Category: Singapore Perspectives 2013: Governance

Is There Legalised Corruption in Singapore?

I refer to the Institute of Policy Studies (IPS)’s report of the Singapore Perspectives 2013 Conference on Governance that was held on 28 January 2013.

Please allow me to discuss the report highlights.

Professor Chan Heng Chee, Ambassador-at-Large, Ministry of Foreign Affairs, “highlighted that the core values of governance that Singaporeans have imbibed and value are meritocracy; zero tolerance of corruption; diversity of race, language, religion and culture; and rule of law.”

In this article I would like to discuss the value of “zero tolerance of corruption”.

‘Legalised’ Corruption

I would like to bring your attention to a paper by Kaufmann and Vicente, titled, “Legal Corruption”, where the paper describes how, “it is increasingly widely accepted that corruption may arise through other less obvious forms, which may involve collusion between parties typically both from the public and private sectors, and may be legal in many countries. Legal lobbying contributions by the private sector in exchange of passage of particular legislation – biased in favor of those agents – or allocation of procurement contracts may be regarded as examples of interaction of both private and public sector representatives where the second makes use of her publicly invested power at the expense of broader public welfare.” Does the recent Aim-AHTC comes to mind? The paper argues that, ” conceptually legal corruption may be quite close to its illegal counterpart“.

Urgent Need for Independent Governing Bodies

In a manual by the OECD, titled, “Preventing Corruption”, the manual recommends that in order to prevent corruption in public administrations, there needs to be an “independent public service“. The report also states that, “public procurement is an especially corruption-prone area” and that “review … mechanisms … requires … that independent scrutiny mechanisms be in place.” With the recent Aim-AHTC episode, PAP has directed the Ministry of National Development (MND) to “review” the “fundamental nature” of the town councils. International recommendations recommend that first, the public service should be independent and second, that reviews are conducted independently. Clearly, the review of Aim does not satisfy both criteria. MND is headed by Minister Khaw Boon Wan, who is also the Chairman of PAP. MND is thus not and cannot be an independent public service body. Also, MND is an “administrator” of the town councils. Thus MND is unable to independently review the town councils, by all accounts. To be clear, the Aim-AHTC episode is only one of the many incidents that have occurred in Singapore but have eventually gone under the radar of Singaporeans. On the surface, it looks like Singapore is non-corrupt. But Singaporeans’ ability to police our government and protect ourselves is severely compromised by the lack of independence of our governing bodies – essentially being that they are all tied to PAP.

It is of course desirable that Prof Chan states that there should be “zero tolerance of corruption”. However, just by the Aim-AHTC episode alone, this has throw up numerous questions about the form of corruption that Singapore does not tolerate, and the “less obvious forms” that it might actually tolerate. If this is the case, what does Singapore truly mean when we say “zero corruption”? Who does it benefit? And who loses out? Essentially, who or what is it trying to protect? When Prof Chan says that Singaporeans “want a better implementation of these ideals (of zero tolerance of corruption and the rule of law) going forward … (and) will expect to play a greater role in governance,” what this also means is that Singaporeans no longer think that it is enough that Singapore operates business-as-usual. Singaporeans do not trust the credibility of our government to be able to operate independently, precisely because of the lack of independence between the bodies of governance – our government, public service, judiciary etc.

Mr Lee Tzu Yang, Member, Academic Panel, IPS, had said that, “trust in the government and governance was dependent not only on political leadership and politicians but also on how robust state institutions are in playing their role. It was important for these institutions, like the civil service and judiciary, to be strengthened and ensure that good governance prevails regardless of how politics plays out.”

Ms Sylvia Lim, the Chairperson of the Worker’s Party, affirmed that “this should be explored, especially in relation to how the People’s Association and the Town Councils are constituted and run.”

Does Singapore Have an Independent Judiciary?

But when Mr Lee Tzu Yang speaks of “strengthening” our “judiciary” so that, “good governance prevails regardless of how politics plays out”, how does he propose we do it? In 2008, the International Bar Association (IBA)’s human-rights institute issued a report on “human rights, democracy and the rule of law” in Singapore. According to The Wall Street Journal, “the 72-page report also describes “concerns about the objective and subjective independence and impartiality” of the judiciary. In cases involving litigants from the ruling People’s Action Party or PAP interests, the IBA finds “concerns about an actual or apparent lack of impartiality and/or independence, which casts doubt on the decisions made in such cases … The IBA report concludes with 18 recommendations, including abolishing defamation as a criminal offense and urging government officials to “stop initiating defamation claims for criticisms made in the course of political debate.”

The then-Press Secretary of the Minister for Law S. Radha then refuted the report by saying that, “Singaporeans know that they have a noncorrupt government and an independent judiciary. They live in one of the top five most transparent countries in the world, with the freedom to express their views, oppose the government and take part in free and fair elections. Singaporeans will choose for themselves the shape and norms for their society.

It is preposterous for S. Radha to speak of the behalf of Singaporeans. Clearly, Singaporeans have chosen for ourselves what we want for our society – we smacked PAP down in General Election 2011. If not for the fact that in Singapore, the seats are not representative of the vote share, it wouldn’t be just 8 seats in Parliament, but 35 seats which will be filled by our opposition parties, to speak out for the 40% of Singaporeans who have voted against PAP. 

I leave with you the basic principles that an independent judiciary should operate on, which can be found on the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights’s website. Now, we can argue till the cow’s come home and PAP will remain indignant that they operate an independent judiciary and that PAP themselves are capable of policing themselves.

In the OCED manual, the report states that, “to counter the increased risk of undue influence over appointments to senior positions … independent central bodies with constitutional status appoint civil servants to senior positions.” This should be a system that Singapore operates upon and one that we urgently need to aspire towards. However, PM Lee had himself countered that “it would be unwieldy” to create “a separate system of elections for municipal government headed by mayors.” He claims that the current system is sufficient because “investors now only need to deal with central government rather than negotiate at multiple levels to conduct their business here.”

However, there is numerous research which suggests that with power, power corrupts. A study by Fast, Halevy and Galinsky in the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology showed that “many quite ordinary people will succumb to bad behaviour if the circumstances are right” and will “simply gravitate into jobs which allow them to behave badly.”

I will look deeper into theories of power, independence and cooperation in future. But if there is anything that PM Lee needs to understand, you do not need all bodies of governance to be owned together in order for “negotiation at multiple levels” and business to be conducted easily and efficiently. If anything, the different bodies of governance should have the responsibility that it is in the interests of the country to work together and cooperate, even if they operate independently from one another. Is PM Lee suggesting that his comrades are unable to cooperate and thus our governing bodies can thus not exist independently? Well, Singaporeans have a thing or two to say about the ability of PAP to cooperate or not.

In any instance, it is clear that the lack of independence of our governing bodies prevents competition among the governing bodies. The PAP government has been a regular and steadfast champion on economic competition, without which, they say, will lead to economic stagnation and non-productivity. It is highly hypocritical and two-face when the government acknowledges the need to pander towards decentralising control when they desire economic profitability, yet chooses to centralise their control for political longevity. 

It is clear that it is not in Singapore’s and Singaporeans’ interests that the PAP government continues to lord over Singapore in increasingly defiant ways. Singaporeans have sent numerous shock-waves to PAP that they no longer want to be beguiled into a sense of helplessness and powerlessness. Now, if PAP does not listen and respond accurately to ground sentiments, don’t be surprised if disfranchisement spills over.