The Lesson from Singapore

2023: unpacking corruption!


By Jan Arden

It would be trite to note that many countries which stand out as models to emulate today have laws aimed at fighting corruption, but very few governments as Lee Kuan Yew’s Singapore turned the fight against corruption into a moral imperative, an unerring compass, a powerful political plank and a quasi-spiritual necessity, somewhat akin to a battle between good and evil or light versus darkness. The country he inherited in 1959 was a malaria-infested backwater, with corruption rife under the rotting British colonial administration, the police, the judiciary, the institutions and, of course, the administration and civil servants governing a ubiquitous graft for permits and licenses state. Singapore was further under threat, as Lee perceived it, from neighbours where corruption was endemic and an accepted way of life, considered either as a necessity to grease processes or as a low risk, high reward activity. 

Corruption Fight and the Lee Kuan Yew Example. Pic – African Examiner

His unrelenting goal, even in that complex multi-cultural society, where race, religion and community fashioned voters’ minds, was to buck the trend and turn corruption into a high-risk, low-reward activity transcending those ethnic barriers. Along that road, he was probably the butt of anger from hangers-on to the lucrative status quo and must have been the most criticised politician in Singapore. But eventually he was proven right and soon enough Singaporeans of all confessions discovered and liked the idea of not having to wait, provide “gifts” or pay bakshish for timely delivery of quality services, businesses no longer needed to grease politicians for their investments or permits and Lee’s crusade, both moral and political, paid off handsomely.

The country has been for decades attracting banks, computer software, financial services, information services, manufacturing, in preference to so many neighbours and countries better endowed with natural resources, manpower, and markets. In 2013, two years before his death, Lee Kuan Yew observed that his greatest satisfaction in life was that he had spent years “gathering support, mustering the will to make this place meritocratic, corruption-free and equal for all races – and that it will endure beyond me, as it has”.

It would be fair to say that few countries or world leaders would ever dare compare themselves to a man and leader of such exceptional character and wisdom and such a passionate love for his country. But as one US author wrote, “When Lee Kuan Yew speaks, presidents, prime ministers, diplomats, and CEOs listen.”

Each and every country of course has to deal with its own context, history and economic development trajectory as it grapples with the powerful and the occult, the financial clout of local and established businesses or the lure of the wealthy or corrupt wannabee investor. In an environment where low risk can be guaranteed by executive fiat over watchdog institutions combined with the willing servility of either their CEOs or their Boards, packed with protégés and top-notch civil servants who fail to act as expected bulwarks, the temptation for accepting or seeking the high rewards of corruption can manifestly drive any country to the dogs.

Since the MSM-ML dispensation took office end 2014, its most catchy promises (Metro Out, Water 24/7, meritocratic appointments,…) fell by the wayside while notorious affairs (BAI/Bramer bank, Betamax, etc) for which we are still paying the costs, hogged the limelight. Since then, a seemingly endless succession of scandals have kept the media busy on all fronts (Alvaro-gate, the virtual bankruptcy at Air Mauritius and firesale of its assets, the financial losses at SBM, the gross corruption affairs during the Covid pandemic, the assassination of the MSM agent Kistnen, the strange Wakashio disaster, the opacity of BoM/MIC lending to some crony businesses amongst many others).

Not all these affairs reek of corruption or graft, some we may assume are simple results of gross incompetence of political nominees, cronies and agents, others to a rising generation of civil servants less imbued with the sense of propriety of their predecessors, while others could not simply be bothered to stand up as whistle blowers and risk their career. But the overall impression is that either the deadly combination of cronyism, nepotism and incompetence has attained unsurpassed limits or that pervasive corruption is now far too ingrained at all levels under the ruling regime for it to root it out even if it had the will to do so.

The latest tidings from the State House and the Mercy Commission (read elsewhere in MT) leave little room to doubt that 2023 in that regard may be no different to what we have witnessed so far with public interest and transparency taking a back seat.

In terms of agencies trusted with the challenging but necessary task of keeping the powerful, the well-connected, the well-heeled or even the political brass mindful not to bend the law or cut corners with normal processes in the quest for undue and unhealthy favours, Singapore like us have an anti-corruption agency and top-notch civil servants to act as guardians that ordinary people’s savings and taxes are not being ripped off, even by the political brass. The path to a cleaner governance was not without difficulties and hiccups, as the double conviction in 1991 and 1998 of Glenn Jeyasingam Knight, the first Director of the Commercial Affairs Department (CAD) appointed by Lee in 1984, testifies. The CAD is the principal white-collar crime investigation agency in Singapore. Knight lost his post in 1991 after being convicted of corruption in a much-publicised trial. In 1998, he was again tried and convicted for misappropriating money while in office.

As Lee remarked in 1993 to an international audience, “Once a political system has been corrupted right from the very top leaders to the lowest rungs of the bureaucracy, the problem is very complicated…”. His answer was to inculcate moral leadership qualities both in his ministers, his party-political team, the public institutions, their CEOs and allow the anti-corruption agency the freedom to investigate and take matters to courts, even if the defaulters had been long-time allies or close aides. Not an easy feat by any means in a small city-island with, like us, its social, family and business networks but the lessons steeped in and the legacy has endured to date.

In a topical MT editorial on January 28th 2022 on Corruption and the necessity for freedom of information and transparency of public sector processes, we read the following: “Set against such glaring evidences of financial misdemeanours, the record of ICAC [our anti-corruption agency] to fearlessly track and tackle wrongdoers, leaves much to be desired… As for its sister agencies, the CCID and MCIT, charged with investigating fraud or other criminal activity, their track record in what has become the tragic and cold-blooded murder of an MSM activist who threatened in frustration, it seems, to spill the beans on corrupt practices to which he was party, the Kistnen saga, has seen the summum of unknown unknowns despite the DPP-ordered judicial enquiry.”

Whether such gross ineffectuality is due to a now ingrained pervasive culture of tolerance towards short-cuts, or to widespread ring-kissing of political top-brass or to political affiliations, it does impose some necessity on the political leadership in Opposition, in its various hues and in its alliance discussions, to make known its unwavering stand on such issues as 2023 rolls out. In Navin Ramgoolam, Paul Berenger and Xavier Duval, bulwarked by some new energies, they have the record and experience, the savviness and the vision to leave aside petty egos and differences to take up the challenge of digging the country, its democratic functioning, its desolate institutions and its lacklustre top cadres out of their harmful current state.

Mauritius Times ePaper Friday 13 January 2023

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