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Harry Cassin
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Wait, does Singapore have a corruption problem?

Something is brewing in squeaky-clean Singapore. In the first seven months of 2023, it has had three major corruption scandals that could take a serious toll on the country’s much envied financial stability. 

Here’s an overview of the corruption investigations that the government of Singapore has disclosed in 2023.

The Disappearing FCPA Violator

In December 2017, Singapore’s Keppel Offshore and its U.S. subsidiary agreed to pay a total penalty of more than $422 million to resolve corruption charges with authorities in the United States, Brazil, and Singapore.

Keppel Offshore admitted paying $55 million in bribes to officials in Brazil during a decade-long scheme. It won about $1 billion in contracts.

In January 2023, the Singapore government’s probe into Keppel Offshore’s corruption resulted in six former senior executives being let off with a “stern warning.” At the time, the Singapore government said in a parliamentary session that no prosecutions were brought due to insufficient evidence.

You may be wondering why there aren’t many headlines related to Keppel Offshore these days.

In February, Sembcorp Marine completed a $3.3 billion acquisition of Keppel Offshore & Marine. Sembcorp is backed by Temasek, a Singaporean sovereign wealth fund. Keppel Offshore was part of Keppel Corporation, another Temasek-linked company.

In April 2023, Sembcorp Marine changed its name to Seatrium.

On May 31, the Singapore Corrupt Practices Investigation Bureau (CPIB) announced an investigation into Seatrium related to alleged “corruption offenses that occurred in Brazil.”

The Renters 

In June, Law and Home Affairs Minister K Shanmugam and Foreign Affairs Minister Vivian Balakrishnan were investigated by the CPIB after renting state-owned houses for personal use.

The CPIB concluded its investigations and found no evidence of wrongdoing, and the ministers were cleared.

The Mogul and the Minister

Last week, Singaporean billionaire tycoon Ong Beng Seng and Minister of Transport S Iswaran were arrested and questioned by the CPIB as part of a corruption investigation.

A few days before the arrests, Singapore’s PM Lee asked transport minister Iswaran to take a leave of absence.

Ong Beng Seng founded Hotel Properties Limited (HPL), now a global conglomerate. He’s often credited as the man who brought Formula One to Singapore.

No details have been released about the nature of the investigation or the alleged improper activity, if any exists.

Before Ong and Iswaran, the last corruption investigation in Singapore involving a cabinet minister was in 1986.

Founding Father Lee Kuan Yew approved a CPIB investigation into Teh Cheang Wan, then Minister for National Development, for allegedly taking bribes to help a development company purchase state land. He committed suicide before he was officially charged.

Why is this happening? 

No one can know for sure, but here are two theories why Singapore is facing rising corruption investigations:

  1. There is more corruption in Singapore than there used to be. The country is changing and corruption has begun to seep in. 
  2. There has always been corruption in Singapore, but it’s increasingly coming to light because Singaporeans became cynical and disillusioned after the government’s handling of the Keppel case. There is more awareness of what constitutes corruption and more willingness to blow the whistle when suspected corruption is seen.

The Warning

Singapore is tied for 5th place on Transparency International’s CPI. It has long been proud of its corruption-free reputation that contrasts with the Southeast Asian norm.

Lee Kuan Yew knew that if influence peddling occurred, it would cost Singapore its competitive edge. He said in a 1994 speech in Parliament :

. . . 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.

* * *

Singapore is a crown jewel of the global economy. But, for me, it’s more than that. It’s where I grew up.

On weekend walks with my dad, I remember seeing Ong Beng Seng when we cut through the Four Seasons Hotel, a property owned by Ong’s company. He had a cheerful face. I admired him and other first-generation Singaporean business founders who provided much needed goods and services to the post-colonial island nation.

I treasure my childhood and those walks on a pre-Crazy Rich Asians era Orchard Road. I witnessed first hand how Singapore transformed from a sleepy, often belittled alternative to Hong Kong to what it is today.

It’s a country capable of incredibly rapid change, and that makes me optimistic about Singapore and its people.

But corruption is a cancer, and if the government doesn’t maintain its historic dedication to fighting it, well, the results will speak for themselves.

In the words of Lee Kuan Yew, “Whoever governs Singapore must have that iron in him.”

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