Does Singapore Deserve Its Squeaky-Clean Reputation?

With the passing of Singapore’s former Prime Minister and elder statesman Lee Kwan Yew last March, there has been a lot of discussion and reflection on his legacy. One aspect of that legacy that has been much celebrated, even among his detractors, has been Singapore’s success in reducing corruption. Indeed, in virtually every international survey or ranking of countries’ corruption levels, Singapore comes out very well. In Transparency International’s 2014 Corruption Perceptions Index (CPI) rankings, for example, Singapore scores 84 out of 100, perceived as the 7th-least corrupt country in the world, and the least corrupt in the Asia. In TI’s most recent Bribe Payers Index (BPI), from 2011, which ranks exporting countries according to their firms’ perceived propensity to pay bribes abroad, Singapore scores 8.3/10, ranked 8th out of 28 countries (in a tie with the United Kingdom). And the Financial Action Task Force (FATF) 2012 evaluation of Singapore’s anti-money laundering system gave the country generally high marks (though with some areas of concern). Singapore is widely touted as a major anticorruption success story (see, for instance, the laudatory introduction to this New Yorker piece) and a model for other countries to follow.

But is this squeaky-clean reputation fully justified? It seems true enough that, from the perspective of the average citizen or firm (whether domestic or foreign), bribery and other forms of petty corruption are relatively uncommon (though not unheard of) in Singapore. And although there have been a number of embarrassing corruption scandals in Singapore in recent years — including the former head of Singapore’s Corrupt Practices Investigations Bureau (the CPIB) embezzling funds from the agency and a former senior police official dismissed for receiving sexual favors in return for influencing government procurement decisions — all countries have incidents of this sort, and in Singapore they seem rather less frequent and less egregious than most other countries, particularly in Asia. Yet I’ve heard many experts on corruption in the Asia-Pacific region grumble–usually off the record–that Singapore is not nearly as “clean” as its reputation suggests.

There are two major complaints about serious corruption in Singapore:

The first is Singapore’s role as a haven for illicit assets looted by corrupt officials elsewhere in the region. This role of Singapore not only as a tax haven, but as an attractive place to stash ill-gotten wealth, has been extensively documented and discussed (see here, herehere, here, and here). Singaporean officials are quick to deny that their country is a haven for stolen assets (see, for example, here, here, and here); indeed, they bristle at the suggestion, pointing to the tough laws on the books, recent reforms, and the generally favorable evaluations from international groups like the FATF. But many in the region continue to insist that although Singapore does have decent laws on the books, and is quite cooperative when dealing with counterparts in the United States, Europe, or other wealthy countries, it is much less cooperative when dealing with poorer countries in the region — like Indonesia and Malaysia — that are trying to trace, seize, and repatriate assets stolen by corrupt officials and others.

The second major corruption allegation is even more sensitive. Although Singapore has been remarkably successful in controlling petty corruption and embezzlement by lower-level officials, at the highest levels of the Singaporean state, there is a great deal of overlap between the senior political leadership and the Singaporean business elite. In particular, the so-called Government-Linked Companies (GLCs) play an outsized role in Singapore’s economy; although nominally part of the private sector, these GLCs–as the name implies–are closely linked to the government, and many senior Singaporean government officials (who draw very high government salaries) serve simultaneously as board members and/or senior executives for GLCs, from which they also draw very high salaries–and their firms (and therefore they) often directly benefit from government policy decisions. (For some examples of cases involving GLCs, headed by government officials or those closely linked with those officials, which benefited directly from apparent government favoritism, see here and here.) At the very least, these close business-government ties raise concerns about conflict-of-interest and the appearance of impropriety. At worst, these arrangements may function as a means by which the very top of Singapore’s wealthy business-government elite can enrich themselves at the expense of the public — the “abuse of entrusted power for private gain” that is the essence of corruption.

I don’t know enough about Singapore to evaluate the these sorts of criticisms, but they are serious enough that they ought to be explored and discussed more fully and openly. Why haven’t they been?  Two reasons, I think:

First, many who write about corruption — both in the popular media and the academic literature — are sometimes a bit too dependent on perception-based ranking tables like the CPI. Whatever their value, those rankings only reflect particular types of corruption, and only perceptions, and may obscure quite serious corruption issues that the rankings are not as effective in detecting.

Second, Singapore has very plaintiff-friendly defamation laws, which Singaporean officials use aggressively to go after any critics who raise concerns about corruption. Lee Kuan Yew himself made this quite explicit in some public remarks in 2008:

People can say anything they like: Singapore is undemocratic, we trip our opposition down, this, that and the other. But if you say that this Government is corrupt or has mismanaged the country’s resources, I’ll sue you!

… [B]ecause we sue them again and again, nobody in Singapore believes that anybody is doing anything that’s criminal, corrupt or improper.

And indeed, the use of defamation suits by Singapore’s government to go after anyone who publicly raises concerns about corruption in the Singaporean government is well-documented (see here, here, here, and here). (Indeed, it occurs to me that even by publishing this post, I may be putting myself at legal risk should I ever visit Singapore again. Which is too bad, because they have a terrific zoo.)

It is true that in many ways Singapore has been remarkably successful in bringing endemic corruption under control, and nothing in this post is meant to disparage or minimize that accomplishment. But at the same time, Singapore’s reputation as a squeaky-clean paragon of government and business integrity may deserve closer scrutiny.

3 thoughts on “Does Singapore Deserve Its Squeaky-Clean Reputation?

  1. An excellent article and I think Professor Stephenson’s caution to avoid over dependence on “rankings” is well noted, especially where countries are the recipients of corrupt funds, which is not often on the “ranking radar.” But what of corruption being exported? We now see Singapore firms which are being investigated in the context of the Petrobras scandal. Thus, are executives from Singapore multinationals changing “ethical paradigms” when pursuing overseas contracts? While the investigation has just commenced, Singapore would not be the only country to embrace the eradication of domestic corruption while not looking at overseas corruption with the same revulsion.

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