Just How Relevant for Developing Nations is Singapore’s Experience Combating Corruption?

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.

6 thoughts on “Just How Relevant for Developing Nations is Singapore’s Experience Combating Corruption?

  1. You make great points, Rick, one’s which I debate frequently with my family. We’re from Botswana, which actually tracks Singapore very well: one of the poorest countries in the world at independence, a small, relatively homogeneous, English-speaking population, an open economy which has grown by leaps and bounds (in Botswana due primarily to the fact that the country boasts the world’s largest diamond mines), and a single party that has dominated politics since independence. It’s also consistently one of the least corrupt countries in Africa. The BDP (PAP’s Batswana equivalent) has held the presidency since independence, though the party’s dominance is less than it was a decade ago. One of the points I frequently come back to in assessing Botswana’s development is not just the strong power, which, as you note, makes the political will for anti-corruption measures possible, but the initial posture of that power. The austerity of Botswana’s first President, Sir Seretse Khama, set the mold for political leadership, and its a mold that subsequent party leaders–both BDP and other–have followed. Khama set the parameters (in terms of values and standards of behavior as opposed to legal parameters) of what was acceptable, and those parameters are largely still the default in local and national politics. Of course, this doesn’t bode well for countries that are not starting from a (relatively) blank slate but must instead work against a backdrop of pre-existing corruption, but I do think that the cultural influence/standard setting that the right leaders can put into place is an important factor in figuring out why some countries suffer from higher corruption rates than others, and how to change that.

    • A strong one-party state seems like a double-edged sword, though: in South Africa (yes, ring the bell–going there again), I’d say it’s facilitated corruption, and that’s despite having a first post-apartheid president who set a strong example. Rick, you and Melanie may be right that such a system enables someone set on pursuing anticorruption efforts to do so–the “best of all possible worlds” scenario–but it also enables corruption to flourish–the worst of all possible worlds. Maybe that means not being a one party state with a strong executive makes for highs that are less high and lows that are less low in anticorruption work.

      I can also see why the one-party state curtailed opposition politician backlash to law enforcement techniques, but why, in Singapore, did that also diminish public protests? Was it related to the former, in that without opposition politicians emphasizing the problem, it was less well known?

    • Botswana is a fascinating example because it highlights an interesting dynamic, which I’ll call the “path dependence” of political corruption. In a nation where political power was tightly consolidated into a single party, it mattered greatly what example the initial leader set because that example structured the development of the cultural norms surrounding the nation’s elite. Because President Khama set a good example — and it had a number of other relatively favorable conditions — the nation was set on a more positive path with respect to corruption than it perhaps otherwise would have. It’s a rather simple lesson — nations, much like children, can learn important lessons about right and wrong during their formative years.

      There is a downside to this realization, though, which is quite frustrating: many nations/peoples learned instead learned the wrong lessons when their post-independence leaders set far less noble examples. And the real problem is that once those lessons were learned, it became very difficult to unteach them. That is, once you live in a country where corruption is accepted as a normal way of life, it becomes far more difficult to inculcate the countervailing anticorruption norms.

      And this is why I think there is a bit of tragedy in the story that both you and Rick are telling; the problem is that for most countries the window has been missed in setting the right tone from the top while the nation is still young enough and still forming its own political identity and culture. Many developing nations that were less lucky than Singapore or Botswana are thus stuck trying to figure out how to unlearn the bad lessons and root out the corruption ingrained into their respective political systems during the nations’ earliest, formative years.

  2. Interesting post, Rick. I believe that Singapore could be a leading example for countries like Bahrain and Kuwait . Said countries bear resemblance with Singapore in several aspects. First they have a wealthy economies and they pay their public official quite well, secondly their government wields an almost unlimited power. Thirdly their territories are even smaller. Nevertheless, their rank on TI is quite low. I believe experience like Singapore might be leading to these countries if their governments wish to take some action.

  3. I think it may be a bit infantile to say so but the leaders of Botswana were just naturally more honest than those to whom they are compared. It is not actually a tone – just a feature of moral character.

  4. Great article pointing out the limitations. Hopefully nearby countries are demonstrating alternatives such as technology and the OGP.
    Also don’t forget that much of the wealth that is generated in Singapore is not from their economy, it’s from being a financial hub and / or tax haven for the region. A ‘Reverse’ CPI of potential illicit financial flows would be a great accompaniment to assess how much facilitation of corruption is carried out in Singapore.
    Another potential tool would be to correlate press freedom / quality (very low in Singapore) against the CPI.

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