Anti-corruption in Singapore: For a happy ending

On March 7, 2013, during a congress session, Member of Parliament (MP) Sylvia Lim expressed her concern when Singapore ranked 5th on Transparency International (TI)’s Corruption Perceptions Index in 2012 and the year before. Singapore was rated joint number one in 2010.

“Though we do not want to be obsessed with rankings, has the government studied TI’s methodology and examined the reasons why Singapore was recently rated below Denmark, Finland, New Zealand and Sweden?” asked MP Lim.

Having being well-maintained for at least a decade, Singapore’s reputation of having a public service low in corruption can make politically sensitive citizens feel itchy when it crumbles even slightly.

Strong political will

While every positive thing the world can think of about Singapore can be related to what the country’s founding father Lee Kwan Yew has said and done since his early years of power, being corruption free is, certainly, is not an exception.

Speaking in Parliament in 1979, the then Prime Minister Lee Kwan Yew said: “The moment key leaders are less than incorruptible, less than stern in demanding high standards, from that moment the structure of administrative integrity will weaken, and eventually crumble.

Singapore can survive only if Ministers and senior officers are incorruptible and efficient… Only when we uphold the integrity of the administration can the economy work in a way which enables Singaporeans to clearly see the nexus between hard work and high rewards.

Only then will people, foreigners and Singaporeans, invest in Singapore; only then will Singaporeans work to improve themselves and their children through better education and further training, instead of hoping for windfalls through powerful friends and relatives or through greasing contacts in the right places.”

So it is the option Mr. Lee determinedly chose for Singapore in order to thrive out of its modest resources: To have a clean government, thus to have a clean system where every citizen acts in clean way.

And while people are the only and richest resource Singapore has, it is obvious that the success of any goal depends merely on Singaporeans themselves. To have the whole society to say no to corruption, the flow of integrity is smooth and clear–from top down.

In 1997, as Senior Minister, Mr. Lee Kwan Yew said: “First, we have to set the example. If the minister is tacking something on the side, his personal secretary must know, right? So, we have got to set an example, not only in being uncorrupt but also in being thrifty and economical… We wanted to trim the cost of government, so we ran a very spartan government. No wastage, no lavish entertainment, no big offices. We set the tone, the example, they followed. They responded to it.”

He elaborated more in 2000: “The cleansing and disinfecting has to start from the top and go downwards in a thorough and systematic way. It is a long and laborious process that can be carried out only by a very strong group of leaders with the courage and moral authority derived from unquestioned integrity.”

His successors have upheld the principle by echoing him. Singapore’s second Prime Minister Goh Chok Tong said in 1993: “I have every intention to make sure that Singapore remains corruption free. I will not let standards drop. And everybody should know that corruption in any form will not be tolerated. I expect all Ministers, all MPs and all public officers to set good examples for others to follow.”

In 2003, Singapore’s third and incumbent Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong reiterated: “The Prime Minister is responsible for the integrity of the whole civil service, the public sector, as well as the Judges and the Ministers. It is his responsibility to keep the system clean. If he does not, and we have a corrupt PM, then we are in serious trouble.”

Corruption not accepted as a way of life

The logic is if the civil servers don’t take bribes, people won’t give bribes. As Corruption Practices Investigation Bureau Director Evan Yeo put it: “Singapore has a fine reputation of having a clean administration. People know they do not have to give bribes in order to get things done. Thus, the community has a responsibility to keep Singapore corruption-free.”

And it is “keeping Singapore corruption-free” in any sense. The ruling People’s Action Party MP Arthur Fong talked about his mission to help less capable citizens, such as old folks, those who don’t speak English or are not adequately educated to know where to ask when having difficulties: “They have self-esteem, nobody ask for charities. I just help them write letters with explanation and suggestion to the governmental agencies.”

With those who did wrong things but want some sort of priority or negotiation to change the situations in their favor, he refuses. “It would be corruption if a member of a political party interferes with the government or the court,” said MP Fong.

Firm actions against corruption

To fight corruption effectively, Singapore has also for a long time counted on its independent Corruption Practices Investigation Bureau (CPIB). Established in 1952, CPIB investigates and aims to prevent corruption in the public and private sectors in Singapore.

The bureau is headed by a director who is directly responsible to the Prime Minister, but it doesn’t mean the PM is free from CPIB. Meanwhile, as PM Lee Hsien Loong said in 2003: “We have safeguarded that situation, because under the Constitution if the PM would not give leave to the CPIB to pursue a case, the CPIB can go to the President, and the President can give leave to proceed. So, even the PM can be investigated.”

With its mission statement to combat corruption through swift and sure, firm but fair action regardless status, rank and background, CPIB cases have included ministers, former ministers, senior public officers and public servants. CPIB also proved it act without favor when actually put its own officers in jail more than once when they were proved to be corrupted.

Back to the question raised by MP Sylvia Lim, Deputy Prime Minister Tharman Shanmugaratnam– answered by assuring to maintain the reputation and reaffirming CPIB will show no hesitance or tolerance towards corruption. “It shows our desire of the society we want to live in,” said Deputy Prime Minister.

Again, this point was pointed out by Mr. Lee Kwan Yew in 2000 as Senior Minister: “We have not become decadent and corrupt after 41 years in office. The old guard sets high standards, the new guard has to maintain this self-discipline and integrity in the midst of growing affluence. Otherwise the Singapore story will not have a happy ending.”

Thuy Chung (from Singapore)

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