Lessons from Singapore

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20160408_113450Steven PreeceBy Steven Preece

I had never seen an ad about anti-corruption while taking public transport – until last week in Singapore. I was on a family holiday there and saw an ad on the metro (subway) for a free anti-corruption exhibition organised by the Corrupt Practices Investigation Bureau (CPIB), the Singapore agency that investigates corruption. Seriously impressive! Having obtained agreement from a thankfully understanding family, I checked it out.

It was great. Running from 7 April to 22 May 2016 in the National Library of Singapore, “Declassified – Corruption Matters” shows how Singapore went in 60 or so years from a colonial trading port rife with corruption to Asia’s number one least corrupt country and one of the top ten least corrupt countries in the *world*.

The CPIB was originally founded in 1952 by the British. Under the colonial regime, however, its members had been poorly paid in comparison to other law enforcement and the Bureau was understaffed. Staff turnover was high. There was little political appetite for effective anti-corruption enforcement. Law enforcers themselves were involved in corruption.

So what changed?

From the exhibition’s display boards and interactive technology, we learn that independent Singapore’s first Prime Minister, the late Lee Kuan Yew, from the very start had a vision for a prosperous and uncorrupt country. He realized that corruption destroys the moral fiber of a country and that it’s simply bad for business: corruption undermines investor confidence. So committed to stamping out corruption was Lee Kuan Yew that he and his colleagues even wore white clothes when sworn in in 1959, symbolizing purity.

Delivering on this commitment, in 1960, one year following independence from the British, Singapore adopted a tough and effective anti-corruption law to replace the relatively ineffective British colonial laws. The CPIB was given proper funding, effective investigative powers and independence.IMG_20160412_112945_hdr

The CPIB’s independence is indeed remarkable. The Director of the CPIB reports directly to the Prime Minister. If the Prime Minister ever sought to block a CPIB investigation, then under the law, the Director of the CPIB could report to the President of Singapore and continue the investigation. This sends a clear signal that nobody is exempt. And the exhibition shows that in Singapore, this is indeed the case in practice. Examples of successful CPIB cases presented in the exhibition range from some soccer players and referees rigging games to senior Government officials involved in corrupt real estate activity. Nobody is exempt.

So highly regarded is the CPIB that it was presented with one of the artillery shells from the 21-gun salute at Lee Kuan Yew’s state funeral, which is displayed at the exhibition.

Summing up, the exhibition sets out four key elements to Singapore’s successful anti-corruption strategy:

1) a strong political will
2) effective laws
3) effective enforcement
4) an independent judiciary.

The CPIB’s exhibition reinforces key learnings taught by the SCCE — and others — about what it takes to combat corruption. These include the importance of strong commitment at the top, the need for independence of those involved in anti-corruption activities and a zero tolerance culture for corruption, whoever is involved.

The very fact that an exhibition of this kind is advertised on public transport suggests to me that Singapore’s anti-corruption framework is rightly a point of national pride. We can learn a lot from Singapore. I am very glad that I saw that ad on the subway!

“Declassified — Corruption Matters” runs until 22 May 2016 at the National Library of Singapore, after which it will tour local libraries around Singapore. The exhibition is free of charge.

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