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. Continue reading