Elections 2019: Stamping out Corruption Starts at the Top

South Africa - Durban - 04- APRIL- 2019 - Political parties have put up posters to attract people to vote for them on the upcoming election. Picture Bongani Mbatha / African News Agency (ANA)

South Africa can learn a lot from Singapore about how it stamped out rampant corruption in its society, coming fourth in Transparency International’s ranking last year of least corrupt countries. In Singapore’s early years corruption was endemic and systemic. What Singapore’s beloved leader Lee Kuan Yew said in his memoirs after governing for three decades is that “We decided to concentrate on the big takers at the higher echelons. Singapore adopted the view that anyone who broke the rules would be caught and punished, there would be no cover-up no matter how senior the official or how embarrassing it may be.”

It may be an opportune moment for South Africa to heed such lessons. This zero tolerance attitude towards fighting corruption was a contributing factor to Singapore transitioning from the third world to the first world in a single generation under Lee’s leadership. Singapore’s officials are quick to say “you can have all the stringent laws in place to fight corruption, but it comes down to political will to enforce them.”

Even as a politician in 1957 before Singapore’s independence, Lee had said, ““Nothing is more certain to destroy the democratic system of government than corrupt politicians. If your Minister is corrupt your Permanent Secretary will become corrupt. Then your Principal Assistant Secretary will take something for himself. Finally the peon will not want to deliver anything unless you give him 50c for every letter.”

It was with this clear understanding of the dangers corruption poses to society that Lee developed an anti-corruption ethos as the founding father of modern day Singapore. By the end of his tenure he had ensured that Singapore ranked even higher than Sweden, Switzerland, Norway and Canada on the index of least corrupt countries.

Lee’s message to his compatriots was that Singapore could survive only if Ministers and senior officers are incorruptible and efficient. It was his belief that “only when we uphold the integrity of the administration can the economy work in a way that enables Singaporeans to clearly see the nexus between hard work and high rewards.”

Lee claims that from the day his party took office in June 1959, he was determined that every dollar in revenue would be properly accounted for and would reach the beneficiaries at the grass roots, without one dollar being siphoned off along the way. What made Lee’s anti-corruption drive so effective was that the courts were allowed to treat proof that an accused was living beyond their means, or had property his income could not explain, as corroborating evidence that the accused had accepted or obtained a bribe. The onus was then on the accused to prove that their wealth was not acquired through ill-gotten gains.

The prosecution in Singapore also does not need to prove that the receipt of money was an inducement for a specific corrupt act or favour, it is sufficient that it was given in anticipation of some future corrupt act being performed. The principal agency charged with stamping out corruption is the Corrupt Practices Investigation Bureau (CPIB), which has the power to investigate every officer, official and minister. Very importantly the Director of the CPIB works out of the Prime Minister’s office, and is fearless and backed by the Prime Minister themselves. Very early on the investigators of the CPIB were given wide powers including arrest, search, investigation of bank accounts of suspects, as well as their spouses, children and agents.

Those found guilty of corruption face stiff punishment for both the bribe givers and bribe takers. Penalties are equivalent to the bribe received, and fines can be up to the equivalent of R1,037,000, or up to seven years in prison. The emphasis has always been on deterrent sentences. Singapore’s great achievement was that it established a climate of opinion which looked upon corruption in public office as a threat to society.

Singapore’s goal is to create an incorruptible public service with a strong code of conduct. Public officials are told to avoid indebtedness, avoid conflicts of interest, living a lavish lifestyle, and avoid doing or receiving favors. Despite the strict codes of conduct, there were Ministers in each decade of Lee’s tenure in office who were found guilty of corruption. A Minister of Environment was found guilty for taking a free trip to Indonesia for himself and his family members and sentenced. A Minister for National Development was investigated for corruption and ended up committing suicide, acknowledging his wrong doing in a suicide note. More recently the Commissioner of the Civil Defence Force was found guilty of corruption and imprisoned. As the Chinese say, it is a matter of catching the tigers and the flies.

Lee’s domestic canvas in Singapore was small, but his vigour and talent assured him and his country a large place in world affairs, as a highly respected and successful nation. South Africa can learn from Singapore’s determination and success at stamping out corruption, by starting with those at the top and working down.

Shannon Ebrahim is the foreign editor for the Independent Media Group.