A New Perspective on Singapore’s National Integrity System
By Tan Tay Keong
Corruption Control in Singapore
During the country’s formative years in the 1950s and 1960s, corruption was rampant in Singapore. Syndicated corruption was rampant among police officers, public health inspectors, customs officials, and school administrators. Corruption was a way of life in the city during the British colonial rule and the Japanese occupation.
In his Annual Report in 1950, the Commissioner of Police revealed a worsening of the corruption problem in the post-war period and that graft was rife in government departments in Singapore.” In the 1950s, the Anti-Corruption Branch (a section of the Criminal Investigation Department) was too weak to tackle the extensive bribery, extortion, and protection rackets. By the late fifties, corruption was such a scourge that the People’s Action Party (PAP) made stamping out graft a major tenet of its party platform, the white shirts of PAP candidates symbolizing the party’s commitment to clean government. The PAP won the 1959 general elections and has been in power in Singapore ever since.
In his memoirs, long-time Prime Minister and now Senior Minister Lee Kuan Yew recalled the widespread graft which infested the bureaucracy in the early years after Singapore’s independence:
Corruption used to be organized on a large scale in certain areas. In 1971 the CPIB [Corrupt Practices Investigation Bureau] broke up a syndicate of over 250 mobile squad policemen who received payments ranging from S$5 to S$10 per month from lorry owners whose vehicles they recognized by the addresses painted on the side of the lorries. Those owners who refused to pay would be constantly harassed by having summonses issued against them.
Customs officers would receive bribes to speed up the checking of vehicles smuggling in prohibited goods. Personnel in the Central Supplies Office (the government’s procurement department) provided information on tender bids for a fee. Officers in the import and export department received bribes to hasten the issue of permits . . .. Public health laborers were paid by shopkeepers and residents to do their job of clearing refuse. Principals and teachers in some Chinese schools received commissions from stationary suppliers. Human ingenuity is infinite when translating power and discretion into personal gain.
However, from the 1960s, Singapore began to purge the cancer of corruption and has since acquired an international reputation of being a relatively corruption-free country. It became one of the very few countries in the developing world in the post-World War II period that was able to bring the corruption problem under control after it had already become entrenched in government, business and society. Most Singaporeans will never in their lifetimes have to pay a bribe to gain access to public services. In fact, the country made the leap from a Third World to a developed country status during that same period of transformation.
Transparency International’s (TI) 2002 Corruption Perception Index (CPI), which is an indicator of the levels of corruption in the public sector as perceived by business people, country analysts and citizens, shows an alarming level of corruption in the majority of the 102 countries surveyed. The corporate scandals of the past years in the US have revealed the need for both the private sector to strengthen its governance and the public sector to improve its vigilance.
Recently, in April 2003, Singapore was ranked at the top in a new 35-country study of transparency in business, economic policy and regulation. PricewaterhouseCoopers' Opacity Index rated countries by five critical factors that affect capital markets - a) corruption, b) legal system, c) government macroeconomic and fiscal policies, d) accounting standards and practices (including corporate governance and information...