Singapore's self-image as corruption-free state on trial

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 04 July, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 04 July, 2012, 12:00am


A senior narcotics officer charged with accepting sexual favours, and a pastor accused of siphoning his church's tithes to finance his wife's lavish Hollywood lifestyle - these cases figure among the recent spate of corruption arrests that have come to dominate the headlines in Singapore.

Even for a place known for being among the most corruption-free in the world, these scandals are unprecedented.

It is not that these cases were dramatic, though they read like something lifted from the script of a highly rated cable TV series. Nor is it that the accused are some of the city state's most high-profile public figures. After all, those netted in the past include the director of a major Singapore charity, the National Kidney Foundation, and a Buddhist monk heading a charitable hospital.

Rather, the recent arrests are extraordinary for the timing of their broadcasts. If Singaporeans were in the past subjected to one prominent scandal a year, these past few months exposed for all to see one disgrace after another, sometimes within days.

Last month, pastor Kong Hee, who heads Singapore's most popular Protestant church, and four others were accused of illegally redirecting S$24million (HK$147 million) of the City Harvest Church's building fund to sponsor the pop-star career of Kong's wife, Sun Ho.

This news came barely a month after Ng Boon Gay, the former head of the Central Narcotics Bureau, was charged with receiving sexual favours from an employee of two IT firms in exchange for contracts. A week before that, the former head of the civil defence force, Peter Lim Sin Pang, was arrested on similar 'sex-for-favours' charges.

Other individuals detained on some kind of vice charges include Lim Cheng Hoe, the protocol chief of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, for misappropriating funds, as well as Howard Shaw, chief of the environment council and part of the family that had built a movie production and real estate empire in Asia, for being one of 48 men to have slept with an under-age prostitute.

What is the Singapore public to make of this deluge of scandals?

The most obvious inference is that authorities are serious about keeping Singapore corruption-free. Indeed, the back-to-back arrests suggest its corruption officials are working overtime.

Less transparently, these scandals can be read as the strongest gesture that the ruling People's Action Party is making good on its promise to reform itself after its worst electoral performance at the polls last year.

Whether an increasingly critical citizenry will be moved by its efforts remains to be seen. After all, this strategy can be counterproductive: the very idea that there is dirt in gum-free Singapore can also be seen as a slap in the face.

It can undermine - as much as strengthen - the long-standing narrative that Singapore is a corruption-free state. Put simply, voters may be shocked by the groundswell of scandals, given that these transpired under the ruling party's watch.

So, how surprised were Singaporeans over these scandals? It may be hard to know for certain, but an audience stunned by the degree of corruption that exists could spell bad news for the political elite. Singaporeans would not only question the belief that their nation is corruption-free, but also wonder about the government's motives behind revealing these scandals.

As it stands, the City Harvest Church can be considered the only 'expected' corruption case. Investigations into the financial dealings of Kong Hee and his ministry began two years ago, after the church acquired a significant share in the Suntec Convention Centre, intending to renovate and use most of its facilities for church services at an estimated total cost of S$310million.

The same could not be said of the other scandals. Announced at their own time, these are good fodder for front-page news in an otherwise sterile Singapore. Released as they are now, the best that Singapore's political elites can expect is for its citizenry to see it as an overzealous attempt at political reform. More likely, eyebrows have been raised.

Nazry Bahrawi is a cultural critic from Singapore