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: Continue reading

Income and Asset Disclosure Statements: No Anticorruption Magic Bullet

For the second time in the space of a couple of months I find myself explaining to the leaders of an anticorruption agency that a program requiring senior officials to disclose their income, assets, and other details of their personal finances won’t end corruption or, for that matter, cure the common cold or otherwise solve all their nation’s ills.  There seems to be some kind of myth floating around the development community and at least some self-anointed anticorruption “experts” that such a program can by itself lead to the exposure of a great deal, if not all, of corrupt activity.

If only it were that easy.  The truth is the evidence points in virtually the opposite direction. Continue reading

Reflections on the ICIJ’s Expose on Chinese Princelings’ Offshore Holdings

For those who haven’t seen it already, last month the International Consortium for Investigative Journalists (ICIJ) released a highly detailed report on the extensive offshore holdings of China’s “princelings” (close relatives of China’s political elite), and other relatives and close associates of the leadership. It’s worth a read. I doubt anyone who follows China even slightly will be terribly surprised to learn that friends and family of the Communist Party elite have stashed billions of dollars in shell companies and offshore bank accounts, but the level of detail—and the naming of names—is impressive. And while nothing in the report directly indicates that the money is the product of corruption or other illegal activity, as the saying goes, where there’s smoke…

A few quick thoughts on the report: Continue reading