The UN International Anti-Corruption day is commemorated worldwide on December 9. What better time to mull over international best practices against graft?
In this article, I shall highlight Singapore's experience of 'keeping the government clean,' as narrated by Lee Kuan Yew, Prime Minister of Singapore, 1959-1990, in his famous book, From Third World to First.
At independence from Britain in 1965, the government in Singapore was held hostage by corrupt officials: the police formed cartels to collect monthly baksheesh from transport companies and failure to pay would invite an arrest warrant on trumped up charges; one had to pay a bribe to be admitted into hospital even after a road accident; customs and immigration officials were on the take; procurement officers provided information on tender bids for a fee; even garbage collectors would not do their job without being paid a bribe!
The first independence government under Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew came to power with 'a deep sense of mission to establish a clean government.' All Ministers except one, were university graduates.
They were professionals who came into politics to serve, not to seek employment or to enrich themselves. Ministers commanded the respect of the people and of public servants.
They exuded confidence and a sense of purpose. Lee's Party moved quickly to put regulatory oversight and statutory instruments in place to prevent, detect, deter and stop corruption in its tracks.
An anti-graft body, The Corrupt Practices Investigation Bureau (CPIB) was formed under a director and given sweeping powers including power of arrest, investigations of bank accounts and bank books of suspects, their wives, husbands, children or agents.
CPIB officers had full government support to deal with all transgressors without exception. They carried out thorough investigations and worked hand-in-hand with the courts which in turn enforced the law without fear or favour.
Petty corruption was dealt with by among other measures, simplifying procedures, taking away discretionary powers and abolishing certain permits and licenses. So much for the small fish!
For the big fish, more serious action was needed. Anti-graft laws were tightened to close loopholes to secure convictions. It became unnecessary to prove that the person who accepted a bribe was in a position to carry out the required favour.
The Comptroller of Income Tax was obliged to give information on anyone investigated. Judges accepted the evidence of an accomplice.
The courts took as corroborative evidence proof of the fact that the accused lived beyond his or her legitimate verifiable income, or had property that could not be explained by lawful, income.
The CPIB director had the full power to investigate every person including high officials and ministers without fear of interference from any quarter. It was compulsory, by law, for witnesses summoned by the CPIB to present themselves in person to give information.
In 1989, the maximum fine for corruption was increased from Singaporean dollars(S$)10,000 to S$100,000. Giving false information to the CPIB became an offence subject to imprisonment and a fine of up to S$10,000. The courts were empowered to confiscate benefits derived from corruption.
The three decades from the 1960 saw at least three cabinet ministers, one in each decade, accused of impropriety, or behavior unbecoming.
The first was Tan Kia Jan, Minister for National Development and later government representative on the board of Malaysian Airways. He was accused of taking bribe, of not discharging his duties beyond reproach, in the purchase of a Boeing aircraft by the airline. He was sacked and socially ostracized.
Wee Toon Boon was Minister of State for the Environment in 1975 when he took a free trip to Indonesia for himself and his family members, paid for by a housing developer.
He also accepted a bungalow from the developer. He was charged, convicted and sentenced to four years and six months in jail. He appealed. The conviction was upheld but the sentence was reduced by 18 months.
The most memorable fall from grace and honour was perhaps that of Teh Chiang Wan, Minister for National Development in 1986. He admitted under cross-examination that he accepted two cash payments of S$400,000 each as bribe, 'in one case to allow a development company to retain parts of its land under compulsory acquisition by government and the second to assist a developer in purchasing state land for private development.' These payments were received in 1981 and 1982. When the evidence was out and he felt he had lost face, lost grace, lost honour and lost all, he did the unthinkable--he took his own life leaving a suicide note addressed to Prime Minister Lee.
I have been feeling very sad and depressed for the last two weeks. I feel responsible for the occurrence of this unfortunate incident and I feel I should take full responsibility. As an honourable oriental gentleman, I feel it is only right I should pay the highest penalty for my mistake.
Teh Cheang Wan
The Cheang Wan's widow and daughter left Singapore for exile and never returned. In the words of Lee Kuan Yew, 'they had lost too much face.'
Amb. Dr Hukka Wario is a retired Civil Servant.