Sunday, 11 June 2017

Corruption at the highest level.

This is one of the largest, most shocking, dragnet operations against corruption you will ever find in Singapore. And what the anti-corruption cat dragged into court was nothing short of the top echelons of the corporate and scholarly world. 
Kudos to CPIB!
The players are CEO, presidents, vice-president, scholars, heads of operations, and head of financial control. The last title is quite ironic, to say the least.
And it all happened in our government's own backyard - so to speak. It's her glittering jewel of the orient, ST Marine, which is a wholly owned subsidiary of ST Engineering, that was hauled up by the authorities, and it is huge. 
So, what's the damage? 
Well, while City Harvest was charged for misappropriation of $50 million over a period of about seven years, the ex-ST Marine's head honchos were charged for being complicit in bribery to the tune of $24.9 million. 
And it has been going on under the government's nose since 2000 (to 2011) - that's about 11 years of spirited conspiracy to cheat and prosper under one united deckhouse. 
The DPP said, "The public disquiet in this case has been evident, with the charging of a string of former senior executives of a prominent government-linked company (with) corruption, and falsification of documents involving illegitimate payments worth millions of dollars, attracting significant media attention and public discourse."
And while the spiritual leaders of the megachurch were sentenced to years in prison, pending appeal on the interpretation of Sect 409, these top executives of this interwoven corruption got rather light sentences in my view. 
From the lightest prison sentence of 14 days' short detention order to 10 months, and from the lightest fine of $80k to $300k, you can say that they have done splendidly in their mitigation plea to factor in their past scholarly contribution to Singapore's development and growth as they ask for leniency. 
Mind you, the charges are many. 
Compared to City Harvest's leaders of about 3 or less proceeded charges each, one of the ex-ST marine's top civil servant got 108 of her charges taken into consideration (proceeding with only 10), and another got more than 700 counts of graft, corruption and falsification of accounts taken into consideration (proceeding with only 50).
Most of the charges against them run into reams of perforated paper. It would be a nightmare just reading to them their Miranda’s rights. 
The prosecution's discretion to proceed with only a few of the heap of charges against them must have saved them from serving many years behind bars.
Lesson? Just one. 
Here, I recall that a career civil servant once said that Singapore does not have systemic corruption. 

At times, she has ad hoc corruption where only a few rotten apples emerge after the public service aromatic pool is drained. 

You see, you can't help with ad hoc corruption because they are situational, individual-based and largely isolated cases. A pinch of rat-dropping does not a pan of rice spoil, right?
But on a whole, there is no denying that our system is sanitized, smoked and purged to the very last drop of vermin-like corruption. 
Yet, the ST Marine case is evident of a corruption practice that goes beyond merely ad hoc-ish. In fact the bribery, apart from going on for years, had a sinister modus operandi to it. 
It reports that the finance control department have signed "a set of cash cheques that were meant for reimbursement of entertainment expenses," yet they were not supported by any receipts. 
As it turned out, they were no entertainment expenses but "cash commissions" paid to obtain sales for ST Marine. 
Even more surreptitious, the finance control department was given a written document which contained "specific instructions on how to avoid detection while doing so, including that claimed amounts should not be in exact or round figures." 
I guess you can't get any more systemic than that. The prolonged period, the conspiratorial process and the SOP-like operation to confabulate all adds up to designing a parallel shadow system amidst the public show of incorruptibility in ST Marine. 
Alas, sometimes you have to wonder: "Is our drive to be one of the world's premier ship repair and conversion centres driving some at the top to do more than is ethical to meet their quotas, earn and keep their stripes, and impress their bosses?" 
Considering that "the industry also plays a crucial part in Singapore's economic growth, with an annual turnover of nearly $10 billion and around 100,000 worker," maybe the top echelons are indeed pressured to keep up with the accolades, titles and reputation (and of course, saving their own velvety skin and reputation in return)?
Let me end with this thought for proper stewing. 
I recall that the late LKY has a political justification for rewarding civil servants enough so that they would be discouraged to look elsewhere to line their pockets. 
He strongly believed in rewarding competitive salaries so as to attract and retain the most gifted and competent in civil service. 
This has resulted in astronomical salaries for our well-provided civil servants, one of the highest in the world in fact.
His son, LHL, echoed the same view in today's papers when he said (as reported) that "Singapore also has a professional public service that is paid fair and realistic wages benchmarked against the private sector. This, he added, reduces the temptation to accept bribes."
I fear the flip-side of that is that greed and the abuse of power are like a pride of lions in a circle's ring...they are not going to sit around and lick their trainer's hand tenderly when they are hungry, or when their appetite for more churns.
You can keep corruption at bay with high salaries. But up to a point, greed and the abuse of power will rear their ugly head because the drive to cheat is multifaceted. 
Surely, the ST Marine dragnet is not a case where you are not paying the top employees top dollars. They are like the mandarins in the Chinese imperial empire, but richer, smarter and more ambitious. 
Paying them well is one thing, but ensuring that they perform in a highly competitive and demanding environment where the aim is to remain World Class at all costs and ensuring that harnessed institutional power does not get into their blood stream are another thing altogether. 
When the stakes, greed and power are higher, the temptation to corruption is hard-wired. 
So, in some ways, the official opening of the Roland-Poon-like, whistle-blowing CPIB Corruption Reporting and Heritage Centre in Whitley Road since Jan 9 is a good start to give power back to the people. 
My only concern is that if the system doesn't change, or properly tweaked, that is, the relentless drive to stay on top in the world, measured by the one-economic-track "GDP", the pressure-cooker environment may just remain as tempting as before. Cheerz.

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