Corruption in public service: At a fundamental level, it's about values

SINGAPORE - The issues at the heart of the recent financial improprieties involving public officers were set out by Deputy Prime Minister Teo Chee Hean (in photo) right at the start of Monday's parliamentary sitting.

He began his reply to the first few questions of the sitting by stating categorically how seriously the Government views the recent scandals. "Although the statistics do not show an uptrend, we are concerned that these cases should not undermine public confidence, or convey the impression that standards have slackened over time," he said.

DPM Teo had rightly identified the risk that many Singaporeans have begun to conclude that the civil service is not as scandalproof as it used to be, even if the numbers might not necessarily produce a conclusive pattern.

Cases like those involving former Singapore Civil Defence Force (SCDF) chief Peter Lim, former Ministry of Home Affairs (MHA) assistant executive Liew Chee Meng, former Singapore Land Authority (SLA) officers Koh Seah Wee and Lim Chai Meng, and more recently former Corrupt Practices Investigation Bureau (CPIB) assistant director Edwin Yeo have come close enough together to prompt some inevitable connecting of the dots.

Yet, though the exchanges over the issue were numerous throughout question time in Parliament, talk seemed to centre on a rather narrow tranche of the public trust problem.

Mr Hri Kumar Nair (Bishan- Toa Payoh GRC), Non-Constituency MP Yee Jenn Jong, Mr Zaqy Mohamad (Chua Chu Kang GRC) and opposition chief Low Thia Khiang (Aljunied GRC) all stood up in turn to ask DPM Teo about accountability, disciplinary measures and avenues to report wrongdoing in the civil service.

Mr Nair and Mr Low, for instance, both wanted to know where the buck stops when some wrongdoing has been identified. "When investigating a public servant's wrong, how far up the command chain does accountability flow?" asked Mr Nair.

But while talk of enhanced disciplinary and reporting measures are welcome, they are moves aimed at one end of the problem - catching or discouraging errant public officers. They do little to reassure the public that public officers remain of unimpeachable integrity.

If anything, some may conclude that more safeguards are needed now to head off what might be an increasing number of rogue public officers.

Mr Ang Wei Neng (Jurong GRC) did try and tackle the problem slightly further upstream when he suggested casino curbs in the light of news that CPIB's Yeo was allegedly a heavy gambler.

DPM Teo said that the Public Service Division intends to require public officers who visit casinos frequently or who purchase annual entry levies, to declare their actions. While this is a start, the integrated resorts seem like an unlikely smoking gun. Among the recent cases, only in Yeo's was there some mention at all of any alleged gambling. In other cases, there was often little to suggest that gambling was at the heart of them.

But even if the opening of the casinos had somehow played a part in recent problems, banning public officers from the gaming floor presents only a small part of the solution. The other part, the one largely absent from Monday's parliamentary sitting, is the matter of culture and values.

Said DPM Teo towards the end of his reply: "We have prevented corruption from becoming a way of life in Singapore, and succeeded in keeping Singapore clean.

This differentiates us from many other countries and is a distinctive part of what makes us Singapore." And that is key in any conversation about trust in Singapore's public institutions.

The country's clean reputation was built on both the swift punishment meted out to anyone caught as well as the knowledge that most officers were incorruptible on a more fundamental moral level.

So while it was good to talk about strengthening safeguards and disciplinary measures, the fear of getting caught alone cannot create a sustainable corruption- free culture.

 

jeremyau@sph.com.sg

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