Friday, January 9, 2009

Tuning in to the Singapore system

Jan 9, 2009

By Tay Tian Yan

WHEN driving in Singapore, a Malaysian businessman made an illegal U-turn, drove on the wrong side of the road, and was stopped by a policeman.

The policeman explained how he had flouted the traffic rules and told him he had to be taken to the police station to face legal action.

The businessman said: 'Why want to do this? Let me go and we can be friends. Next time you come to Malaysia, I will take care of you.''

In the end, he was charged with attempting to bribe the policeman.

The Subordinate Court found him guilty and fined him $15,000.

But the prosecutor felt the sentence was too lenient, and appealed to the High Court.

The appeal judge heard the case and sentenced the businessman to six weeks in jail.

Up to this point, many people might react the same way as I did: 'Hey! Are you serious?'

If the incident took place in Malaysia, what the businessman had said would not have been too much of a problem.

He could have explained that he was just trying to be friendly and hoped the cop would be lenient to him. Moreover, he had not offered any money and there was no evidence of bribery.

Perhaps he could also claim that anyone stopped by the police in Malaysia would say the same thing, and that this is the culture of Malaysians.

To be frank, how many Malaysians would not do the same thing?

But I then adjusted my mindset to the Singapore frequency, to consider the issue from the Singapore perspective.

That was Singapore, and the businessman encountered a Singapore policeman. In the Singapore culture, we have to come to terms with Singapore's judicial system.

Singapore's system does not tolerate even the slightest speck, absolutely no grey areas, no space for anything that could initiate doubts.

This is a society that places the law above everything else, where the law has preserved a very high level of social order.

To maintain the spotlessness of the system, we have to inculcate an uncompromising obsession with the law.

Therefore, the slightest hint of bribery will be seen to be as good as infringing upon the obsession of a society that is ruled by the law. Stern punishments must be imposed even if there is no solid evidence of bribery.

Malaysians have no idea what this judicial spirit is all about, as it is blatantly absent in our social culture.

When rules are breached in Malaysia, the first consideration is not the legal issue, but how to bypass the law and settle on ties and humanitarian grounds.

It begins with pleading for mercy. Say 'Tolong, tolong' (Help me, help me) and hope that the law-enforcement official will show some mercy.

But if that does not work, just exploit human weakness. No one hates money, and offering a little should see the problem solved.

But while this may resolve little personal issues, it could spawn massive social problems.

Singapore uses the system to overcome human greed and weakness. The businessman thought the Singapore policeman before him was just another ordinary human being who could be easily dealt with, with a little enticement.

He was wrong. The policeman represented Singapore's judicial system, whose integrity must never be impinged.

Beyond Singapore, this spirit of the rule of law has become a common value system in all clean societies, and forms a social contract to preserve social morality and order.

People may think that Singapore's laws have been too rigid, when in fact, it may be that our understanding and acceptance of the rule of law is still at a pathetic level.

Perhaps the businessman's experience will draw some sympathy, but in Singapore, there is no room for mercy.

This commentary appeared in Malaysia's Chinese-language Sin Chew Jit Poh newspaper yesterday. A translation appeared on its website.

[An interesting analysis and extrapolation of personal resolution to social structures or how interpersonal rules of interaction contribute (not always positively) to cultural frameworks or infrastructure. ]

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