Hornbill Unleashed

May 30, 2010

Corruption: How much is too much?

Filed under: Human rights,Legal,Politics — Hornbill Unleashed @ 12:00 AM
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Goh Keng SweeBy Terence Netto

Reading the encomiums to Dr Goh Keng Swee, the man his eulogists say was principally responsible for the templates that undergird modern Singapore, one is prompted to recall a discussion in the now defunct, Far Eastern Economic Review, on corruption.

The focus on corruption in a mid-1983 edition of the respected weekly stirred interest because several countries in East Asia were, at that juncture, on the cusp of taking the path towards economic development via infusions of foreign direct investment.

The issue of corruption – what attitude to take towards it, what degree of it to tolerate – was mulled over in the intellectual debate on what paths to take in the quest for economic development of the region.

The Review, as befit its status then as the must-read journal of governing circles in the region, rounded in on the topic in its highly regarded section, Fifth Column, whose editorial gravitas was equivalent to that of op-ed pages in stellar dailies in western capitals.

In its focus on corruption, the Review adverted to Goh’s arguments on the subject.

The Singapore polymath had counseled zero tolerance. His arguments were espoused in the Harry G Johnson Memorial Lecture he gave to the Royal Society, London, in July 1983 on ‘Public Administration and Economic Development in LDCs (least developed countries)’.

The nub of Goh’s arguments, cited by the Review, was that corruption would add to costs, make national economies less competitive, and erode the moral and intellectual fiber of the civil service that must conceive, implement and monitor development policies.

Goh also argued that top civil servants ought to be remunerated at rates that were near to the levels enjoyed by captains of industry and top performers in the professions.

His rationale: that was the only way to retain talent in the civil service and prevent a drain to the private sector.

Huntington: Corruption inevitable

The arguments arrayed against Goh’s rather puritanical stance were variations on the theme propounded by Samuel Huntington in his book ‘Political Order’, although the author was not cited in the article in Fifth Column.

samuel huntingtonHuntington is more renowned for his controversial clash of civilisations theory which saw conflict between cultures as the driving force of history following the fall of communism in 1989.

That thesis had diverted attention away from Huntington’s other, more compelling if less controversial theories, like the one on corruption as being inevitable in societies that are newly modernising.

The views in the Reviewarticle that were contrary to Goh’s essentially rehashed the ones advanced by Huntington in ‘Political Order’: in societies that have just begun to modernise, corruption in moderate doses can overcome unresponsive bureaucracy and be an instrument for progress.

Huntington pointed to 18th century England, at the onset of the Industrial Revolution, as a time when there were high levels of corruption, as was the case in 19th century America when the forces spurring economic growth – utilities, railway companies and new corporations – were the same ones that were handing out bribes to city councils to lubricate paths to huge profits and expansion.

Samuel Huntington political orderHuntington held that corruption at this stage of development was useful in providing new groups with the means to be assimilated into the system.

Corruption, Huntington noted, was a less extreme form of alienation than violence: “He who corrupts a system’s police officers was more likely to identify with the system than he who storms the system’s police stations.”

The high-minded would find it easy to disparage arguments that held corruption to be a tolerable and passing phase in the process of economic modernisation of underdeveloped societies.

But, said Huntington, the seamy tradeoffs for spurring growth and stability are necessary in conditions where people’s loyalties are focused on groups and tribes rather than on institutions and processes.

Loyalty and faith in institutions and their processes are a mark of societies that have arrived at some level of maturation in its constitutional forms.

Zero tolerance

This recall of a near three-decade old shakedown of arguments about corruption – its causes and what attitude to take towards it – is useful not just for proof of the validity of Goh’s counsel of zero tolerance, but also of the pitfalls when, as in Malaysia’s case, we opted for some tolerance of it that was not guarded enough.

The slack we allowed corruption has eventuated in an broad infection of the body politic by a bacillus that now sees low-cost houses built for the poor being appropriated by the well-heeled, to the phenomenon of gigantic commissions paid out of arms procurement contracts to local brokers.

In other words, no sphere is too low an opportunity to be exploited by some and no upper limit is recognised by others.

Once the hand is inserted in the cookie jar, there’s no telling when a halt can be called to the temptation towards serial behaviour.



  1. Meanwhile, a sand mining contractor revealed that a KSSB officer had requested from him a commission of RM1 per tonne in November last year for future sand purchases.

    The contractor said that though the officer had confirmed a price of RM12.50 per tonne for a stockpile of sand at Sungai Darah, he revised the price to RM14 per tonne after the contractor had almost finished clearing the stockpile.

    He also said that KSSB had allowed him to make payments first and collect the sand later.” – Bernama

    SELCAT dismissed this outright without sensibly working out a process for determination. The fact that it was not brought up before the inquiry is irrelevant.

    It was earlier reported that 4 months into its inception the sand company was already declaring bonus!!! What if something happens in the rest of the 8 months of the year?

    IF they have to reconvene, do it again! Something is terribly wrong with the SELCAT!

    Comment by Watcha — June 5, 2010 @ 3:14 PM | Reply

    • People who have had evidence must come forward to expose any forms of corruptions in both BN and PAKATAN led state government. I sincerely hope SELCAT will not be selectively accountable and transparent. Pakatan lawmakers must continue to fight consciously all forms of corruptions.

      Comment by Mata Kuching — June 6, 2010 @ 8:52 PM | Reply

      • Khalid himself should have pulled his hair and stomped his feet at the outrageous bonus paid before 2Qs are done. Wasn’t Khalid a corportate wizard of some sort? This is a disgrace!

        Teng says to leave it to the management ! Isn’t it clear as daylight these bozos can’t tell what management is supposed to do???

        Somebody should crucify Teng! Or stone him!

        Comment by Watcha — June 7, 2010 @ 2:59 PM | Reply

  2. Is there a correlation between a nation’s progress and corruption ?

    Let’s look at the East Asia country which adopted zero tolerance on corruption in mid-1983. Today Singapore is a developed nation, well ahead of most the East Asia countries. Singaporeans should give thanks to Dr Goh Keng Swee, the chief architect of the corruption free Singapore.

    If we want to progress as a nation, we must not compromise on the fight for a corruption free nation.

    Comment by PH Chin — May 31, 2010 @ 11:56 AM | Reply

    • As far as MACC is concerned it’s more than Top Agenda. It’s like saying, more than “excellence”! 😉

      Why is it that they can’t deliver? Or never probably will?

      Huntington wrote his work primarily for the US Military of Defence. During the Bush Administration the ideas were adopted with a vengeance corrupting just about everything in its path, as many Americans would now concede. There were stories where crates of US curriencies were shipped to Iraq for ill-defined purposes.

      Zero tolerance is one thing. A cocktail of other things may well decide how success may be achieved within realistic limits. When you position corruption as a premise for “productive” actions it leaves little else to be said. The complex nature of corruption may well be greed and we’re now relishing in self-acclaimation. We may have to mix and match.

      Singapore may appear to outsiders with high per capita income as the result of zero tolerance on corruption! But certainly the Singas now will tell you to recheck what you mean by tolerance, especially zero!

      Comment by Watcha — May 31, 2010 @ 3:35 PM | Reply

  3. We not only have to change the decadent BN Government. There are bigger stuffs we have to turn on its head and see what we can make of them before 2050!

    Look at yourself here, if you’re not the privileged!

    (To JS/07/M/378 This Marble Monument Is Erected by the State)

    He was found by the Bureau of Statistics to be
    One against whom there was no official complaint,
    And all the reports on his conduct agree
    That, in the modern sense of an old-fashioned word, he was a saint,
    For in everything he did he served the Greater Community.
    Except for the War till the day he retired
    He worked in a factory and never got fired,
    But satisfied his employers, Fudge Motors Inc.
    Yet he wasn’t a scab or odd in his views,
    For his Union reports that he paid his dues,
    (Our report on his Union shows it was sound)
    And our Social Psychology workers found
    That he was popular with his mates and liked a drink.
    The Press are convinced that he bought a paper every day
    And that his reactions to advertisements were normal in every way.
    Policies taken out in his name prove that he was fully insured,
    And his Health-card shows he was once in hospital but left it cured.
    Both Producers Research and High-Grade Living declare
    He was fully sensible to the advantages of the Installment Plan
    And had everything necessary to the Modern Man,
    A phonograph, a radio, a car and a frigidaire.
    Our researchers into Public Opinion are content
    That he held the proper opinions for the time of year;
    When there was peace, he was for peace; when there was war, he went.
    He was married and added five children to the population,
    Which our Eugenist says was the right number for a parent of his generation.
    And our teachers report that he never interfered with their education.
    Was he free? Was he happy? The question is absurd:
    Had anything been wrong, we should certainly have heard.
    — W H Auden

    Comment by Watcha — May 31, 2010 @ 12:59 AM | Reply

  4. Certainly there are more questions than answers to the mysteries surrounding the UMNO controlled BN “selling ” of our sovereign rights to Brunei, the sudden exchanging of six parcels of KTMB land for Singapore’s 2 commercial plots and now the controversial issuance of football betting licence to Vincent Tan who has been known to be financing UMNO election expenses and buying of Opposition lawmakers for UMNO.

    Our country is not only going broke, our stock market might even collapse soon with 50% the daily transactions , for a while now, dominated by KWSP, our only retirement fund. The Bank Islam fiasco in Labuan, Tabung Haji fiasco in assets management, PKFZ scandal, and Sime Darby losses are still fresh in our minds. And we havent forgotten the massive bailout of Bumiputra Finance, Bank Bumiputra, Sime Bank, MAS, and UEM.

    More and more young Malays and Bumiputras in East Malaysia with income less than RM2000 are also going broke because hire purchase payment for vehicles almost make up 40% of their take home pay because our vehicles are among the most expensive in the world. Credit cards default has also bankrupted many young people every week. We are already a nation of bankrupts and yet Najib still insisted that we are on target to becoming a developed nation by 2020. Idris Jala and his high profile and professional team have been madated by the government to study our economic situation and they discovered Malaysia had already developed the symptom of Greece and is going bankrupt in 9 years or less.

    Comment by Mata Kuching — May 30, 2010 @ 10:27 AM | Reply

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