Speech by Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong at launch of CPIB Exhibition "Declassified: Corruption Matters"


Distinguished Guests
Ladies and Gentlemen

          I am happy to launch CPIB’s Roving Exhibition today, “Declassified: Corruption Matters”. Singapore is recognised around the world as a country with a clean and incorrupt system. We do well in international rankings, whether it is Transparency International, World Bank or Political and Economic Risk Consultancy (PERC) rankings. We ourselves track our corruption statistics carefully and this year, the number of corruption cases investigated, is at an all-time low. CPIB has tabled a report on corruption to Parliament – I think it is being put up today – and in future we will be doing so regularly to keep this in the public spotlight so that people know what the CPIB is doing, and focus on this advantage as well as potential problem. I would like to thank all CPIB officers past and present, as well as officers from other agencies such as the Attorney-General's Chambers (AGC) and the Home Team for their dedication and resolve.

2        Many countries send officials to study our experience fighting corruption in Singapore. They want to know the details – how we do it, what laws we have, how our agencies operate and how our system is organised – they come, they see and they learn. All these things they see, in principle they can do, and in fact, many countries have done the same. Whether it is setting up an anti-corruption agency, enacting laws, putting in place codes of conduct for public servants. Yet corruption remains endemic in many countries, both in developed and developing countries.

3        What is our secret to keep Singapore clean? I believe there are three factors. All of which are easy to state, but much harder to implement and for others to replicate. We ourselves will need to work hard to maintain them.

4        First and most fundamentally, we started with strong political leadership, a leadership determined to eradicate corruption, and we have maintained this ever since. In 1959, when Singapore first attained self-Government from the British and held elections, our pioneer leaders of the People’s Action Party (PAP) faced a very important choice. Whether or not to fight the elections to win, or just to fight to do well, and form the largest party in opposition. It was not a straightforward decision because at that time, Singapore faced a myriad of problems: poverty, poor public health, an acute housing shortage, a stagnant economy, an exploding population and political pressures. So the PAP had two choices – contest enough seats to become a strong opposition party, but let another party take office, govern and probably fail before the PAP comes in; or fight to win and take over the Government, knowing that you would then have to deal with all these overwhelming problems. Which to choose? In the end, Mr Lee Kuan Yew and his team decided to fight to win the elections and take over the Government from the start. The key consideration was not just the PAP’s credibility or its ability to deal with the difficult problems. The key consideration, what was at stake, was whether Singapore would be able to start off from a clean slate with corruption under control. Because the PAP leaders calculated that if there was one term of an incompetent and corrupt Government, the system would go corrupt, the cancer would be embedded in the system, be impossible to remove and Singapore would be finished. That is why the PAP fought and won the 1959 general elections, and that is why Mr Lee Kuan Yew and his PAP colleagues wore white shirts and white trousers at their first swearing in, and made it the party’s uniform. It symbolised their determination to keep the Government clean and incorruptible and it has set the tone for Singapore ever since. That is the first reason. We started off clean and did not allow the system to go corrupt.

5        Secondly, with strong political will, we institutionalised a robust, comprehensive anti-corruption framework. We have strict anti-corruption laws such as the Prevention of Corruption Act (PCA), which puts the burden of proof on the accused to show that he acquired his wealth legally. If he cannot prove that he acquired it legally, and has unexplained wealth disproportionate to known sources of income, we can presume it to be from graft and can confiscate it, unless proven otherwise. We also treat the actions of Singaporean citizens overseas the same as actions committed in Singapore, regardless whether such corrupt acts have consequences for Singapore. So we have a strong legal framework, and to enforce the laws, we have a strong and independent CPIB. The CPIB can investigate anyone, and has in the past investigated senior public officials and even ministers. Everyone knows that when the CPIB calls you up to “lim kopi”, it is not a casual invitation. And everyone knows that if you lodge a complaint with CPIB, CPIB will take it seriously and investigate it. The new Corruption Reporting Centre at Whitley Road, opening at the end of this year, will make it more convenient for the public to walk in and report suspected corrupt cases. Because in the CPIB’s experience, of all the inputs which it gets, the most valuable inputs are the ones in person because you can speak to the person, get more details, verify the facts, access the credibility and be able to proceed if necessary. Apart from the CPIB, we have also built a professional public service with public officers who are imbued with the right values and understand the ethos of public service. We pay public servants fair and realistic wages benchmarked to private sector earnings. In return, we demand the highest standards of integrity and performance.

6        Thirdly, over time, we have developed a society and culture that eschews corruption. Singaporeans expect and demand a clean system. They do not condone giving or accepting “social lubricants” to get things done. They readily report corrupt practices when they encounter them. Singaporeans trust that the law applies to all and that the Government will enforce the laws without fear or favour. Businesses too have confidence that, in Singapore, the rules are fair, transparent and equally applied.

7        Today, we have a precious and extraordinary state of affairs of having a clean system in a continent where corruption is a chronic problem. But by no means have we permanently and completely eradicated the problem. Because corruption is ultimately driven by human nature and greed. However tight the system is, some individuals will still be tempted to break the rules. When they do, we must make sure they are caught and deal severely with them.

8        There is a Chinese proverb: “上梁不正下梁歪”. It means, if the top beam is askew, the bottom beams supporting it will be crooked. Ultimately, keeping a system clean must start at the very top. Once upon a time, there was a Singapore Armed Forces officer, on a course overseas, who was once asked by his classmate how Singapore kept its system clean. He explained our arrangements and the central role of the CPIB.  Then his classmate asked him a follow-up question. But whom does the CPIB report to? The Singaporean officer, young and a little bit innocent, replied without hesitation that the CPIB reported directly to the Prime Minister. This elicited further puzzlement and the Singaporean officer only understood why much later. The real question he was being asked was, who guards the guardian? CPIB reports to the Prime Minister, the Prime Minister reports to whom? How do you keep it clean?

9        This is an ancient riddle, and there is no formula which guarantees an answer to this riddle, but in Singapore, we are determined to uphold the highest standards of integrity from the top all the way down, throughout our system. It is not just putting the safeguards in place for the CPIB to investigate any matter, or even the PM, and as you know, the CPIB can investigate anybody and if the PM does not give it permission, the CPIB can go to the President and get permission from the President to proceed. It is not just the rules, but also how we conduct ourselves in every respect. Whether we uphold ourselves with integrity, whether we are transparent and are prepared to have a full investigation and public accountability when rumours or doubts threaten our credibility, even if it could be awkward or embarrassing. It has happened before. Those of you old enough would remember that in 1996, nearly 20 years ago, rumours spread that Mr Lee Kuan Yew and I had received improper discounts on some property purchases which we had made. The Prime Minister, then Mr Goh Chok Tong, ordered a full investigation, and found that there had been nothing improper. He brought the issue to Parliament, stated the government’s findings, and we held a full debate which lasted for three days. During the debate, Mr Lee Kuan Yew said:

10      "I take pride and satisfaction that the question of my two purchases and those of the Deputy Prime Minister, my son, has been subjected to, and not exempted from, scrutiny… It is most important that Singapore remain a place where no one is above scrutiny, that any question of integrity of a minister, however senior, that he has gained benefits either through influence or corrupt practices, be investigated.”

11      Mr Lee Kuan Yew knew right from the start that Singapore’s survival and progress depended on keeping this country clean and corruption-free. That is why one item in this exhibition is one of the artillery shell casings from the 21-Gun salute fired by the Singapore Armed Forces in honour of Mr Lee during his state funeral procession. I presented it to the CPIB so that we are all reminded of this precious legacy that Mr Lee and our founding leaders left us – a clean system, built up over more than half a century. It is a legacy that all of us must do our utmost to protect. Not just the courts, the Government and public service, all of whom who must continue to uphold the highest levels of professionalism and integrity. But also among the public, who play an important role in setting our social norms in keeping Singapore free of corruption. I hope the declassified case archives and the stories shared by the CPIB investigation officers in this exhibition, will remind all of us of the role we play in fighting corruption.

12      Thank you.

Last updated: 15 Apr 2016