The New Yorker
October, 1951, a band of thieves hijacked a large shipment of opium in the port town of Punggol, in northeast Singapore. The Singapore of that era bore little resemblance to the one we know today: as a key entrepôt in the drug trade between India and China, the island was beset by crime and corruption. When British colonial authorities investigated the theft, they discovered that the culprits included several high-ranking members of Singapore’s police. In the aftermath of the scandal, the colonial administration created the Corrupt Practices Investigation Bureau. When Singapore achieved independence, some years later, the new Prime Minister, Lee Kuan Yew, announced that he was “sickened” by decadence and corruption, and pledged to rid Singapore of graft. Members of his government wore white shirts and trousers when they were sworn into office, as a signal of the purity of their intentions.
New leaders often condemn the venality of their predecessors, only to exceed it when they assume office. From Duvalier, in Haiti, to Fujimori, in Peru, to Erdoğan, in Turkey, it’s a predictable twist in the drama of political transition. But Lee delivered on the rhetoric, enacting new anticorruption legislation and bestowing real power on the anticorruption bureau. He raised salaries for civil servants, to minimize any temptation to sell their influence, and instituted harsh jail terms for those caught taking bribes. In 1986, Lee’s minister of national development, an architect named Teh Cheang Wan, was investigated for accepting kickbacks from two real-estate developers. He killed himself with a fatal dose of barbiturates, maintaining, in a suicide note addressed to Lee Kuan Yew, “It is only right that I should pay the highest penalty for my mistake.”
By the time Lee stepped down as Prime Minister, in 1990, Singapore had gone from being one of the more corrupt countries on the planet to one of the least. According to Transparency International’s most recent Corruption Perceptions Index, Singapore now ranks seventh in the world for transparent government—less corrupt than Australia, Iceland, or (by a good margin) the United States. The story is heartening but anomalous. It is almost unheard of for a nation to expunge a culture of corruption so thoroughly. Some countries get slightly better, some get slightly worse, but, the world over, corruption tends to endure.
Picture: 2bgr8 [CC-BY-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/3.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons