Singapore’s corruption fight

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Singapore’s corruption fight

NEW YORK - Many of the eulogies to Lee Kuan Yew, the long-time prime minister of Singapore who died in March, singled out his successful battle against corruption. Often implicit in this analysis (when not made explicit) was the suggestion that Lee’s accomplishments were made possible by his authoritarian style of governing.

Aside from this supposition’s profoundly antidemocratic implications, it also happens to be empirically false. Yes, Singapore ranked seventh out of more than 170 countries on Transparency International’s corruption survey last year. But a look at the other countries in the top 15 is much more revealing: every one of them is a thriving democracy.

Freedom House, a watchdog group that rates countries on a seven-point scale according to political rights and civil liberties, gave Singapore a grade of 4 in both categories. Every other country in Transparency International’s top 15 received the best possible score of 1 in each.

Indeed, there’s nothing inherently authoritarian about the anticorruption measures that made Lee’s efforts a success. With some modifications, they could by applied in most democracies.

For starters, Singapore aggressively pursues white-collar criminals, imposing prison sentences not just on those who accept bribes, but also on those who offer them. And those convicted of receiving illicit money are obligated to pay it back. In 1995, for example, Singapore’s deputy chief executive for public utilities was found guilty of accepting bribes worth $9.8 million. He was sentenced to 14 years in prison and ordered to pay back the full amount.

Singapore also pays its government employees well, which allows it to attract and retain top talent - and gives those whom it hires a powerful incentive to stay honest. The government monitors what the private sector pays for a wide range of skills, positions, and tasks, and it attempts to maintain public employees’ salaries at no less than 75 percent of that level.

For senior government officials, pay rates are more than competitive. Last year, the median total pay for a chief executive officer in Singapore was $673,000, according to the Hay Group, a global consulting firm. By comparison, a top minister receives more than $800,000, according to a government study. A well-paid government official, the thinking goes, will be less likely to engage in corruption, particularly if high pay is complemented by stiff penalties for succumbing to temptation.

Moreover, Singapore has removed opportunities for corruption by making many government services available over the Internet or via mobile phones. Singapore’s public sector has the third most developed electronic presence in the world, after South Korea and Australia, according to a report by the United Nations. As a result, it is harder for a dishonest official to find occasions to demand bribes or skim from government payouts.

These measures are popular with the country’s citizens, indicating that there is no reason that democratization would erode Singapore’s anticorruption efforts. What many citizens do want now is greater personal and political freedom, and greater control over government, so that scarce goods like housing are distributed more fairly. Indeed, it is quite possible that a freer civil society and the transcendence of one-party rule could strengthen Singapore’s motivation and capacity to fight corruption.

Singapore’s press sometimes struggles to carry out its watchdog role. Freedom House calls the country’s media “not free,” citing high levels of self-censorship that largely reflect fear of “post-publication punitive action.” The government enforces draconian antidefamation legislation and compels many media organizations to buy $40,000 bonds that are forfeited if the government wins a defamation suit.

In the vast majority of the world’s least corrupt countries, a free press, a robust civil society, and a competitive political environment work together to keep dishonesty in check. Were Singapore to adopt a less authoritarian political system, the result would almost certainly be the same.Copyright: Project Syndicate, 2015.


Alfred Stepan is a professor of government at Columbia University. Richa Maheshwari is a graduate student in Public Administration at Columbia University and a citizen of Singapore.


by Richa Maheshwari

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