It may be an opportune moment for South Africa to heed such lessons.
This zero tolerance attitude towards corruption was a contributing factor to Singapore transitioning from the Third World to the First World in a single generation under Lee’s leadership.
Singapore’s officials are quick to say: “You can have all the stringent laws in place to fight corruption, but it comes down to political will to enforce them.”
Even as a politician in 1957 before Singapore’s independence, Lee had said: “Nothing is more certain to destroy the democratic system of government than corrupt politicians. If your minister is corrupt, your permanent secretary will become corrupt. Then your principal assistant secretary will take something for himself. Finally, the peon will not want to deliver anything unless you give him 50c for every letter.”
It was with this clear understanding of the dangers corruption poses to society that Lee developed an anti-corruption ethos as the founding father of modern Singapore.
By the end of his tenure, he had ensured that Singapore ranked even higher than Sweden, Switzerland, Norway and Canada on the index of least corrupt countries.
Lee’s message to his compatriots was that Singapore could survive only if ministers and senior officers were incorruptible and efficient. It was his belief that “only when we uphold the integrity of the administration can the economy work in a way that enables Singaporeans to clearly see the nexus between hard work and high rewards”.
Lee claims that from the day his party took office in June 1959, he was determined that every dollar in revenue would be properly accounted for and would reach the beneficiaries at the grassroots, without one dollar being syphoned off along the way.
What made Lee’s anti-corruption drive so effective was that the courts were allowed to treat proof that an accused was living beyond their means, or had property their income could not explain, as corroborating evidence that the accused had accepted or obtained a bribe.
The onus was then on the accused to prove that their wealth had not been acquired through ill-gotten gains.
The prosecution in Singapore also does not need to prove that the receipt of money was an inducement for a specific corrupt act or favour; it is sufficient that it was given in anticipation of some future corrupt act being performed.
The principal agency charged with stamping out corruption is the Corrupt Practices Investigation Bureau (CPIB), which has the power to investigate every officer, official and minister. Very importantly, the director of the CPIB works out of the prime minister’s office, is fearless and is backed by the prime minister.
Very early on, CPIB investigators were given broad powers including arrest, search and investigation of suspects’ bank accounts, as well as their spouses, children and agents.
Those found guilty of corruption face stiff punishment - both the bribe givers and bribe takers.
Penalties are equivalent to the bribe received, and fines can be up to the equivalent of R1 037 000, or up to seven years in prison. The emphasis has always been on deterrent sentences. Singapore’s great achievement was that it established a climate of opinion that looked upon corruption in public office as a threat to society.
Singapore’s goal is to create an incorruptible public service with a strong code of conduct. Public officials are told to avoid indebtedness, avoid conflicts of interest, living a lavish lifestyle, and avoid doing or receiving favours.
Despite the strict codes of conduct, there were ministers in each decade of Lee’s tenure in office who were found guilty of corruption. A minister of the environment was found guilty for taking a free trip to Indonesia for himself and his family members and was sentenced.
A minister for national development was investigated for corruption and ended up committing suicide, acknowledging his wrongdoing in a suicide note. More recently the commissioner of the Civil Defence Force was found guilty of corruption and was imprisoned. As the Chinese say, it is a matter of catching the tigers and the flies.
Lee’s domestic canvas in Singapore was small, but his vigour and talent assured him and his country a large place in world affairs, as a highly respected and successful nation. South Africa can learn from Singapore’s determination and success at stamping out corruption, by starting with those at the top and working down.
* Ebrahim is the group foreign editor at Independent Media.