Scandals take gloss off the myth that is Singapore


Volume 32, No. 621
March 30 - April 8, 2012

Commuters wait for a train at Sengkang station on Singapore’s northeast line on March 15 as a screen shows the train service between Harbourfront and Outram Park not functioning due to a power outage.
Pic: AFP

THERE’S a smart new saying in Singapore: “When you drink sparkling water, remember what’s in the bubbles.”

The Lion City has been fizzing along successfully for half a century now, but an awful lot of its sparkle suddenly appears to be tainted with flatulent air.

There have been many embarrassing incidents over the past year, but the one that really dented Singapore’s image was the revelation of extensive corruption within senior levels of the civil service.

Only a handful of cases have so far come to light, but as the adage goes: If you see one cockroach in the kitchen you know there are lots more around.

In January, the head of the Central Narcotics Bureau, Peter Lim Sin Peng, and the director of the Singapore Civil Defence Force, Ng Boon Gay, were dismissed for alleged corruption.

That staggering news came just two months after senior officials at the Singapore Land Authority were given hefty jail terms for their involvement in a US$10 million fraud.

The sheer magnitude of that incident severely shook public confidence in the internal controls of Singapore’s government agencies and ministries.

Then, astonishingly, it was reported that a Home Affairs Ministry senior official had been convicted of forgery and thrown in the slammer.

Most recently, it has been revealed that other civil servants, including a school principal, are being probed for using their positions to procure the services of online hookers.

An illicit internet prostitution ring in Singapore involving government officials! My God, what is the world coming to?

What is worse than the scandals themselves is the way the political leadership appears to have tried its best to cover them up.

The revelations about the corrupt CNB and SCDF directors did not come from the government, but from a brave Chinese-language daily which had the moxie to publish them without waiting for official confirmation.

Only then did the Home Ministry issue a statement and rather shockingly added that arrests had been made a month earlier but had not been made public.

That explains the talk about bubbles of flatulent air pervading the Singapore bureaucracy and of the government seeking to expunge them before they reach the public’s nostrils.

No wonder Singapore, which once held the coveted top spot on Transparency International’s corruption index, fell to fifth place last year.

It all comes on top of other shameful incidents, like waist-deep downtown floods, serious security lapses and December’s train network breakdown, which left thousands of commuters trapped in a subterranean hell.

And it led to a predictable loss of support for the long-ruling People’s Action Party (PAP) in last year’s election and an even louder wake-up call when the party’s favoured candidate almost lost the presidential election.

To its credit, the PAP quickly moved to address several issues that had alienated voters so much.

One was the way ministers and senior bureaucrats, despite presiding over several debacles, continued to receive grossly inflated salaries.

Indeed, they are the highest ministerial wages in the world, or at least they were until they were slashed by more than a third after the election setback.

Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong now takes home just US$1.7 million annually, not $3 million as before.

While the reduced levels are an improvement, they are still far too high and further highlight the rich-poor divide in a nation with the world’s highest proportion of millionaires and one of its flimsiest social security safety nets.

With Singapore’s inflation rate recently hitting a three-year high of around 5.5 percent, its poor folks – and there are plenty of those in its old housing estates – are hurting even more.

As the opposition politician, Tan Jee Say, said: “For the poor, having the best airport in the world doesn’t affect them as they rarely travel.”

And having a lot of fizz and sparkle doesn’t help either, if it’s tinged with the fetid odour of corruption and ineptness.