Thursday 20 September 2012

Incorruptibility ingrained in Singaporean psyche

This is an excerpt from Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong's speech yesterday at the Corrupt Practices Investigation Bureau's 60th Anniversary celebration.
Published The Straits Times, 19 Sep 2012

SINGAPORE is well recognised to be a clean and incorrupt country.

Our international rankings in this respect are high, whether it is with Transparency International, Political & Economic Risk Consultancy (Perc), or the World Bank.

But beyond the rankings, incorruptibility has become ingrained in the Singaporean psyche and culture.

Singaporeans expect and demand a clean system; unlike in some countries, they will not give or accept "social lubricants" to get things done, no matter how small.

Indeed, many of the tip-offs to the Corrupt Practices Investigation Bureau (CPIB) come from the public. And we expect all cases to be thoroughly investigated and the culprits strictly punished.

Singapore has greatly benefited from this. People and companies are reputed for honesty, reliability and trustworthiness. The overall system functions properly because policies are developed for the public good rather than private or vested interests.

Hence we can do things that others cannot do. For example:
- Entrepreneurs can register a business in 15 minutes and compete fairly and squarely;
- Public officers can be trusted to manage multimillion-dollar projects in the national interest instead of personal gain; and 
- Singaporeans know that they can make it if they work hard, regardless of family background or personal connections.

Our fight against corruption

THE CPIB has played a big part in this success. It has enforced anti- corruption laws impartially and vigorously; investigated cases thoroughly, and brought offenders to justice; and established a reputation as a formidable agency, thorough and fearless, able to detect any whiff of corruption and bring the perpetrators to justice.

The credit should go to past directors of the CPIB, including Mr Evan Yeo, Mr Chua Cher Yak and Mr Soh Kee Hean, and to the officers who have toiled silently behind the scenes, sometimes despite risks to themselves and their families.

The CPIB has been able to do its work because it belongs to a larger political and government system which emphasises integrity and incorruptibility.

First, strong political leadership beginning in 1959 when the newly elected PAP Government began to build a clean and incorrupt Singapore. It decided to fight to win the general election and form the first government, to ensure that corruption did not set in after the British handover.

The PAP Government was determined to build an honest public service that would serve the people of Singapore. It believed in meritocracy, where people succeed through their own effort and ability, not by wealth, status or ill-gotten means.

Since then, successive governments have backed the CPIB fully and set high standards of integrity - not flinching wherever the investigations led, even if ministers are implicated, for example, Wee Toon Boon, Phey Yew Kok, Teh Cheang Wan.

Also established are proper systems to "guard the guards". In other words, to put right any instances of wrongdoing in the enforcement agencies - whether it be in the police force, or in the CPIB itself.

If something is not proper, it will be found out and investigated and put right. For this, we have to thank the former prime ministers, Mr Lee Kuan Yew and ESM Goh Chok Tong, for their leadership and resolve which led a national effort which made it possible.

Beyond the political leadership, we also effected tough laws and enforced them vigorously.

The Prevention of Corruption Act had a wide scope which covered both the public and private sectors, which applied to persons who give or receive bribes and everybody in between, and which put the burden of proof on the accused to show how he legally acquired his wealth so that if he has unexplained wealth disproportionate to his known sources of income, that is considered as corroboration of graft.

We've made the CPIB a strictly independent agency: The director is appointed by the President, acting in his discretion, and he reports to the Prime Minister but having the second path for approval if the PM refuses permission for an investigation.

Then the CPIB director can go to the President and obtain the permission to proceed.

Thirdly, we've kept money out of politics. In many countries, whether developing or developed, corruption and vote-buying pervade politics. Candidates spend large sums on their campaigns and rely heavily on donors for financing and often the donors finance both sides to buy insurance. After the election, the candidates as well as their donors expect to reap a return on their investments.

Singapore, in contrast, has rigorously eschewed money politics. Elected leaders are not beholden to anyone and can do the right thing for voters.

Fourthly, we've paid public officers properly commensurate with their job scope, in line with the private sector earnings. And therefore we've been able to insist on high standards of integrity and performance and avoided the problems of other countries which paid officers unrealistically low wages, resulting in endemic corruption at all levels.

Keeping Singapore corruption-free

THIS is how we have kept the system clean, but a clean system is not a natural state of affairs.

Corruption ultimately arises from weaknesses of human nature - greed, temptation, desire to enrich oneself or obtain business through unfair means.

Even with harsh penalties, some will still try to break the rules, and will be caught and punished from time to time.

If penalties are not rigorously enforced, or such behaviour becomes socially acceptable, then we are headed down a slippery slope. Ultimately, the price of corruption is not just the dollar amount of the bribes, but the cost to society of the bad decisions and malfunctioning systems which far exceeds the money exchanged.

Therefore, we can never be complacent in the fight against corruption. The number of complaints and cases registered have steadily decreased in recent years.

The number of cases taken to court has also fallen.

Cases involving the Government form only a small proportion of total cases, and are not increasing either.

But unfortunately in recent months, there has been a spate of cases involving public officers. The cases are not related to one another. Several involved senior officers. Many of them are still being investigated or tried, so I cannot comment on them.

But I can say that it is bad that some officers have not lived up to the high standards which the civil service and the people expect of public servants.

I'm confident that these lapses are not typical of the public service. The overwhelming majority of officers are upright and trustworthy, and the cases which have come up reflect our determination to clamp down on corruption and wrongdoing even when it's awkward or embarrassing for the Government.

Let me be quite clear: We will never tolerate corruption and we will not accept any slackening.

Anyone who breaks the rules will be caught and punished - no cover-ups, no matter how senior the officer or how embarrassing it may be.

It is far better to suffer the embarrassment and keep the system clean, than to pretend that nothing went wrong and let the rot spread.

We are reviewing and tightening the system to maintain our high standards of honesty, for example, stricter procurement rules, reviewing approving authorities and spending limits.

But we have to balance between instituting more safeguards and burdening the system with too many checks because ultimately no system can completely stop a determined cheat.

And part of the solution has to be that if you do it, we will catch you and punish you.

But another very important part of the solution has to be that our officers are imbued with the right values.

Keeping Singapore clean goes beyond the civil service. Political leaders must continue to set high standards of honesty and integrity.

The society must continue to reject corruption - not just because of rules and penalties, but because this reflects the society we want to live in, and the values we hold ourselves to.

Then we can keep Singapore special and a home we will continue to be proud of.

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