CSJ to WSJ: Is this corruption?

October 9, 2006
Singapore Democrats

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In your Editorial Sued in Singapore (October 6, 2006), you wrote: “We certainly don’t believe…that the Lees are personally corrupt.”

With the system as closed and incestuous as what we presently have in Singapore, can anyone be sure? Under such circumstances the best that one can offer is an unambiguous “We don’t know.”

Singapore’s national reserves are entirely in the control of Mr Lee Kuan Yew; his son and Prime Minister and Finance Minister, Hsien Loong; and his daughter-in-law and chief of the corporation that owns the biggest state companies, Mdm Ho Ching.

Incredibly, these public funds and how they are managed are a state secret.

Mr Lee Kuan Yew and his family members may not be siphoning public funds into their private accounts. Do they need to given the family’s unassailable control of all things economic and political in the country?

The more important question is: What measures do we have in place to ensure that when the rulers’ hold on power becomes shaky, those in charge of state coffers cannot make away with the money? Frighteningly at the moment there are none.

Might it not therefore be more honest to say that the jury is still out on this question of corruption among the nation’s political elite?

Even then, are we not negligently limiting our definition of corruption? Consider these:

Singapore’s cabinet ministers lavish themselves with salaries that are highest in the world. The prime minister is paid more than the US president, UK prime minister, German chancellor, French president, and the Italian prime minister combined! One justification for such incomes is that these ministers are responsible for generating the nation’s wealth; their talent must be rewarded and kept. Part of this wealth, as we are beginning to discover, have flowed from money being laundered in Singapore. Is this corruption?

And when the rulers subjugate the local media so that such information is largely concealed from the public, is this corruption?

When the opposition and foreign media raise questions about transparency and accountability in Singapore, individual members in government not only launch defamation suits but also amend laws to facilitate their winning of such suits so much so that the rest of the community is terrorized into silence, is this corruption?

When the rulers say that the electorate can vote them out of office if they are unhappy with the system but then proceed to manipulate the election process, give out cash to voters just days before polling, threaten voters that their housing estates will not be refurbished so that their properties turn into slums if they don’t vote for the ruling party, and ensure that the opposition leaders are persecuted so that citizens are warned off joining opposition parties, is this corruption?

The truth is we can delimit the meaning of corruption to the extent that we can answer, safely but disingenuously, that Singapore’s leaders are not corrupt.

Singaporeans need to step up our efforts to ensure transparency and accountability from our government. The international community, however, also has a role to play. Perpetuating the myth that the Singapore Government is incorruptible does not help.

Lest we forget, it was not too longer ago that the World Bank had actively promoted Indonesia under Suharto “as one of the great success stories”. Following the 1997 Asian financial crisis, however, the Bank admitted that its assessment was wrong and that it had known of many problems with the Indonesian economy but kept silent because it did not want to offend Suharto’s government. Butwhen push came to shove and Suharto was toppled, it was the Indonesian people who paid the biggest price.

One suspects that in a similar manner, the international community is diffident in claiming outright that Singapore’s leaders are corrupt. It is mendacious, however, to say they are not.

What would be helpful is for the international community, in particular the foreign media, to continue to highlight the fact that the Singapore system is unworthy of the accolades that the international business community heaps on it and that there is an urgent need for transparency and democratic accountability in the city-state.

Chee Soon Juan

Secretary-General
Singapore Democratic Party