The 18 individuals who were commended recently for having stood up to the temptations of corruption embody one of the cardinal principles of the social and economic organisation of life in Singapore. This is that corruption is nothing less than a waiting cancer which will spread through the body politic with insidious rapidity if it is allowed to take root. Unlike its physical counterpart, this cancer, however, is intensely responsive to preventive treatment. The individuals, who are drawn both from the public and private sectors, show how the habitual ability to turn down offers of bribes or other forms of inducement signals to would-be offenders that not only will their illegal offers be rejected but also that the act of offering a bribe is an offence in itself for which they will be punished severely.
While people turn to bribery often to get out of situations where they have broken the law already, the attempt to do so merely complicates that situation. The prospects of a fine and possibly also imprisonment on conviction for corruption - in addition to whatever penalties might accrue for the original transgression - should have a sobering effect on the corrupt. Of course, should a person accept a bribe, he may expect the full force of the same law to be arrayed against him as well. To ask for a bribe is to beg for trouble.
There are good reasons for Singapore's intolerance of corruption. Collusion between businessmen and public officials to circumvent construction regulations can and does lead to private buildings and public structures collapsing; this is a familiar story in many countries. Apart from the occasional tragedy, corruption undermines the principles on which a healthy economy works. As the Corrupt Practices Investigation Bureau notes, it creates "unfair competition and increases the cost of doing business". That is bad enough for any country; it could be fatal for a country whose business is business. Singapore's place on the global economic map depends crucially on its reputation as a country where political and bureaucratic palms do not need to be greased in order to secure government orders or routine permits.
A country's ability to make corruption unprofitable depends on the quality of its governance. Governance encompasses the political will to keep the economy clean, a will backed by powerful laws upheld by an independent judiciary and enforced by the public service. Singapore cannot afford complacency; the achievements of the past can be readily reversed. Societies everywhere have examples aplenty of how the human desire to get ahead can easily lead to silent complicity between two parties, each seeking to gain a benefit. Along with deterrent punishment, the best protection against corruption is a public culture which views the scourge as an attack of the deviant few on the innocent many.