Singapore has long prided—and touted—itself as a place where the type of corruption rampant elsewhere in Asia simply does not exist. The high salaries paid to Singapore officials—junior cabinet ministers earn $750,000 and the prime minister gets $1.7 million—are supposed to forestall financial temptation.
But a recent string of high-profile corruption scandals has highlighted Singapore officials’ weakness to other forms of temptation as well.
In June, Ng Boon Gay, the former director of Singapore’s Central Narcotics Bureau, was charged with accepting sexual favors from a woman seeking to win a government contract for her company. That same month, Peter Lim, chief of the city-state’s firefighting and emergency rescue service, was similarly charged with obtaining sexual favors from three women seeking to advance their companies’ business interests.
Last month, Tey Tsun Hang, a law professor at the state-run National University of Singapore, the island nation’s most prestigious educational institution, was charged with accepting sexual favors as well as cash and gifts from female student Darrine Ko in exchange for higher grades.
Ng and Lim have pleaded not guilty. Tey has yet to enter a plea but, in a statement he made last week, he seemed to suggest he was being targeted for writings that have been critical of the government. “I am known to speak up, amongst other things, on the Singapore legal system,” he said. “I write in good faith and with no ill intent. In similar vein, I shall fearlessly defend myself against the charges, and vigorously.”
There is some more traditional corruption mixed in with the sex. In October, two officials with the Singapore Land Authority were convicted of defrauding their own agency and others of over $10 million to buy apartments and luxury sports cars. This past January, another civil servant was sentenced to almost nine years in prison for issuing himself almost $500,000 in fraudulent gift vouchers. And while it has not involved official corruption, Singapore has also recently been transfixed by charges that five board members, including founding pastor Kong Hee, of City Harvest Church, embezzled $19.2 million from Singapore’s largest Christian congregation. The board members have yet to enter a plea in the case.
The cases coincide with Singapore losing its crown as the world’s least corrupt country, according to Transparency International’s Corruption Perceptions Index. In December the city-state slid to the fifth position, behind New Zealand, Denmark, Finland, and Sweden. The Singaporean government appears to have taken notice. Earlier this month, law minister K Shanmugam said in a speech that anyone who breaches “moral rectitude and correct conduct in public service” is “likely to be found out, and severe punishment is certain for those who are guilty.”
The raft of scandals has been keeping some of the country’s most senior litigators busy. Ng is being represented by WongPartnership partners Tan Chee Meng and Melanie Ho. Lim engaged the help of Bala Chandran, a partner at Mallal & Namazie. Tey is being represented by Peter Low, a solo practitioner at Peter Low LLC. Ko, who has so far not been charged, is being advised by Subhas Anandan of RHTLaw Taylor Wessing.
But many lawyers in Singapore feel certain that corruption isn’t really on the rise.
Low says the recent cases have just attracted more attention because they involve higher-level, higher-profile people and more salacious facts.
“Our courts and I—and other lawyers, I’m sure—deal with other corruption cases,” says Lo, “[but these are] more mundane cases and not so attention-grabbing so they do not lead others to think there are more corruption cases in [Singapore].”
Even on that front, the cases in Singapore pale against, say, the ongoing drama in China over former Communist Party official Bo Xilai and his wife Gu Kailai, whose trial for murdering British businessman Neil Heywood began and ended last Thursday. Hong Kong has also seen bribery charges lodged against the territory’s former number two official, as well as two of the world’s richest men (none have yet entered a plea, though billionaire brothers Thomas and Raymond Kwok declared their innocence at an April press conference).
Daniel Chia, a partner at Singapore’s Stamford Law Corp., says the cases in Singapore may have been influenced by actions being taken to combat bribery and corruption elsewhere in the world.
“When the U.K. updated its Bribery Act last year, lawyers here started to go around advising clients about compliance issues related to corruption,” says Chia. “That, we think, has triggered more intolerance of corruption. There are more whistle-blowers now.”
He also feels there has been a change in what is perceived as corruption in Singapore. “The law changes with commercial norms, so now it’s unlike the ’80s and ’90s, when the business culture was very much about quid pro quo and the exchange of benefits,” he says.
Chandra Mohan, the head of commercial litigation at Singapore’s Rajah & Tann, says the government has been cracking down too. “It’s sending a message to office holders, people of authority, and civil servants that they cannot slack, because the rule of law will be harsh on them,” says Mohan.
“Personally, I think it’s the right message to send,” he adds. “People need to be more wary, and a crackdown is a form of deterrence.”