Hong Kong vs Singapore (II): Combating Corruption

by singaporearmchaircritic

Hong Kong’s Independent Commission Against Corruption (ICAC) and Singapore’s Corrupt Practices Investigation Bureau (CPIB) are two of the most acclaimed anti-corruption commissions in Asia, often seen and studied as “role models” in combating corruption. Both were established by Crown administrators to check rampant corruption within the then colony’s police force, and have since enjoyed immense success in fighting graft.

That said, the two commissions are very different in many ways. The ICAC is staffed by 1,200 employees on contract; staff cannot enter Hong Kong government after they leave ICAC; turnover is low, with more than half having been with the Commission for over ten years. The CPIB is a leaner organization with a staff strength of only 102. While the ICAC adopts a three-pronged approach – investigation, prevention, communication – in tackling corruption, the CPIB focuses on investigation.

Balancing Forces (and the Lack of)

The most prominent distinction between the two, however, lies in their reporting hierarchy. The CPIB website only has a one-liner on this, that it is “under the charge of the Prime Minister’s Office.” On the ICAC website, there is an entire section on “checks and balances” that explains in detail how the Commission is monitored by a number of forces:

Although the ICAC reports directly to Hong Kong’s political chief and his policy making unit the Executive Council, there are numerous other forces that together form a robust system of checks and balances. The legislature (Legislative Council) confers and repeals ICAC’s power; an independent judiciary and the separate power of prosecution ensure that the Commission does not abuse its power. On top of internal monitoring, there are four advisory committees made up of civilians to oversee ICAC’s work. The Commission is also subject to public scrutiny through Hong Kong’s relatively free media as well as a committee to which complaints against ICAC may be directed.

In comparison, oversight mechanisms appear to be far less defined in the CPIB. That the CPIB comes under the charge of the PM’s Office is a double-edged sword. On one hand, it empowers the Bureau to “truly operate without fear or favour,” and “block any undue interference from any quarters,” as the former Director of the CPIB asserts. On the other, it may curtail the Bureau’s autonomy. Anti-corruption expert Heilbrunn writes:

Whereas some observers argue that putting the CPIB directly in the executive branch indicates a high level of commitment on the part of Singapore’s political leadership, it might also be seen as part of the structure of semi-authoritarian rule. Its reporting hierarchy reinforces the executive’s influence while reducing the CPIB’s independence.

On the Morality of the Government

What is most interesting to me are the contrasting convictions or assumptions about the government’s morality that underpin the way the two anti-corruption bodies are run.

To our Singapore government, its often prided “cleanness” is itself a justification for not having balancing forces, be it in the parliament or in other government institutions. Says the the former Director of the CPIB:

CPIB was never born out of a need to fight a corrupt government. We were created by an incorrupt government to fight corruption…Unlike many agencies which grew out of a need to fight a corrupt establishment, we never have to work antagonistically against the Government and the entire public service. But are civil movements or NGOs essential for the successful fight against corruption in Singapore? No, in fact, it would be an indictment of the effectiveness of CPIB if such organisations were to take root. After all, NGO is just a euphemism for lobby groups or pressure groups, established by those disenchanted or dissatisfied with the state of corruption.

Hmmm…try telling that to Hongkongers or the increasingly cynical Singapore netizens. We are all humans and we are all fallible. Lest we forget, Satan is an angel before his fall.

P.S. I posted a comment below on how Singapore’s elected President is empowered to “check” the PM, according to the Singapore Constitution 22G. Dear reader, please feel free to share your thoughts on how effective the President is as a balancing force against the PM.