In my last post, I suggested some reasons why Singapore’s squeaky-clean reputation might not be entirely justified. But nothing I said in that post was meant to deny or disparage Singapore’s extraordinary success in fighting many of the most pervasive and destructive forms of corruption. Indeed, in this post I want to emphasize just how remarkably Singapore—and its fellow Asian city-state Hong Kong—have been in fighting corruption by addressing one of the most common observations raised by those who would either minimize the significance of this achievement, or raise doubts about whether other countries can profitably learn from Singapore and Hong Kong’s experience.
I’m sure many of us who work on international corruption issues have heard something like this from time to time: Whenever we look for success stories or models, someone usually brings up Hong Kong and Singapore as examples of how it is possible, with the right combination of policies and leadership, to get even massive corruption under control within the space of a generation. But, almost as invariably, we hear the skeptical response: “We can’t really learn all that much from Singapore and Hong Kong,” our skeptic intones, “because those are small city-states.”
Now, the skeptics may be right. But what’s always struck me as odd about this exchange (which I’ve heard many times, in one form or another) is that those offering this skeptical view seem to be implicitly assuming that it’s easier to combat corruption in a small city-state than it is in a large country, but they rarely explain why this is true. And at least to me, the case hardly seems self-evident. I’m not saying it’s wrong, but it certainly requires more critical scrutiny than it usually receives.
Before getting to the main points I want to raise, some important clarifications are in order. We often hear that Hong Kong and Singpore are “small and ethnically homogenous.” Those observations are mostly true, but tend to be exaggerated. Although Hong Kong and Singapore occupy relatively small land areas, their populations—currently around 7.3 million for Hong Kong and 5.5 million for Singapore—are larger than those of, for example, Norway, Slovakia, Costa Rica, New Zealand, Croatia, Panama, and Namibia. So it’s not like there aren’t a lot of people to govern in these two Asian city-states, and a lot of other countries—including many countries with serious corruption problems—have similar populations. Also, although the populations of both Hong Kong and Singapore are composed predominantly of ethnic Chinese, only Hong Kong could fairly be called an “ethnically homogenous” jurisdiction: Singapore’s population contains substantial numbers of ethnic Malays and Indians (together accounting for a little over a fifth of the population).
Nevertheless, it is true that Hong Kong and Singapore are relatively small city-states, with smaller area and population, and relatively more ethnic homogeneity, than many other countries. As noted above, the implicit suggestion, when these facts are raised by skeptics doubting the relevance of Hong Kong and Singapore’s experience in fighting corruption, is that small homogenous city-states have a much easier time getting corruption under control than would other jurisdictions. But why? Consider a few observations:
- There’s a lot of effort to combat corruption at the urban/municipal level (a fact underscored by the recent conference on this topic sponsored by the Center for the Advancement of Public integrity, discussed here and here). Some of these efforts are successful, but many others less so. It is by no means easy to get corruption under control even within single cities in other countries.
- Of course, these other cities struggling with corruption are not fully autonomous, but rather are local jurisdictions within larger countries. (This is also sort of true with Hong Kong, both under British and Chinese rule, but let’s put that to the side, since the Hong Kong government has had much more autonomy in these matters than, say, Rio or Athens or New York.) It’s not clear why this should make the struggle against corruption easier rather than harder. Indeed, a big part of the conventional wisdom for how the United States got pervasive urban corruption under control in the 20th century emphasizes the importance of the federal government—a force outside of the local corrupt networks and “machines”—to swoop in as a kind of deus ex machina. City-states like Hong Kong and Singapore don’t have that option.
- Speaking of networks, although it’s sometimes implied that small size and small population make control of corruption easier, it seems just as likely that these factors could make control of corruption harder, because most members of the elite know one another, share family and professional and other networks, share bonds of trust, etc. (and know where the bodies are buried). Ditto for ethnic homogeneity: it’s not clear why this factor should make things easier rather than harder, given that ethnic homogeneity can facilitate both the trust necessary to sustain corrupt networks and the sense of extended “family” loyalty that can make those networks resistant to change.
- Maybe small size means that it’s less costly to implement anticorruption initiatives—perhaps the same amount of resource investment goes farther, in terms of achieving a reduction in corruption, in a small country than in a large country. Perhaps. And I’m certainly sympathetic to the idea that it’s much harder to combat corruption in very large countries with weak transportation and communications infrastructure. But if we think that many anticorruption institutions have relatively high fixed costs (relative to their variable costs), then it would seem that, as a percentage of total available resources, large countries are actually in a better position to fight corruption efficiently than are small countries (and large countries also have a larger pool of human capital from which to draw, all else equal).
I’m certainly open to the argument that Singapore and Hong Kong’s status as relatively small city-states renders their successful initiatives against corruption less impressive or less instructive for other countries. But I think the skeptics need to do more to make that case. Maybe instead of saying (or implying), “Hong Kong and Singapore’s anticorruption campaigns may seem impressive, but they were successful largely because they’re relatively small city-states (and so are not very instructive), “ we should say instead, “Hong Kong and Singapore’s anticorruption campaigns were successful even though they’re relatively small city states, making them all the more impressive (and potentially instructive).” I may return to this topic again in a future post, and I’m certainly interested to see what our readership thinks about this issue.