In contrast with the graft-ridden 1950s, it was said in the 1980s that corruption in Singapore was not a way of life but remains a fact of life. That is, it had been pushed to the margins where it had become an exception to the general rule of incorruptibility - an individual transgression and not a systemic fault. Today, even that compliment would be found wanting because the driving vision of the Republic's anti-corruption movement is to eradicate it as a fact of life. This is not to say that corruption has been already erased, or that it can be - because temptation and frailty are companions which go back a long way - but that it has to be fought constantly.
This has been done primarily by ensuring that a clean political leadership and a transparent public service create a culture in which the Corrupt Practices Investigation Bureau (CPIB) can go about its job without fear or partiality. So seriously has Singapore adopted this challenge, so high has it set the benchmark, and so widespread has been the recognition of its anti-corruption efforts that any slippage, no matter how small, appears to be an indictment of the system. Hence, a drop of two positions, from the fifth place to the seventh, on the Transparency International Corruption Perception Index, has been met with concern. Several high-profile corruption cases probably played a role in souring perceptions.
Commendably, as Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong revealed earlier this week, the Government has decided to move ahead. It will review laws on corruption, increase the CPIB's manpower by more than 20 per cent, and set up a one-stop Corruption Reporting Centre. It is hoped that Singaporeans will make full use of the centre because public vigilance plays a central role in bringing suspected cases of wrong-doing to the notice of the authorities. Simultaneously, it is important to ensure that people do not abuse the confidentiality of the investigation process to try and settle scores with others anonymously.
International rankings on corruption and transparency are important for Singapore because how others assess its performance in these areas influences the overall confidence in the system on which investment decisions are based. Beyond such considerations, however, the importance of probity is that it has created a normative environment for Singaporeans to judge themselves by high standards of honesty. This achievement needs to be guarded zealously because it is extremely difficult to recover ground lost to creeping corruption. Corruption can never be removed completely, but even its occasional appearance must not be allowed to become normal over time.