Tuesday, September 8, 2009

When bribing civil servants was a way of life

Sep 5, 2009

Young Singaporeans accustomed to the country's incorruptibility rankings might not know that there was a time when people had to grease palms to get licences, permits, immigration papers and places in schools, and politicians had no qualms about buying votes.

LIKE many young men of the 1950s, S R Nathan was hoping to clinch a coveted job with the city council. When he turned up at the interview, he found himself facing an Englishman and an Indian trade union leader who kept asking him in Tamil: 'How many tables?'

As a Tamil, he understood the question but did not for the life of him know what he was talking about. He did not get the job.

Later, a senior civil servant asked why he failed to secure the job.

Nathan replied: 'Sir, I do not know. This man kept asking me how many tables.'

But did you know what he meant? No, he said. Enlightenment only came when the officer explained: 'What he meant was how many Chinese dinner tables were you prepared to provide if you got the job?'

As related by the former office boy who went on to become one of Singapore's most distinguished civil servants and diplomats before assuming the presidency in 1999, the anecdote was reflective of the rampant corruption in Singapore at that time.

Young people may barely stifle a yawn when they read about Singapore being ranked yet again by Transparency International as one of the least corrupt countries in the world. But do they know that corruption was once part of the way of life in Singapore? Just ask their elders.

There was a time when civil servants were routinely on the take.

Hawkers and tradesmen had to bribe inspectors to get them off their back. Constables alternated between booking vehicles for road offences and accepting $10 from offending motorists on the spot. Parents offered gratification to school officials to secure places for their children.

Tee Kim Leng, the barber who became PAP assemblyman for Pasir Panjang in 1959, said that government departments were so corrupt that even office boys expected tips of between 10 and 20 cents for handing out an application form. 'The police were corrupt and people had to pay officers to get them to investigate crimes. The rich and powerful could bribe the police to get people out of jail,' he said.

Former PAP activist Chong Fun Liam used to work as a development officer at the former Singapore Improvement Trust. When he visited homes to verify the eligibility of applicants for new government flats, he discovered to his horror that many had already paid 'coffee money' of $90 to government officials.

'Thousands of applicants must have paid the money which was a big amount considering our pay was only about $300 a month then,' he said.

He believed this explained why some civil servants could afford to live in big bungalows in those days.

In the 1950s and 1960s, corruption loomed as one of the biggest issues in the polls. At an Empress Place rally during the 1955 elections, then Labour Front leader David Marshall was compelled to say: 'There is much talk of corruption. If you have evidence against a Labour Front candidate, don't vote for him and report to the police.'

Former Straits Times news editor Felix Abisheganaden had no hesitation declaring that the years preceding PAP rule 'were the most corrupt period in the island's history'.

The culprits? 'The bureaucracy, the police, the immigration and the politicians themselves under the Lim Yew Hock administration,' he said, noting for instance that citizenship could be bought for 'a few dollars'.

Chan Chee Seng was able to substantiate some of these allegations when he was posted to the immigration department on Anson Road after the 1959 elections. He described the department as the most corrupt in the government when he found that people were paying for immigration papers.

He remembered an old woman who appeared in his office one day offering him a paper bag. She wanted to thank him for helping her only son in China to enter and live in Singapore. Looking into it, he was shocked to see a bundle of $10, $5 and $1 notes. 'I told her, if you give this to me, I become corrupt. You want me to be sacked? She took back the money.'

The spectre of corruption haunted Lee right from the very beginning of his political career. Samad Ismail said that whenever Lee visited him in jail between 1951 and 1953, he would often talk about how he wanted to form a political party that would be very different from the others as he was 'very concerned about corruption in politics and the trade unions'.

It was Lee who called for a commission of inquiry into political corruption, following the Tanjong Pagar and Cairnhill by-elections in June 1957. Reeling off a catalogue of corrupt election practices during a debate in the chamber, he expressed his greatest fear that if corrupt politicians were to take power after the 1959 general election, people would never believe in a democratic system.

In the 1948 elections, as he expounded on 18 July 1957, the stakes were low. Candidates could only aspire to become 'the honourable Mr So and So' and get invited to Government House birthday parties. In the 1955 polls, under the Rendel constitution, the stakes were higher. A minister would be in charge of import, export and immigration permits and sell them at $50 or $500 each.

But with the stakes increasing after self-government in 1959, he warned, 'it might be $5,000 for a bus licence or 50 bucks for a hawker's pitch. If one could be a minister for commerce and industry in self-governing Singapore, one could swipe a few million dollars very quickly.'

Voicing his concern that there was no law to prevent a corrupt man from standing for elections, he said: 'Nothing is more certain to destroy the democratic system of government than corrupt politicians. If your politician and minister is corrupt, your permanent secretary will become corrupt. Then your principal assistant secretary will take something for himself and the clerk will take something for himself. Finally the peons will not want to deliver anything unless you give him 50 cents for every letter.'

His motion was passed unanimously and a commission of inquiry into corrupt, illegal or undesirable practices at elections was convened.

It probed into how money was offered to buy votes, how candidates entertained voters with food and drinks and how gangsters were hired to intimidate voters.

If current elections are clean and orderly, some credit should go to the implementation of the commission's findings. They included the introduction of compulsory voting, a ban on cars to take voters to polling stations and the prohibition of canvassing on polling day. Other laws were introduced later to regulate the amount of money each candidate could spend in an election and mandate the submission of election expenses.

The PAP government's zero tolerance for corruption was dramatically demonstrated by its unrelenting action against its own ministers who deviated from the straight and narrow.

Tan Kia Gan, the former minister for national development, was stripped of all his public appointments in 1966 after being investigated for attempting to help his friend clinch the sale of Boeing aircraft to Malaysian Airways.

Wee Toon Boon, the minister of state (environment), was sentenced to four years and six months in jail in September 1975 after being convicted of several corruption charges involving $839,023. On appeal, his jail sentence was reduced to 18 months.

Teh Cheang Wan, the minister for national development, was investigated in November 1986 for accepting two bribes totalling $800,000 from private developers. He committed suicide before he could be formally charged in court.

Incorruptibility was the pivotal value which the PAP brought to governance and around which hung the other avowed principles of meritocracy, pragmatism and multi-racialism. As prime minister and senior minister, Goh Chok Tong had stated repeatedly that integrity was the single most important attribute of the PAP. His constant warning to party faithfuls: 'If the PAP becomes corrupt, it must and should lose its ruling status.'

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