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Singapore and Lee Kuan Yew: Paying for Honesty

Singapore’s first Prime Minister, Lee Kuan Yew, passed away on Monday morning.

He had many achievements, but his one big idea must have been this: In Asia, how would one Third World island, with no resources, distinguish itself as a trading and financial hub?

His answer was branding. He would make the island, Singapore, clean, in every sense of the word. Besides having a clean physical environment, Singapore would have a clean business environment too.  The idea of a corruption free country in Asia was, in the 1960s, a revolutionary business idea. It was a unique selling point like no other.

To accomplish it, Singapore provided for harsh punishment for corruption. But Lee had another bold idea: how would Singapore find clean and honest bureaucrats to administer this business environment? Pay them well.

For Lee, there was no alternative. He said other systems, such as those found in the United States and the United Kingdom, didn’t work. It was hypocrisy for their politicians to mislead the public into thinking that they were working purely for glory. “Sleaze,” as he called it, would result, where lobbyists were paid to introduce people to politicians.

If influence peddling occurred in Singapore, Lee was aware that Singapore would lose its competitive edge. He said, “…the Government enforces strict rules to prevent influence peddling for the benefit of any person or company. But for that Singapore will be just another of the governments in the Third World which we are not. It is important that we remain different because that is an enormous economic capital for us. Lose that and we may lose about 30% of the rationale why we are different, and why we attract different kinds of investments.”

He said what most people thought: that political leaders were people too, with their own needs and temptations. He said, “Look at all the countries around us. They started off self-sacrificing revolutionaries — Vietnam, China — they went on long marches, their friends died, their families perished, their systems are not corrupt, their children are corrupt. We have not gone that way because we are realistic and we know adjustments have to be made. There is a price to be paid for hypocrisy.”

Lee also said that if countries didn’t pay their bureaucrats well, the good ones would be lured away to the private sector. In 1994, as the former Prime Minister, he told the Singapore Parliament, “If we do not do something immediately, the public service will be depleted of talent and this head-hunting for trustworthy and capable men working in government will not stop.”

He said that politicians “…are real men and women, just like you and me, with real families who have real aspirations in life. So when we talk of all these high-falutin, noble, lofty causes, remember at the end of the day, very few people become priests.”

He pointed out that it didn’t cost the country very much to pay its leaders better. He asked, “But what is it we are arguing about? The Government today — Cabinet Ministers, Parliamentary Secretaries, Political Secretaries, everybody — costs $17 million a year. That is the cost. Working a GDP of nearly $90 billion, growing at 8%, which is $6 billion a year. You have wrong men here, it is a disaster.”

The Singapore Parliament passed the motion (called “Competitive Salaries for Competent and Honest Government”) in 1994. Politicians and senior civil servants had their salaries revised upwards, approaching those of their counterparts in the private sector.

A few years later, I had a conversation with a former top civil servant from a neighbouring country. He said, “The Prime Minister of your little country is paid more than the President of the United States.” He then added, “But then, your Prime Minister is doing a much better job.”

The Singapore Prime Minister has been ranked the highest paid political leader in the world, ahead of the Chief Executive of Hong Kong and the President of the United States.

Last year, Transparency International ranked Singapore as the Asian country having the least perceived level of corruption. Singapore was ranked 7 overall in the world, with Germany at 12 and the United Kingdom at 14. The United States placed 17, tied with Hong Kong.


Adrian Tan is a best-selling writer and lawyer. He’s a director at Stamford Law Corporation in Singapore. He can be contacted here.

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  1. Interesting article

    Reasonable salaries are certainly a hygiene factor in preventing corruption. A necessary but not sufficient factor.

    I suspect that fear of punishment, and patriotism are equally necessary factors in the recipe for low corruption.

  2. I am somewhat ambivalent about Lee Kuan Yew's legacy. I have spent much of the last 20 years living and working in Asia – mostly recently in Singapore.
    While no-one can deny that Singapore is prosperous, clean and efficient in ways that the rest of Asia only dreams about, there is also an undercurrent of corruption that is never discussed.
    In my experience some of the most corrupt companies doing business in Asia are based in Singapore. Clean and utterly above board at home, the "out of sight out of mind" adage seems to facilitate corrupt activities by Singaporean entities when they are outside the ambit of the Singaporean authorities. It is no surprise that the external jurisdiction provisions of Singaporean anti-corruption laws have rarely if ever been invoked.

    In recent years there has been a rash of corruption trials within Singapore which seems to suggest that the strong anti-corruption dictates of the PAP may be losing their grip.

    Time will tell whether this legacy lasts beyond the existence of the man himself.

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