When I tell my new Chinese friends or business associates that I am from Singapore, the usual comment I hear is that Singapore is such a lovely country and it is so clean on the street. I have not come across anyone commenting her reputation as one of the least corrupt countries and also the stable and amiable society which she has attained under a multi-racial and multi-religion population.

Corruption is like a plague pestering every corner on earth. As long as there is a wide gap between the rich and poor, majority of the population is illiterate and poor, government officials and politicians who have no fear to abuse their power and where materialism is the aspiration; corruption is accepted or common practice in these countries. It happens in almost every country with varying degree and depth. In a well developed and rich nation, corruption is hidden subtly at the top levels.

I firmly believe greed is the root of corruption. And greed is not just a human behavioral instinct but also a common reaction in the animal kingdom. Have you seen a polar bear throw a fish on hand and chase after a larger fish? We always want to obtain better life, food, housing, etc for ourselves and our family. We want to climb to the higher echelon in the pyramid of needs. This quest to feed and house one better has pushed mankind to leave the cave and into civilization today.

However that does not mean we can accept or tolerate corruption. We should strive to improve our wealth by legitimate means and in an honest way. I have been to places where corruption is out of control and see how the nation suffers as a whole. The living standard is hardly progressing at all, more poor people are on the street and social injustice is rampant. This deplorable stage has driven the good people to leave the country in search of a better life somewhere. Corruption is a major threat to a country stability and well being of its people.

I will like to share the measures that Singapore government has taken to being the least corrupt country in Asia.

1.    Top leader setting an example and relentlessly keeping the anti-corruption in check

I have great respect for our first prime minister, Mr. Lee Kuan Yew who is instrumental to change the corrupt infested colony when he took office in 1959 to a well respected country today. He set good example to lead and could not tolerate any of his party members and government officials to corrupt. The Corrupt Practices Investigation Bureau (CPIB) reports directly to the prime minister office and no one is above the law on malpractices and abuse of power. We also have a Commercial Affairs Department (CAD) to check on the malpractices and crimes in the private sector.

There is this anecdote about Mr. Zhu Rongji, ex-premier of China, visiting a customs department in a city. The first thing he did was to get all the officers to place their watches and cigarette lighters on the table. Thos who had expensive items were taken away for questioning. After his retirement from the governmental post, Mr. Zhu went to lecture in a university and lives in a modest apartment with his wife.

Hence as long as the top leaders are truly against corruption and lead by example, I am sure the corruption would not spread spontaneously. Corrupt leaders who give lip services about fighting corruption are deeply deplorable.

2.    An effective monitoring and punitive system in place

People will have less urge to corrupt if we have an effective monitoring or preventing system in place and a severe punishment for those who cross the line. In the early years of Singapore self-rule, the CPIB sent out undercover to deliberately commit traffic offence and offered bribe to the policeman. Once the policeman took the bribe, he would be handcuffed and sent to CPIB office. This had reduced the number of corrupt practices of the traffic policemen.

The CPIB and CAD have channels for informants to report any corrupt practices. This is not only effective in curbing the corruption, but it gives people a sense of satisfaction that justice is being carried out.

I had terminated some of my staffs when their inappropriate conducts were discovered. Unfortunately, it happened in every company I had worked for in China. I need to as I want to make sure the existing staffs are fully aware that such practices are intolerable. Once you tolerate a staff inappropriate conduct because of his key contribution, the practices will spread like wild fire in the whole department and it would be too late to take any action.

3.    A comparative wage to deter the lure to corrupt

Singapore ministers are one of the highest paid political leaders in the world. Their wages are computed from the average earnings of five different professions in the private sector of the same attributes. We need intelligent and good leaders to run our government. Without the attractive wages, these star performers would stay in the private sector. The comparative wages together with the effective checking system would deter their temptation to corrupt. The civil servants are also adequately remunerated.

In some less developed countries where policemen monthly salary is less than one half of their peers in the private sector, you can bet that corruption is number one crime in the country. And when you have the police force and political leaders on the take, there is no control over the corruption.

On the other hand in the well developed and rich nations, there is hardly any corruption among commoners. Their basic needs on food, housing and lifestyle are met and there are no huge differences in these standards among the masses. Corruption usually occurs at the top levels where huge money and sexual flavor are used.

4.    Good civic education and religious teaching

The civic educations, which are given in primary school, have made us to understand what are good behaviors and conducts in a society. We have learnt not to litter or spit on the road and be a good citizen. With the religious teaching from the major faiths, moral is kept and guarded.

The government and mass media also constantly talked about corruption cases uncovered. This acts as a warning and education to the public.

I used to get tease from my foreigner friends in China on how sterile we are due to our upbringing in Singapore. However we make our mark as being the most effective managers and professional in our work.

I have seen improvement in China combating the corruption in the country. In the 1990s, I had seen government officers openly asking for bribes. They would retaliate or cause inconvenience to you if you do not offer them something in return. Now they would not do it openly. You can file a complaint if you are unfairly treated. Also the civil servant remuneration package has increased too and the government officers are not taking unnecessary risk to jeopardize their career. They are not accepting dinner invitation like they used to. The recent numerous disclosures in the mass media on government officers’ malpractices have also demonstrated that the public is no longer tolerant of such practices.

Of course this is still far cry from the ideal situation. I feel good because the situation is not deteriorating and believe some of the top leaders are sincerely combating the corrupt practices. It takes time to eradicate a millennium old malpractice.  

The corruption practice has been in China for a very long time. The Guanxi has attributed its existence and somehow obscure the people to differentiate a gracious gift exchange for establishing a relationship with no ulterior motive from a bribe in exchange for an illegitimate return or favor. For example in the old days when the teacher salary was low, it was common to find parents to offer some food or clothing to the teachers in appreciation for their children education. Today bribes are given to teachers to gain favorable advantage for the children such as attending certain classes, good grades which the children do not deserve and special treatment.

The United States government has adopted the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act (FCPA) to ensure her companies do not condone corrupt practices in foreign countries. This is a good deterrence to prevent engaging unscrupulous companies or partners.  It also delivers a clear signal to these foreign companies that they need to clean up their practices if they want to have partnership with the US companies. The only issues I see is that the Act does not consider the foreign company has stopped corrupt practice and change to a law abiding company. Thus the foreign company is not given a chance or incentive to change. This will also affect the US companies from benefiting a strategic partnership in foreign land. They are letting these companies into the hands of their competitors from another country.

Please see my earlier blog post, Competitive advantage in China, on the related subject.

   Posted on 20 Sep 2009

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