Senior MHA officials under CPIB investigation

Norvin Chan

Former SCDF Commissioner Peter Lim (left) and former CNB Director Ng Boon Gay (right)

The National Council of Crime Prevention subscribes to the “Crime Triangle Model” –– in which crime arises whenever opportunity, desire and the target intersect. It happens to be one of the many competing theories that try to explain why crime happens; others view crime as the outcome of broken windows, broken families, or of broken genes.

The latest theorists to add in their own opinions on the matter will be the Singaporeans who have taken upon themselves to be amateur sociologists of late. Their interest is well founded: when civil servants of the highest level dressed in the severe dignity of the uniformed services, come under suspicion, it produces an unshakable doubt in the public mind.

The Corrupt Practices Investigation Bureau (CPIB) is currently probing former Commissioner Singapore Civil Defence Force (SCDF) Mr Peter Lim Sin Pang and former Director of the Central Narcotics Bureau (CNB) Mr Ng Boon Gay over allegations of serious personal misconduct.

Coupled with this is the context of recent corruption cases. It will be interesting to note that when the media reported on the S$12.5m invoices fraud in the Singapore Land Authority in November 2010, the papers needed to reach as far back as 1995 to find a comparable case. When the latest news broke, the public did not have to reach for their history books this time.

The urgency of the situation takes the form of the question: how to prevent corruption?

The traditional Singaporean model is a focus on two components: the ‘right people’ and the ‘right system’. Both can be said to be pursued conscientiously by the Singaporean government.

To Plato, the ‘right people’ are the philosopher kings he wrote about in the Republic, bred from young to be benevolent elites with the requisite abilities and morals. Singapore has achieved a semblance of it through the Public Service Commission, which besides looking at academic merit, also subjects its teenaged candidates to a psychometric assessment, background checks and informal evaluations embedded in tea sessions. All that before grooming them to become part of a talent pool which the civil service, and sometimes the political party, draws from.

The other side of the model – ‘the right system’ – is achieved through the civil service pay structure, a lack of legislation to dispense pork and the accompanying chance for bureaucrats to feed from the trough, open-tender governmental projects, wide-ranging powers given to the CPIB, and harsh anti-corruption laws. To get an idea of how harsh anti-corruption laws are (as well as how finely tuned for punishment), look at the burden of proof placing upon a convicted person the onus of showing which of his assets are not gained by corruption. Failure to prove so can result in his legitimately earned assets being seized alongside the illegitimate gains.

Now, both Mr Peter Lim and Mr Ng Boon Gay were government scholars working in the system for many years. While the results of the investigation (we have only straws to grasp at) might confirm that they are not the ‘right people’, or that they did not work in the ‘right system’, I will say that they were the ‘best people’ in the ‘best system’ that could reasonably be determined and conceived.

There is evil (as well as diminishing returns) to be found in all extremes. To clamor for a tightening of the PSC’s talent sieve, or the further tightening of the system, will likely lead to counter-productive results. To subject an eighteen year old to endless morality quizzes risk only alienation, while guaranteeing no results of being able to predict the probability of a moral failing thirty years later in life. To limit the autonomy of an individual by stressing the system and its regulations, risks creating a factory which product is red tape instead of governance.

Thoughts about the ‘right people’ and the ‘right system’ aside, there are others who lament the lack of the ‘conviction civil servant’ whom has disappeared alongside the ‘conviction politician’ –– people whom believe that having a ‘mission’ will keep our public servants incorruptible.

While this view is undoubtedly true, the unfortunate bit is that a sense of mission is the hardest part to replicate. An organization that tries to uphold lofty ideals, in the absence of a rousing crisis or a unifying charismatic figure, inevitably falls into insipid mutterings of “Vision” that ranks amid other corporate-speak.

The trouble is as Max Weber puts it: a bureaucracy is the “routinization of charisma”; the aim of which is to consolidate and make normal the revolutionary changes created by a charismatic figure. Now that the turbulent age is past us, and none of our leaders can truly claim to be charismatic, it is unlikely that there is a sense of mission that can be created. The civil service is unlikely to extend beyond maintaining their already high performance. That makes it difficult to combat corruption by bringing in a sense of public service.

The particulars of the investigation are not yet known. There will be specific lessons that call for specific modifications to the system. At this point however, we can only talk about the general picture, which is one that is already designed to deter corruption by taking every reasonable measure. Barring any radical change in the science behind the motivations of white-collar crime, our system can still be considered as working.

Photo courtesy of the Singapore Civil Defence Force and the Ministry of Home Affairs.