Rajika Jayatilake writes that Singapore’s corruption fighting mantra is a model for other countries to follow

If a country’s leadership and its people ignore rampant corruption, it is seen as an unpatriotic nation. US President Joe Biden avers: “Fighting corruption is not just good governance. It’s self-defence. It’s patriotism.”

Singapore’s consideration as the most patriotic and transparent nation in Asia, and one of the most patriotic countries in the world, is in line with this perception.

Recently, Transparency International (TI) ranked Singapore as the fourth least corrupt nation in the world, tied with Sweden and Norway – it scored 85 in TI’s Corruption Perceptions Index (CPI) in 2020 and 2021. What’s more, a recent TI survey found that most Singaporeans have never heard news about corrupt public officials or public institutions in their lifetime.

This is in contrast to the days when as a British colony, corruption was a way of life in Singapore. Police corruption was particularly rampant and the public viewed it as a ‘low risk, high reward’ activity because errant officials indulging in corruption mostly got away or escaped lightly.

Therefore, it remained a serious problem in Singapore during the colonial era because the British did nothing to curb it.

Then in May 1959, corruption became a campaign issue in Singapore’s general elections with the People’s Action Party (PAP) coming to power on a platform to curb it. Former Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew, one of the founders of the PAP, later disclosed in his memoirs the reason why he and fellow founders of his party were single-minded in eradicating corruption from the fabric of Singaporean society.

He wrote: “We were sickened by the greed, corruption and decadence of many Asian leaders. We had a deep sense of mission to establish a clean and effective government. When we took the oath of office in June 1959, we all wore white shirts and white slacks, to symbolise purity and honesty in our personal behaviour and public life.”

“We made sure from the day we took office in June 1959 that every dollar in revenue would be properly accounted for and would reach the beneficiaries at the grass roots as one dollar without being siphoned off along the way,” he added.

This vision enabled Singapore’s leadership to zero in on areas that were vulnerable to corruption and where discretionary powers had been used for personal gain. The leaders focussed on bringing to play sharpened strategies to prevent, detect and deter such illegal activity.

The war against corruption began in earnest in 1960 with the PAP government enacting the Prevention of Corruption Act (PCA) and making the Corrupt Practices Investigation Bureau (CPIB) the sole agency with authority to fight corruption in all of Singapore.

Today, the two main weapons that country uses are its PCA and the Corruption, Drug Trafficking and Other Serious Crimes (Confiscation of Benefits) Act (CDSA).

The PCA gives far-reaching authority to the CPIB with powers to ferret out givers and takers of bribes – in both the public and private sectors. In addition, the CDSA gives authority to the CPIB to confiscate illicit profits received from corrupt transactions.

Therefore, the PCA and CDSA together have converted corruption from a lucrative money-spinner to a ‘high risk, low reward’ activity, which public officials and private sector employees alike avoid like the plague – for fear of detection and punishment.

This is possible because no one is above the law in Singapore. A wrongdoer’s rank, seniority or political affiliations count for nothing.

And once CPIB investigations are completed, the cases are taken over by the Attorney General’s Chambers (AGC), which is the prosecutorial division of Singapore’s criminal justice system. The AGC requires the Public Prosecutor to give it the green light to go ahead with court proceedings.

If any public official is found guilty of corruption in a government contract or proposal for the same, he or she will be fined up to 100,000 Singaporean Dollars or face a maximum prison sentence of seven years, or both.

Public officials are expected to report to authorities any instances where bribes are offered, demanded or accepted. Public officials who keep quiet about a bribe offered to them face a fine of up to 5,000 dollars or a maximum prison term of six months, or both.

Moreover, the PCA presumes that any public official who has received a bribe is corrupt and it’s the responsibility of that official to prove his or her innocence.

As a result, the PCA of 1960 has ensured the incorruptibility of public officials through deterrence using intransigent laws and inevitable punishment. What’s more, Singapore has an independent judiciary that’s protected from political interference. And judicial appointments are transparent and totally focussed on administering the rule of law.

As former Secretary-General of the UN Kofi Annan once said: “Corruption is a disease and transparency is an essential part of its treatment.”