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Singapore still has room for improvement in ethical business practices: survey

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Singapore companies are good at ticking the boxes on ethical business practices but the reality is something else.

SINGAPORE companies are good at ticking the boxes on ethical business practices but the reality is something else.

More organisations have set up codes of conduct, training, anti-bribery/anti-corruption (ABAC) policies and whistleblowing hotlines, but these are not as effective as they should be, an EY survey found.

Eighty-four per cent of the Singapore respondents said their organisation's efforts to combat fraud, bribery and corruption have been increasing or stayed the same over the last two years. This is higher than the 76 per cent for Asia-Pacific (APAC).

"The tone is being set, policies are put in place," said Reuben Khoo, EY managing partner, Asean leader for fraud investigation & dispute services, on Wednesday. "However in spite of these policies being put in place, there is still room for improvement."

Ethical business practices are important as they are directly related to attracting and retaining talent in APAC.

Almost 80 per cent of the APAC and Singapore respondents polled claim they would be unwilling to work for companies involved in bribery and corruption. Also, 67 per cent and 70 per cent of APAC and Singapore respondents respectively see strong reputation for ethical behaviour as a commercial advantage.

Slightly more than half of the APAC respondents believe ABAC policies are irrelevant and ineffective, with 40 per cent of companies not providing ABAC policy training.

A smaller percentage (36 per cent and 29 per cent respectively) of Singapore respondents echoed similar sentiments. In addition, 41 per cent and 38 per cent of APAC and Singapore respondents respectively believe a code of conduct has little impact on how people actually behave.

"You may have a code, but 40 per cent think it has little impact on behaviour of employees, it's a tick in the box," he said.

Additionally, whistleblowing hotlines are either missing or underused because workers fear retaliation.

More than half of companies (APAC: 55 per cent, Singapore: 67 per cent) have whistleblowing hotlines in place, but the number of respondents prepared to use them has dropped since the 2013 survey (APAC: from 81 per cent in 2013 to 53 per cent in 2015; Singapore: from 71 per cent in 2013 to 62 per cent in 2015).

"The drop in whistleblower hotline usage appears to be due to respondents being increasingly concerned about insufficient legal protection or the lack of confidentiality for whistleblowers, leading to a risk of retaliation," says Mr Khoo.

"It is clear that ABAC policies, codes of conduct and whistleblowing hotlines are not enough. Companies need to demonstrate and communicate about ethical behaviour if they want to affect true change."

The survey, which is based on 1,508 interviews with employees of large companies in 14 APAC territories, included 90 interviews done in Singapore. The survey was done in February.