Keeping strict honesty the norm

It is bleak to note that more than 60 per cent of individuals across the world believe that a government official guilty of using public money for personal benefit will go unpunished. Against this, the fact that more than seven out of 10 people think that this venal trend does not apply to Singapore testifies to the resilience of its anti-corruption culture. This confidence has placed the country among the top five internationally in a survey by the World Justice Project (WJP) covering 99 countries.

The WJP captures the global reality with a striking piece of imagery. "The world is no stranger to images of private opulence paid for with public money," it notes. "The sprawling private residences and lavish compounds of deposed national leaders have become a common sight, showing there's no shortage of corrupt leaders using government money for personal benefit - and getting away with it." The difference with the standards expected of, and imposed on, public servants in Singapore is stark. The reason is that financial integrity has become an inextricable part of the Singapore software.

If countries now mired in corruption, which were not always so, provide a lesson, it is that a civil servant would find it shameful to be exposed for wrong-doing when 95 per cent of the bureaucracy is honest. But when 95 per cent is dishonest, he (and his peers) would consider his staying straight to be an act of folly. The battle against corruption depends on whether honesty is the norm.

This is what independent Singapore sought to do by instituting a stringent anti-corruption regime. Honest public servants were empowered by it; those inclined to dishonesty knew that they were transgressing a norm. The price of being caught would be severe because the law did not exist merely on paper but would be implemented by a political leadership determined to uphold high benchmarks of public integrity and probity. This was seen in the vigorous prosecution of alleged offenders in several high-profile corruption cases not long ago, and the transparent way in which the process moved through the courts. The result was to vindicate Singaporeans' faith in their system.

This is in contrast to citizens cited in the WJP survey whose confidence has been undermined by lukewarm investigations that result in culprits going scot-free, even when there is strong evidence of corruption and the media publicises the issue.

For Singapore to preserve its high standards, institutions such as the Corrupt Practices Investigation Bureau must do their job regardless of the status and background of those investigated. Essentially, too, the public must refuse to accept corruption as a way of life. Vigilance is all.

This article was published on May 16 in The Straits Times.

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