Yesterday, Singapore was named fifth-least corrupt country according to Transparency International’s 2012 Corruption Perception Index (CPI). The index — which include 176 countries around the world — is ranked based on how corrupt their administrative and political institutions are perceived to be on a scale from 0 (highly corrupt) and a 100 (very clean).
Singapore scored 87, placing only three points behind the three states which tied for first place.
China and many of the Asian tigers have a notorious reputation for their rampant graft, scandal, and illicit activity in the public sector . But in recent decades, Singapore has stood out in comparison to its peers for its lack of perceived corruption.
“Corruption [in Singapore] is fact of life rather than a way of life. Put differently, corruption exists in Singapore, but Singapore is not a corrupt society,” Professor John S.T. Quah— one of the world’s foremost experts on corruption and governance in Asia — noted in 1987.
Singapore hasn’t always been graft free. Corruption was prominent from Singapore’s colonial era until the end of the Japanese occupation in 1945. Quah posits that the following three factors lead to were the crucial elements that led to corruption in Singapore: “[low] salaries, opportunities (which depend on the extent of involvement of civil servants in the administration or control of lucrative activities), and policing (i.e., the probability of detection and punishment).”
So why has Singapore been so successful in stamping out crooked behaviour, despite its history? And could its solution be a model for China, which has dealt with a plethora of embarrassing scandals in the last year?
Many point to the country’s incredibly stringent, almost draconian penal code. Jaywalking, littering, and spitting can get you arrested, failing to flush a public toilet or chewing gum in the open can each lead to a fine, and vandalism is punished by caning.
Laws against corruption are tough as well. The Corrupt Practices Investigation Bureau works directly with the Prime Minister’s office and wields significant power; the Bureau can arrest individuals without a warrant and execute search and seizure orders carte blanche if there are “reasonable grounds to believe that any delay in obtaining the search warrant is likely to frustrate the object of the search.”
Those accused of corruption usually face a 5-year jail term and up to S$100,000 ($80,000) fine, and Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong wants to add even more penalties as a form of deterrence, according to the Associated Press.
Lee made it clear that “it’s far better to suffer the embarrassment and keep the system clean for the long-term, than to pretend that nothing has gone wrong and to let the rot spread,” after a rare corruption scandal surfaced this year.
Some argue that Singapore’s tough legal code have created a society that resembles an Orwellian dystopia, in which stringent laws keep the population in line and society sparkly clean.
But the results are noticeable, as Singapore has one of the lowest crime and corruption rates in the world.
It’s a two-part planTough laws and sentences can scare the populace into submission and make for a good read, but Singapore’s anti-corruption laws are part of a two part plan. Punishment only alters the risk level of graft, not the reward factor.
The Singapore government keeps the salaries of politicians and civil servants high in order prevent talented, honest Singaporeans from leaving and to stifle the economic incentive to engage in corrupt activity. By tackling both the policing and financial factors of corruption, the payoff of corrupt activity is shifted from a low risk, high reward to high risk, low reward.
During Singapore’s rule by the British and early independence, the state did not have the wealth it does today, and therefore could not afford to raise the salaries of politicians and civil servants. The shift came in the 1980s, when then Prime Minster Lee Kuan Yew enacted salary raises for senior level government officials and politicians.
“He concluded that best way of dealing with corruption was ‘moving with the market [to incentive good behaviour],” Quah explains, “which is ‘an honest, open, defensible and workable system’ instead of hypocrisy, which results in duplicity and corruption.”
Punishment, incarceration, and deterrence
Quah contends that there are four ‘lessons’ that can be learned by other Asian countries from Singapore’s example:
- Political will is the key ingredient for success
- The anti-corruption agency must be independent from the police and political control
- The anti-corruption agency must be incorruptible
- Minimize corruption by tackling its major sources: low salaries, ample opportunities, and poor policing
But Quah stresses that political will is the most crucial factor: “The principal people who can change a culture of corruption if they wish to do so are politicians. This is because they make the laws and allocate the funds that enable the laws to be enforced.”At the end of his life, famed criminologist Cesare Lombroso concluded that there is no solution to the problem of crime, except punishment, incarceration, and deterrence. His assertion can be seen in Singapore’s anti-corruption strategy.
So the question remains — would similar harsh laws and salary increases effectively shift the risk/reward payoffs of corruption in China?
By Lombroso’s logic and Quah’s policy prescriptions, it’s possible. But one cannot discount the cultural, historical and geographical differences between Singapore and China (and within China) that shape government and public attitudes towards corruption.
Singapore’s tough law code is reflective of its relatively conservative culture. While parts of China might share these social attitudes, others do not. And monitoring a government running a country of 5 million people living in 274 square miles is nothing compared to another with 1.3 billion people living in 3.7 million square miles.
Further, the Communist party structure poses a different set of challenges. It would be easy for the Chinese Communist Party to pass similar stringent anti-corruption laws, as unelected officials have a much easier time passing legislation.
But corruption has historically had a direct correlation to economic growth in China. Andrew Wedeman, author of Double Paradox: Rapid Growth and Rising Corruption in China, notes that corruption actually feeds of rapid growth: “China is different because the Communist Party does not depend on injections of cash from the private sector.”
If China’s new leader, Xi Jinping, follows up on his promises to tackle corruption, Singapore’s model and a revived political could signal a significant shift in the battle against corruption. But continuing economic expansion, including a plan revealed by Xinhua today to further open the Chinese economy, could hinder anti-corruption efforts, in the same manner that Deng Xiaoping’s economic reforms fuelled the Chinese corruption machine.
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