would eventually amount to large amounts of money lost that would otherwise be available to provide needed public works and services.

“The penalty was appropriate for fraudulent actions, and more importantly, sent a clear message of the consequences to any officer contemplating fraud to resist temptation, or for an officer not yet caught, to stop.”

He also added that as examples, in Samoa’s Public Service today, preventative measures include regular reminders to public officials not to accept money from the public, as well as awareness messages on television and radio to the public not to give officials money for the delivery of government work and services, or to enable a person to ‘jump the queue’ to obtain priority consideration in a government program.

“Transgressions would be investigated as breaches of the official code of conduct and extending to criminal charges as warranted.

“A transparent and vigorously enforced tender process is in place to award contracts for medium and large-scale government projects.

“However, as we are finding out, methods of corruption are becoming increasingly complex, subtle and difficult to unravel.”

He added that there is an increasing number of corruption cases coming to light as a result of greater dissemination of information and awareness programmes on how to recognise and report corruption, as well as better official confidentiality protective measures of so called ‘whistleblowers’.

“In the context of good governance standards, the indispensable role of Parliament in fighting corruption has also led to Parliamentary sessions in Samoa are now broadcast live on television in addition to the traditional radio broadcasts to make use of technology available. 

“The media plays an important part in fighting corruption and I hold weekly interviews, sometimes two or three times a week, with media representatives to inform on government decisions and programs and reply to their questions. 

“The media write and report as ‘they see it’ and I try and correct inaccuracies the next time. They often don’t take any notice but neither do I tire in my reminders for them to report fairly.”

Tuilaepa added that in Samoa the extent and reach of family connections, because of small communities, are magnified. 

“The second element is cultural expectations and practice. In our small traditional island societies, it is sometimes difficult to distinguish and draw the line between where the ‘practices of culture’ ends and corruption begins. 

“We have all heard of the well-known ‘amusing test for corruption’ often said in jest, but not always, 'that if it looks, feels, moves and jumps like corruption, then it is just so'. 

“Seriously, however, the line in my view is drawn when what is presented as cultural practice misdirects decision making, fraudulently use resources and miscarry justice.

“There must be good and strong leadership supporting every process level from prevention, investigation, prosecution and right through to adjudication and enforcement of penalties.”

He added that at the top of all these levels is Political Leadership that must observe the standards of integrity, transparency and accountability required of good governance. 

“Without this political will at the highest level, anti-corruption efforts would always struggle to succeed.”

The President of the Republic of Kiribati, Taneti Maamau, urged Pacific leaders for local action which will lead to regional impact.

“As Leaders and representatives of our Blue Pacific nations we know how powerful our local actions can be as they lead to greater regional impact,” he said.

Mr. Maamau added that the regional conference will explore best local practices in preventing and combating corruption.  

“Our ocean, our fish and our weather do not worry about national boundaries on a map; nor do transnational criminals and corruption.   

“We need to see how these successful procedures can be shared to achieve greater regional benefits.        

“Every country in our Blue Pacific region is unique, hence each is addressing corruption and its prevention in different ways.  

He also said that the conference gives an opportunity to listen to each other, to “maroro” or dialogue and take note of successes within the suite of Pacific corruption interventions.

“But most importantly digest how, by joint Pacific action, we can all benefit. 

“We do have to be wary of anyone telling us there is one magic solution to corruption, applicable to our Blue Pacific family.       

“We are also benefiting from the technical assistance in governance from our traditional loyal development partners Australia and New Zealand, where our countries identify gaps in our governance and partners listen.”

Mr. Maamau said the Blue Pacific has long-standing commitments to good governance and combating corruption as embedded in the Forum Eight Principles of Accountability, the Biketawa Declaration, 2014 Framework for Pacific Regionalism and the Boe Declaration on Regional Security. 

“In spite of these, we as a region have yet to identify focus areas and interventions for regional anti corruption cooperation.  

“All our police, anti-corruption institutions, audit and oversight architectures are different and we are all at different stages of recognising and addressing threats and opportunities.

“One of the key priorities in my Government’s manifesto was to eradicate corruption in the public sector.”

He also added that it led to the establishment of a Parliamentary Select Committee on Anti-Corruption in 2016.  

“The role of the Committee sent a clear and powerful message to the people that Government is seriously combating corruption.

“In the same year, Parliament passed the Leaders Code of Conduct Act and established the Leadership Commission which overtook the aforesaid Committee.

“I look forward to the positive outcomes of this conference that will form the basis of a Pacific Vision Statement or Declaration that our Leaders will consider and issue tomorrow.”

Mr. Maamau added that these outcomes will benefit, not only the Pacific region but their individual countries, governments and peoples that they were there to represent.

“Our thoughts and prayers are with all our Pacific friends, and we particularly want to mention the people of Samoa, who have dealt with a health emergency which has cost lives and left many Samoans grieving losses to their families.

“Our thoughts and prayers to the people of New Zealand who have faced a volcanic eruption which cost lives and impacted many families, especially local communities.

“And not forgetting the people of Australia who have been subject to devastating bushfires which have again cost too many lives, destroyed too many homes and left too many families grieving. 

He also expressed grief at the impact of the coronavirus on the People’s Republic of China, especially those from Wuhan, who were exposed to the virus.

Here is the full text of Prime Minister Tuilaepa's full speech at the regional anti-corruption conference in Kiribati. 

I am honoured to be asked to speak at the opening of this important Pacific Regional Conference on Anti-Corruption: Pacific Unity Against Corruption. 

I deliver these remarks at a time when, at the beginning of the new decade, we find ourselves faced with a myriad of challenges that require, now more than ever, the collective unity and strength of our Pacific island countries and peoples to try and overcome. 

There is no doubt as to the destructive impacts of climate change and natural disasters on all Pacific peoples. Our thoughts and prayers are with Australia and her people at this difficult time, recognising also the bravery of the firefighters and volunteers who continue to risk their lives to save others. Likewise, with the governments and peoples of Tuvalu, Fiji, Tonga and Niue as they recover from the impacts of the two recent cyclones.    

 The ease and speed with which health epidemics spread, as shown with the measles outbreak and now the novel coronavirus, is a major and urgent concern for all our countries. The consequences of an epidemic are most tragic and the costs huge as we found out in Samoa. Our experience also demonstrated yet again the immense value of the strong support of regional and international partners in helping us through that time of crisis. Samoa is very grateful. We hope and look forward to the continued mobilisation of similar cooperative partnerships to prepare and respond to disasters and health epidemics our Pacific region faces including the imminent threat of the new virus.  

Like natural disasters and health epidemics, corruption, if allowed to flourish would wreak great havoc and misery. As universally acknowledged corruption is present in all countries irrespective of the level of wealth or location on the world map. In our Blue Pacific region, we know and understand the threat that corruption poses to the development of small island economies and the cohesiveness and stability of our communities. Our shared deep regional concern with the damaging effects of corruption has prompted most of our Pacific countries to become members of the UN Convention against Corruption (UNCAC). To date, I am advised that 15 Forum countries are members, with the remainder in the process of acceding. This, indeed, is very encouraging.  

Early Experience

Early in my career in our government as a public service officer, I served in our then Treasury Department (now the Ministry of Finance) as Deputy Financial Secretary. One time when I was acting Financial Secretary, the Department’s Administration Officer in charge of personnel provided me with a report on a couple of Officers (one of them a senior staff) who signed in for overtime work when they were actually partying at a nightclub nearby. It was something that these officers had been doing on different occasions but were now finally caught with sufficient evidence for the report to be put together. After discussions with the Public Service Commission as required by process, I called in the charged officers. They tried to evade the evidence but when faced with immediate dismissal, they pleaded for leniency. They were still sacked. Not doing so would send out the wrong message. 

 The other part of this story was that another Treasury Officer came and saw me to ask for the decision to be reversed; the reason being that the Administration Officer who put together the report was an ‘overseas newcomer’ to the Department - an expatriate. I was seen as taking the side of an ‘outsider’ against officers who were local and part of the ‘Treasury family’. This officer was immediately told to return to her desk while she still had a job. 

 This real life story from the 1970s demonstrated the often-insidious nature of official corruption and its high costs if we are not careful. The cost in this case of fraudulent overtime claims, if not stopped, would eventually amount to large amounts of money lost that would otherwise be available to provide needed public works and services. The penalty was appropriate for fraudulent actions, and more importantly, sent a clear message of the consequences to any officer contemplating fraud to resist temptation, or for an officer not yet caught, to stop.  

As the UN Secretary General very aptly said in his 2018 message on International Anti-Corruption Day, “Corruption begets more corruption, and fosters a corrosive culture of impunity”. The UN Secretary General also noted that corruption “robs societies of schools, hospitals, and other vital services, drives away foreign investment and strips nations of their natural resources”. In one form or another, all our Pacific countries have suffered these examples of the costs of corruption.   

 National institutions

My small story, as I mentioned, was from the 1970s. I am sure that many stories of similar, or even worse experiences abound in our Pacific countries from that time period. All of our Pacific countries have since taken steps to strengthen governance/accountability mechanisms, and build institutional and agency capacities to combat corruption. 

As examples, in Samoa’s Public Service today, preventative measures include regular reminders to public officials not to accept money from the public, as well as awareness messages on television and radio to the public not to give officials money for the delivery of government work and services, or to enable a person to ‘jump the queue’ to obtain priority consideration in a government program. Transgressions would be investigated as breaches of the official code of conduct and extending to criminal charges as warranted. A transparent and vigorously enforced tender process is in place to award contracts for medium and large-scale government projects. Even procurement at departmental level also requires at least three quotes for supply. In terms of development cooperation with our partners; every MOU or agreement have clauses emphasizing zero tolerance for fraud and corrupt practices with compliance firmly enforced. Another subtle corrupt common practice which we are familiar with and now prevent is multinational and big companies offering visits to their headquarters on the pretext of inspecting and viewing their operations with all costs covered. 

The Samoa institutions within the anti-corruption framework have also much improved and include the: Office of the Attorney General; Ministry of Police; Office of the Auditor-General; Office of the Ombudsman; Central Bank of Samoa (Money Laundering Preventative Authority); Public Service Commission; Ministry of Finance; Ministry of Customs and Revenue; Ministry of Justice and Courts Administration; and the Office of the Electoral Commissioner, to name the main ones. Between them, they have an extensive range of functions and powers to prevent and detect corruption, and to address corruption after it has occurred.  

 However, as we are finding out, methods of corruption are becoming increasingly complex, subtle and difficult to unravel. This is on top of an increasing number of corruption cases coming to light as a result of greater dissemination of information and awareness programmes on how to recognise and report corruption, as well as better official confidentiality protective measures of so called ‘whistleblowers’.  

What this translates into is additional resources requirements in terms of specialist expertise in areas such as forensic accounting and information technology. These are on top of the need for more trained investigators in the police and other anti-corruption agencies as well as up-skilling prosecutors, judges of the courts, and adjudicators in institutions like the Ombudsman and the Public Service Commission to handle complex fraud cases. It is therefore in areas such as specialist expertise and skills training which is a challenge and where the engagement and support of partners and exchanges of experiences and information amongst regional countries is vital. The training of several of our public service officers as Certified Fraud Examiners with Australia’s assistance is an example of help that strengthens detection and investigative capacities of anti-corruption agencies.    

 I should also mention in the context of good governance standards, the indispensable role of Parliament in fighting corruption. Our Parliamentary sessions in Samoa are now broadcast live on television in addition to the traditional radio broadcasts to make use of technology available. The widened coverage better informs the public first hand, of not only issues affecting the country but very importantly, new legislations and the allocation of government budget resources for work and services that impact livelihoods and the country’s development. Additionally, there are informal pre-sitting meetings for Members of Parliament to obtain briefings from officials on legislation and important topics to be introduced in Parliament to help them prepare for debate in formal sessions.  

As well, there are periodic workshops on integrity-capacity building to acquaint and remind members of the important oversight responsibilities of Parliament, exercised through Parliament sessions and in Parliamentary Committees. These workshops are particularly useful as at every General Election, around 50 per cent of our MPs lose their seats to new members. We expect the same scenario at our next General Election in 2021 next year. 

The General Elections expresses the wishes of our people in the members of Parliament and the Government and Leadership they want. (Choices that are not always compatible but a topic for another time to share experiences especially for us politicians!). The important part, of course, is the freedom of electors to make their choices and for corruption-free elections. Keeping elections free from corrupt practices (by candidates) is a challenge. Our Office of the Electoral Commissioner is one of our Anti-Corruption institutions and with legislative changes last year, it now has powers to investigate and prosecute corruption. Since 1982 when our HRPP Party came into power, we have held commissions of enquiries after every election to recommend changes to our election laws to try and reduce corruption by candidates. What we have discovered is that as often as we close up known loopholes, new ones are created - candidates are extremely creative on new ways around electoral laws to get elected.  

Parliament Sessions are fully covered by media outlets and reporters sit in the gallery and may happily interview any Minister or MP as they wish. The media plays an important part in fighting corruption and I hold weekly interviews, sometimes 2 or 3 times a week, with media representatives to inform on government decisions and programs and reply to their questions. The media write and report as ‘they see it’ and I try and correct inaccuracies the next time. They often don’t take any notice but neither do I tire in my reminders for them to report fairly. It is part and parcel of the vibrant open relationship we have with our media in promoting public awareness and in helping combat corruption. Besides the mass media, the social media undeniably also makes an important contribution in exposing corruption. But there are also its misuses to abuse and to hurt people which must be vigorously addressed. When used behind an electronic barrier of anonymity and secrecy to spread information intended to destabilise communities it becomes particularly dangerous in our small communities. It is very difficult to address this misuse. Fortunately, through the application of good governance and the principles of transparency and accountability we have in our tool kit the means to counter such destructive influences propagated without a shred of accountability. 

A couple of important elements worth referencing in terms of challenges in addressing corruption is firstly “conflict of interest’’. In our small countries the extent and reach of family connections, because of small communities, are magnified. Therefore, conflicts of interest, when undeclared and hidden cause great harm through the misdirection of decision making and the miscarriage of justice. Quite obviously, the rules that define ‘conflict of interest’ must be made very clear, transparently applied and any breaches treated as corruption because conflict of interest sometime disqualifies skilled enforcement officers and adjudicators in anti-corruption actions, this puts pressure on the pool of available skilled personnel that may only be adequately addressed through outside sourced help and training resources that small island countries could not afford and require the support of partners.   

The second element is cultural expectations and practice. In our small traditional island societies, it is sometimes difficult to distinguish and draw the line between where the ‘practices of culture’ ends and corruption begins. We have all heard of the well-known ‘amusing test for corruption’ often said in jest, but not always, “that if it looks, feels, moves and jumps like corruption, then it is just so”. Seriously however, the line in my view is drawn when what is presented as cultural practice misdirects decision making, fraudulently use resources and miscarry justice.

 Regional focus 

Our region strives to fulfil our commitments to the 2030 Agenda and the SDGs, the Framework for Pacific Regionalism, the SAMOA Pathway as well as the Paris Agreement amongst many other regional and global commitments. Relevant to this meeting are ongoing efforts to realise Goal 16, target 16.5, which specifically focuses on the reduction of corruption and bribery in all its forms.

The Pacific Leaders Forum over the years have also committed to efforts to promote good governance to underpin successful development and to provide for peaceful and lawful communities in our islands. Specifically, I recall the: 

  • 1997 Forum Economic Ministers Meeting on Principles of Accountability;
  • 2000 Biketawa Declaration;
  • 2003 Principles of Good Leadership;
  • 2005 Agreement Establishing the Pacific Islands Forum;
  • our Forum Leaders’ Vision and Values in the Framework for Pacific Regionalism; and
  • more recently, the Boe Declaration on Regional Security and ongoing efforts to strengthen regional cooperation through regional law enforcement and security activities to suppress transnational crime in our region.

Interwoven into these initiatives is the importance of guarding and fighting against corruption and its corrosive influence and destructive impacts. 

The Pacific Islands Forum initiatives, the Peer Review mechanism for members of the of the UN Convention Against Corruption, (carried out in conjunction with the UN Pacific Regional Anti-Corruption Office funded by Australia), focuses attention on areas to improve the anti-corruption frameworks of individual countries. These platforms, together with the outcomes of our regional Conference today, and the experiences of our individual countries help indicate the support we need and the collaboration required from international partners to strengthen our efforts against corruption.

However, for these efforts to produce and sustain successful outcomes, there must be good and strong leadership supporting every process level from prevention, investigation, prosecution and right through to adjudication and enforcement of penalties. At the top of all these levels is Political Leadership that must observe the standards of integrity, transparency and accountability required of good governance. Without this political will at the highest level, anti-corruption efforts would always struggle to succeed. We know the costs and damage of corruption to our small economies and there is no need to spell out the consequences of the absence of trust and confidence of our people in their political leadership and governments, or for that matter, the diminished credibility of a country when engaging with development partners.  

By the way, there is an epilogue to my story from the ‘70s. About six years after the two officers were sacked, I attended a religious service and the church minister offering the prayer was none other than the senior officer that was dismissed. The Lord certainly works in mysterious ways, and I could not help but think that the dismissal of the officer when it happened saved and gave him time to find Jesus and to serve the community through God’s work.   

I thank again President Taneti Maamau for the initiative of this Conference and for the kind arrangements and gracious hospitality of his government and the people of Kiribati availed to us. Thank you.

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