Singapore and Hong Kong Are Small. So What?

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.

10 thoughts on “Singapore and Hong Kong Are Small. So What?

  1. Size alone isn’t the only factor contributing to Singapore and Hong Kong’s success, and you are right that the close ties of kinship found in small jurisdictions can make corruption easier to sustain. On the other hand, being small does mean the central government does not have to police regional agents operating at a great distance from the center. Nor does the center have to tolerate corruption by regional agents as their price for continued loyalty to the center.

    • I agree with your first point — it’s harder for the central government to police regional agents who are geographically distant (when, as the Chinese saying goes, “the mountains are high and the Emperor is far away”). Of course, that’s going to be more true when transportation and communications infrastructure is poor (as I note in my 4th bullet point), and I do think it’s worth noting that in many of the countries we view suffering from severe corruption, plenty of that corruption takes place right in the capital, not in the hinterlands.

      I’m not sure I quite see how the second point relates to geographic distance. The center may have to tolerate corruption by agents generally (not just regional agents) as the price of loyalty, but it’s not obvious to me what that point has to do with geographic size, or even necessarily with population size.

      • If a country has eight regions as opposed to four, to hold it together the center may have to tolerate corruption among regional elites in eight as opposed to four regions. The larger the country, the more likely it will have more regions. No?

        • Yes, as a first cut that sounds plausible, but I do think this point has much more to do with population than with geographic area. And as I noted in my post, although Singapore and Hong Kong definitely have below-median populations, they’re not extreme outliers on this dimension.

          The larger point here is that some factors associated with smallness (both in terms of area and population) may make corruption easier to control, while others may make it harder to control, and we need to think through these factors–and also think more clearly about how they may have influenced the effectiveness of the particular strategies HK and Singapore chose to adopt–rather than dismissing the experience of HK and Singapore out of hand on the basis the claim that they’re “just too different.”

  2. Very interesting post. Could it in fact be that the type of economies Singapore and Hong Kong are meant that there was a stronger political drive to clean up corruption than elsewhere – as it was necessary to reassure banks, investors, etc that their money would be safe there. I think at least that is why lots of business between China and the rest of the world is done through Hong Kong; because things are more transparent and less corrupt.

    • Interesting idea, but I don’t think that hypothesis quite fits. For Hong Kong, the major impetus for a corruption cleanup actually had little to do with banks — it was sparked by outrage over police corruption. While this drive may have had the collateral effect of cleaning up the banking sector too, I don’t think the cause of the corruption crackdown in Hong Kong really had much to do with the drive to make the city an attractive financial center. (In addition, at the time the big push on corruption took place, I think HK was still much more oriented to trade and manufacturing, not yet as much of a service/finance-based economy as it is today.)

      I know much less about the historical background of the anticorruption crackdown in Singapore. But even today, as I said in my last post, the Singapore banking center is actually not always that transparent (though it is definitely perceived as safe). But for Singapore too, my impression (though I could be wrong about this) was that the big push to get corruption under control started before Singapore had shifted so much of its economy to financial services.

      Now, the more general point — that these countries believed there would be economic advantages to getting corruption under control — is almost certainly right. But that’s true for lots of countries (and lots of cities), but not all of them succeed as well as HK and Singapore. And therein lies the puzzle.

      • Being a British colony at the time of the crackdown on corruption sets the Hong Kong case apart. And once the crackdown was institutionalized in the form of a strong anticorruption agency, it is easy to see how it would carry over when the colony was handed over to the PRC. Although some recent events suggest the consensus among the ruling elite on a strong anticorruption policy may be eroding around the edges.

        I have always assumed, and have even seen a bit of evidence to suggest, that Singapore’s role as an entrepot was an important factor in its commitment to a an effective anticorruption policy. Being known as a place where business could be done according to rules known in advance helped it prosper. Corruption, where the rules are for sale at an unknown price under uncertain terms, would have been bad for business. The economic advantage was clear; the payoff likely immediate, and the focus specific — the conditions required to attract and keep international firms. Countries where the economic benefits of a strong anticorruption policy are more diffuse would find the economic driver less powerful.

        • Your second point is consistent with Emma’s hypothesis, and I’m happy to tentatively accept that as a tentative explanation for why Singapore was so interested in cleaning up corruption. But I’d note two things. First, there are lots of other countries that we would think might have a strong economic incentive to get corruption under control yet fail to do so. So the economic incentive can’t be a complete explanation. Second, and related, the question I’m interested in is whether other countries that also want to get corruption under control can learn from Singapore, or whether the fact that Singapore is small (and, to incorporate your point, an entrepot) means its experience is entirely sui generis.I concede that there’s a coherent argument to that effect, but it’s not obviously right.

      • you sound like you’re far better informed on the issue than i am, and ill happily stand corrected. i think the puzzle though is as much a question of why and where the political motivation/pressure comes from to clean up corruption rather than how it is achieved. one would assume the people missing out from corruption lead the demands to end corruption, in which case it might be a question of how much pressure people can exert on government and big business. but from what ive seen of the anti-corruption drive in china this is not always the case and it seems at times to have been spearheaded by the top of government. though whether the anti-corruption drive is about corruption at all there, or just about consolidating power within the party by purging certain officials is up for debate.

        • Your comment points up a helpful clarification, which also comes out (less clearly) in my above exchange with Rick. There are really two questions here: (1) Where does the political pressure/motivation to address corruption come from? (2) Assuming the will is there, what approaches or strategies are most likely to be effective? (Call these the “will” and the “way” of anticorruption.)

          My original post was framed primarily in terms of the latter question: Can other countries learn useful lessons from the particular strategies and institutions that Singapore and HK used to attack corruption, or are these city-states just too different from other countries to offer useful models? You and Rick are (1) helpfully calling attention to the former problem, (2) suggesting (I think) that the political commitment is much more important than the details of the strategy (dare I characterize your position as: “Where there’s a will there’s a way?”), and (3) perhaps further suggesting that Singapore and Hong Kong are distinct on this dimension as well. All fair points, though as I noted in my above exchange with Rick, I do think the political motivation is a necessary but not sufficient condition to address corruption effectively, so questions about strategy and institutions–discussions in which debates about the HK and Singapore models feature prominently–are still relevant.

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