Lee Kuan Yew keeps corruption at bay

Lee runs a tight ship and Singapore’s pre-eminent position as a modern, affluent and corruption free society owes entirely to his vision and his determination.

By Tunku Abdul Aziz, MySinchew

I BEGIN with a confession. I may be fairly described as a dyed in the wool admirer of Mr. Lee Kuan Yew, Singapore’s Minister Mentor. I am pleased that his recent visit to our country went well. He was received and treated as an honoured visitor, in the grand palaces and everywhere else he went, as well he should, because Lee undoubtedly played an important and historic role in the creation of Malaysia as a political entity. That is a historical fact.

I am glad that Lee gave Mahathir a wide berth. It would have left a bad taste in the mouth if he had asked to meet the bitter old man of Malaysian politics. Mahathir could have been relied upon to be obnoxious and boorish as only Mahathir knows how. His reference to Lee as the little emperor from a small Middle Kingdom is vintage Mahathir, dripping with venom and uncharitable innuendoes. The man, Mahathir I mean, is a total disgrace to the Malay sense of gracious hospitality and traditional decorum. I suppose the kindest thing to do is to ignore Mahathir and let him continue to entertain the sad fantasy that he is an indispensable part of our country’s process of governance.

Lee Kuan Yew is far from perfect. His record on human rights and media freedom is well documented, and there is not a great deal to choose between his and ours. We should wipe off that feeling of smugness. On balance, though, Lee runs a tight ship and Singapore’s pre-eminent position as a modern, affluent and corruption free society owes entirely to his vision and his determination. What he has achieved for his country in the face of the hopelessly impossible challenges says a great deal about his single minded devotion to public duty in the public interest. Enriching himself or his family has never been part of his game plan.

He has never wavered in his belief right at the outset that corruption, humanity’s greatest curse, was not going to be a feature of Singapore’s governance model. His administration is both clean and efficient, and Singapore’s economy is among the most competitive in the world. Judged against most indicators, Singapore is among the top global performers. While we wallow in corruption and are daily buffeted by one financial scam after another, the ‘Little Red Dot’ – the highly offensive name former President Habibi of Indonesia gave Singapore – continues to notch one accolade after another. Singapore has shown that size does not matter.

I am often asked the reason for my being such a loyal Lee Kuan Yew fan. It goes a long way. As I have said, he is not without a blemish or two, but no man has done more to curb corruption in public life as Lee, to the eternal gratitude of his people who are well served by a corruption free civil service and political leadership. The benefits for Singapore have been enormous in reputational terms. Investors know that their investments are safer in Singapore than in many other jurisdictions because Singapore operates a justice system that is incorruptible.

Singapore has succeeded in curbing corruption to a degree that is rarely achieved elsewhere in Asia, except possibly Hong Kong. Singapore does not need a bloated anti-corruption bureaucracy such as we have with our ineffectual Malaysian Anti-Corruption Commission that is a drain on public funds. But what Singapore has in large measure is political will riding on the shoulders of a remarkable leader whose abhorrence for corruption takes on an almost messianic crusade. When we think of Singapore before Lee Kuan Yew, what comes to mind was a country that was a corrupt colonial backwater, filthy, ugly and smelly, not unlike Hong Kong at that time in its history.

Today, Singapore has shown the world that by confronting corruption decisively, and by putting in place systems and policies specifically to make unethical public behaviour a high risk and low return business, a country will become competitive which is the name of the game in the globalised economy. How do we fare by comparison?

The government, in spite of protestations to the contrary, tolerates corruption in all its manifestations. I am not just talking about money changing hands. That is bribery, but equally insidious is bending the rules and exploiting loopholes with a view to defrauding the nation’s coffers. The Port Klang Free Zone scandal is a case in point, and yet we are being told to move on without any of the perpetrators being called to account for their part in this multi-billion ringgit swindle. The government must do its duty in ensuring that those responsible are brought to justice. A scandal of this order of magnitude even for a country such as ours that is so used to living cheek by jowl with grand corruption on a daily basis beggars the imagination. We wait with bated breath to see what Najib will do in this case. Or is he no different from Mahathir and Badawi?

Through sheer force of character, and leading by example, Lee Kuan Yew has been able to make a difference to the lives of his people. Singapore is able today to punch way above its weight. It is a respected name, human rights NGOs may disagree, and I for one wish Singapore well in its relentless fight against man’s most debilitating social ill.