Against the backdrop of growing global concern about the ubiquity of corruption and skepticism about the prospects for its eradication, there is heightened interest in “best practices” – real successes achieved by individual states in this area.
The Republic of Singapore is a good example of a successful struggle to eradicate this plague in Asia. It has developed and implemented an effective strategy that has made it possible to eradicate corruption as a “way of life” in a historically short period of time and created one of the most important conditions for the “Singapore miracle.”
Singapore’s success in the fight against corruption has been receiving widespread international recognition. Over the past quarter of a century, the republic has been consistently ranked among the cleanest nations in the world. According to the well-known international ranking “Corruption Perception Index,” at the end of last year, Singapore, along with Denmark, Finland, New Zealand and Norway, was again included in the top five of 180 countries, leaving the rest of Asia far behind.
When discussing the sources of Singapore’s success in this sphere, the experts invariably highlight the importance of the subjective factor – the political will of the country’s top leadership to put the fight against corruption at the heart of government policy. The contribution of Lee Kuan Yew, the “father of the Singapore nation,” the republic’s first prime minister, is particularly noteworthy. In his famous memoirs, he made a strong case for the need to root out corruption, which he dubbed “contagious greed.” This success allowed Singapore to make a historic “leap from the third world to the first.”
An argument could be made that Singapore’s anti-corruption strategy is based on two interrelated blocks of tasks. The first one is aimed at elimination of conditions for corruption. It includes the development and improvement of legislation, formation of special anti-corruption bodies, organization of supervision of those activities where power can be used for personal gain, control over the passage of budget funds, reduction, simplification and transparency of most administrative procedures.
Another problem block is related to the elimination of incentives to commit corruption. Its main content was the formulation and approval in practice of the principles of “honest and incorruptible government” and their extension to the entire civil service. Singapore’s anti-corruption legislation is based on the principle of “rule of law and equality of all before the law.” Leaders of the state have traditionally set a personal example in enforcing the law by making information about their wealth, income, commercial interests and financial transactions publicly available. In the case of detection of violations, no post, no matter how high it may be, can serve as a protection from punishment.
An important key to the success of Singapore’s anti-corruption efforts has been to build broad public rejection of this scourge. After all, in Singapore, where over 70% of the residents are ethnic Chinese, the basis of the prevailing morality and ethics is traditionally Confucianism, orienting people to unconditional assistance to family members and relatives. However, as a result of the purposeful and strict line under the slogan “if you want to defeat corruption, be prepared to send your friends and relatives to prison,” Singapore has broken the stereotypes that have been rooted in the public consciousness. The measures have led to a shift from the earlier perception of corruption as a “high-yield, low-risk business” to a “dubious-yield, high-risk business.” According to the Corrupt Practices Investigation Bureau, Singapore’s chief corruption watchdog, the government’s current course has the support of an overwhelming majority of Singaporean society.
Against this backdrop, it is noteworthy that Singapore’s impressive achievements in the area of anti-corruption have been met with a mixed response. Moreover, they are in the focus of a sharp ideological confrontation with the adherents of liberal values from the West. The essence of this conflict was formulated in his time by the famous American political scientist Fukuyama, who said that “the soft authoritarianism of countries such as Singapore is a potential rival to liberal democracy.”
Without any reason to openly ignore Singapore’s obvious successes in the fight against corruption, Western critics focused on exposing the “authoritarian and undemocratic” nature of Singapore’s anti-corruption methods as inconsistent with “liberal norms and values.” What they did not like was that Singapore’s flagship Prevention of Corruption Act, unlike other legal practices around the world, establishes a “presumption of guilt”: any gratuity received by an official from another person will be considered a “corruption inducement” or a “reward for services” until proven otherwise. Proof of innocence would fall on the suspect himself. Singapore’s penalties for violators of the law have also been deemed inhumane and excessively cruel in the West. The penalties for those found guilty of corruption offences, which include bribe-giver and bribe-taker alike, are up to 100,000 SGD (about 80,000 USD, or imprisonment for 5 to 7 years.
Western liberals’ attacks on Singapore’s anti-corruption policies have often misfired. The patriarch of Western liberalism Samuel Huntington’s prediction that “the integrity and efficiency that Mr. Lee Kuan Yew instilled in Singapore is likely to follow him to his grave” did not stand the test of time. Contrary to such prophecies, the clear and easy-to-understand objectives of the anti-corruption strategy as well as the rigorous methods of achieving them laid down by the father of the Singapore nation have produced programmed results and have gained acceptability in the policies of the current government of Lee Hsien Loong, the acknowledged successor to his father.
The criticism of Singapore’s anti-corruption strategy in the West from the perspective of the fundamental liberal values – the development of democracy, parliamentarism, freedom of the press, etc. – is openly politicized and often quite clumsy. Supposedly, if Asia were to follow the liberal formula in fighting corruption, countries such as Thailand and the Philippines, which have a long tradition of democratic institutions, would be way ahead of the rest of Asia in combating corruption, while Singapore, with its rigid legislation, would never be a leader in this area. In reality, the exact opposite is true.
The prospects of resolving the sharp ideological dispute over the preference of liberal-democratic or authoritarian tools for achieving victory over corruption on the example of Singapore seem premature. Moreover, given the growing intensity of the struggle for the formation of a new global world order and, in particular, the prospects of forming its new pole (or poles) in Asia, this struggle is acute and uncompromising. Today, the strong and consistent policy of Singapore’s leadership has caused a painful reaction of the West, especially in the US, where it is seen as a manifestation of the growing “authoritarianism offensive” in Asia, which is a threat to the unipolar world order and the “American leadership” on the continent.
Leonid Gladchenko, expert political analyst and member of the “Analitika” Association, exclusively for the online journal “New Eastern Outlook”