Policymakers in developing countries hunting for relevant examples of successful efforts to combat corruption are often urged to look to Singapore. (Click here, here, and here for representative publications.) Not only does it regularly score at or near the top of Transparency International’s Corruption Perceptions Index (in seventh place in the just released 2014 index) but its history is similar to that of developing nations. For much of the modern era it was under colonial rule, becoming fully independent only in 1965, and independence followed a turbulent decade marked by insurgency and social upheaval. Again like many of today’s developing nations, at independence it had a backward economy and poorly educated citizenry. Its success in lifting its citizens out of poverty and creating a modern economy, often attributed at least in part to how well it has done in curbing corruption, makes it an all the more attractive model for developing states.
But Singapore differs in so many critical ways from these nations that its relevance for their development is questionable at best.
First and most obvious is that it when it became a nation, it was well endowed and thus did not face the long, challenging, and politically painful climb from poverty to wealth that developing states today confront. Although a relatively underdeveloped colonial outpost at independence, it grew rapidly thanks to its open economy, English-speaking population, and location on a major trading route. Combating corruption while making the slow climb from a poor to a rich country is an extraordinarily difficult challenge. Looking back at the history of the U.S. and West European countries, it is not clear any of them ever did it successfully. They got rich and then suppressed (more or less) corruption.
Singapore’s wealth is a second reason why its experience may not be relevant. It famously pays its public servants very well, hence reducing their inventive to take bribes or engage in other corrupt activities. Its wealth also means that citizens are cushioned from the hardships of extreme poverty that remains an ever present threat in developing states and which provides an additional reason for government employees to build up their savings through illegal means.
A third reason why the Singapore experience may not be a model for developing states is its size. Its population is less than six million of which a little more than half are citizens, and its territory covers less than 800 sq. kilometers. Outside of the island nations of the Caribbean and Australasia, only a handful of developing countries are as tiny. While there are surely unique governance problems arising from its small size, Singapore’s size means many of the problems developing states face – center-provincial relations, ethnic and regional separatist movements — and the attendant governance problems these pose (and for which corruption can be at least a short-term palliative) simply are not part of its development experience.
Singapore’s size likely also contributed to what is likely the most important factor in its successful effort to combat corruption: a strong one-party state with a powerful chief executive. This combination provided the “political will” that is essential for any anti-corruption drive. It also explains why it was able to sustain some of the law enforcement techniques it employed, such as the issuance of search warrants without judicial review, that would have sparked a backlash by citizens and opposition politicians in other countries. I know of no developing state today where the ruling party and its leader enjoy the same level of unchecked power as Lee Kwan-Yew and the PAP did and the PAP continues to enjoy in Singapore.
This is not to say that there aren’t lessons that developing states, or indeed any state, can take from the Singapore experience. Swift, certain sanctions for corrupt behavior is a critical element in any anticorruption policy. So too are the education and prevention programs Singapore has in place. But in assaying the likelihood of transferring its experiences to developing nations, policymakers and those who advise them must bear in mind how unique the Singapore experience is.